Fidel Castro in Brasília, Bazil February 1, 2003 (Photo: Marcello Casal Jr/Agência Brasil Creative Commons License)
August 13, 1926 – November 25, 2016
The passing away of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, one of the world’s longest-serving leaders confirmed only one thing, he is as polarizing in death as he was in life.
The death of the 90-year-old who had outlived six US presidents and survived 638 CIA assassination attempts triggered simultaneous tears of mourning [Havana] and joy [Miami]. After six decades dominating his country, Castro was feted around the world as an icon, hero, and inspiration, who introduced free healthcare and world-class education to the Caribbean island.
In his 2007 documentary “Sicko” American filmmaker Michael Moore traveled with a number of 9/11 relief workers with severe respiratory and other medical problems to Havana’s central hospital to receive health care, having been denied support from their own Government.
Figures from the UN children’s agency, Unicef, show that Cuba’s youth literacy rate stands at 100 percent, as does its adult literacy rate.
Many of the educational gains were made in the early years of the revolution, not least during the 1961 literacy campaign that saw hundreds of thousands of Cubans, including schoolchildren, mobilising to educate their compatriots.
But to exiles who fled Castro’s autocratic rule, say he personified a repressive regime that locked up political opponents, suppressed freedom and democracy and destroyed the national economy.
In the wake of his overthrow of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista in 1959, supporters of the old Government were sent before summary courts and at least 582 were shot by firing squads over two years. Estimates of executions under Castro’s 50-year rule run into the thousands, with monitors warning of unfair trials, arbitrary imprisonment, and extrajudicial executions. Castro responded by insisting that “revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts, but on moral conviction.”
Orlando Gutiérrez, founder of the opposition Cuban Democratic Directorate in Miami, home to the largest Cuban-American community in the United States, condemned Castro and his legacy as exiles and their descendants took to the streets of Little Havana to celebrate his death. Little Havana was filled with impromptu street parties, salsa, fireworks and shouts of “Cuba Libre” filled the air, as thousands gathered to rejoice after news that had been announced prematurely many times before was finally confirmed.
Outgoing US President, Barack Obama, was one of the few to respond to Castro’s passing without criticism or praise. Obama who started normalising relations with Cuba in 2014 simply said, “We extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people.We know that this moment fills Cubans – in Cuba and in the United States – with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation.”
“History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him,” he said, echoing perhaps unwittingly one of Castro’s most famous declarations – “history will absolve me”.
Obama’s successor, President-elect Donald Trump, was less diplomatic, branding “Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.” Condolences poured in from across Latin America, from veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle he supported in southern Africa, from the Soviet and Russian leaders.
Russian President, Vladimir Putin, hailed Castro as a “symbol of an era”, while China’s President Xi Jinping “true comrade and friend” and in one of the warmest tributes, South African President, Jacob Zuma, celebrated a key ally in the fight against South Africa’s apartheid regime. The Nelson Mandela Foundation also sent its condolences to the people of Cuba and shared a photograph showing Castro with the South African leader on social media.
Castro, who was considered pro-Palestinian and was close to former Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman, Yasser Arafat, among other things, signed a manifesto “supporting Palestine” and demanding Israel withdraw from “the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.”
The head of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), Salim al-Zanun, said the historical relationship between the PA and Cuba and recognised Arafat’s relationship with Castro.
Al-Zanun added that Cuba today still believes in the justice of the “Palestinian cause” and continues to support the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, return, and an independent state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) memorialized Castro in a statement, underscoring that Castro had “consistently stood with the oppressed peoples of the world in their confrontation with imperialism, Zionism, racism, and capitalism.”
The PFLP celebrated the Cuban revolution, saying it had remained “from Angola to South Africa, Palestine to Mozambique, Bolivia to El Salvador, Castro’s legacy of international revolutionary solidarity and struggle continues to serve as an example in practice that transcends borders toward revolution, democracy, and socialism.”
Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was one of the few Western leaders to laud Castro, a decision which was heavily criticised at home and abroad. Trudeau, who recently returned from a diplomatic visit to Cuba, acknowledged that Castro was a “controversial figure,” but remembered him as a “larger-than-life leader,” who made significant improvements to Cuba’s education and health-care systems.
“A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr Castro made significant improvements to the education and health care of his island nation,” Trudeau said. “I know my father was very proud to call him a friend,” he added.
Elham Asaad Buaras