By Rodrigo Acuña
The Drum Opinion (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
3 February 2009
Recent reports in the media have indicated that the former Cuban leader Dr Fidel Castro Ruz is perhaps at the end of his life. On January 1, marking the 50th anniversary of the 1959 Cuban revolution, Castro, in an unusually short statement, wrote one sentence to mark the occasion. Over a week ago, the President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez claimed that his Cuban ally would not make a return to public life.
On January 21 though, reports on Castro's health changed as it was confirmed Argentina's President Cristina Fernández held a one hour meeting with the Cuban. Two days later, Castro published a new article - a regular practice since he underwent surgery in July 2006 for gastrointestinal problems. Castro wrote:
"I have shortened my "Reflections", just as I resolved to do this year, in order not to interfere or get in the way of the comrades of the Party and state as they make constant decisions about objective difficulties stemming from the world economic crisis. I am fine, but I insist, none of them should feel constrained by any of my Reflections, the seriousness of my condition or my death."
Once dead, there will most likely be two common interpretations of Fidel Castro. The first version is now well known.
Having overthrown the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, the young Castro was quickly able to manoeuvre himself into the top position as victory gave him unprecedented political capital. Claiming he would soon hold elections, Castro nevertheless, while pushed by Washington to trade with Moscow, keenly established a one party state.
Whether it was developing a dairy industry or Cuba's agriculture, many critics have long claimed Castro always thought he knew best - above the experts and, at times, at the expense of the economy. Anecdotes of his micro management are notorious.
A brilliant orator, Castro often undermined this by delivering speeches that would last hours. In 1986, at the third Communist Party Congress in Havana, the Cuban leader spoke for seven hours and ten minutes. Before Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, Castro on television delivered another marathon performance as one of the members on the panel next to him fell asleep live on air - something that occasionally happened to bureaucrats throughout the 1990s.
While he allowed himself vast publicity, Castro's dissenters where not granted the same rights. Interviewed by Barbara Walters in 1977, his response to a question on Cuba's media policies was self explanatory:
Walters: "Let me be specific. Your newspapers, radio, television, motion pictures are under state control. No dissent or opposition is allowed in the public media."
Castro: "Barbara, we do not have your same conceptions. Our concept of freedom of the press is not yours. And I say this very honestly. I have nothing to hide. If you ask us if a paper could appear here against socialism, I could honestly say, no it cannot appear. It would not be allowed by the party, the government or the people. In that sense, we do not have the freedom of the press that you posses in the U.S."
Add to Castro's record his government's treatment of homosexuals, and the Cuban certainly has a few questions to answer.
Anyone who has travelled to Cuba though, and speaks a respectable level of Spanish, will be able to confirm that Fidel Castro has his supporters. While in countries like Australia during the 1960s and 70s, many of the baby boomer generation flirted with leftist politics, in the Caribbean island, millions of people believed they were constructing a new society.
So abandoned was the countryside prior to 1959, in less than three years the Castro brothers, Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, were able to build strong bonds with the peasants and overthrow Batista. Decades later, the new generations of the revolution travelled to countries like Angola and Nicaragua as teachers, doctors and soldiers attempting to model their parents' values.
When Washington moved against Havana by imposing an economic blockade, approved military actions and terrorist acts by former Batista collaborators - which cost countless lives and did not end until the late 1990s - and went to ridiculous levels to try and assassinate Castro, the former lawyer's status grew to gargantuan proportions.
If Castro was harsh at times, his supporters have always argued it is because the island has been under virtual war-time conditions. In 1991, the U.S. State Department published a series of internal documents covering U.S. policy towards Cuba from 1958-1960. One document states:
"The majority of Cubans support Castro ... the only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship ... every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba ... a line of action which, while as adroit and inconspicuous as possible, makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government."
This statement alone could broadly summarise Washington's aggression towards Havana since 1959.
Today in Latin America, for leftists presidents like Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, Castro is a mentor; for millions of their supporters in the slums, he is a legend - a point not difficult to understand when one considers that thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers are working in those countries. Shortly before his surgery in 2006, Castro's visit to Argentina was broadcast live on television as massive crowds turned out to hear his words. If Cuba and Castro are presented to the world by the Western press as isolated relics of the past, in countries throughout Latin America this is hardly the case.
Writing recently in the Los Angeles Times, Latin American experts William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh commented that:
"Last October, the United Nations General Assembly voted for the 17th time in as many years to condemn the U.S. embargo by a vote of 185 to 3. In December, 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations in the Rio Group granted Cuba full membership and called for an end to the U.S. embargo. A policy adopted half a century ago to isolate Cuba today isolates only the U.S."
From their perspective, due to divisions in the Cuban-American lobby, the new U.S. President, Barack Obama, has an unprecedented opportunity to normalise relations with Havana. While an end to the embargo is an unlikely scenario, if this were to happen, many Cubans would be given new opportunities to do with their political system as they see fit instead of having to concentrate on meeting their daily needs.
At present, dissidents like Yoani Sánchez do exist, and publish with difficulties, however, there is nothing remotely resembling the types of mass movements that challenged the Soviet systems in Eastern Europe.
As for Fidel Castro, only time will tell if he lives for a few more days, weeks, months or even years. Once dead, celebrations will break out in Miami while countless people throughout Cuba will genuinely mourn him. What future generations decide to do with the revolution will be another matter.