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The other side of Fidel Castro



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by Rajeewa Jayaweera


Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, more commonly known as Fidel Castro, leader of the Cuban revolution and President of that country for nearly 50 years before retiring and handing over the reins to his brother Raul in 2011, passed away at the age of 90. He is often referred to as a Visionary, Commandante, beloved revolutionary leader, senior member of the Non-Aligned Movement besides many others.


Cuba’s 1959 constitution defines it a ‘Marxist–Leninist socialist state’ guided by the political ideas of Marx, based on the ‘one state – one party’ principle.


 


The 612-member National Assembly of People’s Power is the legislative parliament and meets twice a year. The three key positions of First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, President of the Council of State and President of Council of Ministers were all held simultaneously by Fidel Castro prior to his retirement and his brother Raul Castro thereafter.


Castro’s standing among world leaders, especially in South America and Africa is considerable. Messages from world leaders near and far are pouring into Cuba, praising his life’s work and the unbearable loss to the world, as a result of his passing away.


Sympathy has been expressed locally as well. President Maithripala Sirisena in a twitter message stated "The iconic leader of an era of revolution bids farewell to the world. Rest in peace, Comrade Fidel Castro." A recent editorial referred to Castro as ‘the last of the Mohicans’. A leading political scientist wrote ‘Fidel was the last of the Titans, the epic of heroes’.


Some of Castro’s outstanding achievements and part of his legacy is the free education system introduced in Cuba ensuring education to all Cubans. Yet another achievement is the state funded public health system available to all citizens and the improvement of infant mortality rate (deaths/1,000 live births) from 80.69 in 1950 to 4.63 today, placing Cuba in the same category of countries such as UK, France and Canada.


Yet another aspect of Castro’s leadership was his refusal to succumb to American bullying tactics. It was a different period and a different era in which sovereingnty, national pride etc. was not exchanged for financial benefits such as GSP +, access to markets, lower or preferential import tariffs for Cuban exports etc.


The Cuban nation, presently in mourning, is in shock. The queues of citizens lining up to pay their last respects to their beloved leader extend several kilometers. Meanwhile, thousands of Cuban – Americans in Miami’s ‘Little Havana’ was celebrating chanting ‘Tyrant, take your brother with you’.


It is said, no ill should be spoken of the dead. That as the case may be, comparisons are inevitable, especially when it involves iconic personalities such as Fidel Castro.


During the early years after the takeover by Castro and his forces, many Cubans fled to the US. These were mostly the more affluent members of Cuban society who considered Castro’s ascendancy to power akin to Armageddon (Sri Lanka too had this category who left the country post 1956). However, the case with Cubans trying to flee to US in the early 1990s was different. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its main supporter who essentially propped up the Cuban economy and kept it afloat. Around 1.2 million Cubans live in Greater Miami today and around 400,000 of them arrived after 1980.


Cuba under Castro involved itself in overseas conflicts starting with Congo (Zaire) in the early 1960s. Its Bolivian adventure ended with the murder of Castro’s comrade in arms Che Guevara. Cuban technicians were initially involved in training Eritreans followed by a political reversal resulting in the training of Ethiopian Marxist forces. 1,500 Cuban troops including tanks and helicopter crews were deployed to support Arab nations during the Yom Kippur war. 15,000 combat troops with aircraft support were deployed in the Ogaden War in Ethiopia. At the height of Cuba’s involvement in the 27 year old Angolan civil war, Cuba had 36,000 troops on ground who took part in many of the major battles. 722 Cuban troops were deployed in Grenada in support of the leftist government during the US invasion in 1983. Twenty five Cuban soldiers lost their lives, 59 wounded and 638 were captured. Material and technical support was provided by Cuba in the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan civil wars.


Official Cuban figures place the number of Cuban soldiers who lost their lives in overseas conflicts between 1960 and 1991 as 2,289. No figures of the wounded are available. Other analysts claim Cuban combat deaths were close to 5,000 in number. Cuban Brig. Gen. Rafael del Pino Diaz, who defected to the United States in 1987 claimed 10,000 Cuban troops have been killed in Angola, a figure which happens to coincide with US estimates. In case this estimate is correct, Cuban losses in Angola are proportionately much higher than American fatalities in Vietnam. Slightly over 50,000 U.S. servicemen lost their lives in Vietnam, but the U.S. population is about 22 times the size of that of Cuba.


A rare glimpse to the other side of the Castro’s character and personal lifestyle is found in a book titled ‘The Double Life of Fidel Castro – My 17 years as Personal Bodyguard to El Lider Maximo’ authored by Juan Reinaldo Sanchez, Castro’s bodyguard for 17 years. Sanchez claims, "while his people suffered, Fidel Castro lived in comfort – keeping everything, including his eight children, his many mistresses, even his wife a secret". Castro on occasion has claimed he earned a salary of 900 Pesos (USD 43) a month and lived in a Fisherman’s hut. However, no sightings have been reported of Castro and his eight children of ever having live on the beach, in a fisherman’s hut or otherwise.


Castro’s legacy, according to Sanchez was also one of "repression and hypocrisy". He claims "deep poverty persisted – teen prostitution, crumbling houses, food rations. Political opponents were executed by the thousands by firing squad or sentenced to decades of hard labor". Castro’s own daughter Alina Fernandez Revuelta herself fled to the US in 1993 after disguising herself and obtaining a fake Spanish passport. After fleeing to the US, she told the Miami Herald, "When people tell me he’s a dictator, I tell them that’s not the right word. Strictly speaking, Fidel is a tyrant". That was the final judgment passed on Castro by his own daughter, very similar to the opinion expressed by Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who obtained political asylum in the US in 1967.


 


Yet another claim by Sanchez was the manner Castro sacrificed revolutionary general Arnaldo Ochoa who had fought alongside Fidel and Raul Castro. US government had got wind of Castro’s exchange of safe haven for cash with Colombian cocaine traffickers. Ochoa had been summarily executed by firing squad after a kangaroo style court trial. According to Sanchez, Castro had forced his brother Raul and others in his inner council to view the trial, conviction and execution on CCTV. It had led to Raul immersing himself in alcohol to drown his grief till Castro had threatened his brother, unless he came out of his alcoholic stupor.


It is indeed mind boggling to understand the plaudits being paid by both world leaders and ordinary citizens, admirers of Castro. The fact is Castro was the uncontested and unchallenged leader of Cuba continuously for 49 years and governed Cuba, a one-party state with an iron fist. How does one condone, let alone reconcile such an act by any stretch of imagination in the current global context? Other than Gaddafi of Libya, all other leaders swept aside during the Arab Spring had governed for less than 40 years. The support for the Arab Spring movement was almost global. Yet, hosannas are being sung for a person described as a ‘tyrant’ by no less than his own daughter.


All of Cuba’s military adventures in Africa were decided by Castro. Cuba being a one-party state, First Secretary of that party Fidel Castro had no need to justify his actions to an Opposition and seek parliamentary approval before committing troops overseas, as is the case in a fully functioning democracy.


Where are the voices of thousands of mothers, wives and sisters of Cuban soldiers who gave their lives, not defending Cuba against foreign aggression but not knowing what they were fighting for in Africa and South America? Similarly, one no longer hears of members of ‘Ladies in White’ movement, founded in 2003 by wives and other female relatives of jailed dissidents. The women protest the imprisonments by attending Mass each Sunday wearing white dresses and then silently walking through the streets dressed in white clothing. The color white is chosen to symbolize peace. Group members have been periodically arrested in 2010, 2012, 2015 and prior to visit by President Obama in 2016.


One wonders if these groups too would be lining up the streets of Havana to pay their last respects to the ‘beloved leader’.


 


 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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