I’ve been saying it for years: that Fidel Castro would live to be 100, and die thumbing his nose at Washington. I was only out by about 10 years: Last night, Fidel went marching on to victory. He was 90. But I’m pretty sure that as he was stepping out the door, he turned once more, looked down at Washington, DC…and put his thumb to his nose, and waggled his fingers.
And hey, I can afford to be over-generous in my estimates. Fidel always defied expectations. 60 years ago, who could have predicted he’d even survive the voyage on the Granma, much less fight Batista’s army and win? But win he did, and he and his comrades rang in the new year of 1959 with a victory roll, from Santa Clara all the way to Havana.
If you call him a dictator, you might just be a victim of US crapaganda. And you might also be missing the point.
Fidel Castro was an anti-dictator. His birth circumstances were less than auspicious. He originally trained as a lawyer, and he was on track to win a seat in the Cuban congress. Like most Cubans of the day, he was a democrat, albeit one who recognized the flaws of the system. He changed his views after Cuba fell to an actual dictator named Fulgencio Batista, who in 1952 cancelled the election that he was about to lose, and strong-armed his way into office. It was Cuba’s ugliest hour, and it went on for years.
But there were stirrings of restless pride. Fidel, his younger brother Raúl (a trained physician), and 136 fellow rebels stormed the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953.
The assault failed. Most of the rebels were killed. Fidel and Raúl fled, and were later arrested. Several others were also taken prisoner. But the initial fiasco set the tone for a greater rebellion to come; it is the reason why Cubans say (as in the above song): “For us, it’s always the 26th”. On the stand at his trial for treason, Fidel uttered the line that would immortalize him: “History will absolve me”.
And it has.
Fidel Castro was a revolutionary leader. One who stayed as long as he could, while he was needed, and who retired only when age and illness forced him to do so. Even after his retirement (and make a note of it, real dictators never retire; they are only ever deposed and/or killed, sometimes by suicide), Fidel still served Cuba as its most trenchant political commentator. His column in Granma — the national newspaper named after the dilapidated yacht that took him and 80 other ragtag guerrillas back to the island from exile in Mexico — accurately pointed out the sides of history that Washington was reluctant to acknowledge, much less take to heart. And it made sense of the world not only to Cuban readers, but to anyone who cared to look its way. After all, Granma is accessible to the world, in English as well as Spanish. (So much for the claim that Cuba is a “closed society”…a claim which Fidel never failed to accurately point out came only from one source, the same that maintained a blockade against the island while hypocritically claiming to be the standard-bearer of global democracy!)
Fidel Castro was also a great survivor. 638 failed CIA assassination attempts bear witness to that. Everything was tried on him, from exploding cigars, to hallucinogens that were meant to drive him insane, to a face cream that was supposed to make his famous beard fall out, to a truly hair-raising scheme involving mutated monkey viruses that could cause a galloping cancer.
But unlike Samson, Fidel’s strength lay not in his hair; it lay in his people. The Cuban people were so loyal to the revolution — and to him — that they managed to keep out the gringo invaders time and again. The Bay of Pigs was the first and biggest salvo, but it was not the last. At May Day marches, they would chant: “Fidel, seguro, a los Yanquis dales duro” — Fidel, for sure, you will hit the Yankees hard!
And he did. By simply continuing to exist, Fidel remained a constant thorn in Gringolandia’s side. He was the emblem of a Cuba that refused to capitulate to capitalism, and become another Puerto Rico. Little wonder the Cuban people took such pride in him.
And at the worst times, pride remains what sustains Cuba and its revolution. It was not the Soviets, or their missiles alone, that saved Cuba from invasion; it was the Cuban people themselves. Their ingenuity saved Cuba time and again. They had learned from the guerrillas how to make do with very little. Even after the Berlin Wall fell, and Russian aid left the island, the Cubans dug in their heels and protected their revolution — and its leader. There is no more significant or ironic figure of that “Special Period” than Elían González, who survived the wreck of a flimsy raft (which had killed his mother) only to fall among squabbling, wild-eyed, anti-Castro relatives in Miami. He was returned to his father in Cuba, and today is an engineer…and a loyal revolutionary with no desire to return to Florida. Fidel Castro saw to that when he made sure young Elián was able to grow, learn and flourish; it was a pattern set by the revolution, which values free education and healthcare above all other things. It was a pattern in stark contrast to Gringolandia, which grows steadily…more loco by the day.
The Cuban revolution sparked others in Latin America. Everyone from the Sandinistas in Nicaragua to the Montoneros of Argentina drew their examples from what Fidel, Raúl, Camilo Cienfuegos, Che Guevara, and the other Cuban revolutionaries did. Sometimes they failed horribly; Che’s attempt to overthrow the dictator of Bolivia, for instance, ended with his execution at La Higuera. An uprising in Venezuela, in 1992, ended as ignominiously as Fidel’s storming of the Moncada. But even the failures of the revolution planted the seeds of later success: Hugo Chávez, drawing inspiration from Venezuela’s own failed guerrilla movement, became the democratically elected president of Venezuela in 1999, and promptly set the Bolivarian Revolution in place, to popular fanfare. Evo Morales, in Bolivia, took up where Che left off, and kicked predatory foreign interests (including the DEA and the US ambassador, Philip Goldberg) out of the country. Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla, became president of Brazil. And in Uruguay, a former Tupamaro guerrilla, Pepe Mujica, also became president. All of them were inspired by Fidel; all of them were his friends.
But these victories have not made anyone complacent. The pushback against the left is hard and getting harder by the day. Cuba is preparing for another possible US invasion even now. Latin America is still fighting the same revolution that Fidel began in Cuba, right at this moment. It won’t end until the last US-backed fascist dictator is swinging from the gallows, and Washington finally learns to bargain in good faith with the people and countries who refuse to be its “backyard”. For that, the example of Fidel remains as necessary and relevant as ever.
Fidel’s remarkable ability to seize the moment took on an ominous tone just the other day, when he announced that he was retiring from all public life because he didn’t have much longer to live. He predicted accurately. This morning, the world awoke to the announcement that he had died.
But as with so many other things that have been said about him by the media, that’s not exactly true. Fidel is immortal now. History has indeed absolved him. Cuba is still Cuban. And the immortal revolution he set in motion…continues.
Hasta siempre, Fidel.