by Sandy Marks, Nov. 29, 2016 | On Friday evening, November 25, Fidel Castro Ruz, one of the towering figures of the second half of the twentieth century died in Havana at the age of 90.
Not only the leader of a revolution of national independence and a socialist revolution in his own land, Fidel was also a leader of international significance with few parallels in human history – especially since his role internationally was not as a conqueror, like Alexander, Julius Caesar, Tamerlane and the like; nor a master of diplomatic intrigue, like Talleyrand and Metternich; but as a moral force. Indeed, in his memoir, My Life, he tells his interlocutor, Ignacio Ramonet, he considers himself fundamentally a “moralist.”
A gifted and prize-winning orator in a Latin American culture that prized eloquence, Fidel was also a powerful courtroom advocate, whose most difficult defense was his own. He participated in the founding meeting of the Ortodoxo Party in Cuba, canvassing door to door for its candidates and becoming a candidate himself before the 1952 coup by Fulgencio Batista ended the election campaign.
He organized and led a raid on the Moncada Barracks a year later, hoping to raise a revolt against Batista. When 70 of his comrades were tortured and murdered, his speech, at a secret military trial, became a sensation, printed and surreptitiously distributed by hand in tens of thousands of copies.
It was in Mexico, where Fidel met Che Guevara, his closest comrade and confidante and that he won over Col. Alberto Bayo, a veteran commander of the Spanish Republican Army in the civil war. Bayo describes how Fidel told him he expected to defeat Batista in a future landing that he planned to carry out with men “when I have them” and with vessels “when I have money to buy them,” and asked Bayo to train these men, of which he had not a one. Bayo said, “It seemed impossible.” It was not.
When he landed in December 1956, his 82 men were almost wiped out. He and three others hid motionless in a cane field hour after hour before making their way into the mountains to form the first twelve. Although declared dead time and again by Batista, The New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews was spirited into the mountains for an interview during which Fidel marched his small group past him over and over again to make the band appear larger. Fidel won over the Cuban people. Other groups emulated his example and when he entered Havana, Batista had fled.
In combat, his fearlessness was legendary. Fidel, 6 feet 2 inches and some 200 pounds, tall and large-framed, wearing horn-rimmed glasses (he was nearsighted) would lead his guerrillas in a direct assault with a Savage Winchester .308 lever-action rifle, standing up.
But Fidel was neither a mere rabble rouser nor rifleman, but a moralist, animated above all by a desire for social justice.
He freed Cuba from the control of American mobsters and monopolies. He led a literacy campaign that in one year, 1961, mobilized, quite literally, an entire nation. Prior to the revolution, 23.6 percent of Cubans were illiterate. By the end of 1962, only 272,000 remained illiterate out of a population of five and a half million. Then began the education.
In those first two years of the revolution, 1959-61, 3,000 physicians left Cuba for Spain and the United States. Fidel made sure the remaining 3,000 doctors were among the island’s highest-paid employees, and began to build a vast educational system to train medical personnel. Cuba now has 25 medical schools, which graduate 11,000 doctors annually. 12,000 of these graduates have been foreign students from 83 countries (including the United States), all on scholarship, in return for a pledge to serve the poor. Cuban doctors have gone to serve needy populations around the world – in Latin America, Africa and Asia. After Hurricane Katrina, Fidel offered to send specially trained Cuban medical personnel to assist. When the offer was rejected by President Bush, Fidel dispatched this team instead to earthquake-ravaged Pakistan, where they are remembered with gratitude to this day. When Ebola struck West Africa in 2014, while the United States sent military personnel, Cuba sent doctors and medical personnel, and they all collaborated together to eradicate the scourge.
In truth, neither Africa nor Latin America would look as they do today without Fidel, who did something no Western power had ever done: he asked for nothing in return for Cuba’s support. Cuba aided the liberation forces of Laurent Kabila in the Congo (eventually victorious over the despot Mobutu in 1996), Amilcar Cabral in Guinea and Cabo Verde (which won their independence from Portugal after Portugal’s army revolted against the fascist dictatorship’s hopeless African wars in 1975) and the liberation forces of Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Southwest Africa to win independence.
Addressing Cuban civilian and military personnel in Luanda, Angola on March 30, 1977, he declared: “Today, it hurts us if a Cuban is hungry, if a Cuban has no doctor, if a Cuban child suffers or is uneducated, or a family has no housing. It hurts us even though it’s not our brother, our son or our father. Why shouldn’t we feel hurt if we see an Angolan child go hungry, suffer, be killed or massacred?”
At the decisive battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola, Fidel personally directed the battle from Havana, which turned back the invading South African army, ensuring the independence of Angola and ultimately forcing the South African government to end its unjust policy of Apartheid and agree to majoritarian rule. It was to Fidel and Cuba that Nelson Mandela paid his first foreign visit after his release from prison.
Fidel early became a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement and the G-77 group of developing nations. When Fidel was in New York in 1960 to speak at the United Nations, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, and Nasser of Egypt traveled to Harlem to meet with him at the Theresa Hotel, as did Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Fidel cried for justice, but it was not a war cry. He spoke with the voice of both reason and compassion about the need for a battle of ideas.
In a decisive intervention at the United Nations in 1979, he reminded the assembled leaders of a common obligation: “The time has therefore come for all of us to join in the task of pulling the entire peoples, hundreds of millions of human beings, out of backwardness, poverty, malnutrition, illness and illiteracy that keep them from having full human dignity and pride… If there are no resources for development, there will be no peace…”
“For ten years of development,” Fidel pointed out, “We are requesting less than what is spent in a single year by the Ministries of War and much less than a tenth of what will be spent for military purposes in ten years… The sound of weapons, threatening language and arrogance in the international scene must cease… Bombs may kill the hungry, the sick and the ignorant, but they cannot kill hunger, disease and ignorance… Let us say farewell to arms, and let us dedicate ourselves in a civilized manner to the most pressing problems of our times.”
At the June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, attended by leaders of over 170 countries, Fidel said, in perhaps the shortest speech of his life: “…Now that the alleged threat of communism has disappeared and there are no longer any excuses for cold wars, arms races and military spending, what is blocking the immediate use of these resources to promote the development of the Third World and fight the threat of the ecological destruction of the planet? Let selfishness end. Let hegemonies end. Let insensitivity, irresponsibility and deceit end. Tomorrow it will be too late to do what we should have done long ago.”
We all now feel the impact of global warming, but Fidel was one of the first to bring it to world attention. The Rio Earth Summit generated both the COP, the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HPLF), attached to the UN General Assembly and the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The fruits of these bodies were the Climate Change Agreement affirmed in Paris a month ago and the Sustainable Development Goals/Agenda 2030, adopted by all 193 nations of the United Nations a year ago, declaring: “Eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development.”
In his final public speech this past April, Fidel reminded his comrades, and us: “If only numerous human beings would concern ourselves with these realities and not continue as in the times of Adam and Eve eating forbidden apples. Who will feed the thirsty people of Africa with no technology at their disposal, no rain, no dams, no more underground reservoirs than those covered by sands? We will see what the governments, which almost all signed the climate commitments, say. We must hammer away at these issues.”
And Fidel accomplished this all while under an intense extraterritorial blockade, which has now been denounced by 192 of 193 members of the United Nations (the United States finally this September abstaining in the vote against itself), a remarkable diplomatic achievement. It was almost as remarkable that, after the United States expelled Cuba from the Organization of American States at Punta del Este in 1962, the United States was forced to accept the attendance of Cuba at the 2015 Summit of the Americas, when other Latin American countries refused to attend unless Cuba was included.
In 1991 the Soviet Union, which had been aiding Cuba at the costs of more than a million dollars a day in trade and assistance, collapsed and Cuba entered what Cubans call the “Special Period” with many physical and economic hardships. Representatives of the Cuban Foreign Ministry proposed to close embassies and consulates because they simply could not afford to keep them open. Fidel insisted on the opposite and told them they should be opening consulates, not closing them; making more allies and friends.
He not only turned back the invasion of 1400 mercenaries, planned and executed by the U.S. CIA at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, but survived some 600 assassination attempts by the CIA. “If surviving assassination events were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal,” Fidel once declared. Yet, unlike our own presidents, he traveled in Cuba with minimal security, walking freely among his people, talking to them, even visiting the much ballyhooed “political” prisoners so much is made of by those self-exiled Cubans in the United States who invest millions on U.S. political campaigns and whose chosen methods of bringing about political change in Cuba include blowing up airliners, bombing hotels and assassinating those who dare to disagree with them. In our own land, dozens of blocks are closed off to traffic before an American president can drive down a street and a single protestor with a single sign results in a candidate being hustled off the stage.
While our president-elect muses publicly on how his holding office will build his “brand,” neither Fidel nor any Cuban leader has acquired any personal wealth. His family’s own finca was among the first to be distributed in land reform. Yet, every Cuban child is entitled, by law, to a quart of milk a day, and most Cubans own their own home, without debt.
He welcomed Pope John Paul II, who he had personally helped bring to Havana, to hold a public mass in Revolution Square. In 1995, French President François Mitterand welcomed Fidel on a state visit to France, declaring, on behalf of the Socialist International of European social-democratic parties, that Fidel was the inheritor of his mantle as leader of socialism in the world. He won the respect and honor of the King Juan Carlos of Spain.
In a “Reflection,” published in Granma, the Cuban Communist Party’s newspaper, September 1, 2014, Fidel asked a question every human being of conscience should ask themselves: “Wouldn’t the world be much more just today – when in fractions of a second anyone can communicate with the other side of the planet – if people saw in others a friend or a brother, and not an enemy disposed to kill, with weapons which human knowledge has been capable of creating? […]
“If today it is possible to prolong life, health and the productive time of persons, if it is perfectly possible to plan the development of the population in accordance with growing productivity, culture and the development of human values, what are they waiting for to do so?
“Just ideas will triumph, or disaster will triumph.”
Indeed, what ARE we waiting for?