Monday, November 28, 2016

Business Recorder Column Nov 28, 2016

Fidel Castro’s legacy Rashed Rahman Inevitable as it had begun to appear since his serious illness in 2006 that forced him to relinquish power to his brother Raul, the death of Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro at the age of 90 shocked and saddened the world, the ‘gusanos’ (worms) in Florida being the disgusting exception. Before we examine the record in revolutionary struggle and in power of this towering figure of the 20th century, I beg the readers’ indulgence for a personal note. As a young student in London in the 1960s, intellectual curiosity and a childhood voracious reading habit led me to the ‘discovery’ of the Cuban revolution. The trigger was the death (assassination after being wounded and captured) in Bolivia of Ernesto Che Guevara in 1967. Readers must be reminded that this was still the pre-internet, mobile phones, etc, world. To discover the facts about personages, events, etc, in distant lands was not as easy as it is today (at the click of a button). It required an effort to gather news, information and analyses regarding any such phenomena. Fortunately, the British media (especially print) came to my rescue. The more I read about the extraordinary life and death of this extraordinary man, the more my curiosity and appetite to learn about the Cuban revolution (from which Che’s name could not be separated) grew. Soon I had gathered and digested all that was available on the subject. My admiration for the Cuban revolution and its charismatic leader Fidel Castro became from then on an intrinsic part of my being and played a significant role in my subsequent path down the journey to revolutionary aspirations. Fidel came from a well off, landed family background, his father having emigrated to Cuba from Galicia, Spain. He studied law but soon found himself drawn to politics, joining the Ortodoxo Party. Fulgencio Baptista’s 1952 military coup persuaded the fiery young lawyer that the time for open, parliamentary struggle was over. Along with similar minded youths, he launched an armed assault on the Moncada military garrison in 1953. Although the attack was crushed and Fidel and his surviving comrades captured, put on trial, imprisoned and eventually exiled, the date of the event gave Fidel’s struggle its title of the July 26 Movement. From exile in Mexico, where Fidel and his comrades were joined by an Argentinian revolutionary called Che Guevara, an invasion by the boat Granma was organized with 62 fighters on board. The invading force was ambushed on the beach in Cuba, with most of the fighters killed or captured. Only 12 of the original contingent survived and eventually found their way to the Sierra Maestre mountains to wage a classic guerrilla war with the help and support of the rural peasantry, urban working class and progressive intelligentsia. Within two years, Baptista’s poorly motivated army was on the back foot, if not on the run. On January 1, 1959, Fidel led a column of his forces into Havana in a triumphal parade greeted by thousands of the city’s enthusiastic residents. Fidel’s July 26 Movement was left-leaning, but not entirely Marxist just yet. There were many in its ranks, and even a few in its leadership, who fought for a democratic revolution, one that would lead to a restoration of the Baptista-ousted parliamentary system. However, the experiences of the guerrilla struggle had a profound radicalizing effect on Fidel and most of his comrades. Nevertheless, despite resentment against the US treating Cuba as its offshore virtual colony and playground, Fidel at first tried to reach out to Washington. On his first visit to the UN, then US President Dwight D Eisenhower refused to see him, as did Washington’s officialdom. By 1961, it had become clear to Fidel and his revolutionary movement’s leadership that the status quo in Cuba could not continue. The regime nationalized US companies that dominated the economy and carried out land reform as had been promised to the poor peasantry. Fidel declared Cuba a socialist country. This earned the regime not just the hostility of the US, but set in motion its unremitting hostile acts, including an economic blockade (which still persists till today despite some recent diplomatic openings with Washington) and even a CIA-organized invasion by Cuban exiles. The Bay of Pigs adventure was routed by the Cuban revolutionary army and about a thousand invaders captured. Havana was left with little choice but to turn to the Soviet Union for help. Cuba’s economy at the time was virtually a one-crop creature. Sugar was its main product, hitherto a sector dominated by US interests and their local compradors. With the US blockade firmly in place, the Soviet Union came to Cuba’s rescue by buying its entire sugarcane crop, an act of international solidarity it continued with until its own implosion in 1991. Along with this economic cooperation, Moscow and Havana decided to defend Cuba against future invasions a la Bay of Pigs by installing Soviet missiles on Cuba’s soil. When discovered by US intelligence, this led the world to the brink of an all out nuclear war, a nightmare scenario from which retreat was made possible only by Moscow agreeing to withdraw the missiles from Cuba in return for a secret agreement for the US to withdraw its missiles from Turkey, a deployment that threatened the Soviet Union. Bitterness at this letdown did not deter Fidel from continuing good relations with the Soviet Union. At the same time, guerrilla movements in Latin America against the tide of military dictatorships across the continent found succour and assistance from Cuba. Across the Third World in particular, but also in the world generally, Fidel’s revolutionary government supported armed anti-imperialist struggles. That stance of revolutionary solidarity extended to actual military involvement by Cuban forces in Angola against a South African invasion and defence of the Marxist government in Ethiopia against armed invasion. However, things were changing even in the 1980s. The revolutionary wave of the 1960s and 70s in the Third World and beyond wound down after the liberation of Vietnam in 1975. Latin American military dictatorships incrementally gave way to left-leaning democratically elected governments in many countries of the continent. The wave of anti-colonial, anti-imperialist armed struggles in the rest of the Third World abated, sometimes in victory, often in defeat. Newly liberated colonies and neo-colonies ran up against the domination of the global system by capitalism. The socialist camp headed by the Soviet Union (with China a notable dissident) could only do so much and no more for countries like Cuba aspiring to escape the clutches of global capitalism led by the US. Cuba under Fidel continued to adhere to its socialist principles despite the odds. Advances in education (100 percent literacy, a skilled workforce) and health (cradle to grave care) paved the way for Cuban breakthroughs in science and combating disease (cancer, vaccine breakthroughs). Cuban doctors serve in many countries of the world, tending to their people. Pakistan too experienced their immense contribution after the earthquake in 2005. The greatest legacy of Fidel Castro will remain his brave and principled defiance of the hostile superpower on his doorstep. Despite the economic blockade, invasion, assassination attempts against Fidel by the CIA (600 by one count), he and his revolutionary government never wavered in their commitment to a socialist transformation of Cuba for the benefit of its people. Cuba remains a shining example in a post-Cold War world in which the transition to Raul Castro and new generations of revolutionaries prepared to take over the reins ensure the country will remain a beacon of socialism (albeit tempered because of necessity by minor concessions to capitalism) and the people’s rights. Well played Comrade Fidel. You will remain an example to successive generations in Cuba and elsewhere so long as mankind’s fight against the exploitation of man by man is unfinished.

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