The life and contradictions of El Comandante
I mourn Fidel Castro because the Cuban revolution he led demonstrated that people could overthrow the tyranny of the rich, even in a small country dominated by a much more powerful one.
I mourn Fidel Castro, who died on Nov. 25 at the age of 90, despite the authoritarian side of his almost 50 years as Cuban leader after the revolution of 1959. He imprisoned numerous political dissidents, as well as gay men in the 1960s and 1970s before the laws liberalized. Writers were censored.
The sad paradox of revolution is that the harsher the struggle, the more hardline the government that emerges is likely to be. Castro’s authoritarian side has to be kept in context: Cuba was the only leftist government in Latin America and the Caribbean in the 20th century that was not violently overthrown by the United States for daring to defy the dominion of the dollar.
That wasn’t for lack of trying. Aside from the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the CIA’s repeated attempts to assassinate Castro through means like trying to slip him poisoned cigars, the U.S. government also backed a terrorist campaign that murdered more than 40 student teachers in Cuba’s countryside. The reason Che Guevara looks so angry in the photograph seen on millions of T-shirts is that it was taken at the memorial for the more than 70 people killed when a French freighter exploded in Havana harbor in 1960, believed to be sabotage.
Castro’s revolutionary regime survived when all of the region’s elected democratic-socialist and left-liberal governments were deposed. The U.S. backed military coups in Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, and Haiti in 1991; invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Grenada in 1983; funneled guns to gangsters in Jamaica in the late 1970s, and armed rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s. The overthrow of Guatemala’s left-liberal government imposed more than three decades of military rule in which more than 200,000 people were slaughtered. The coup against Chilean democratic socialist Salvador Allende imposed a dictatorship that massacred several thousand people in its first month, including Victor Jara, the singer-songwriter who was Latin America’s parallel to Bob Dylan.
“Nos imponen militares para sojuzgar los pueblos, dictadores, asesinos, gorilas, y generales,” Jara sang in memory of Che Guevara. They imposed the military on us to subjugate the people; dictators, murderers, thugs, and generals. But the Cuban revolution followed the path of “liberar a nuestro pueblo del dominio explotador.” Liberating our people from the dominion of the exploiter.
The revolution transformed a racially segregated society where, despite one of the most solid middle classes in Latin America, five-sixths of the people lived without running water or electricity and up to 40 percent were illiterate. Despite Cuba’s relative poverty, its average life expectancy, less than 60 years in 1959, is now on a par with the United States, and a higher percentage of U.S. children die before they turn 5. Just before I visited Ecuador in 1988, my relatives’ neighbors’ 3-year-old daughter was critically burned. If the little girl had lived long enough to make the flight, her parents would have sent her to Cuba: It had the best burn unit in Latin America.
Cuba has also moved to develop green energy and agriculture, with nearly 10,000 working windmills and a dramatic increase in organic farming since the end of Soviet aid in 1991.
Government control of the means of cultural production had mixed results. Cuban science-fiction writer Yoss, speaking in Brooklyn last September, noted that one of his novels, a thinly disguised allegory about the sleazy effects of Havana’s reliance on the tourist trade called A Planet for Rent, has never been published in his country. The censors, Yoss said, were smarter than he thought.
On the other hand, the EGREM national record label put out hundreds of records, including the acoustic “nueva trova” of Silvio Rodriguez, the Latin jazz of Irakere, and the African-inflected dance grooves of Pello El Afrokan.
A less hardline Cuba might have wound up resembling South Africa, where Nelson Mandela, seeking to avoid the middle-class flight and capitalist-world hostility that plagued Cuba after it expropriated plantations and U.S.-owned businesses, avoided major wealth redistribution. Apartheid is gone, but South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world, with some people enjoying European-level living standards while half try to survive on less than $4 a day.
Donald Trump’s triumph will likely make the United States even more ruthlessly ruled by the Mammonite gods of venal crony capitalism and wrathful free-market fundamentalism. I mourn Fidel Castro because he was one of the world’s most enduring figures who consistently resisted the dominion of the dollar. Because he was the last remaining revolutionary leader from an era in which millions of people dreamed a different kind of society was possible.