IT’S been more than a week since Fidel Castro, Cuba’s revolutionary leader for nearly half a century, died. As I write this in the afternoon of Sunday 4th December, 2016, the people of Cuba are in the final stages of the burial ceremonies of their leader whose ashes are to be interred in Santiago de Cuba. By January 2017, it would have been 58 years since Castro ousted Fulgencio Batista from power and nine years since he relinquished power to his younger brother Raul. After leading the people of his small island nation for nearly 50 full years and participating in shaping its future for nine additional years after retirement as president, Fidel Castro asked that no monument should be erected in his name. This, reportedly, was his last wish. Nothing captures more the essence of the kind of leadership Castro bequeathed his people.
For him, being a leader or acquiring power was sacrifice. Leadership comes at a steep price and Fidel Castro believed only those ready to pay such price should aspire to lead. Thus for nearly half a century during which he led his country, he was the target of many failed assassination attempts from some of the most deadly state agencies around the world. These included the Central Intelligence Agency. One such assassination plot was to have been executed through a poisoned Havana cigar, his favourite brand. But Castro survived all these attempts and in the end won the admiration of his adversaries even if grudgingly. What kept him from annihilation was no doubt his complete dedication to the cause of his people and other oppressed people around the world.
After his initial attempt to cozy up to America was rebuffed following his ouster of their protégé, Batista, Castro decided to go it alone, brave it all and look beyond America. His country was blockaded for decades when all relations between Cuba and its far more powerful neighbour was at a permanent low. Even when it took less than an hour’s flight from Miami to mainland Cuba, there was no such communication between the two countries, no thanks to America’s belligerence. Yet, Cuba under Castro stayed its course- a communist nation that stared the American giant eyeball to eyeball without blinking. A failed attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs by a US-sponsored Cuban exile group and the missile crisis that pitched the US against the former USSR, bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear disaster after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would further compound relations. Thus Cuba, by US reckoning, was the renegade nation of the western hemisphere, a dangerous outpost of Soviet treachery that must be tamed by all means.
With the support of the Soviets Cuba braved the odds. But far more than any type of external support, what kept Cuba going was the dogged dedication of Castro to the cause of his people. Even when his country was materially poor, Fidel Castro gave his people the one single gift, a lifetime legacy that would ensure for them a future free from foreign manipulation- education. Very practical and functional, education was free in Cuba and it was pursued with zeal. Cuba’s exploit in this regard would ensure an almost perfect literacy rate for Cubans. This was more than even the best western democracies could boast of. Cuban doctors were everywhere in Cuba such that the demand for them trailed the supply in many instances. It was thus possible for Cuba to send out medical experts to poorer parts of the world in Africa among other places where their services were needed. The country made considerable advances in medical research in a manner that made it the preferred destination for wealthy people around the world especially in Latin America.
Is it any surprise then that in the many decades of American blockade and several years of age-induced poor health, since he relinquished power, Castro spent no dime of Cuba’s foreign exchange on medical treatment anywhere outside his country? Rather leaders and important personalities from Venezuela, Argentina and other parts of the Americas turned to Cuba for medical help. Cuba may not display many of the technologically advanced high rise structures and vehicles to be seen even in very poor African countries; Cubans may not spot the latest labels in designer fashion, yet the country had a lot to be proud of under Castro. Yes, his was a dictatorship under which many felt alienated and were indeed excluded. He brooked no opposition to his style of governance. But Castro never impoverished his people in order to make the US or any other western power richer. He lived simply and without airs. Always in his military fatigue or track suits which he made famous as a casual wear among Latin American leaders, Fidel Castro lived for Cuba.
He was from a very wealthy family that gave him the best education available for Cubans of his time. He therefore didn’t need to take the revolutionary path of class suicide to achieve anything. But his love for his people saw him doing the very remarkable: enduring prison terms and social ostracism in order to reach his goal of a classless Cuban society. Castro no doubt stirred emotions, made a lot of enemies and incited the most visceral reaction from Cubans and others around the world, but he both made his point and achieved his goal of a Cuba that need not be tied to the apron strings of America despite being only a stone’s throw from the American mainland. He was the David that dared and in many ways defeated the American Goliath, outliving 10 American administrations.
Having lived his entire adult life for the people of Cuba, Fidel Castro was confident enough of the legacy he was leaving behind as to demand that no monument be erected in his name. His ashes were to be interred in his beloved Cuba among his beloved people who have been mourning him in their millions since he passed. Fidel Castro’s wealth is not being counted in billions of US dollars. His achievement is not being measured in the number of billionaires he was able to make among impoverished hundreds of millions. Rather, Fidel lived for Cuba and gave his all to his land. In return he asked for nothing, a far cry from Nigerian politicians whose sole aspiration in power is to steal as much as they could and expatriate such stolen wealth to hidden foreign havens that are forever lost at their death. Today as the world mourns Fidel Castro, they remember a leader who was in every particular human and one who embodied the same weaknesses as the rest of us. But they also remember a man whose commitment to his people was beyond reproach.