NOT JUST THE PASSING OF A MAN, THE END OF AN ERA
REVOLUTIONARY FIDEL CASTRO DIES AT THE AGE OF 90
It was with a great deal of sadness that I heard of the passing yesterday of Fidel Castro, President of Cuba. Why did his death affect me? I’m not really sure. Is it because his life as a revolutionary created what is became the model for revolutionaries in the 20th Century? Or was it his defiance of American power since for decades while escaping the dozen or more assassination attempts carried out by the CIA? The failed Bay of Pigs operation, another unsuccessful CIA adventure? I guess for me he comes across the pages of history as a heroic, even mythic, figure endowed with a mythology that will surely outlive him.
Young people today must have a very different view of Castro if, indeed, they have one at all, than I do. Although a youngster of 15 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I can still vividly recall the terror I felt as we “ducked and covered” under our flimsy desks at Greece Central School in preparation for the coming nuclear holocaust. Perhaps other than the Berlin Wall, Castro and Castro’s Socialist Cuba was the most potent symbol of the Cold War competition between the United States and the then named Soviet Union. Ironically, in 1959 when the Cuban poor people’s revolution deposed strongman dictator, Fulgencio Batista, Castro first turned to the Eisenhower Administration for support. It was not forthcoming mainly because of the U.S. Mafia’s huge investment in Havana’s luxury hotels and gambling casinos and American corporate dominance in the sugar and tobacco industries on the island.
Castro’s revolutionary success among the nation’s poor was unprecedented on the island that had seen numerous uprisings, revolts and invasions from the time when Spain colonized the island in the 1800’s. After the revolution, he led a nation that consisted of millions in mass poverty where institutions were controlled by a number of wealthy oligarchic families much the same as was all Latin America at the time. Castro’s sometimes brutal suppression of opponents (he jailed tens of thousands of dissidents over the years) but his collectivization of land, appropriation of private industry, nationalization of health care and education, institution of community, neighborhood and block watch groups and the radical restructuring of government were all actions more or less based on the Soviet model of society. His actions caused widespread dislocation in the early years and caused many to flee Cuba. Without massive economic support from the Soviet Union, it is likely that he would have failed.
Castro’s passing seems to me like the close of an era, call it the end of the Post World War II Cold War Era for want of a better term. In a way, this era was one of stability and Super Power balanced control with the Soviet Union and the West competing for adherents, Communist or Democratic. Today the Socialist Communist experiment is pretty much dead. Even China, today the largest Communist society left on the planet, would be unrecognizable to the old Stalinists and Leninite’s of the past. The spread and success of capitalism - as problematic as it might be – has chased competing economic themes from the scene although in variations that range from socialist Europe to oligarchic capitalism in many nations in the world.
Where we are headed as a planet, what form of political, social and economic governance will prevail in what appears to be the present condition of great instability and near-radical destabilizing change across the world, remains to be seen. The much heralded Arab Spring in North Africa has had some marginal success in Tunisia but elsewhere – Egypt, Libya and Syria – has devolved into authoritarianism or chaos, in large part. As technological advances – television, computers, the internet, the cell phone, and social media – spread rapidly over the past two decades into the world’s urban centers and rural communities as well, they are causing much disruption of formerly hard wired social traditions, practices and mores. It’s a very old conundrum – Once they’ve seen what lies beyond their constrained world, their familiar life patterns and their ages old traditions, the genie is out of the bottle never to be contained. I will bet that we are in for a long period of such instability – upheavals, discord, sectarian violence, protests, riots, death – until new means of bot domestic and international governance are created.
Castro? Nearly all the news reports are tagging him thusly: “Was he a dictator or was he a savior?” This simplistic, either-or meme is the kind of Bush doctrine “either you’re with us or against us” that is both misleading and naïve. Was Castro brutal on occasion? Yes. Did he transform Cuba from a nation of destitute poor people into a relatively prosperous when where everyone had access to free education and free healthcare? Yes. Did he jail his opponents in the name of revolutionary purity? Yes.
So the picture of Castro that emerges is one of a veritable kaleidoscope of subtle and sharp colors in play, not just a simplistic, easy to digest picture in monochromatic black and white. Fidel Castro will, I think, become an even greater mythical world figure as time goes on, like Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela. Whatever your view of Castro might be, he was a revolutionary for all the right reasons. After all, not only did he overthrow a Latin dictator against all odds, he utterly transformed an island society of millions of poor people and did so despite the best efforts of the most powerful nation in the world, the United States of America.
Quite an accomplishment, I’m thinking.