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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 51 New Delhi December 10, 2016

How Fidel Shaped Cuba and Influenced Latin America

Sunday 11 December 2016


by Nina Dey-Gupta

Fidel Castro was born on August 13, 1926 and passed away on November 25, 2016 after a prolonged illness of diverticulitis.

Gandhi and Castro were both political leaders. While Gandhi’s political experience and experiments in politics began in South Africa based on non-violence, Castro’s was a purely home-spun one shaped by events closer home in Cuba, having led a popular uprising against General Batista, the dictator, who had seized power in a military coup in 1952 and had tortured and killed most of the captured rebels. It was at the young age of 26, in July 1953, that Castro led a group of armed combatants to attack Batista’s armed forces. Finally, completing his mission of overthrowing the dictator, he entered Havana as a victorious guerilla Commander on January 8, 1959.

From then on, Fidel became a towering international figure whose importance in the 20th century far exceeded what was expected from the head of state of a Caribbean island-nation of 11 million people. He remained in power longer than any other living national leader except the still reigning Queen Elizabeth II of England.

Fidel’s final high school report in Havana records:

‘He always distinguished himself in all subjects related to arts and letters. An excellent student... an outstanding athlete, always courageously and proudly defending the school colours. He won the admiration and affection of all. He will study law and we have no doubt that he will make a brilliant name for himself.’

Castro had made a dramatic entrance on the stage of Cuba and subsequently international politics. In his autobiography, My Early Years, Fidel recollected his days at the University of Havana when violent gangs ruled student politics, his early thoughts about armed struggles, his travels in Latin America as an international student organiser, his participation in solidarity actions with Latin American anti-imperialist movements, his first-hand experience of a popular uprising in Colombia in 1948, and his years as a young lawyer that finally converted him into a political activist.

Soon after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, several journalists and writers flocked to the island for an interview with him to discover the ‘real’ Fidel Castro—the man himself. Washington Post corres-pondent Lionel Martin was one of the first to focus on Castro’s early years, speculating with some humour that “Fidel’s Law School grades for the Spring Semester of 1949—his Senior Year—presaged his life’s course. He received a ‘Outstanding’ in Labour Legislation, and only a simple ‘Pass’ in Property and Real Estate, grades befitting a convinced Socialist.”

Tad Szule, a serious biographer of Castro, had close access to him, resulting in a long, direct relationship, starting with his first conversations in 1959 and later when posted in Havana in 1961 as a correspondent for the New York Times. Szule commented that Cuban and world history would have evolved differently had this single individual been less determined.

Much speculation has always surrounded Castro’s political evolution, particularly his relations with the Cuban Communist Party and his commitment to Marxist ideas. In an unprecedented personal dialogue with the university students in Chile in 1971, during the government of President Salvador Allende, Castro discussed the formation of his political ideas: ‘I was the son of a landowner—a reason for me to be a reactionary, was educated in religious schools that were attended by sons of the rich—another reason for being a reactionary. I lived in Cuba, in which all the films, publications and mass media were ‘Made in USA’—a third reason for being a reactionary. I studied at a university in which out of thousands of students only thirty were anti-imperialists and I was one of them.’ Later, in another speech at the University of Havana, he described how he, a ‘political illiterate’, learned quickly to survive in an atmosphere where mafia-like groups ran student politics. The Colombian journalist Arturo Alape’s interview with Castro in 1981 described how the 21-year-old youth Fidel developed consciousness of the need for Latin American unity with his outstanding moral and physical courage, and his unshakeable self-assurance.

Castro remains the most important leader to emerge from Latin America and decidedly one of the pre-eminent shaper of Cuban history, since his own hero, Jose Marti, struggled for Cuban independence in the late 19th century. Castro’s own brother, Raoul Castro (the current President of Cuba since 2008), once remarked: ‘The most important feature of Fidel’s character is that he will not accept defeat.’ Castro defied the US for nearly half-a-century, which included 11 US Presidents, while his country, Cuba, stoically bore the five-decade-long economic blocade.

It was only recently in 2014 that President Raoul and President Obama announced normalisation of relations with the US and Cuba reopening embassies in their respective capitals in 2015. However, Fidel Castro remains one of the most outstanding figures of the 20th century.

[The author first visited Cuba in 2004 and later in 2006 at the invitation of the Ministry of Education, Republic of Cuba to attend the International Conference on Education. Due to the serious illness that gripped President Fidel Castro in that year (2006), her meeting with the Cuban leader could not unfortunately take place.]

Nina Dey-Gupta taught Comparative Education, Education in the Third World and Developing Countries and Pedagogy of History at the University of Delhi. She is the Co-Founder of the Indian Ocean Comparative Education Society (IOCES).

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