It is hard to think of another leader from such a small state who had the kind of impact on world affairs that Fidel Castro had. It is also hard to think of another leader who elicited such distorted policy responses from the United States over such a long time frame. Some of it came about because of Cuba’s close proximity to the US, situated as it was, ninety miles off the coast of Florida; some of it from Castro’s prolonged hold on power; and some of it from his unswerving adherence to Marxist ideology, but those factors in and of themselves were insufficient. Most important was the fact that the communist leader thought large and acted boldly, as a consequence of which he has left an indelible imprint on history.
Which other developing world leader could have been at the centre of what was effectively a nuclear crisis in 1962? It was the wisdom of John F Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev on that occasion that steered the great powers away from an unthinkable collision, although it has been reported that Castro himself was not so moderate in his approach. And which other leader could have remained so unbending in the face of the decades-long US blockade?
As for what he accomplished within Cuba itself, that was remarkable, more especially in the fields of education and medicine. As a consequence of his efforts, Cuba moved from being a nation with a high illiteracy rate, to one with a highly educated population. His method for the mass reproduction of textbooks, for example, was simply to run them off cheaply using newsprint on newspaper presses. It was an idea which it was proposed to the then PNC government at the end of the 1980s they should copy, but with no success.
The story of Cuba’s free medical service for all, and its capacity to engage in a level of medical research which has made an impact on treatment beyond its borders, is well known. Castro’s generosity in supplying doctors to a number of countries, including this one, to shore up their public health services has been publicly acknowledged on many occasions, as has been his willingness to train local doctors so they can return home to serve.
But there was, of course, a darker side to the Cuban revolution, with its intolerance of criticism ‒ never mind opposition ‒ its imprisonment of activists and its summary executions. But then Cuba was a communist state where the denial of many human and political rights inhibited the freedom of the human spirit, just as it did in other communist polities.
It must be said, however, that that was less of an issue in the earlier years of Fidel Castro’s long rule than it became later, largely because the world was blanketed by the Cold War at the time, and the idea of democracy was not the mantra it became in the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In this region particularly, and to some extent in this hemisphere, what mattered was not so much the existence of an undemocratic Cuba, as the fact that Fidel Castro as the leader of a tiny country, poked his finger into the eye of a giant – and got away with it. And it must be remembered that in those days that giant cast a long shadow. It is for this reason that people from that earlier generation dwell less on Castro’s darker legacy, and remember instead his chutzpah in confronting America.
In the first years following his seizure of power, Castro appeared to favour fomenting similar revolutions in other parts of this hemisphere. Among these were Nicaragua and Venezuela ‒ the last mentioned of which we will return to later ‒ as well as Bolivia, where Che Guevara was killed after an unsuccessful foray into the Congo.
The Cubans only once confronted US forces directly, and that was very briefly in Grenada in 1983 after the Maurice Bishop government was removed by a faction led by Bernard Coard and others. The Cubans had workers in Grenada building the airport, as well as a very small number of military personnel. It was a difficult situation for Castro, who condemned the killing of Bishop, although he was not prepared to send in troops to help Bishop’s supporters. His instructions to the small Cuban force were not to engage the Americans when they came, and if they had to, only to defend the embassy and airport. The Americans invaded on October 25 in the company of a token force from the Anglophone islands, and while a very small number of Cubans was killed, those captured and wounded were released by the US to return home.
Two days before the Americans landed, the Caricom leaders had met in Trinidad to discuss whether they should publicly endorse the coming US action and send some token troops to join them. According to reports, Burnham was very angry about the position taken by leaders like Eugenia Charles, and at the meeting only he and Trinidad opposed support for the US.
What happened outside the region was very different from Grenada; the Cubans made a direct contribution to the removal of apartheid in southern Africa, by fighting South African forces in Angola which were trying to remove a left-wing government there. They sent a large number of men, and in 1988 finally defeated the South African army. It was no small achievement.
This story, of course, has a small Guyana codicil, since Forbes Burnham for a time allowed Cuban planes en route to Angola to refuel here. He was famously confronted by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger about it, and subsequently the facility had to come to an end. What is not known, is whether at any point any GDF soldiers went with the Cubans, because rumours to this effect have been circulating here for the last few decades – although there has never been any official confirmation or denial of this.
Ralph Ramkarran in his column today (page 7) recounts how Fidel Castro interfered directly in our local politics. However, it was former Foreign Minister Carolyn Rodriues-Birkett who in 2013 spoke on Cuba’s early assistance to this country. During the course of a motion to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Guyana’s recognition of Cuba, she said the PPP exported rice to that island in 1961, and that at the time of the disturbances here in the 1960s, the Cuban government helped with kerosene and gasoline.
Cuba had been invited to the Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers Conference held in August 1972, and the intention was for Guyana to announce its recognition then. However, Guyanese diplomats thought better of that approach, and after the conference was over, overtures were made to the Jamaicans, Trinidadians and Barbadians to join Guyana. Agreement was reached between the four, and in December 1972 recognition was announced. Fidel Castro never forgot that these were the first regional nations to recognize his government, and he showed his magnanimity thereafter by providing assistance in all kinds of professional fields, not the least of them, as said above, medical.
And finally, a word about the Venezuelan controversy on which Castro may possibly have had first an indirect and later a direct influence. The Venezuelan state was involved in an armed guerilla struggle at the beginning of the 1960s, when the MIR – a Marxist grouping which took its inspiration from Fidel Castro ‒ instigated urban clashes. Rómulo Betancourt, President at the time, broke off relations with Cuba in 1961 and in January 1962 voted to have the island expelled from the OAS. His experience with the Cuban-inspired armed struggle in Venezuela may have been one of the factors in his 1962 decision to resurrect a nineteenth century claim to Guyana’s territory which had been settled by an international tribunal in 1899, and which his country had accepted for more than sixty years.
Decades later, President Hugo Chávez – a veritable firebrand on the matter of the border controversy in his early days ‒ arrived in Georgetown in 2004, with an entirely different message as to its origins. He indicated too that he would not oppose projects in the Essequibo which were intended to benefit the population, provided they did not involve multinationals. And how did this volte face come about, everyone wondered. The answer, it has been said, is that Chávez’s close friend Fidel Castro persuaded him to see the issue through different eyes. It has always been assumed that during the difficult times of the 1980s Cuba gave Guyana tacit, albeit not overt, support on the boundary controversy. Unfortunately for this country, this conversion did not linger long in the mind of Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro.
“History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him,” President Obama was quoted as saying, yesterday. That is something no one can gainsay.