Fidel Castro, Havana, 1978. Flickr/Marcelo Montecino. Some rights reserved.
They say that heroes die young, and perhaps their heroic deeds die too when they go. In the case of the Cuban revolution, perhaps its true hero will not be Fidel, but Che Guevara, who died fighting in the Bolivian jungle before he was 40. Fidel Castro clung to the power they conquered together when in January 1959 they victoriously entered Havana from Sierra Maestra, and he failed to transform he original heroism into a representative, free and prosperous democracy.
Fidel has died as a nonagenarian, far removed from the young revolutionary icon he had dreamed of.
As he faced up to the all-powerful United States in a region it had been treating for decades as an exclusive backyard, Fidel Castro became an icon for the vast majority of young Latin American revolutionaries, at a time when hope for a Communist path to freedom was still alive. The Cuban experiment offered the Latin American Left the necessary inspiration and strength to keep going and resisting, particularly during the bloody military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s which sought to repress all opposition and even planned to exterminate it with the Americans’ invaluable assistance.
In Europe, a majority on the Left realized that the Communist utopia was in fact a bureaucratic dystopia, inherited from Stalinist terror, and evolved in many cases towards euro-comunism and towards different conceptions of democratic socialism, transmuted into social-democracy. But always retained a fascination for the Cuban commander as an icon of its gut anti-Americanism.
In Latin America, however, this evolution of the revolutionary Left was slower to arrive - but when it came, it brought a number of powerful innovations -, partly due to the fact that the local oligarchies' power remained enormous, and US interventionism was much more aggressive and direct than in Western Europe. After all, Fidel managed to resist a thousand plots to kill him, armed invasion attempts, and tough US sanctions which, paradoxically, ended up strengthening his regime. His fierce resistance and social achievements awarded him the status of a lay saint, a popular leader: an olive-green capped David who was capable of confronting capitalism’s black top-hat Goliath.
In Europe, a majority on the Left realized that the Communist utopia was in fact a bureaucratic dystopia.
Thanks to his great survival instinct and his cunning to take advantage of the interstices of geopolitics and secure three decades of Soviet aid, Fidel resisted by placing himself under the cover of the Cold War while supporting African decolonization and the multiple Latin American guerrillas. Even when the Berlin Wall finally fell and he USSR imploded, Fidel, in an exercise of pragmatism and military determination, managed to survive the loss of its geostrategic umbrella and a 35% GDP fall between 1989 and 1993.
He survived a devastating embargo and the post-Cold War period thanks to the consolidation of a quasi-autarchic regime which introduced timid capitalist reforms while effectively exporting doctors and teachers in solidarity, if not in exchange for oil. At home, ensuring its legitimacy and preventing its collapse, the regime kept on providing universal education and social services like nobody in the region, demanding in return obedience while monitoring and denouncing the impatient and, thanks to the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution effectiveness, unceremoniously jailing opponents, real or suspected. But the economic system, though it went from centralized planning to emergency plan improvisation, has never worked properly enough, and has undergone as little reforms as possible, so as to ensure that the first priority of the (one and only) Communist Party is met: staying in power for more than half a century, and counting.
Having turned into a moral guide for the guerrilla and the popular revolutionary movements of the Left, Fidel was an endless source of inspiration for the political battles fought throughout Latin America. The Cuban Revolution originally inspired the FARC in Colombia and many other guerrilla movements, and when it seemed about to become exhausted, it became the model for the Bolivarian movement, which found inspiration and guidance in Fidel from the very beginning (Hugo Chávez’s and commander Fidel Castro’s reciprocal fascination, which began in 1994, is well-known, and it was in Cuba that the charismatic colonel decided to have his cancer be taken care of, until his death in 2013).
The Fidel Castro icon has remained alive in Latin America, more than anywhere else, as an irrefutable proof that it is possible to resist with dignity Yankee imperialism and its associates. But the dignity of resistance ended up justifying, in the name of an idolized – and thus untouchable - revolution, the lack of civil and political liberties and the abuses of what turned out to be a repressive and autocratic regime. The epic of the anti-imperialist struggle and the social achievements at home keep on justifying today the rhetoric of a seemingly anachronistic leftism which puts the blame on foreign imperialism for the shortages its peoples face and for its own mistakes, and which lacks any capacity for self-criticism whatsoever, even when the polls take the power away from them.
Having turned into a moral guide for the guerrilla and the popular revolutionary movements of the Left, Fidel was an endless source of inspiration for the political battles fought throughout Latin America.
Fidel embodies almost all the 20th century contradictions, but perhaps his sentence has been living too much and witnessing how his revolutionary legacy has definitely ceased to work, even in its last incarnation, Venezuela’s Chavista regime. And Cuba, under his brother Raúl, the dynastic heir and the guardian of the Revolution, seems to be home to the last of the inherited contradictions of the last century: a combination of a highly deregulated capitalist economic system and an authoritarian regime with a Communist rhetoric which, while welcoming foreign capital, denies freedoms, represses dissenters and survives through corruption.
Fidel embodies almost all the 20th century contradictions.
The temptation is to follow the Chinese or Vietnamese model (it is perhaps premonitory that the last public image of Fidel Castro, ten days before his death, shows him greeting Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang). This is a model that does not seem to bother the new White House tenant, for whom promoting a democratic transition in Cuba will not be a priority, as long as they let him build hotels and casinos like those of yesteryear.
Fidel will probably live on more in the eyes than in the heart of many Latin Americans, and perhaps the black and white heroic pictures of 1959 will end up outstripping the gray tone of his senile years. But the promise of liberation that his revolution brought to the peoples of the hemisphere, being unfulfilled, may not survive.