Fidel Castro (1926–2016), was without doubt, one of the most forceful protagonists to erupt on to the global stage in the 20th century. Drama, charisma, audacity and defiant dynamism marked his emergence as a young leader following his successful overthrow of the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and his defence of the Revolution against its principal detractors for almost 60 years. The Cuban Revolution radically reshaped Cuban society, transforming the nation’s geopolitical significance, and making it a vital broker in major global negotiations at key stages in the cold war and beyond.

Although there were several Revolutions in Cuba in the 20th century, it was Castro’s Revolution that cemented the idea of Cubanidad, (a proud Cuban identity) which the nation had struggled to create for at least a century. Centuries of colonial rule by Spain finally ended in 1898, only for the sovereignty of the nation to become seriously jeopardised at the beginning of the 20th century by legal stipulations. The Platt Amendment to the constitution secured the rights of the United States to intervene in its internal affairs, thereby maintaining dominance over the island. The history that follows thereafter is well known. Successive presidents (some of whom were dictators), would preside over the entrenchment of social hierarchies inherited from the colonial past and from a regime of slavery which was abolished over 50 years later than it was in the English-speaking Caribbean.

By the time Fidel Castro came to power, Cuba’s social stratification was spectacular. A small elite lived in untold luxury, while the vast majority of both rural and urban Cuba languished in poverty. The levels of racial discrimination in Cuban society were comparable to those in apartheid South Africa and the southern states of the US at the time. Havana was host to the most important celebrities of the day, but as ‘the brothel of the Caribbean’, the city’s poor suffered the collateral damage of organised crime and its accompanying ills.

It is important to remember that it is against this backdrop that the project of the Cuban Revolution was launched. Clearly, like every human project, Castro’s Revolution could also be scrutinized for its flaws. But for the majority of it beneficiaries, in the words of the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, ‘All Past Times Were Worse’.

In his last speech, delivered in April of this year, Castro spoke of the purpose of the Revolution as an effort to produce the cultural and material goods that human beings need. In supplanting the ancien regime and establishing a new social order in 1959, the revolution sought to create the institutions which would provide these material and cultural goods for the many and not just for the few. In the internationalisation of the Revolution, the ideology was transformed not just into national, but also into global practice.

Close political ties with the Michael Manley government of neighbouring Jamaica, for example, saw that island’s social infrastructure benefit tremendously from Cuban expertise. More importantly, Castro’s Revolution, coming as it did at the dawn of the 1960s, became indispensable in bolstering movements of decolonisation across Africa and Latin America. While it is impossible to legislate against prejudice, the Revolution’s laws against racial discrimination are impeccable. Castro, in the early years, also wrote black Cubans into the official discourse of the Revolution by declaring ‘we are Afro-Latin Americans’. Similarly, laws on gender discrimination passed in the infancy of the Revolution, rival those which operate today in any western democracy.

The evolution of the Revolution as a process has meant that while in the early years there was institutional persecution of homosexuals, the Cuban government has become the country’s chief arbiter of LGBTQ rights, enshrining them into law and facilitating the rights of transsexuals by making gender reassignment surgery available on the National Health Service. These are remarkable achievements. They become even more significant when compared to the workings of neighbouring Caribbean ‘ democracies’, in which even today race disqualifies some people from citizenship and British colonial laws are used to criminalise homosexuality and impose custodial sentences for buggery.

What now for US Cuban relations? The role of the United States in Cuba has never been a felicitous one for the majority of Cubans. Even as far back as the 1890s, José Martí spoke of the US as the ‘turgid and brutal north that despises us’. The Castro Revolution was under siege by the US even before it declared itself communist in 1961 and has been ever since. The Revolution’s much criticised mechanisms of surveillance are, in no small measure, a response to this. In his 1953 trial, after the first attempt to take power failed, Castro declared that history would absolve him. He has certainly outlasted all attempts to oust him. Several of his Latin American counterparts were not as lucky. Five years before the Cuban Revolution came to power, the Guatemalan Revolution came to an end, when the democratically elected Jacobo Árbenz was overthrown by the United States. In 1973, 14 years after Castro took power, Chile’s Allende suffered the same fate at the hands of the CIA. Some would argue that his tenacity alone was cause for commendation. He stood up to the US and won. While recent global political events have made predictions seem risky at best and reckless at worst, it is hard to see why the incoming US administration would now roll back the initiatives accelerated by President Obama. Cuba, after all, means money for US business. A more pertinent question for many Cubans might be what strategy will replace the Big Stick diplomacy of the 20th century?       

Dr Conrad James

Lecturer in Hispanic Studies, Department of Modern Languages