“One who is not capable to fight for others, will never be in a position to fight for himself” ~ Iron Fidel.
ACCRA — Fidel Castro the leader of the Cuban revolution and the longtime leader of Cuba is dead at the age of 90. He lived a remarkable life and is easily the most charismatic leader of the latter half of the 20’th century. For us in Africa, he will forever be remembered for the defense of Angola against Apartheid South Africa and her Israel ally in the famous battle of Cuito Cuanavale, a powerful and romantic event. Let us reflect on the remarkable life and era of the Comandante also known affectionately as Iron Fidel and Ell Caballo (The Stallion). Fidel Castro was born on 13 August 1926 in Biran in the province of Orente, Cuba, to a wealthy landowner who had immigrated to Cuba from Spain and had made his fortune in Cuba.
What was the Cuba in which Castro was born?
Cuba had long been a colonial backwater of the Spanish empire and ruled by a small minority of wealthy Spanish landlords that on the backs of enslaved Africans and their descendants produced sugar for the world market. It was on this backwater Island just 90 miles of the coast of the US that American leaders and ruling elite in the late 19’th century set their eyes on as a potential target of annexation. After provoking the Spanish-American war which led to the defeat of Spain and the occupation of Cuba by the Americans in 1898, Cuba obtained limited independence under the American stipulation known as the Platt Amendment of having the right to intervene militarily in Cuba whenever she pleased.
In the eyes of the Americans, the Cubans were a nation ill-fit to govern themselves, a nation of school children with the Americans acting as their benevolent El Gringo teachers. The Island of Cuba became a cesspool of the decadence of the American elite and the rich who flew to Havana to indulge their decadence and be serviced by the impoverished little school children people, the Cubans. Prostitution, Drugs and Casinos became the three things that defined Cuba. By the end of the 1950s, there were 270 brothels and almost 12000 prostitutes in Havana with a population of 1 million a ratio of 1 prostitute to 83 people!
American gangsters like Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante Jr held sway on the Island. It was said that by the end of the 1950s the Mafia in a death-grip embrace with US intelligence operatives had taken over virtually all levers of power in dictator General Fulegencia Batista’s Cuba where much of the population was dirt poor and some for a slightly higher pittance serviced the wealthy Americans in the casinos and brothels of Havana.
It was in this Cuba that Fidel Ell Caballo Castro was born and came of age. He got involved in radical student politics when he enrolled in the law faculty of Havana university. Having being influenced by leftist ideas, he set sail for the Dominican Republic and Colombia to take part in a rebellion against the right-wing governments in those countries. After coming back to Cuba, he and his comrades attempted to launch a rebellion against the regime of Batista in 1953 by staging an attack on the military garrison of Moncada.
This attempt failed and most of his comrades were killed. He was arrested and tried for insurrection. At his trial, he ended a five-hour speech in his defense by saying the famous words “History justifies my actions”. He was sentenced to prison but a year later was released and set sail for Mexico. There in Mexico together with his brother Raul Castro and the iconic revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara, he organized the 26’th July Movement.
In 1956, he and his band of communist revolutionaries including Che Guevara set sail for Cuba in the famous wooden yacht Granma and landed in Cuba. They then made for the Sierra Maestra mountains and from there began their attacks against the Batista regime. His iconic image tall swaggering in his military fatigues, beard and cigar made him wildly popular among the Cuban masses. His rebellion gained strength and finally in January 1959, he and his band of brother revolutionaries rode triumphantly into Havana and took power following the flight of the corrupt toad Batista.
This began the Castro era which dominated the latter half of the 20’th century with monumental events like the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 that almost brought Soviet Russia and the US to a nuclear world war, the liberation movements in Africa funded and armed by Castro and his Soviet patrons.
He took over a Cuba caged in an American cesspool zoo of sugar plantations, casinos and prostitution, hellishly poor with staggering illiteracy and virtually no healthcare for the masses. He, chatting a socialist path, aligned very early on with Soviet Russia visiting Moscow in 1963 shortly after the end of the Cuban missile crisis. Under Castro, Cuba developed a universal health care system with world class advances in some areas of medicine to which even many Americans turn to and visiting Cuba for this purpose, a 100 percent literacy rate and the highest living standard in the Caribbean.
He eliminated extreme poverty something which the US has not been able to do in its own borders. He brought in millions of black Cubans marginalized in the countryside into the cities and into the homes abandoned by the white upper middle class fleeing to the US, gave them education and integrated them into Cuban economic and political life. He maintained the second largest international military presence during the cold war. Castro’s Cuba has sent around the world more medical workers than the UN, the World Health Organization or all the G7 countries combined. We in Ghana can attest to the tremendous impact of Cuban doctors and Cuban trained medical doctors on our health care system.
His close relations with the Russians put the Americans into neurotic political apoplexy since Cuba was a communist bastion off the Florida coast. This provoked the famous Bay of Pigs incident where on April 17, 1961, CIA trained rebels in an operation personally under the control of then CIA director Allen Dulles attempted to invade Cuba and overthrow the Castro government. Castro as iconic as ever was waiting for them in a tank with his army on the beaches of the south coast of Cuba. The invasion ended in a fiasco the CIA rebels killed or captured. This began several attempts by 11 different US governments and the CIA to kill Castro. The assassination attempts numbered about 600 with some of them truly bizarre and harebrained. He survived all of this and 11 US presidents and the collapse of the Soviet Union its primary benefactor.
The Cuban missile crisis was one of the defining moments of his life where in reaction to Americans stationing nuclear weapons in Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union, he agreed to Soviet leader Khrushchev stationing Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. This almost brought Soviet Russia and the US to a nuclear war which was averted only by personal communication between US president Kennedy and Soviet leader Khrushchev. The agreement resulted in the Americans removing their nuclear weapons targeted at the Soviet Union from Turkey in reaction to the Russians removing their nuclear weapons from Cuba.
Castro funded and supported numerous liberation movements in Africa, helping Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Ethiopia and the ANC fighting for liberation and the end of apartheid in South Africa. A defining moment of his charismatic involvement in the liberation movements in Africa was the battle of Cuito Cuanavale from 14’th August 1987 to 23’rd March 1988, the largest battle on African soil since World War II. The battle was precipitated by the invasion of Angola by racist and genocidal apartheid South Africa supported by the State of Israel.
The South African forces backed by the western stooge Savimbi’s UNITA forces advanced rapidly in Angola against the Angolan army. Things began to change dramatically in favor of the Angolan government when Castro with Soviet air transport support sent in Cuban infantry and armored divisions against the South Africans. In that iconic battle of Cuito Cuanavale, Cuban ground forces and airpower many of them black Cubans proved to the decisive factor that defeated racist South Africa’s invasion of Angola and forced the Israeli trained and equipped South African army to retreat like scurried apartheid rats back to South Africa.
An outcome of this battle was the renewal of peace talks which led to the liberation of Namibia, the defeat of the Savimbi insurgency and the total liberation of Angola. Nelson Mandela on a visit later to Cuba commented saying that Cuban military success at Cuito and in Lubango was a turning point for the liberation of the continent and his people as well as the Angolan civil war and the struggle for Namibian independence.
The few words penned here from Accra cannot do justice to the man Fidel Ell Caballo Castro. The man was a legend, an icon in his own lifetime. He brought dignity to his small Island nation of barely 11 million people and influenced in an Olympian way the history of the 20’th century, a lesson which we in Africa striving for dignity and return to power can learn from. I remember with fondness my youth under the starry balmy night lights of Accra the visits of Castro to Ghana with its electric excitement and from iconic pictures his meetings with our own world icon and legend Kwame Nkrumah. He now eternally journeys to the Duat where he will reside alongside iconic freedom fighter figures like Kwame Nkrumah, Queen Nzinga and Yaa Asantewaa in eternal peace.