by Bill Onasch
I feel compelled to comment on the passing of Fidel Castro whose prominence in history is assured. Fidel and the revolution he led inspired me as a teenager and continues to have a profound impact on shaping my world view.
Fidel’s mortality has finally been confirmed at age 90. The Revolution still lives—though with great challenges. That’s nothing new. Since coming to power more than a half-century ago, after an already long struggle against a brutal dictator backed by Washington, Wall Street and two crime Syndicates, they have survived a U.S. organized invasion, CIA plots to murder Fidel, the Missile Crisis of 1962 that brought the world to the very brink of nuclear war—and perhaps most overall devastating, the U.S. enforced embargo and travel ban.
For a while they received substantial trade and aid from the Soviet Union as part of Moscow’s geopolitical Cold War maneuvers. That was lost with the collapse of the USSR and a KGB-led restoration of very unenlightened capitalism. They traded doctor and teacher services for oil with Venezuela during the time of Hugo Chavez but today that neighbor is experiencing a big political and economic crisis of their own that has stopped that flow.
Despite unrelenting attacks by eleven U.S. presidents, and occasional gusano terrorism, the Revolution has secured some important gains for workers and peasants:
* The Revolution inherited a Jim Crow system imposed during U.S. occupation following the Spanish-American War. This was confronted from Day One. About a third of the population is Afro-Cuban. It may take more generations for color prejudice to be eradicated but color discrimination has been aggressively fought with considerable success. And even the U.S. Jewish Daily Forward, never a cheerleader for the Revolution, acknowledges Fidel’s personal intervention against antisemitism directed at Cuba’s small Jewish community.
* The July 26 Movement that led the Revolution also tackled, with more mixed results, the problem of machismo. There were women in leadership even during the guerrilla fighting in the mountains. While still underrepresented in top governmental bodies all women have benefited from reforms such as Cuba’s Family Code. Men not only have to promise to treat their wives/partners as equals but also agree to fairly share household and childcare tasks. And unlike American women, there is no threat to Cuban women’s right to control their own bodies.
* Before the Revolution only the well-to-do could afford quality health and dental care. Some of the ghoulish street dancers in Miami celebrating Fidel’s death were children or grandchildren of doctors, dentists, and pharmacists who rejected participation in the new socialized medicine providing free care to all. They instead opted to relocate to Florida where the U.S. government eased the way to establishing new lucrative practices. But the Revolution trained new doctors as they put together a model health care system that dramatically improved life spans. They have a lower infant mortality rate than the richest country in the world. They could do much better yet if the embargo that limits access to drugs and medical equipment was lifted.
* Illiteracy was a big problem in Batista’s Cuba, especially among peasants and farm workers. An early successful campaign of the Revolution sent volunteers in to the countryside to teach basic reading and writing skills. But that was just the beginning of a revolution in education that enabled every Cuban to advance their learning as far as their interest and progress could take them—free of charge. This not only produced health care professionals but also engineers, agronomists, meteorologists, physicists—and eventually after prodding by Fidel climate scientists.
* The Revolution has been exemplary in international solidarity. This was not limited to revolutionary movements and regimes such as the first FSLN government in Nicaragua and the short-lived New Jewell revolution in Grenada. They have always been the earliest First Responders providing medical and engineering help to victims of natural disasters throughout the hemisphere and beyond.
* After declining health led Fidel to hand over head of state duties to his brother Raul, a revolutionary leader on his own merits, the elder Castro continued to write perceptive articles on the Big Picture issues of our times. He devoted increasing attention to climate change.
Is “Castro’s Cuba” a workers paradise led by paragons? Hardly. There have been some mistakes and false starts. While the planned economy has succeeded in delivering basic needs equitably despite severely limited resources there are few amenities.
This has led to some limited “market reforms.” The track record of attempts at a “mixed economy” elsewhere is not good. This is cause for concern and has sparked some debate inside and outside government in Cuba—including some of the final writings of Fidel–and among supporters of the Revolution around the world. How it will be resolved is still unclear.
I reject the characterization of Fidel as a “dictator.” That charged term implies ruthless repression of the majority. Objective reports from Cuba consistently indicated Fidel enjoyed overwhelming popular support even during the most trying times. This authority has also been largely granted to Raul.
But long standing criticism by socialist supporters of the Revolution of the lack of democratic institutions of worker rule—from the community and workplace level on up to the top—is being validated. Fidel is now gone. Raul is 85 and has said he will retire by 2018. No one individual remains with their popular authority and there is so far little input by the workers in determining either their replacement or the future of market measures.
Genuine friends should always offer constructive suggestions. But it’s up to the working people of Cuba to determine their course of action. Whether thinking them right or ill-advised it’s the duty of friends to support them.
I’m sure there is a variety of views among our readers about Fidel Castro and the Revolution he helped lead. But even if you don’t share my outlook I hope you will tell the twelfth president taking office since the Revolution began to lift the embargo and travel restrictions so that Cuba can determine their own destiny.
A more typical WIR will appear later this week.
That’s all for now.
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