By Zoilo P. Dejaresco III
Fidel Castro, 90, Leader of Cuba for 50 years died last week and almost all major world leaders paused and paid tribute.
But though Fidel Castro is the longest reigning head of a nation that is not of royalty (not a king for life) his Cuba is only but a tiny nation of only 11 million citizens akin to just a Manila.
What was about this Montecarlo cigar-smoking, military fatigue-garbed son of a rich Spanish sugar baron in Havana that made him celebrity?
Reviewing his life makes Fidel Castro a candidate for a blockbuster movie biography, with possibly the best macho Hollywood stars vying to steal the coveted role of “El Comandante.” Why not, indeed?
Jesuit-educated and a lawyer, at 32, he rode triumphantly into the streets of Havana like Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem on January 8, 1959 after deposing the hated dictator Fulgencio Batista with only 82 loyal heavily-armed patriots. That made Castro the youngest national leader of the colorful Latin American region at that time.
Fidel’s revolution was not a sissy revolution. He executed 582 members of the old government by firing squad, closed all independent media, expropriated property of the landed gentry and expelled all the rich Americans and their casinos and gangsters which made Cuba into the Yankees’ playground. (Cuba is only 90 miles away from Florida).
He established a socialist government aligned with Russia as a model state, away from the influence of America and he became an instant inspiration for liberation forces in the region, To such extent that he even exported his “revolutionary formula” to Bolivia via his tough ally Che Guevara.
Fidel jailed 15,000 political prisoners. Government owned most enterprises and was the biggest employer of Cubans. He ruled with an iron fist, a military dictator which caused hundreds of thousands of Cubans to flee to America (half of the population of Miami are Cubans).
His brother Raul was his successor (anointed in 2008 when Fidel suffered intestinal bleeding) but his first wife and eldest daughter fled to America and became his severe critics. Cubans , upon his death, were just as equally divided: Half adoring him as a hero and the other half deriding him as a monster.
Fidel’s brutal rule of 50 years was marked by excessive human rights violations while he continued to argue about the morality of his acts and flaunting that he was a practicing Roman Catholic.
He was a charismatic, good looking and physically imposing leader who used verbal communication to rouse or rile people and could speak hours without showing any strain. People listened. His idea of leadership was “action” and he was rarely seen behind his awesome wooden desk.
Fidel, like King Solomon, ruled Cuba like it was his harem. While he had six sons by two legal wives, legend places his lovers to be a hundred women. Power often makes men more handsome, it seemed.
Castro’s biggest credential was his ability – being such a small nation leader – to stand up to the arrogant Yankees. After two years of rule in 1961, the world stood nearest to a nuclear war and World War III because of him.
American President John Kennedy imposed a 9-day blockade of Cuba for harboring Soviet missiles there (so near the USA) and hired 1,300 disgruntled Cuban immigrants to reportedly assassinate Fidel Castro. It was uncovered and that fiasco is known in history as “The Bay of Pigs.”
We remember many Catholics then pointed to 1960 as “the end of the world” and many thought that the Cuban crisis was the medium. Russia, Cuba’s surrogate mother, stood by Fidel and the world literally teetered near nuclear destruction. (America eventually quietly also removed its missiles in Turkey near Russia).
So deep was the hatred of Washington against the Bearded Dictator that reports have it that Castro survived 630 assassination attempts, some of them engineered allegedly by the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency).
That is why Fidel Castro loomed larger than life in the eyes of many. France President Francois Holland recently described Fidel as “a towering figure of the 20th century.”
But was the Castro Revolution and the Socialist Experiment successful in improving the well being of Cubans? It survived the sugar and trade embargo of the USA and allies mainly through economic subsidies extended by the Soviet government. When the USSR was dismembered in the 1990’s, Cuba went into a severe depression.
Lately, it’s main ally has been Venezuela who gave Cuba cheap oil. Cuba’s main asset aside from their exports is the expertise in health making them able to send medical personnel to other countries in exchange for trade and food.
The only pride Castro can claim is that Cubans had free education and health services under his watch. But their average take-home pay was very low at US$20 a month or R800 at certain points.
They pushed tourism but food became scarce as food was directed mainly at pleasing the tourists than the needs of 11 million citizens. At one point, one had to ask government permission to “slaughter a cow due to scarcity of meat.”
There is empirical evidence that Castro failed the Cubans.
According to Forbes Magazine, when the bearded general took over in 1959 Cuba had a per capita GNP that was almost equal to comparable neighbors like Ecuador, Jamaica, Panama, and Puerto Rico.
Under Castro’s despotic and centralized government rule – after 40 years in 1999, they had the following GDP per capita: Cuba ($2,067- hardly changed from 1959) while Ecuador ($3,809), Jamaica ($3,670), Panama ($5,618) and Puerto Rico ($13,780). Castro, therefore, was a monumental failure despite massive Soviet subsidies.
The informal takeover of brother Raul in 2008 ushered a new era of market-sensitive economic policies and more personal freedom. This veering towards laissez faire capitalism gradually improved the economy and towed in its current over ($6,000 GDP per capita) in 2015.
But that is in spite of and not because, of Fidel Castro.
Brother Raul also became more open internationally resulting in the renewal of diplomatic relationship (after 50 years) with the USA in 2015 with President Barack Obama visiting Havana. But the newly elected president Donald Trump is a true-blue “Fidel Castro hater” and can reverse the Obama detente.
To his death, Fidel Castro remains a square of enigma inside a ball of a puzzle. It is said that history is the best judge of a leader. Could his legacy of independence and valor make Fidel larger in death than in life?
Whatever it is the world history of the 20th century cannot be written without including the saga of the bearded dictator and what he stood for in the world of ever-changing allegiances and moral relativity.
In his death, though with sparse hair on top, he maintained his whitest , thinning beard – which he said he will not shave until Cuba sees all its dreams fulfilled.
Little wonder, the barber was never called in for a shave at age 90.
(Bingo Dejaresco, former banker, is a financial consultant, media practitioner and political strategist. He is a Life Member of Finex but his views here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Finex. firstname.lastname@example.org)