On November 25th, 2016, the Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro took his last breath. As the island community mourned his loss, eyes from around the world turned to the Caribbean nation to ask – what legacy has Fidel left for his brother and his people? To answer this question, we must first understand Fidel himself.
Born in 1926 in Cuba, Fidel was born the son of a Spanish farmer. Baptised a Roman Catholic, Fidel proved to be a troublesome child in his youth. Attending private boarding schools, Castro was often more interested in sports than academics and played for the school baseball team in El Colegio de Belén in Havana.
After graduating in late 1945, Castro began to study law at the University of Havana, and it was here that he first became involved in anti-imperialist and Marxist politics. Involved in both a failed attempt to overthrow the military regime in the Dominican Republic and urban riots in 1948, he came to see the problems facing Cuba as intimately linked to the ‘class struggle’ as described by Marx in his writings. Intent on running for a seat for the House of Representatives in 1952, the rise of the military dictator General Fulgencio Batista cut short his plans. Elections were cancelled and Batista, backed by the US, solidified support with the military and economic elite.
Castro, alongside his brother Raúl, were to conduct a campaign of guerilla warfare against Batista over the next few years, determined to topple what they saw as an illegitimate dictatorship. Despite a brief spell in jail, Castro was able to hide out in the Sierra Mastra mountains, where he harassed government forces for the next two years. In 1958, a series of key victories coupled with waning support for Batista led to the collapse of the government and a victory for Castro. The revolutionary now had a revolution to his name.
His work was not done however. Having gained political and military control of the country by the following year, Castro embarked on a series of radical policies along Marxist lines. In a series of sweeping land reforms, he nationalised private industry and land, and expelled American businesses from the island in an attempt to end American dominance over Cuba.
Castro also turned to the USSR in response to hostility from the US over his policies. In February 1960, formal diplomatic relations were established with the Soviet Union and a trade agreement regarding the purchasing of oil was signed. Later that year, Cuba was officially declared a socialist country and all opposition was suppressed. The US broke off all ties with the country and the two would clash several times over the years, at one point bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Change came in 2006, when Castro passed power to his brother Raúl, ending almost 50 years of uninterrupted rule. But, what did Castro leave behind?
For one thing, the literacy rate rose dramatically under his rule. Fully state-subsidised education saw 10,000 new schools open and literacy rates rose to 98% – one of the highest rates in the world. Highly skilled Cuban doctors are sent all over the world to practice medicine. Furthermore, the introduction of a universal healthcare system has seen infant mortality drop to 1.1%, comparing favourably to many developed countries around the world.
It must be noted, however, that such advances came at the cost of political and civil liberties. The suppression of political opposition in the one-party state led to the death and imprisonment of thousands; many Cubans fled to the US to escape persecution. Unions were weakened, independent newspapers were forcefully closed, and those suffering from mental illness were ignored and often demonised. In addition, Castro’s insistence on a state-managed economy meant competition was stifled and foreign investment limited. A thriving black market merged as Cubans lacked access to many resources.
Castro’s legacy is a mixed one, but one his brother does not seem bound by. Raúl has taken steps to liberalise the economy, allowing limited forms of private enterprise. Similarly, Raúl appears not to share his brother’s animosity to the US, and has attempted to normalise relations by re-establishing diplomatic ties. In 2015, both countries officially re-established respective embassies and Raúl has described the US as ‘among our closest neighbours’.
These changes have not been welcomed by all. Before his death, Fidel sent a scathing letter to Obama in which he stated Cuba had ‘no need of gifts from the Empire’ and reiterated the fact that he mistrusted the US. Indeed, Cuba remains officially a one-party Communist state, and thus Raúl must be careful in what he proposes, lest he upset those who seek to preserve Fidel’s socialist vision of Cuba.
Ultimately then, Fidel will continue to cast a long shadow over the island, even after his death. The mixed reactions of Cubans weeping on the island and celebration by expats in Florida show that above all Fidel was a controversial figure whose ideas will continue to influence both his supporters and detractors for the foreseeable future. Although his brother seems set on reform, he has shown no signs of straying too far from the path laid out by the ‘commandante’ in 1958 when he altered the course of Cuban history forever.