There are few figures on the left who command the same admiration and respect as Fidel Castro. Those commending parts of his legacy can be found across almost the entire spectrum of those who claim to be ‘on the left’. Jeremy Corbyn (who is not, despite what the Daily Mail would have you believe, a Trotskyist) said “he will be remembered both as an internationalist and as a champion of social justice”.
I suspect perhaps even social democrats of a slightly pinker hue than Corbyn will find reason to praise Castro — although there will be as many from that tradition lining up with the liberal centre and conservative right in condemning what they see as a brutal dictatorship. For all the love Castro received, there was equal visceral hatred from his detractors.
This is is no surprise — Castro was a revolutionary, an unapologetic opponent of American imperialism and market capitalism. For many of us on the radical left, Castro’s life and career as a revolutionary distinguishes him as a towering intellectual and fighter.
It is hard to imagine Cuba without the impact of Fidel Castro and his revolution. The Godfather II memorably captured the state of the country under the rule of American satellite General Fulgencio Batista; the island nation was a grotesquely unequal society, effectively a plaything of American gangsters and capitalists who treated the country and its people as a casino.
Castro could not accept this. He and his brother Rául were jailed for their first assault on the Batista dictatorship in 1952, after which they were exiled to Mexico. From there Castro began recruiting opponents of the Batista regime and like-minded revolutionaries, including Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
With less than a hundred armed fighters, Castro sailed to Cuba on the yacht Granma and landed in Cuba in November 1956. With a mere 21 of the rebels surviving the resulting conflict with Batista’s soldiers, Castro and his men retreated into the mountains to form a base with the agricultural workers.
These events illustrate a revolutionary of an extraordinary calibre. In the face of the cruel and stooge-like regime of Batista and his American backers, defeat was no option. His guerilla army, led by himself, his brother Rául and Che, grew in number and fought their way relentlessly into Havana, arriving in the capital in 1958. Castro assumed leadership as Prime Minister and in the coming years, set about nationalising industry and American-owned business interests.
Cuba under Castro
The material gains of the Cuban Revolution are undeniable. With the stretched resources available, living standards were raised, child mortality and inequality have fallen, while education and healthcare are funded socially and guaranteed to all.
The most renowned element of Cuban public service is, of course, the healthcare system, which has played a revolutionary role in and of itself with Cuban doctors aiding anti-colonial struggles around the world.
That Cuba has advanced in material terms as a result of the Cuban Revolution is undeniable; the prospect of the Batista regime and American imperialism offering any similar gains to the Cuban people is unfathomable. Castro thus, in many ways, played an historically progressive role as the leader of a revolution that threw off the yoke of American imperialism and raised the living standards of its people.
Jeremy Corbyn is also right to acknowledge Castro as an internationalist. Castro has always been an icon to the most radical sections of the anti-racist movement. He enjoyed the friendship of some of the greatest black militants of the 20th century, including Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela.
Just days ago Colin Kaepernick, the NFL player who has come to be a rising icon of the Black Lives Matter movement, defended Castro’s legacy when questioned by journalists over his t-shirt adorned with an image of Malcolm X laughing with the Cuban leader.
It should be no surprise that Castro has been a figure of great respect for generations of black activists. The role that the right played in condemning Mandela and the ANC as terrorists will be a permanent mark of shame against whatever liberal pretensions they conjure up. In this respect, Castro has nothing to apologise for.
While the likes of the British Conservatives called for their execution, Castro helped arm the fighters waging the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Cuba provided military and medical support to national liberation struggles across the African continent, from Algeria to Angola. As well as helping to secure Angolan independence from Portugal, Castro helped fight back against the reactionary forces of apartheid invaders in that country.
Criticism from the left
Castro’s critics are not only on the right, however. This is how it should be. There is much to be learned from the policies the Cuban government adopted on sexuality and LGBTQ issues. In this respect, the Cuban Revolution, and its leaders Castro and Che Guevara, encapsulated the very worst, most reactionary elements of thought prevalent in the international left at the time.
His government carried out violent persecution of homosexuals in the 60s and 70s. Castro, unlike Che Guevara, lived long enough to be part of a changing dynamic on this question in Cuba.
This is not to apologise or excuse Castro’s responsibility in the homophobic regime that marked the early years of his rule, which he personally acknowledged. It is simply to recognise the rapid development in thought and policy that the international left has undergone in the intervening decades.
There were pioneering queer and transgender activists on the left in the 60s and 70s who challenged the reactionary, oppressive ideology to which much of the communist and socialist movement subscribed. It is they who should be credited for shaping the outright rejection of all forms of homophobia and transphobia which should be the position of any socialist; it is from them that we should draw inspiration as we struggle to advance the position of LGBTQ people in society and on the left in future.
Cuba — a model?
Whether Cuba is the model for those wishing to build a socialist society is a matter for debate on the left. For what it is worth, I believe the socialist revolution we need must be based more in the organised working class and place more emphasis on collective democracy than Castro’s ever was or did. We should also be wary of trying to emulate Cuba in the sense of attempting an island of socialism reliant on popular strongmen. If there is any lesson to be drawn from the 20th century, it should be that we need now, more than ever, a revolutionary democratic and collectively-led international socialist movement. If Castro is no model for this, then he is certainly an inspiration.
Castro was, for all his political life, an unyielding enemy of imperialism. His determination and grit, and that of his comrades, played no little role in overcoming the absurd military odds his rebels faced when the Granma landed in 1956. The revolutionary vigour of the man is unparalleled throughout history. These qualities are not substitutes for correct political strategy, but they are attributes that can help those of us on the left collectively weather the bleak circumstances in which we find ourselves.
A personal perspective
From my own perspective, Castro was one of the central figures in my own politicisation as a communist. His photos adorned my wall from when I was 14. His role, limited as my understanding of it was, in liberating the Cuban people from American imperialism, led me to the ideas of Marx and the struggle for a socialist society.
It has been all too easy in the past few months to become demoralised that capitalism, with the wars, racism, poverty and ecological turmoil that it brings, can be defeated. Yet news of Castro’s death for me brought back everything I felt when I was first politicised — the unforgiving anger at a system that trades on the exploitation and death of working people across the globe. Undoubtedly Castro’s legacy has played a similar role for generations of activists, and I expect, will continue to do so in future. Given the pessimism, understandable as it is, that so many of us on the left face in the current historical moment, this is a most welcome contribution. As for Castro himself, only history can judge him. I expect, in his words, that it will absolve him.