The people of Cuba possess a revolutionary spirit, one of passion, selflessness, tenacity, and long-suffering, unlike that of many other nations. As of 2021, it has been 10 years since Fidel Castro resigned as the leader of Cuba. If anything, Castro’s legacy is contentious because the history of Castro is ultimately the story of a great nation’s independence.
In 1820, Thomas Jefferson called Cuba, “The most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of states,” and suggested the USA, “Ought, at the first possible opportunity, to take Cuba.” Cuba’s history is complex, but its development is essentially shaped by external aggression. Cubans fought Spain for independence in 1902, but shortly after, US forces occupied Cuba and wrote its constitution to become a reliant protectorate. By 1950, the USA controlled three-quarters of sugar production, 90% of Cuba’s electrical systems, half the railways, and only 3% of farmers owned the land they worked. Nearly 25% of the population was illiterate and life expectancy was only 59 years. The US-instated dictator Fulgencio Batista was the breaking point for the Cuban people. In 1956, Fidel Castro and 21 others began their revolution in the wilderness of the Sierra Maestra against Batista’s army and the United States of America. The guerrillas’ popular support quickly gathered a people’s army and together they overthrew the government in just two years. This event captivated the whole world, especially with the rise of the handsome 34-year-old Fidel Castro who was unabashed in his anti-colonialist stance, “What the imperialists cannot forgive is that we are here!” Fidel collectivized US-owned industries and began building a socialist system focused on education, healthcare, and agriculture. This seemed like a major turning point in the Cold War with the birth of socialism in the western hemisphere, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
The American populace was split in its reaction to Fidel. He had come to New York to address the United Nations and to attend an anti-racism meeting organised by Malcolm X. The Cuban leader was met with roars of disapproval by the segregationists downtown and the American representatives refused to acknowledge him. However, in Harlem where he stayed, he was welcomed warmly by the black community. President Eisenhower conspicuously excluded Castro from a meeting for Latin-American leaders and Castro responded by treating 12 workers at his hotel to steak and beers, stating to the press he was “honoured to have lunch with the poor and humble people of Harlem.” Fidel made close acquaintances with Nikita Khrushchev (Premier of the Soviet Union), Gamal Abdel Nasser (President of Egypt), and Jawaharlal Nehru (Prime Minister of India). Some three thousand people attended their meetings in Harlem, with signs reading “Viva Nasser!” and “Viva Fidel!” The reaction to Castro in the USA was telling of the politics at the time. Anti-colonial leaders and working-class movements welcomed Castro, while the elites and colonial powers saw Castro as a threat.
Cuba’s domestic initiatives under Castro succeeded but were faced with extreme challenges. By 1961, Cuba’s literacy rate skyrocketed to 96%, one of the highest percentages in the world, and today it enjoys a higher literacy rate than the United States. By far the largest challenge to these initiatives was the continued aggression from America. According to the CIA, there were over 600 attempts on Castro’s life, and one of John F. Kennedy’s first actions in office was an attempted invasion. The invasion, known as the “Bay of Pigs”, was a replica of the plan the US used to invade Guatemala in 1954. The invasion failed spectacularly and represented a huge political success for Cuba. The largest blow to Cuba’s development was not in the form of invasion, but blockade. The US blockade on Cuba stated that no company owned by US shareholders could trade with Cuba, forcing Cuba into isolation. For 6 decades since, the UN has held votes to lift the blockade on Cuba, with only two nations in the world voting in opposition: America and Israel. A statement from the CIA in 1960 states, “every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba.” However, despite being a developing country, healthcare is nationalised, and life expectancy is above the US, on par with developed economies such as Britain.
Castro’s legacy today is a simulacrum of Cold War attitudes. In Cubanized South Florida, Castro is cursed and reviled, and the poverty of Cuba’s system is blamed on the failure of socialism. Exiled Cuban elites have made cities like Miami and Tampa their own capitalist Cuba. In Cuba itself, though the people suffer from poverty, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, the memory of Castro has become a national myth. The discrepancy was on display this summer when widespread demonstrations occurred in Cuba about conditions under the blockade. Protestors held “Viva Fidel” and “Julio 26” banners, but American media promoted it as merely a protest against communism, thus missing the point entirely.
Castro is dead, but in many ways the Cuban revolutionary spirit is alive today in both Florida and Cuba thanks to him. Economic conditions define politics and the obstinate Cuban spirit exists because of poverty and oppression, but also because of hope and solidarity in the face of adversity. From Havana to Tampa, in love or disdain for Castro, Cubans should look at their history with a sense of pride.