On the occasion of the death of Cuba’s leader Fidel Castro, we offer a guest post by Margaret Randall.
Fidel Castro, longtime leader of the Cuban Revolution, died on November 25th at the age of 90. He withdrew from public office in 2008, when his younger brother Raul took over. Raul has said he will step down in 2018. At the Cuban Communist Party congress in April of this year, Fidel voiced an awareness of his impending death: “Our turn comes to us all,” he told the assembled delegates, “but the ideas of Cuban communism will endure.”
It is unclear how much of Fidel’s vision for his nation will endure in the face of a rapidly changing world with neo-fascist forces gaining ground in so many countries, including our own United States. What cannot be denied is that 57 years ago Fidel led a small group of revolutionaries to victory in Cuba, and against enormous odds established the “first free territory in America.” The Cuban Revolution stood up to a world power many times its size and strength, put basic human needs on its agenda, all but eradicated illiteracy and soon achieved a ninth-grade education for all adults, guaranteed universal healthcare and good free public education from kindergarten through the post-graduate level, worked to provide adequate housing and made full employment a reality. Progress was made against racism and sexism. People discussed and passed new laws. Book publishing was subsidized. Culture and sports events were free. Despite a multiplicity of problems from outside and within, for half a century Cuba stood as a beacon for other countries suffering poverty and neocolonial domination. With almost half a century of U.S. economic blockade, the implosion of the European socialist bloc and other impediments, some of these accomplishments no longer shine as brightly as they once did. Still, Cuba gave the world a new idea of what justice might look like.
I lived in Cuba for eleven years in the 1970s, but only met Fidel once, very briefly in 1968. We were at a large reception with many hundreds of guests. A friend who knew the man took me to where he stood surrounded by other visitors. The year before, in Mexico, I had published an anthology of new Cuban poetry and visual art in the bilingual journal I edited, El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn. To my astonishment, Fidel brought up that publication, referring to several of the included works by name. I tried to imagine what it might be like to have such a conversation with any high level political leader in the United States.
Fidel Castro the man has drawn resounding praise and pervasive insult. Whatever one’s opinion, he was a uniquely brilliant strategist and great leader, whose ideas merit our respect and gratitude. Today I weep with the Cuban people. As they say throughout Latin America, Fidel Castro, ¡presente!