With the death of Fidel Castro, the last of the iconic revolutionary figures of the 20th century is now no more. The word, “revolutionary” is a bit too easily bandied out these days to describe leaders, but there is no better description to encapsulate the 90-year-old Cuban leader’s life and achievements.The son of a rich landowner, Fidel — as he has always been called by his compatriots, his fellow Cubans and many in the Third World — began his political career as a militant student leader committed to social justice and the establishment of a corruption-free government in Cuba. Later, he became part of movements that sought to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista who came to power in 1952 through a coup.
Batista was presiding over a system that promoted “casino capitalism”, and oversaw widespread corruption even as the country’s economy was dependent largely on one crop — sugar and had high unemployment and rural poverty. Fidel’s first foray into armed revolution was the attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba in July 1953, which failed spectacularly but set the stage for his future revolutionary movement that was named the 26th of July movement.
Soon, in the mid-1950s, Fidel, after his release from prison, along with his revolutionary comrades, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, brother Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, Juan Almeida, among several others sailed from Mexico to the Sierra Maestra to launch a guerrilla struggle. It took them close to half-a-decade and several setbacks and victories later, Fidel was able to attain power after Batista went into exile in 1959.
Cuba also played a major role in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), having sent Che Guevara to New Delhi to discuss its formation and later when Fidel was the secretary general between 1979 and 1983. Fidel came up with the clearest enunciation of the NAM’s aims as an anti-imperial, anti-racist organisation. Fidel had re-invented himself as a Third World internationalist and an anti-imperialist who spoke for the developing world, inspiring anti-colonial struggles. He sent Cuban forces to participate in anti-colonial wars in countries like Angola and resulting in the independence of Namibia – then South Western Africa and was revered by leaders such as Nelson Mandela for these actions and his voice against Apartheid.
Fidel’s Cuba always enjoyed good ties with India, with both countries supporting multilateralism internationally and need for a more democratised United Nations. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described Fidel during his visit to Havana for a NAM summit in 2006, “I had gone there only to greet him, but he engaged me in intense discussion. We covered a whole range of issues, including the future of the international financial system, the future role of NAM, India’s development prospects and how we are dealing with our population, food and energy problems… I felt I was in the presence of one of the greatest men of our times.”
Fidel lived through a five-and-a-half decade-long Cuban economic embargo imposed by the U.S. Cuba’s socialist system emphasised investment in free education and health for its largely peasant population while discouraging free enterprise and nationalising most foreign assets in the country. This emphasis resulted in a mixed legacy. By the 21st century, Cuba had among the most advanced health care systems in the world, a largely well educated and socially conscious population, but a battered economy characterised by low wages and little diversification. Partially, the collapse of the Soviet Union was responsible for the dire straits that Cuba found itself in the 1990s, resulting in severe shortages of essential goods and supplies, but Fidel refused to give up on socialism, persisting with the social development model till he stepped down provisionally in 2006 and handed over powers to his brother Raul in 2008.