Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1322, (1 - 7 December 2016)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1322, (1 - 7 December 2016)

Ahram Weekly

‘Hasta la Victoria Siempre!’

Assisted by the Cuban people, Fidel Castro transformed his country and the world, writes Faiza Rady

Al-Ahram Weekly

From 1960 to the present, Havana has shamed the industrial world through the extent of its humanitarianism. Put simply, no country or organisation, no matter how wealthy or powerful, can match Cuba’s record in this regard. (Cuban Medical Internationalism: Origins, Evolution and Goals by John Kirk and H Michael Erisman, 2009).

Last week, Raúl Castro, president of Cuba’s Councils of State and Ministers, addressed the Cuban people to tell them of the death of his brother, Fidel. “It is with deep sorrow that I come before you to inform our people, and friends of Our America and the world, that today, 25 November, at 10:29pm, Comandante en Jefe of the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro Ruz passed away. In accordance with his express wishes Compañero Fidel’s remains will be cremated. Hasta la victoria siempre! (Until victory, always).”

On 4 December, at 7am, his ashes will be interred at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, the resting place of 19th century Cuban independence hero José Martí.

In Cuba, singer and songwriter Silvio Rodríguez sent his condolences to “Fidel’s family and the people of Cuba, the world and the universe, for the loss of one of the most extraordinary human beings of all times.”

In Miami’s neighbourhood of Little Havana, Cuban exiles took to the streets and rejoiced at the news, whereas Cuban students gathered at the University of Havana to honour the Comandante, chanting: “We are all Fidel.”

It is only fitting that Cuba’s close ally Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was among the first to mourn Fidel’s death, calling on “all revolutionaries worldwide to continue his legacy of independence and socialism.”

Another close ally, Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, reminded the peoples of the Americas that “Fidel has given us lessons in struggle, perseverance, liberation and the integration of the world’s peoples.”

Ivan Marquez, head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) negotiating team in peace talks with the Colombian government, paid tribute to Fidel saying that the world had lost “the most admirable revolutionary of the 20th century”, adding, “thank you, Fidel, for your great love of Colombia. May the Peace Accords of Havana be our posthumous tribute to you.”

On the Arab side, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reminded the world that Fidel had always supported the Palestinian cause, particularly when he cut diplomatic relations with Israel in 1973, during  Egypt’s October War with Israel. And in Washington, US President Barack Obama joined the fray saying that “History will judge the enormous impact of Fidel Castro on the world.”

Fidel’s path to Cuban independence from Fulgencio Batista’s US-backed dictatorship started on 26 July 1953 when, as a young revolutionary lawyer, he led an attack against the Monaca army barracks in Santiago de Cuba. The attack failed and Fidel was arrested and tried. Speaking in his own defence, he ended his speech with the famous phrase: “Condemn me. It doesn’t matter. History will absolve me.”

Fidel was amnestied in 1954 and left Cuba for Mexico where he recruited and organised another contingent of guerrillas — figuring prominently among them was Argentinean physician, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, his comrade-in-arms in the struggle for national liberation. In November of 1956, 82 freedom fighters sailed from the Mexican coast heading to the Sierra Maestra hills in Cuba. In and around the Sierra Maestra the guerrillas mobilised support among the local population. By 1958 they had formed a well-trained insurgent army eager to confront Batista. Fidel led a contingent that marched to the province of Oriente, freeing its towns from Batista’s clutches, while Che’s troops liberated the central city of Santa Clara. The following day the dictator fled Cuba, while the Cuban people hailed and joined the liberators on their way to Havana. Addressing a million people in the capital’s Revolution Square in January 1959, Fidel issued the First Declaration of Havana, his historic Declaration of Independence from the US. “Who can forget Fidel’s ringing speeches to the Cuban people?” asked Larry Holmes, writing in the US-based weekly Workers World. “He demolished the lies of those who had treated the island as nothing but a source of cheap labour and entertainment for the rich. He always spoke truth to power.”

The backlash of US power was swift and to the point. Even before Fidel launched his agrarian reform on 17 May by nationalising US corporations and, in particular, the large landholdings of the United Fruit Company, the US National Security Council decided on 10 March that Fidel had to be eliminated. At that time, the council was already strategising to install a new government in Cuba, reports the French journal Manière de Voir. Authorised by the Eisenhower administration to collaborate with terrorist organisations, the CIA secretly started to pay, arm and organise paramilitary militias of Cuban exiles with the mission to assassinate Fidel, as revealed by the 1975 US Senate Special Commission. Thus, it was as early as the spring of 1959 that the US launched its undeclared warfare against the Caribbean island.

The US obsession with assassinating Fidel can only be described as bizarre. One of Fidel’s security men estimated that the CIA made a grand total of 634 attempts on his life. “From the famous exploding cigars to poison pills hidden in a cold-cream jar, the CIA and Cuban exile groups spent nearly 50 years devising ways to kill Fidel Castro,” reported The Guardian.

Besides concocting hundreds of ingenious — and not so ingenious — plots to kill the Cuban leader, on 16 April 1961 with the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, the US launched its official war against the island. Following three days of intense fighting, the invaders were pushed back. “What they can’t forgive us for is that we here — right under their nose — have given birth to a socialist revolution,” commented Fidel.

The economic and financial blockade of Cuba was initiated by the Eisenhower administration. “ ‘The Cuban people are responsible for the regime’, explained Under Secretary of State Dillon in March 1960. Eisenhower approved economic sanctions in the expectation that ‘if [the Cuban people] are hungry, they will throw Castro out’,” writes MIT professor and prominent author Noam Chomsky. “The basic thinking was expressed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lester Mallory in April 1960: Castro would be removed ‘through disenchantment based on economic hardship… so every possible means should be undertaken to … bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the government’,” adds Chomsky.

To this day, the blockade remains entrenched. Tightened and fine-tuned under the 1992 Torricelli Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Bill and enshrined in US law, the blockade can only be removed by an act of Congress. Helms-Burton requires that imports into the US include less than 10 per cent of Cuban ingredients, while Torricelli imposes a six-month ban from US ports on ships that anchor in Cuban waters, and prohibits US subsidiaries in third countries of trading with Cuba, threatening huge sanctions for non-compliance. In the medical sector alone, the blockade has cost Cuba’s people $82,773,876 in lost revenues since October 2015.

Even so, and as Barack Obama readily admitted, enduring US policy failed on all fronts. By all accounts, Fidel’s communist leadership was remarkably successful. Over the last 50 years, comprehensive social protection safety nets largely eradicated poverty and hunger. Food-based social safety nets include a monthly food basket for the entire population, school feeding programmes and mother-and-child health care programmes, reports the UN World Food Organisation. 

Similarly, Cuba’s achievements in the health sector are internationally renowned. According to the UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO), Cuba’s healthcare system is an example for all countries worldwide. The WHO lauds the Cuban government for operating a national health system and assuming fiscal and administrative responsibility for the healthcare of all of its citizens. There are no private hospitals or clinics in Cuba; all health services are government-run.

During her 2014 visit to Havana, Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO lauded Cuba for being the only country that has a healthcare system closely linked to research and development. “This is the way to go because human health can only improve through innovation,” she explained. Chan also praised “the efforts of the country’s leadership for having made health an essential pillar of development. We sincerely hope that all of the world’s inhabitants will have access to quality medical services, as they do in Cuba,” Chan concluded.

Fidel oversaw Cuba’s outstanding internationalism. Since 1963, Cuba sent health workers to treat the poor in the global South. Currently, nearly 30,000 Cuban medical staff are working in over 60 countries around the world. Cuban physicians aided the Vietnamese during the US war of aggression against their country. And Cubans are the first to volunteer to help victims of earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Fidel’s, and the Cuban people’s, achievements in the face of US aggression are extraordinary. “Few men have become historic legends in their lifetime. Fidel is one of them,” says his biographer Ignacio Ramonet. “He is the last hero of international politics. Along with South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, Morocco’s Medhi Ben Barka and Che Guevara. He belongs to a mythical generation of insurgents who, after World War II, were driven by the ambition and the hope to change a world marked by inequalities and racism.”

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