90 Miles free from Empire: A Tribute to Fidel Castro and the Cuban People

“It is with deep sorrow that I learned today of the death of Cuba’s longest serving President. Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation. While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for el Comandante. I know my father was very proud to call him a friend and I had the opportunity to meet Fidel when my father passed away. It was also a real honor to meet his three sons and his brother President Raúl Castro during my recent visit to Cuba. On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to the family, friends and many, many supporters of Mr. Castro. We join the people of Cuba today in mourning the loss of this remarkable leader.” — Justin Trudeau

(Statement by the Prime Minister of Canada on the death of former Cuban President Fidel Castro)

 The above statement by Prime Minister Trudeau pushed me the closest I have ever felt in my adult life to feeling national pride. Even this (I think quite moderate) praise of the achievements of the Cuban revolution has earned Trudeau considerable backlash, from neighbors in the other imperialist countries of the USA and Europe as well as right-wing forces around the world, despite the fact that political leaders representing over 3/4ths of the world’s population joined him in praise of the late Cuban leader.
I do not mean to present Trudeau as some sort of special rebel against the imperial establishment. In fact, he quite quickly backed down from directly defending Castro. I simply note that even “giving the devil his due” so to speak, as Trudeau did (probably begrudgingly) with his statement on Castro, is maligned in the current “end of history” media discourse. Despite plenty of history happening since Francis Fukuyama claimed it was over in 1992, mainstream media clings to a world where the liberal, capitalist-imperialist order reigns supreme despite the fact that this system is bursting at its seams. With the establishment in such a conundrum, it is no wonder they want to vilify such a powerful example of a working alternative as Cuba.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world mourns the death of larger-than-life revolutionary who helped lead his country, despite being only ninety miles from the coast of Florida, to expel US-backed dictator Batista and embark on one the most profound experiments in national self-determination the world has ever seen.

United States of Hypocrisy

To be sure, Fidel did not always have the moral high ground in the way he dealt with his enemies, though I would argue neither did they. In some ways, he was not even a “good” communist.  But for setting an example that shook the arrogance of the American empire to its core, he will be always remembered. 

No doubt, this time of mourning has provided an opportunity for the Empire to bite back at defiant Cuba. The United States maintains that Cuba has scores of political prisoners locked away, yet when prompted cannot produce a list of said political prisoners, when they were arrested, or where they are held. Implying either that there are no or very few political prisoners in Cuba or that the United States is incredibly good at guesswork. Meanwhile, numerous political prisoners languish in American jails on trumped-up charges, including (but not limited to) Chelsea Manning, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Oscar Lopez-Riviera, and others. The United States also has the world’s largest prison population overall. When they’re not in prison, Black people in the United States are targeted by police violence.

This is alone shows the utter hypocrisy of the United States and its partners, but it doesn’t stop there! We should not forget that the United States and American capitalism was built on a foundation of genocide and slavery. The United States continues to operate an international network of torture and intimidation, including in Guantanamo which it refuses to return to Cuba. The United States also continues meddle in other countries affairs either through direct intervention or regime change strategies, with costly human consequences.

Meanwhile, despite the United States acquiring vast amounts of loot from the rest of the world, everyday Americans are increasingly impoverished by neoliberal trade policies whilst Indigenous peoples live in pockets of third-world conditions.

And of course, I must comment on my home country of Canada. In addition to in many instances aiding and abetting the atrocities above (such as Trudeau’s “badass” defense minister’s role in torturing Afghan civilians), Canada is also built on genocide and exploitation in its own right. Canada’s reservations are, to this day, arguably even more atrocious than some in the United States, and Canada’s working class is “living on the edge” struggling to buy food.

I will not comment on Europe but I hope all readers are aware that each European power has committed more than its fair share of atrocities and genocides in the course of colonization and today plays an active role in NATO imperialism.

Whether you believe the ridiculous allegations against Cuba or not, none of the Imperial powers have any moral right to lecture Cuba on human rights.

NATO the Destroyer versus Cuba the Healer

For sure, all is not well in Cuba. There are serious problems impeding development and sustainability of the Cuban system which its leadership and its people will have to address together. However, I believe that such problems are extremely exacerbated by the massive embargo against Cuba enforced by the United States on the rest of the world, which the Cuban government estimates has an impact of $753.69 billion on the island. That’s a lot.

Yet, despite this, Cuba remains independent and resilient, continuing to build on the gains of its independence and share those gains with the world. Where NATO destroys, Cuba heals.

Below, I attempt to provide an outline of some of the most immense achievements and key elements of the Cuban revolution:

Self-Determination and Dignity for Cubans

fidelspeaks

The current government of Cuba came to power in a popular revolution led by Fidel Castro,  which ousted repressive US-supported dictator Batista. The fact that the revolution ousted such a government is an achievement in and of itself. How could Cubans ever have any sense of democracy or self-determination whilst being culturally, politically, economically, and physically dominated by the United States and its lackeys? Whether you agree with the current direction of the Cuban government, is it not more “democratic” to not be dominated by an occupying power?

However, for those who think elections are the only indicator of popular power, elections do take place in Cuba. Elections to Cuba’s national parliament (the National Assembly) take place every five years and elections to regional Municipal Assemblies every 2.5 years. Everyone is allowed to participate, including liberal dissidents despite having almost no popular support on the island. Cuba’s current socialist constitution was approved by referendum, after all. To be sure, Cuba is what we would call a one-party state and not a liberal democracy, but the idea that liberal democracy is the only kind of democracy and that anyone living under any other system is oppressed is an ethnocentric notion (for more on Cuban democracy, see book Cuba and its Neighbors linked below).

The average Cuban voter can hardly be easily deceived by sham elections when education is free, universal, and of high quality and almost the entire country is literate, a passion project of Castro’s. Cuba is ranked at number 16 in UNESCO’s Education for All Development Index, higher  than the US, which is ranked at number 25. Cubans also enjoy zero homelessness as housing is considered a human right.

Medical Internationalism

“Cuba demonstrates how much nations can do with the resources they have if they focus on the right priorities – health, education, and literacy.” — Kofi Annan

Cuba’s healthcare system is one of the crowning achievements of its socialized economy. Cuba “boasts better health indicators than its exponentially richer neighbor 90 miles across the Florida straits” (emphasis added). Life expectancy is an impressive 79. Infant mortality is 4.83 deaths per 1,000 live births compared (better than the US figure of 6.0, and incomparably better than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean, which is around 27 deaths per 1,000 live births). Cuba has the lowest HIV prevalence rate in the Americas. There is one doctor for every 220 people in Cuba – “one of the highest ratios in the world, compared with one for every 370 in England” (emphasis added). These successful healthcare initiatives are based in communities they serve, oriented towards holistic health and prevention, and mostly free at the point of use as they are funded through state revenue from other industries.

In addition to rebuilding the health system of its sister socialist country, Venezuela, Cuba’s international medical aid has helped restore sight to millions of people across Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuba also has spread its hard-won expertise in the field of saving lives across huge number of other countries in the Global South. “A third of Cuba’s 75,000 doctors, along with 10,000 other health workers, are currently working in 77 poor countries.” Cuba is especially very active in the fight against the scourge of AIDS internationally, for example having helped Zambia to start manufacturing its own antiretrovirals, a project which reflects Cuba’s deep commitments to Africa (more below). Cuba also provides medical training to numerous countries through the  la Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina, including Black Americans.

Cuba, Caribbean, Africa

“As Fidel ascends to the realm of the ancestors, we summon his guidance, strength, and power as we recommit ourselves to the struggle for universal freedom. Fidel Vive!” (Black Lives Matter)

Image result for castro and malcolm xFidel was, to put it simply “an unwavering champion of racial equality“, bumping elbows and building friendships with some of the most regarded members of the Black liberation struggle, especially Nelson Mandela, as well as more maligned Black and African radicals such as Malcolm X (pictured) and Moammar Qaddafi. Fidel embraced his own African heritage and Africa’s strong influence on Cuba and the Caribbean islands, long maligned by western-backed regimes. The revolution quickly started attacking racism at its roots, vowing to “straighten out what history has twisted.”

Perhaps even more significant and monumental is Fidel and Cuba’s immense sacrifice to secure African independence from colonialism, a struggle which it continues to support. Cuban troops fought side-by-side with Angolan and Namibian revolutionaries to liberate their nations from the domination of European imperialism and the scourge of Apartheid. This culminated in victory at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale (“Africa’s Stalingrad”) after immense struggle by Angolans, Namibians, and their Cuban allies.

I cannot understate the power and significance of such solidarity. In the words of Nelson Mandela:

The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character… We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defense of one of us (emphasis added).

In addition, Fidel Castro has defended US political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and provided asylum for Asata Shakur and numerous other Black Panthers fleeing political repression in the United States.

With all this in mind, we should not be surprised, for example, at Colin Kaepernick’s tacit endorsement of Cuban literacy programs and support for African liberation, as this has directly benefited Africans and Afro-Americans.

Rainbow Solidarity, Gender Equality, and Fidel’s Self-Criticism

In a display of humility and honesty very rare for a politician, Fidel Castro admitted responsibility for the mistreatment of gays and other queer people in Cuba in the early decades of the revolution. This of course, should not excuse Castro and the Cuban government of further criticism in this area. However, I do think the attempts at reconciliation with the LGBTQ+ community of Cuba and the world are profound. As David Duran writes: “Cuba is leading by example and positively affecting the lives of not only the LGBT people who reside there but others all over the world who see these massive changes taking place so quickly in a country where most would think the topic of homosexuality would be off-limits.”

To emphasize this state support for LGBTQ+ rights, Cuba has instituted the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) campaigns for “the development of a culture of sexuality that is full, pleasurable and responsible, as well as to promote the full exercise of sexual rights.” This includes especially working to combat homophobia and to move away from elements of “machismo” culture often associated with Latin America.

In addition,  43% of parliament members are female. 64% of university places are occupied by women. “Cuban women comprise 66% of all technicians and professionals in the country’s middle and higher levels.” Women are given 18 weeks’ maternity leave on full pay, with extended leave at 60% pay until the child is one year old.

“By several measures, Cuba has achieved a high standard of gender equality, despite the country’s reputation for machismo, a Latin American variant of sexism. Save the Children ranks Cuba first among developing countries for the wellbeing of mothers and children, the report points out. The World Economic Forum places Cuba 20th out of 153 countries in health, literacy, economic status and political participation of women – ahead of all countries in Latin America except Trinidad and Tobago.” (Emphasis added, Center for Democracy in the Americas).

The “New Indians” and Decolonization

This is an area where Trudeau could learn from Castro. As noted before, the conditions of indigenous peoples in North America is atrocious, exacerbating by colonial exploitation of their lands and resources. Castro immediately recognized the conditions on Native reservations and compared them to the impact of sanctions on Cuba. Castro understood that colonialism is a relationship of economic exploitation rather than purely cultural conflict, saying of Cuba:

we are the new Indians of this hemisphere. I was saying that in my opinion, when we analyze the social and economic situation of our peoples, I said that the level of exploitation is greater, and in my opinion, in this hemisphere our peoples have become net exporters of capital to the rich countries, to those who have exploited us for centuries, those who made themselves the owners…those that became rich with our sweat and blood, and today continue to exploit us”. (emphases added, Fidel Castro, 1990)

Because of this shared experience of colonial exploitation and repression, Cuba upon request recognized the Seminole Nation of Florida in 1960 as a sovereign nation with the right to independence. Cuba has also provided life-saving diabetes treatments to the Mohawk Nation. It is clear Cuba recognizes the importance of indigenous peoples and decolonization, which might explain the reemergence of the Taino peoples, which the Spanish supposedly exterminated, on the island in recent years.

Brother to the Philippines

As someone with an interest in Maoist politics, it is interesting to me that despite the Cuban revolutionaries choosing to side with the Soviet bloc over China (as was their prerogative) that the Cuban revolution remains important to Maoist movements despite their substantial differences. This is especially true of the Philippines, which also shares a history of both Spanish and American colonization with Cuba. Jose Maria Sison, leader of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and a prominent member of the Communist Party of the Philippines notes”While Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolutionaries were still in the Sierra Maestra, their revolutionary struggle caught the attention of the world and of course the student organization to which I belonged in the University of the Philippines. Our organization [the underground Patriotic Youth] was engaged in forming study circles for the purpose of resuming the unfinished Philippine revolution for national and social liberation against foreign and feudal domination.”

Even among non-revolutionary Filipinos, the Cuban revolution stands tall. President Rodrigo Duterte has sent emissaries to Cuba in hopes of emulating its healthcare system, de facto following the policy recommendations of the National Democratic Front’s think tank.

In short, according to Sison:

“There is a strong sense of solidarity and empathy between the Filipino and Cuban peoples because they have suffered under Spanish colonialism and US imperialism and struggled against these two foreign powers. They admire each other’s revolutionary struggles and victories. The Filipino people are inspired by the great victory of the Cuban people in liberating themselves from US imperialism and local reactionary classes of big compradores and landlords represented by the Batista regime.” (emphasis added, Jose Maria Sison)

The full interview with Sison by Julia Camagong appears below:

[Thanks to Carlos Martinez for providing many of the sources I cited above, which originally appeared in his article 20 Reasons to Support Cuba

Recommended Further Reading:

cuba_and_its_neighbours

Cuba and It’s Neighbors: Democracy in Motion by Arnold August

Arnold August’s Cuba and its Neighbours  “explores Cuba’s unique form of democracy, presenting a detailed and balanced analysis of Cuba’s electoral process and the state’s functioning between elections. By comparing it with practices in the U.S., Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, August shows that people’s participation in politics and society is not limited to a singular U.S.-centric understanding of democracy. For example, democracy as practised in the U.S. is largely non-participatory, static and fixed in time.” (From the book description). August is a Montreal, QC resident.

I also recommend people reading Maximillian Forte’s review of August’s book, where Forte discusses the concepts of Cuban and socialist democracy in greater detail and compares them to liberal democracy, which he terms “democratic elitism”. See Part 1 and Part 2 here.

Cuba: A Revolution in Motion by Isaac Saney

This accessible, up-to-date and comprehensive introduction to Cuba today provides both students and general readers with a sense of the changes-and continuities-in Cuba through the 1990s.  Saney describes the economic crash, new policies and subsequent recovery during the ‘Special Period.’

If like me, you are from the Atlantic region of Canada, Saney is especially engaging, as he teaches at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS and is regularly involved in socialist and anti-imperialist politics there.

 

Exit Music

There is so much more that I wish I could dedicate time to comment on concerning Fidel Castro and Cuba’s immense achievements. In addition to the accomplishments above, Cuba boasts a sustainable system of organic agriculture, excellent achievements in science,and  uncompromising solidarity with Palestine against Israeli colonization.

In short, rest in power Fidel; history has absolved you.

 

Other Commemorations to Fidel Castro:

Fidel: A Revolutionary Life (TeleSUR: multimedia about Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution)

All of Cuba with Fidel (Granama: profile of everyday Cubans affected by Castro’s death by the Cuban Communist Party’s official magazine)

Red Salute to Comrade Fidel Castro! (Philippine Revolution Web Central: statement by the Communist Party of the Philippines)

Vas Bien, Fidel (Noaman Ali: BASICS Community News Service in Toronto, Canada)

Fidel Was Devoted to the Cause of the People (Liz Rowley: Leader of the Communist Party of Canada)

PFLP mourns and salutes Fidel Castro, a revolutionary inspiration for the world (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine)

Condolences following the death of Fidel Castro  (Statement from the Office of the President of the Russian Federation)

“Fidel Castro Will Live Forever” (Xi Jinping: Premier of the People’s Republic of China)

Message for Castro (KCK: Kurdistan Communities Union)

Con homenaje a Fidel, comienza la II Asamblea de Movimientos hacia el ALBA (Social Movements of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas: confederation of anti-imperialist social movements across Latin America).

Fidel Castro will remain an inspiration for all peoples seeking real independence (Bashar Al-Assad: President of the Syrian Arab Republic)

“Today I mourn the loss of a friend” (Kofi Annan: Ghanaian diplomat and former Secretary-General of the United Nations)

 

Updates:

I am truly overwhelmed. I do not think I was using hyperbole when I said that 3/4ths of the world is in mourning this month (if not many more people). In addition to the two new commemorations I have added, one from the Chinese Premier and one from the ALBA Social Movements, the United Nations has held a minute of silence to respect Castro’s passing, and Cubans have turned out en masse to mourn their fallen commandante.

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