El Commandante - Fidel Castro

Campaign News | Sunday, 24 February 2008

Writing in the Jamaica Observer, Diane Abbot MP argues that Fidel is "one of the great leaders of our time"

The announcement last week that the legendary Fidel Castro is stepping down from power prompts an appraisal of his career. In Jamaica attitudes to Cuba are poisoned by over half a century of propaganda by the United States. But in the rest of the world opinions are much more balanced.

No one now alive remembers the regime Castro took over from. But Batista, the American puppet Castro overthrew, was particularly corrupt and unsavoury. Batista had seized power through a coup. His was a repressive and brutal regime. He was responsible for at least as many human rights abuses as the Americans were to accuse Castro of.

And he was in the pocket of American gangsters. Havana was given over to gambling and prostitution, and a famous American mobster Meyer Lansky was effectively in charge of it all. So, when Castro and his small band of revolutionaries came down from the mountains to stage a (relatively) bloodless coup, he was hailed by fellow Cubans as a liberator.

Castro was essentially a nationalist. But it was his (and Cuba's) misfortune to be caught up in the bitter conflicts of the Cold War. Astonishingly, tiny Cuba took on and stood up to the mighty United States. Nearly every other communist regime has crumbled including the USSR itself. But Cuba, effectively in America's "backyard", continues to defy the most powerful country in the world. Castro himself has survived 10 US presidents and 638 assassination attempts. His country has suffered from a United States embargo on trade for 40 years. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba might reasonably have been expected to collapse also. The Soviets were the main market for Cuba's sugar and provided economic life support in many other ways. Despite the changes in Moscow, miraculously Cuba struggled on.

It is precisely little Cuba's defiance that makes United States regard it with particular hatred and venom. In recent years this has been amplified by the powerful white Cuban lobby in Miami. Even if US politicians wanted to take a more measured and pragmatic attitude to Cuba, they are constrained because the Cuban lobby has used its voting strength in Florida to force successive American administrations to stick to policies on Cuba which, are not only cruel and repressive to the Cuban people but, are not actually in the best interests of American business.

Cuba's survival is a miracle. But the fact that Castro has been able to do so much for his people, despite the US embargo, is extra-ordinary. Cuba has the best health care and education in the region. Life expectancy is higher and infant mortality is lower than Harlem and other American inner city-areas. In 2000, the then secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, said: " Cuba should be the envy of many other nations. It demonstrates how much nations can do with resources they have if they focus on the right priorities; health, education and literacy. An American NGO, the Kaiser Foundation, which evaluated Cuban health care, described it as "A shining example of the power of public health to transform the health of an entire country by a commitment to prevention and by careful management of its political resources".

And in 2001 the then president of the World Bank James Wolfensohn said: "Cuba has done a great job on education and health."

Despite these successes, Castro was not content with improving health care for his own people. He has sent doctors all over the world to help suffering people. Cuba's missions in 68 countries are manned by 25,000 doctors. Cuban doctors and medical teams have assisted victims of both the South Asian Tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake.

Cuba currently exports doctors and health care to Venezuela in return for subsidised oil. Nearly 2,000 Cuban doctors work in African countries including South Africa, Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Mali. And, when the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded in 1986, more than 20,000 children from Russia travelled to Cuba for treatment of radiation sickness.

Strategic to the end, Castro is now involved in careful succession planning. Nobody expects his brother Raul to stay president for long. But he will manage a smooth transition to a younger generation of leadership.

Castro is not a saint. His record on human rights and freedom of speech is poor. However, it is no worse than the regime he overthrew and much better than many American-backed, Latin American dictators like Pinochet.

In Europe, Castro is widely regarded as a heroic figure, No one doubts Castro's unswerving commitment to the Cuban people.

No leader in the region has done more to raise standards of health and education for poor people. He has outlived and outwitted his enemies and is now preparing to die peacefully in his bed. However you measure it, Castro has been one of the great leaders of our time.


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