In April of this year when he made what has turned out to be his final appearance before the VII Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, a visibly frail Fidel Castro sought to prepare his political comrades and the nation of Cuba for his eventual, inevitable exit from mortal life.
As if driven by a premonition, Castro told the high-level party conference: “I’ll be 90 years old soon. Soon I’ll be like all the others.”
Still, when the official announcement came late last Friday night that the bearded iconic revolutionary had passed a mere three months after his 90th birthday, the news left many in disbelief.
Castro, who had led Cuba for more than 50 years after seizing power from the unpopular dictator Fulgencio Batista in a 1959 coup, was a larger than life figure. Even though such persons are mortals like everyone else, it is still somehow difficult to accept the reality that they too will eventually die.
As expected, there has been mixed reaction to Castro’s death. Cubans at home, who revered him and with whom he remained immensely popular, mourned his passing. Lauding his contribution, they pointed to the revolution’s outstanding achievements especially in education and health care.
“Undoubtedly, life for most Cubans on the island [and that means the vast majority poor when Castro came to power] improved dramatically under his leadership. Despite what his enemies say, Cuba built one of the most impressive public health systems and achieved education results that are the envy of the developing world,” said the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which is respected internationally for its editorial independence, in a commentary on the late Cuban leader.
Nationalist-minded Cubans also admired the fact that he courageously stood up to the United States and managed to rid Cuba of what they describe as the ‘Yankee’ influence and decadence for which the country was well-known prior to the 1959 coup that brought Castro to power.
Internationally, many fans who shared Castro’s socialist ideals, especially related to social justice, praised his internationalist solidarity with and commitment to supporting poor countries through the generous sharing of Cuban resources. Under Castro, the sons and daughters of poor people in many developing countries benefited from Cuban scholarships to become doctors, engineers and other professionals.
Cuba also shared its world class medical facilities with the rest of the world, helping, for example, to quell the Ebola crisis in Africa. Castro, through dispatching Cuban troops to take part in the historic liberation struggles of southern Africa in the later part of the last century, also played a decisive role in toppling the odious system of apartheid.
Castro’s critics, on the other hand, especially the large Cuban exile community in Miami, rejoiced at the passing of a man they detested and denounced as a communist tyrant and a violator of human rights.
The exiles, who blame Castro for the fact that they had to leave Cuba, engaged in carnival-like street celebrations. They are hoping that his death will serve as a catalyst for accelerating the demise of the revolution so that Cuba can become free and democratic again, according to their definitions.
No doubt, they will intensely lobby the incoming administration of Republican president Donald Trump for support in this regard.
Cuba has had close ties with Barbados for over 40 years. In fact, it was under the leadership of the Right Excellent Errol Barrow that Barbados joined with Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica to establish diplomatic relations with Havana back in 1972, breaking what up to then had been Cuba’s US-inspired diplomatic isolation in the hemisphere.
It was an act for which Castro remained eternally grateful. In fact, Castro visited Barbados on two occasions — the first time was to attend the 1994 Global Conference on Small Island Developing States. The second, three years later, was to participate in the unveiling of the memorial at Paynes Bay, St James to the 72 victims of the 1976 Cubana plane crash off the island’s west coast after it was blown up by Cuban exiles.
Cubans, including many of Barbadian descent, are observing nine days of official morning for their former leader who was forced to relinquish power ten years ago after he developed major abdominal issues and had to undergo surgery. Castro’s cremated remains will be laid to rest next weekend following a state funeral attended by many world figures.
What will be the final verdict on Castro’s stewardship and the legacy he has left? It can be said that he provided the answer in a famous speech at the close of his 1953 trial for making the first attempt to overthrow the Batista dictatorship. “Condemn me,” he said. “It does not matter. History will absolve me.”