Among the many photos adorning my living room that capture special moments in my life, including graduations, my marriage almost 30 years ago, and my son and daughter as they were growing up, is a photo of myself absorbed in conversation with Fidel Castro.
Somehow this photo stands out and captures the attention of friends, relatives and others, especially visiting for the first time. Awestruck by what they consider a great accomplishment, the usual remark is: “You really made into the big league.”
Few English-speaking Caribbean journalists have had the privilege of interviewing the late Cuban leader and I was one of them. Even international media colleagues react in similar fashion; I pulled off what many would have loved to but never got the opportunity.
“What was Fidel like?” is the inevitable question which always arises in such encounters. To me, he was affable, charming, easy-going, soft-spoken, passionate on issues he held dear, deeply intellectual, witty. His charisma was such that you powerfully felt his presence. The stuff which defines great leaders!
Fidel proved, during our encounter, to be the opposite of the cruel and brutal dictator persistently portrayed by the mostly American media. It was difficult, after engaging him, not to go away without basically liking him. Furthermore, what really impressed was his sincerity, unswerving commitment to high moral principles and the pursuit of social justice for the poor, marginalized and outcast.
The interview, which was the subject of the photo, took place back in 1994 when Fidel visited Barbados for the Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). I was then Director of News and Current Affairs with the Caribbean News Agency (CANA).
When I began the interview by addressing him as “Excelentíssimo” in keeping with protocol, he promptly responded: “Llamamé Fidel! (Call me Fidel!”). The hour-long interview was no holds-barred. There were no requests for questions in advance, and he candidly answered what he was asked, never shying away from controversial issues such as alleged human rights abuses.
Now I had known of Cuba from a young age. My great-grandparents, who raised me, had connections with the island. My great-grandfather had spent some time there working in the sugar industry and used to regale us with exciting stories of his experiences.
He taught me my first Spanish words – azúcar (sugar) and mantequilla (butter). My great-grandmother, on the other hand, had a brother who had migrated and started a family in Baraguá, a town in central Cuba. Many Barbadian descendants still live there.
My introduction to Fidel and his politics occurred some 16 years prior to the interview. I was an 18 year old actively involved in student politics at the Barbados Community College when my good friend, the late Barbados Labour Party (BLP) senator and lawyer, Hutson Randolph Linton, gave me two books on radical political thought.
Linton, a proud son of St Philip, handed me a copy of History Will Absolve Me, Fidel’s defence speech during his 1953 trial for the failed first attempt to overthrow the Batista regime which he eventually toppled in the 1959 revolution.
“This book is about standing up for what you believe and, as a young man with an interest in politics, I think you should read it,” Linton said. The other book, The Marxists, was written by the late American sociologist C. Wright Mills.
My analysis and understanding of Fidel’s politics differ somewhat fundamentally from the mainstream in that I have never seen Marxism-Leninism as the underpinning influence, even though he had described himself as such. I think it had to do more with his exposure to Catholic Social Teaching (CST) at a young age through his Jesuit education.
CST speaks to matters of social justice, including poverty and wealth, and has its origins in an 1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII that was entitled Rerum novarum, meaning ‘Of Revolutionary Change’. It dealt with the wretched plight of the working class.
Given the injustices and inequalities which existed in pre-revolutionary, US-controlled Cuba, I believe it was CST’s stirring call to stand on the side of the poor and exploited that most likely spurred Fidel to turn his back on the comfortable lifestyle afforded by his bourgeois family background.
To some degree, I see a similarity with Errol Barrow who too was a bourgeois but devoted his entire life to the struggle for a better life for the Barbadian working class. As a young man, Barrow would have been exposed to theological influences through his socially conscious father who was an Anglican priest and the social activism of his uncle Dr Charles Duncan O’Neale.
Little wonder Barrow had such great respect for Fidel, who felt similarly about him. Indeed, Fidel remained eternally grateful to Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, led by visionary leaders in Barrow, Forbes Burnham, Dr Eric Williams and Michael Manley respectively, for establishing diplomatic relations with Havana in 1972.
That gigantic step requiring considerable courage by four small countries which exposed themselves to the risk of incurring the wrath of the United States, effectively ended revolutionary Cuba’s diplomatic isolation in the Western Hemisphere.
Cuba’s generous technical assistance to the region, especially in health care and education, has been Fidel’s way of saying “thank you!”
Fidel, who died peacefully last Friday at the ripe old age of 90, can be summed up as the ultimate political conqueror, given the many challenges he overcame during his near 50 years as Cuba’s revolutionary leader until 2008 when ill health forced him to retire.
Ironically, six months ago, a frail-looking Fidel prepared Cuba for his death in an address to the VII Congress of the Cuban Communist Party. “I’ll be 90 years old soon,” he said. “Soon I’ll be like all the others.” His burial is scheduled for this Sunday.
Overthrowing Fidel had been a key US foreign policy objective for five decades. Washington failed in this epic multi-pronged David and Goliath struggle which reportedly included over 600 attempts to assassinate the Cuban leader. Socialist Cuba is still standing and Fidel’s death was attributable to old age.
I’ve always wondered why has the United States been so unrelenting towards Cuba. No American blood was spilled on Cuban soil as happened in Vietnam, for example; yet Washington pursued rapprochement with Vietnam but, until the Obama administration, maintained a hard line on Cuba. Did Fidel’s defiance and outfoxing of Washington hurt US pride in a profound, unimaginable way?
History shows that dictators are generally toppled from within; either by persons in trusted positions or by the masses who, once transformed into a riotous mob, free themselves of fear which happens to be the most restraining emotion in a political context.
That this did not occur in Fidel’s case is instructive; it suggests neither felt that their self-interest would be advanced by changing the status quo. Speaking of self-interest, once clearly identified and understood, it is a powerful trigger of human action.
It also seems that Fidel’s opponents, for the most part, were overseas; they had either left Cuba or had been put out. And the persons who stayed, remained loyal because when they compared their situation before and after the revolution, life appeared better. This is a plausible explanation for the longevity of the Cuban revolution.
Fidel has now taken his place in history which, he accepts, will be his judge. His parting message, though, to those taking up the cause of the poor and marginalized is the rallying cry with which he ended every major speech.
“La lucha continua! Patria o muerte, venceremos!” (The struggle continues! Fatherland or death, we shall overcome!)
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist.