By Terence Zhao
Fidel Castro, former President of Cuba, leader of the Cuban Revolution and international anti-imperialist icon, passed on November 25, 2016 at age 90.
As with any man – especially one who has passed such a long life, Fidel has had failures and made mistakes. At the time of his death, I am sure there will be celebrations, joyous calls of “libertad,” and a resurgence of the flood of criticisms – much of which will probably be justified – that he has received over the more than six decades he has spent at the center of public attention.
But, at the occasion of his death, one must not forget also the great number of accomplishments that Fidel and his revolution has brought to Cuba. The island began as a repressive, plutocratic, and racist (even the president was barred from entering certain nightclubs because he was not white) U.S. satellite state whose economy was largely dominated by sugar production and whose people lived in a state of grotesque wealth and income inequality.
The revolution’s successes in combatting these issues cannot be ignored. The world’s most ambitious literacy campaign eliminated illiteracy at breakneck speeds. The Cuban education system – free for all citizens at every level, including university – is the envy of the world, and beats out those of other Latin American countries by a country mile. Its student-to-teacher ratio of 12:1 puts even America to shame. Its healthcare system – also free for all citizens – is similarly world-class, with one of the highest life expectancies in the Western Hemisphere and an infant mortality rate that is lower than that of the U.S. The government stamped out institutionalized racism in every level of society. The country has also become a leader in environmental protection, with the World Wildlife Fund reporting in 2006 that it has become the world’s first and only country to attain sustainable development, while its sugar-based plantation economy has given way to the world’s greenest and most innovative agricultural scheme. And that’s just a brief overview.
And, all of this Cuba has done despite being placed under the most lengthy embargo – which the UN deemed a violation of international law – in modern human history, an embargo which has done untold economic damage to the country. In spite of all this, Cuba nonetheless maintains one of the highest levels of human development in Latin America, second to only Chile by the tiniest of margins.
In the meantime, Fidel himself had survived more than 600 assassination attempts and had one of the longest political careers in human history.
Regardless of one’s opinion of him, there can be no doubt that Fidel was, by the very nature of things, a larger-than-life figure who lived a staggeringly influential life.
In 2008, Raúl Castro welcomed a delegation of Chinese exchange students to Cuba by singing – in shockingly excellent Chinese – the Maoist propaganda song “The East is Red,” which he claimed that he and his late brother Fidel learned in the 1950’s.
The reaction from the students was incredibly telling. After an initial moment of uncertainty and silence, they began to sing along – but it was clear that they were struggling to keep up with the lyrics. The song, having long become rare in the public sphere in China, was before their time.
That moment, like no other, conveys just exactly how old the Castros are. The Castro brothers are relics from a bygone era. When Fidel first came to power, Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, only been three years before had Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev promised to bury the West. Sputnik was still a recent development. No man had yet been to space. And, most importantly, neither Reagan nor Thatcher were anywhere close to ascending to their countries’ highest offices.
To me, that was always what was unique about Fidel – that he and his Cuba has remained static, offering a lens into an age before neoliberalism – marketization and privatization and trickle-down economics – swept the world. Everywhere, people were told that gutting welfare and government services, privatizing public necessities like water, and deregulating big business – all in the name of stimulating economic growth – was the way to prosperity. And, with Fidel gone, I suppose that message is now entirely unanimous.
But it shouldn’t be. As divisive a figure as Fidel might be, the enviable social gains he has managed to forge cannot be overlooked. To be able to bring a small country like Cuba to the top of the world in education, health, and sustainability is no easy task, and the fact that Fidel could do this in spite of an embargo from his greatest trading partner puts us – supposedly the greatest country in the world – to shame. If Fidel could provide top-notch public education free of charge to every child – regardless of race or class – in Cuba, there is no excuse that the world’s greatest and richest democracy cannot. And, the fact of the matter is, we currently cannot. So, then, it does us absolutely no good to paint some simplistic, triumphant narrative for Fidel’s passing and move along. We have to admit facts, which is that despite its admittedly many flaws, Fidel’s Cuba has provided viable and even arguably superior policy alternatives to the global consensus which would behoove all of us to learn from – that even at this late juncture, maybe Fidel could still teach us a thing or two.
Atruena la razón en marcha:
es el fin de la opresión.
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.