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Fidel Castro will forever be a hero to freedom fighters

By Makau Mutua | Updated Sun, December 25th 2016 at 00:00 GMT +3
The late Cuban President Fidel Castro

Several weeks ago, the world lost the last political and moral giant of the twentieth century. After South Africa's Nelson Mandela, the indomitable Fidel Castro was the only truly transcendent figure left from the greatest icons of the last century.

I speak not to diminish any great leaders who are still around — the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis easily come to mind — but no other remaining person from that era has bent the arc of history as sharply as Mr Castro. It doesn't matter what the small-minded Cuban-Americans in Miami think. A good number of them carry a legacy of hate and oppression which the Castro brothers sought to bury on the island. Let's celebrate Fidel.

First, understand that not many leaders from the so-called Third World stood up against the United States — the most powerful state in the history of humanity — and lived to talk about it. Lest we forget, Mr Castro did so a mere 90 miles from the US mainland.

This in itself is an incredible feat. The man survived multiple US assassination attempts. Not even poisoned cigars could fell him. His communist regime — an island in sea of hostile capitalist states — withstood an historic crippling US-led embargo. Yet he, and Cuba, never bent, wilted, or broke. He and Cuba survived the Bay of Pigs debacle. Many thought the collapse of the Soviet Union — a benefactor — was his end. Nyet — he continued ticking.

Second, no state has survived overthrow in the face of such a determined exile community as Cuba did. Over the decades, Cubans have flocked to the US — and Miami in particular. Under a 1966 US law — "wet foot dry foot policy" — any Cuban who fled and entered the US would be allowed residency. They only had to have one "dry foot" on American soil.

No one else enjoys this preferential treatment — a legacy of the cold war — except Cubans. Poor Haitians have been historically turned back from US shores, even when their regimes were notoriously cruel. It is this immigration policy towards Cubans that swelled their numbers in Miami. Today, they form a formidable political lobby.

Successive US administrations, especially Republicans, have catered to the Cuban exiles who have generally been conservative and driven by a visceral hatred of the Castros. A large number of them have done well politically and economically. It was through this power they kept pressure on the Castro regime through Washington until President Barack Obama called a halt to an obsolete foolish policy.

He became the first sitting US president to travel to Cuba and normalise relations. Although Fidel Castro didn't laud Mr Obama for the act, he never stopped his brother — Raul Castro — from carrying through with the rapprochement. The re-opening of relations between Cuba and the US will go down in history as one of Mr Obama's greatest achievements.

Third, it was perhaps on the international stage — most importantly in Africa — where Mr Castro made a lasting mark. He was an unabashed supporter of liberation movements on the continent from the very beginning. Even the legendary Che Guevara, his comrade-in-arms, fought in Africa's liberation wars. Under Mr Castro, Cuba provided material, diplomatic, and logistical support to virtually every liberation movement in Africa.

When the US complained of Mr Castro's support for the African National Congress, Mr Mandela memorably said that no one "should expect their enemies to be our enemies." That was testament to the Cuban blood, sweat, and treasure that had been expended on Africa. Cuba helped Africa in other ways by training doctors and other professionals.

Fourth, Mr Castro's Cuba may not have been democratic in the way the term is understood in the West, but he strove to build a haven for all people. The Cuban healthcare system is legendary. A little known secret in former Portuguese and Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere is the deep-seated racism and apartheid.

Descendants of Africans and Native peoples have borne the brunt racism at the hands of white European descendants. A large cohort of the Cubans who fled the Castro regime were white and well-to-do if not wealthy. More than any other country in the Hemisphere, Mr Castro's Cuba did the most to slay the demon of racism.

Finally, Mr Castro showed the rest of the world that no country can ever achieve much without a determined elite committed to the national interest. The Cubans punished greed and corruption without pity. The ruling elite wasn't allowed to enrich itself at the expense of citizens. One can disagree with the policy choices made by the Cuban elite — and their effectiveness — but one can't question their clarity, single-mindedness, their anchor in what they saw as the national interest, and their Global South bias. Fidel will never die — history will continuously live in his remarkable legacy.