Tuesday 22 May 2012

Fidel Castro

Some 130 years after "the Great Liberators" of the Western World, Toussaint L'Ouverture and Simón Bolívar, came another significant personage, a modern-day liberator, one that history still has an open and unfinished chapter on.
Dr. Fidel Castro burst upon the world stage in the 1950s, with the Cold War and all its attendant fears and dramas as a lurid backdrop to his entrance. He was not the first liberator of the island of Cuba. We have already written of José Martí, who broke the chains of Spain's stranglehold on that island in the 1890s. Fidel Castro's revolution sought for another kind of freedom for the Cuban people and other peoples in the world at large. It will be weighed and written in his final chapter as to whether this work was indeed achieved and whether he really freed the Cubans or just imposed yet another yoke on them.
Let us first look at Cuba, the largest island of the Greater Antilles. It is in truth a giant among the islands of the Caribbean, 44,146 square miles, an area that is larger than England minus the principality of Wales. Cuba is larger than all the other islands of the Caribbean put together by several thousand square miles. And not only its size is significant, but also the comparative smallness of its population, which stood in the 1960s at just 6 million, or 150 people per square mile. Barbados, in contrast, has a population density of 1,300 people per square mile.
The Spaniards settled Cuba early, in spite of the brave resistance of the Arawak Chief Hatuey, who fled from Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) with a small party of followers to escape from Spanish colonial tyranny. His forces were defeated in Cuba and he was captured and burnt alive.
It is said that before he died, Hatuey was exhorted by a priest, who tried to persuade him to allow himself to be baptised so that as a Christian he might go to heaven. Hatuey inquired whether there were any Christians in heaven. On being told that the good ones went there, he begged to decline baptism, as he did not want to meet any Spaniards in the next life.
Cuba came under Spanish rule in the early 16th century. It was, however, much neglected  despite its fine harbour at Havana. As it was developed over time, it became famous for the quality of both its sugarcane fields as much as for its tobacco cultivation. By the late 1700s, Cuba turned to sugar, joining Barbados, then Jamaica, then the French half of Hispaniola, to be followed by Puerto Rico in its production. It soon dwarfed those, and the increase in sugar production in the early 19th century meant an increase in the number of slaves and an alteration in the nature of the population.
In the 1830s, between 10,000 and 12,000 Africans were brought to Cuba each year, and slavery did not come a an end there until 1886, fifty-two years after the British West Indies had abolished slavery.
Enormous fortunes were made. The wealth and splendour of the old Spanish and creole grandee families were proverbial. The Spanish creoles disliked the officials from Spain, but they disliked even more the idea of Cuba becoming a predominantly African island like Haiti and Jamaica. In 1843, there were slave uprisings, which were put down harshly. The Cuban whites, although ashamed of slavery, were even more afraid of emancipation. They knew that once the Africans left the plantations, they would not willingly return, as happened in the other Caribbean islands after the abolition of slavery. It was a case of political and economical avarice.
Cuba's first great struggle for freedom from Spanish colonial rule came in 1868 under the lawyer Carlos Cespedes. This was a war that lasted ten years. Other freedom fighters, such as Maximo Gomez from Santo Domingo, came to Cuba to lend a hand in much the same manner as Ché Guevara, who came from Argentina some 75 years later.
The ten year war devastated the eastern part of the island and destroyed the coffee industry. It wiped out the European market for Cuban sugar. Balancing this, however, was a rapid expansion of the U.S.A. sugar market. For the most part, this was in the hands of the "new imperials", the big combines like the American Sugar Refining Company, which for twenty years, from 1890 to 1910, controlled 80% of the refined sugar consumed in the United States.
José Martí was born in 1853 and to use the well known turn of phrase, "lived his life like a candle in the wind". Like the men of the previous century, he burnt with the fire of liberty, and he died young. 1894 was the crucial year. In the heat of battle, the rebel commander Gomez had asked José Martí to keep to the rear so as to live to lead the new republic. Martí, however, was among the first to die at the front...
The shackles of Spain fell, but other, more home-grown dictators, replaced the chains of bondage of the Cubans. Some were worse than others. For example, in their reaction to the dictator Machado, the Cubans demonstrated with remarkable unanimity the limits of their tolerance. They would not endure brutal repression and senseless cruelty.
The rising of 1933 against Machado really had no previous parallel in Cuban history. It was followed by a return to elected government and, for a time, by an improvement in the competence, the honesty and the scope of the administration.
There were men and women in Cuba who belonged to the communist movement that was sweeping the world. Cuba probably had in the 1930s the only serious organised communist movement in the West Indies. Apparently imported by Spanish immigrants in the 1920s, not very numerous, Cuba did, however, produce an elected left-wing government under Dr. Gran San Martín in 1944 that had some communist support. At the other end of the political landscape from Gran San Martín stood a remarkable individual in the person of Sergeant - later President - Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar. Batista was born in 1901 in Oriente. He was a labourer's son, and rose from sergeant-major to colonel in the army campaign against President Machado in 1931-33, during which time he was seen as the chief architect of revolutionary success. With his skill in organising the non-commissioned officer element in the army for political ends, Batista had the knack of picking and supporting honest and respectable presidents for years before he sought office himself. Batista became president in 1940, a position which he held until 1944. With genial and therefore tolerable periods of personal rule between 1934 and 1944, Batista's political strategy was both opportunistic and flexible. He accepted the communists and created a working arrangement with them when it suited him. In this period, he kept his promise to the Cuban people. He went into voluntary exile in 1944 and returned in 1952 to overthrow President Prio and to be subsequently re-elected in 1954. His military coup inaugurated another  era of personal dictatorship in Cuba and was a good-bye for free elections. Batista sought to keep himself in power so as to secure his own personal fortune, often by brutal means. Memories of the dictator Machado returned to the people's minds. It was at this stage that Fidel Castro, following in the footsteps of generations of Latin militarists, started to collect an irregular army in the Sierra Maestra. From these majestic mountains, deep in Cuba's heartland, he proclaimed an armed revolution. Batista, with a professional army, was able for many months to resist the threat, but his civil support behind the lines crumbled rapidly. At the end of 1958, he was driven from office and fled to the Dominican Republic, where he died in 1973. Castro and a group of revolutionary enthusiasts, totally inexperienced in the task of government, took control of Cuba's future. Their proclaimed objectives included the restoration of the constitution of 1940, the electoral code and land reform. After their victory, all these were forgotten.
Similar to Stalin, Castro opted to govern by propaganda and police execution of large numbers of his political opponents and to imprison many who had supported him against Batista but subsequently differed from his policies. The communists in his entourage—semi-professional revolutionaries in a crowd of amateurs—rapidly extended their influence, insisting upon a strict revolutionary orthodoxy in all public spheres.
The treatment of universities is usually a reliable measure of the tolerance and self-confidence of a government. The University of Havana had been closed under the regimes of both Machado and Batista. Under Dr. Castro, it was bullied into conformity in its teaching and writing.
It is important to remember that Fidel Castro has pursued the economic objects of the revolution. He confiscated large land holding and distributed these to peasants and co-operatives in an unprecedented scale in the Caribbean or Latin America. His impressive housing developments for the poor, his success in education and the development of medical services with its significant advancements are widely remarked upon. These radical departures won for the government the enthusiastic support of a peasantry long accustomed to poverty and hopelessness, the root of national discontent.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990, and under an aging Fidel Castro, Cuba's communist system and economy stand alone in the Western World. History will prove what will follow and whether the island has come to the end of its revolutionary cycle.

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