My Fidel Castro: oppressive, flawed but an exceptional global force
My interview took place in Nicaragua in 1985. Whatever his faults – and many consider he had many, he was an exceptional force in the developing world.
Exceptional, in the sense that he thwarted every attempt by the neighbouring superpower to dispose of him, and impose their ways upon his people. He thwarted every attempt by the US to bankrupt, isolate, and otherwise bully him into complying with the American vision of how the world should be run.
But inevitably, this came at a terrible cost: it made him more oppressive, even as he made Cubans the best educated in the Americas and the healthiest too.
Viewed from Central America, where I reported from all the key countries during their civil strife – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua – Castro’s Cuba supported the oppressed whilst Washington tended to side, often militarily, with the forces of the dictatorial status quo.
In Africa too, one would come across Cuban doctors and nurses in countries as far apart as Mozambique, Angola, and Tanzania. Cuban soldiers, many of them conscripts, were sent to fight in the southern African wars of freedom against apartheid South Africa – in Angola and Namibia. “Ola” and “eta” became endorsed as greetings by black South Africans as a linguistic sign of respect, and Mandela said Cuba had done more than any other country in freeing his people.
Heaven only knows what the Americans were up to when they invaded the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. Even then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was riled.
Castro was building a much-needed airport there, which the US felt was too big and which must therefore have been intended as a Russian landing spot from which to attack the United States.
I walked the full length of the runway as it was being constructed. Today it ensures that Grenada shares in the spoils of international tourism, with big jets landing direct from London and elsewhere. The question of whether it was ever intended for Antonovs will perhaps now die with Fidel.
Castro was an ideological thorn in America’s flesh. His revolution alienated many Cubans who were to become a force in US elections – most recently in Florida where they helped ensure Donald Trump’s Presidential election.
That Castro survived such odds from a hostile superpower on his doorstep was remarkable. But many paid very dearly for the iron fist that he wielded on the island to ensure his and his revolution’s survival. One achievement that his old foe has never achieved is that of universal free state education, and high quality healthcare for all.
History will argue long about Fidel Castro, but he will not easily be forgotten by either his friends or his foes.