New Zealand likes to think we played ourpart – via the 1981 Springbok tour – in bringing the apartheid regime in South Africa to an end. Cuba played a far, far more substantial role. That’s why South African president Jacob Zuma treated the death of Fidel Castro at the weekend as an occasion to pay a heartfelt tribute to the thousands of Cuban soldiers who travelled across the world to inflict the first significant military defeat on the forces of white supremacy.
In 1974, South Africa had invaded the former Portuguese colony of neighbouring Angola, with the aim of installing a compliant regime led by one of its puppets, Jonas Savimbi. At the time, the apartheid regime had looked invincible:
There was no substantial resistance anywhere in southern Africa. Pretoria’s neighbours comprised a buffer zone that protected the racist regime: Namibia, their immediate neighbour which they had occupied for 60 years; white-ruled Rhodesia; and the Portuguese-ruled colonies of Angola and Mozambique. The rebels who fought against minority rule in each of these countries, operating without any safe haven to organize and train, were powerless to challenge the status quo.
South Africa’s buffer would have remained intact for the foreseeable future, solidifying apartheid and preventing any significant opposition, but for one man: Fidel Castro…Cuba’s intervention in Angola managed to change the course of that country, and reverberate throughout Africa.
That’s one reason why it is only in the West that Castro, in death, is being viewed as a “divisive” figure. In Africa, in South America, in the Caribbean and at home in Cuba, he is being paid tribute as a leader who successfully defied US imperialism for over 50 years – despite repeated assassination attempts and despite the crippling US trade embargo. Free trade? Not with Castro. The US trade embargo forced the Cubans into a reliance on the Soviet Union for survival, and has stunted the Cuban economy for decades. (Routinely, US analysts put Cuba’s economic problems down to the alleged failure of socialism, rather than to the US smothering of Cuba’s ability to trade.)
Despite these unrelenting pressures by its giant neighbour, Cuba’s health system – as the World Health Organisation stated in 2014 – has become an example for the rest of the world to emulate:
The Cuban health system is recognized worldwide for its excellence and its efficiency. Despite extremely limited resources and the dramatic impact caused by the economic sanctions imposed by the United States for more than half a century, Cuba has managed to guarantee access to care for all segments of the population and obtain results similar to those of the most developed nations.
During her recent visit to Havana in July of 2014, Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), impressed by the country’s achievements in this field, praised the Cuban health care system: “Cuba is the only country that has a health care system closely linked to research and development. This is the way to go, because human health can only improve through innovation,” She also praised “the efforts of the country’s leadership for having made health an essential pillar of development.”
Cuba’s health care system is based on preventive medicine and the results achieved are outstanding. According to Margaret Chan, the world should follow the example of the island in this arena and replace the curative model, inefficient and more expensive, with a prevention-based system.
To recognise all this is not to condone Castro’s repression of dissent, and his intolerance of some minority groups. Even then though, the apt comparison for Castro is more with an autocrat such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, rather than with truly monstrous regimes like North Korea, Zimbabwe or Saudi Arabia – whose serious human rights abuses and export of terrorism have been happily brushed aside by New Zealand, in the hope of us securing a free trade deal with the Saudi kingdom. The grievances that the Cuban exiles in Miami have against Castro have always been tainted by their collusion with the US-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Since then, Cuba has remained a society under external threat. One can only shudder to think of the fate of the Cuban people if the exiles were ever to be installed in power in Havana.
By and large though, the US has succeeded in quarantining Cuban influence in the Caribbean, and in South America. Castro sympathising-governments in Jamaica, Grenada and Haiti came and went in the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes – in the cases of Haiti and Jamaica – via significant American assistance to the opposition. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela brieflly became Castro’s main protégé, but the left wing governments in Bolivia and Ecuador are now on the defensive.
Personally, the death of Castro revived some early memories. As a child, you take your cues about the mysterious events beyond the family home, from the reactions of your parents. For the week that marked the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, my mother had sent me off to school with an anxious bear hug that expressed her fears that, maybe, the world wouldn’t make it through to the afternoon, without the outbreak of a thermonuclear war. In that week in October 1962, it had come down to this: would the Soviet ships turn back in time from the 500 mile quarantine line the US had arbitrarily drawn in international waters, around Cuba?
Years later, I came across an astonishing letter from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, written at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, to US President John F. Kennedy. It’s worth reading again in the age of Trump. The Khrushchev letter eloquently conveys just how constrained world leaders can feel by the pattern of events. Yes, it is they who finally give the orders to use deadly force, but they can feel trapped by events that seem to be inexorably forcing their hand. Often what they’re looking for is an escape route out of this mess, and with a smidgeon of dignity intact. The Khrushchev letter is a call for help to the Americans – give me a way out of this – as much as it is a threat.
In the end, it was Khrushchev’s decision to back down that saved the world. Soviet ships bound for Cuba with missiles onboard stopped short of the quarantine line and turned back. Behind the scenes, US Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Soviet diplomat Anatoly Dobrynin arranged for the reciprocal removal of US missiles from Turkey to help Khrushchev to save face, though the backdown still eventually cost Khruschchev his job. (He was toppled in a Kremlin coup two years later.) The Americans had felt just as constrained. Robert Kennedy reportedly told his brother that failure to stand firmly behind his ultimatum to the Soviets would result in John F Kennedy being impeached. JFK agreed. Ultimately, the standoff produced this famous line from US Secretary of State Dean Rusk:
Castro’s role in all of this had not been a positive one. As the target of the Bay of Pigs invasion in the previous year, he had urged Khrushchev to stand firm, since Castro believed any Soviet backdown would only trigger yet another US invasion of Cuba.
However, the Soviet capitulation during the missile crisis didn’t lead in that direction. A year later, Kennedy was assassinated, and the US soon found other distractions, in Vietnam. A hostile and uneasy co-existence became the norm between Havana and Washington for the next four decades.
Only months ago, the Obama administration finally normalized US relations with the current Cuban leader, Raul Castro. Almost certainly, this belated outbreak of common sense and good will not endure. The noises coming out of the Trump interim team suggest that the Cuban trade embargo will be re-imposed. With Trump in the White House, the Cuban regime currently faces anxieties it has not known since the 1960s. This time, it will have to face them without Fidel at the helm.
Fidel on film
From 1962, the year of the missile crisis, comes this fantastic Soviet song “Cuba Is My Love” as sung by the crooner Josif Kobzon, complete with fake Fidel beard.
And here’s a short documentary about Castro, filmed back when he was just a revolutionary in the Sierra Maestra, two years before the overthrow of the Batista regime.
And here’s some priceless footage of Castro on his visit to the US in 1960. On this trip, Castro memorably abandoned his classy hotel, and ended up eventually in Harlem.