The extensive media coverage since Fidel Castro died has included many different voices—from those of journalists who interviewed him and wrote about him, especially in the early years, through Cold Warriors and Cuban émigrés who did battle with him to political figures whose comments have been crafted to align with contemporary constituencies and goals.* But the media have left out one important group: ordinary people who, over the years, found themselves inspired by and generally sympathetic with (even when critical of many features of) the Cuban Revolution.
I’m referring to people around the globe—students, workers, peasants, activists, and many others, throughout the Americas and across the world—who have understood the significance of the Revolution for Cuba and, as a historical example of anti-imperialism and human development, for their own attempts to enact radical political and economic change.
What we haven’t learned from recent coverage is that re-revolutionary Cuba was under the thumb of the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who governed a relatively wealthy but highly unequal country in which the majority of people had no voice and suffered from high unemployment, a low level of literacy, poor health, and inadequate housing. And they were exploited in an economy dominated by large landowners, U.S. corporations, and American organized crime. The 26th of July Movement (a name that originated in the failed attack led by Fidel on the Moncada Barracks in 1953) launched an insurrection in 1956, with the landing of small force that found its way to the Sierra Maestra Mountains, and, with the support of an army of volunteers in the countryside and “Civic Resistance” groups in the cities, succeeded in overthrowing Batista. A small revolutionary organization with widespread popular support managed to confront and ultimately defeat a typical authoritarian Washington-backed Latin American regime just 90 miles off the U.S. coast.
And while a great attention has been paid to the growing tensions from early on between the new Cuban government and the United States, which sponsored a series of clandestine invasions and assassination attempts, mainstream accounts have overlooked the tremendously successful campaigns to do what had seemed impossible in Cuba and elsewhere—to eliminate illiteracy, promote health, and improve living and working conditions, especially in the countryside. In fact, one of the reasons Havana became and remained so shabby (as legions of foreign visitors who rarely venture outside the capital city never fail to describe) was the Cuban government’s focus on transforming conditions in rural areas so that, in contrast to many other countries, impoverished agricultural workers and their families would have no need to move en masse into the city.
That’s what I noticed when I traveled to Cuba in the late-1970s during the administration of Jimmy Carter, when U.S. travel restrictions were allowed to lapse. I didn’t see the urban ghettoes I drove through before boarding my flight in Montreal, and nowhere did I come across the poverty and inequality characteristic of rural areas across all the countries where I’d lived and worked in Latin America.
Thanks to the Revolution, Cuba has achieved enormous progress—not only in comparison to the rest of Latin America and the Third World but even (at least in terms of indicators like infant mortality) the United States. That radical turnaround, and the ability to maintain it in the face of unrelenting U.S.-government opposition over decades, is the major reason Fidel and the Cuban Revolution have been admired around the world.
By the same token, the Cuban Revolution has not been romanticized or supported uncritically, especially as a model for left-wing movements elsewhere. For the most part, the economy has been organized around state ownership, not worker-run enterprises. And a small number of political leaders, including Fidel himself, and a single political party have managed to hold onto power, with little in the way of democratic decision-making beyond the local level—not to mention public antipathy towards and discrimination against LGBT people, the jailing of journalists and political dissidents, and so on. Economically and politically, Cuba is no paradise.
Still, for all its faults and mis-steps, the Cuban Revolution has long served as an example of the ability of people to struggle against the impossible and to win. Fidel was thus on the right side of history.
*Including the anti-socialist drivel offered by John McTernan, a former speech writer for Tony Blair.