Fidel Castro, a towering giant of the 20th century whose audacious military campaign against the Apartheid regime helped bring freedom to South Africa and several other countries, was celebrated as a progressive revolutionary with few peers following his death at 90.
Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother who took over the presidency in 2006, announced his death on state television on Friday night.
“With profound sadness I am appearing to inform our people and our friends across (Latin) America and the world that today, November 25, 2016, at 10.29pm, Fidel Castro, the commander in chief of the Cuban revolution, died.”
“In accordance with his wishes, his remains will be cremated,” he said, before concluding his address with the revolutionary slogan: “Onwards to victory!”
Castro, alongside his friend Nelson Mandela, were among the most recognisable political figures of the 20th century, their intertwined struggles against imperial domination earning them a place in history as leaders whose influence went far beyond their own countries.
Castro came to power on January 8 1959, toppling the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, under whose watch Cuba had turned into a virtual mafia state, dominated by US-based cartels that operated gambling rings and controlled an economy run by a small cadre of wealthy sugar cane plantation owners and major multinationals.
Castro’s team set about radically re-ordering the economic system in the island nation, nationalising private sugar cane farms including many that were owned by Americans and taking over several industries.
But it was Castro’s decision to align the country with the Soviet Union that brought him in direct conflict with the United States government, which was determined to stop the spread of Communism to the Americas.
Castro quickly became a globally recognised figure after the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sent a group of armed Cuban exiles in 1961 to try and topple his government. The attempt was crushed but a second episode of superpower confrontation over Cuba made world headlines.
US THREATENED TO INVADE
The Americans had discovered that Cuba had allowed the Soviet Union to build missile bases on its territory. The US threatened to invade and exchanged threats of nuclear war with the Soviets before a deal was reached to remove the bases after a tense 13 days.
Once Castro had secured his hold on power, he invested huge amounts of resources including arms and manpower to back freedom movements around the world, most prominently in Latin America and Africa.
He sent arms and advisers to the Algerians who were fighting for independence from the French and dispatched soldiers to multiple countries including Bolivia and Mozambique.
But it was Castro’s involvement in the fight against Apartheid that saw him earn a place in history as one of the greatest friends of Africa of the last century. He heavily backed the Angolan independence movement first against the Portuguese and later in pitched battles with thousands of troops from South Africa’s Apartheid regime which feared, correctly, that independence for Angola would offer a base for independence movements such as the African National Congress and Namibia’s Swapo.
Leaders in that region yesterday celebrated Castro’s role in hastening the end of Apartheid. His deployment of 36,000 troops to Angola in 1975 is widely viewed as having delivered the biggest psychological defeat endured by the Apartheid government which was backed by major powers including the Americans.
“President Castro identified with our struggle against Apartheid. He inspired the Cuban people to join us in our own struggle against Apartheid,” South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma said in a statement.
Namibia’s president Hage Geingob mourned the “end of an era”.
“Our comrade is no more,” he said. “But his revolutionary legacy will remain with Namibia forever.”
The Nelson Mandela Foundation extended its “deepest condolences to the people and government of Cuba” and said Castro’s solidarity with the anti-Apartheid movement would never be forgotten.
Cord leader Raila Odinga, one of a number of leftists who were inspired by Castro and who named his son after the revolutionary icon, called him “a great and true friend of Africa”.
SOURCE OF INSPIRATION
“Castro was a source of inspiration and courage for all those who value and fought for freedom,” he said.
Major world leaders also noted the former Cuban leader’s place in history. US President Barack Obama, who reset ties with Cuba this year, described him as a leader who “altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation”. This was in contrast to President-elect Donald Trump who said Castro was a “brutal dictator who oppressed his own people”.
With his trademark jungle green fatigues, unruly beard and booming voice, Castro came to represent for many the ultimate face of the progressive revolutionary post-colonial politics that dominated the post World War era in many parts of the globe, his legend growing with every failed assassination bid against him.
He survived more than 600 attempts on his life, according to the Cubans’ count, with the plots exposed by American media being worthy of a spy movie. They included an attempt to poison his beloved cigars, an effort to plant a bomb in a fish tank and a mission to have him poisoned by a female agent.
“If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal’,’ he once said.
In Cuba, his record was mixed with the thousands of exiles forced out of the country fiercely critical of his authoritarian approach.
Castro could, however, point to a world class health system that attracted medical tourists from far and wide. He also sent tens of thousands of the country’s first-rate doctors to hospitals abroad, including the largest contingent that reacted to the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014.
As per his wishes, Castro’s ashes will be interred alongside many heroes of Cuba’s struggle for independence in the 19th century at the Santa Ifigenia cemetery.