Illustration: Hanlin Cheng

He was a man like no other. A man who single-handedly fought against imperialism and achieved freedom for his country. A man who went against the United States of America and lived to tell the tale. He was the sole man who stood up and said, “No,” while the rest of the world bleated agreement in unison. In the field of sheep, he was the lone wolf.

He was Fidel Castro.

On November 25, 2016, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro passed away at the age of 90, in Cuba. The revolutionary who had survived 638 assassination attempts and outlived 9 U.S. presidents finally gave in to diverticulitis. As a man of controversy, Castro’s death brought joy to many and grief to others.

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born in 1926 in Biran, Cuba to a wealthy family. Growing up, he displayed an interest in history, geography, debating and sports. In fact, his athletic talent enabled him to be scouted by an American to play in a professional baseball team. While studying law at the University of Havana, Castro developed his anti-imperialist views and became a committed student activist. Castro spent time travelling around Latin America. Over the course of his travels, he began to notice the extreme poverty, injustice and racial inequality faced by Latin Americans. This, along with scriptures by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin influenced his left-leaning beliefs.

In March 1952, General Fulgencio Batista seized power in a violent military coup. He subsequently cancelled presidential elections and violently suppressed any form of rebellion. Batista gained absolute power and began to persecute Cuban socialists, eventually leaning towards the imperialist intent of the United States. Batista’s policies enabled Americans mafias and corporations to exploit Cuban resources, causing mass poverty to many Cubans. Unable to change the system from the inside by bringing various cases against Batista in court, Castro decided to take up arms. Fidel Castro united various rebels across the country to join his fight against the tyrant; his guerilla tactics eventually brought him and the revolutionaries to victory on 1 January, 1959. Batista fled the country, along with thousands of his supporters, enabling Castro to take power for the Cuban people and eventually become the historic figure he is today.

Castro’s government continuously worked towards a better Cuba, creating numerous policies that in turn benefited Cubans. Racial segregation was immediately ended, the illiteracy rate dropped to almost 0%, healthcare and education—even post-secondary— became free for all, food rations were distributed, child malnourishment rates declined to 0%, discrimination against women ended, and unemployment rates fell to 2.7% [1]. Clearly, Castro’s Cuba entailed radical change which benefited all.

Castro also helped Cuba play a more major international role. He sent troops to fight against white U.S.-backed mercenary groups that fought to keep apartheid in South Africa; Cubans played a key role in fighting for the independence of Angola and Namibia. Nelson Mandela himself praised Cubans saying, “We have come here today recognizing our great debt to the Cuban people,” on one occasion and even chanting “Viva Fidel” on another.

It is important to acknowledge the historical context of Castro’s Cuba and the progress it made. Many of the criticisms against Castro, including those regarding human rights, are viewed without acknowledgement of these crucial factors. The alleged human rights violations were primarily reported during the 1960s, -70s and -80s. One of them involve a case where approximately five hundred people were executed by means of firing squad; while barbaric, these were soldiers and officers of Batista’s regime who had all had trials in front of a jury, with witness accounts of their violence.

Other allegations are towards the many people detained during the height of the Cold War, but one must remember Cuba was at war and dealing with heavy espionage coming from the U.S.. To maintain perspective, let us not forget the mass incarcerations in the United States for anyone who had socialist beliefs during the Red Scare campaign. The detention of LGBTQ community members is another commonly cited issue, but these detentions occurred because many gay clubs were possible CIA compounds. Nonetheless, Fidel Castro admitted his mistake in the 1990s, leading to the government immediately promoting LGBTQ rights and awareness education in schools to combat the negative stigma. Today, LGBT communities flourish in Cuba, with events such as gay and lesbian film festivals occurring throughout the island.

Although Cuba did have its problems, it is important to look at the many aspects in which it improved. With the end of racial segregation in the 1950s, Cuba outshone most of the other nations in the world. In fact, Cuba’s healthcare system is currently famous worldwide, and has made numerous advancements in medical research, such as the meningitis-B vaccine in 1985. Furthermore, it was the first country to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis, and even provided doctors and nurses to Western Africa during the ebola outbreak.  

All these successes and advancements in Cuban life could not have happened without Castro’s revolution. However, there are still problems present in Cuba, and Castro made many empty promises, such as holding democratic elections immediately after the revolution. Nonetheless, Fidel Castro remains a very important figure in history. He brought change to Cuba and advanced it in tremendous ways, all while being threatened by the world’s largest superpower.

When we think of the leaders who shaped our modern world, Castro’s name will no doubt be among the first. We can proudly claim that we are the last generation who saw a titan amongst us, the last relic of the Cold War. Whether he goes down in history as a tyrant or a hero, he will surely stand in the hall of fame of leaders: an elite among the elites. We will always know that Castro and Revolution went hand in hand, all because we were fortunate enough to live in the age of Fidel Castro.

  1. “Statistics.” UNICEF. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2017. 

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