The death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro draws the curtain of an era marked by revolutions, a Cold War among two empires that engulfed the entire world, and a lawyer from a small Caribbean island emerging as a global player. From my perspective, having grown up in the '90s in suburban, southern US, Castro was the quintessential countercultural figure. The high school rebel would be sporting a Castro-imprinted black T-shirt while flipping his dyed hair; the university hippie would have a Castro poster on his dorm room, alongside numerous other paraphernalia. Yet somehow, during class lectures, no one would protest the fact that the CIA tried to assassinate this foreign leader several times.
Mainstream society had a different view of the revolutionary. The Republican Party openly demonised him, readily winning the Cuban voting bloc in Florida. When Castro's daughter defected to the Land of the Free, it was gleefully reported among the major media outlets. The mainstream message was that Castro's tyrannical rule led to massive asylum seekers in the US. Upon his death, I wanted to find out more about this man who meant so many different things to people all over the world.
Born in 1926, Castro was the son of a plantation owner, and went on to earn a law degree from the University of Havana. Although he ran for Congress in 1952, the election was thwarted due to General Fulgencio Batista's military coup. Thus began Castro's fight against the junta. On July 26, 1953, he led a failed armed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago in de Cuba to collect arms. Upon his arrest and subsequent trial, he declared: "Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me."
As destiny would have it, Castro received amnesty in 1954, and went into exile in Mexico, where he organised the Cuban revolution. In 1956, he arrived by boat in eastern Cuba, alongside the legendary revolutionary Che Guevara and 80 other comrades. Together, they engaged in a guerrilla warfare that culminated in Batista's escape from Havana, right after New Year's celebration in 1959. As he looked toward the Soviet Union for political and economic support, the US eventually broke off diplomatic relations in 1961. Relations soured to the point where CIA-trained Cuban exiles attempted an invasion of the island - the Bay of Pigs Invasion - in April the same year, a spectacular defeat that ended with them being captured or killed.
Castro rose to become a key player in the Cold War. In 1962, as the Soviet Union was building missile bases in Cuba, President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade to halt this. The stalemate was averted when US agreed to remove missiles from Turkey and the Soviets dismantled their bases. Castro continued the struggle for global Communism, inspired the Latin American countries and Cuban troops were despatched to African nations to support insurgencies.
Castro reshaped the Cuban society. Whereas healthcare and literacy improved for everyday Cubans, they were denied free speech, elections, and economic opportunities. Racial segregation was reversed as Castro brought in African descendants and peasant population into the capital, Havana, and provided them housing. At the same time, thousands of dissidents were imprisoned.
His greatest success after the revolution was maintaining socialist rule even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The US economic embargo was offset by $5.0 billion in annual subsidies from USSR, and Castro needed alternative strategies to survive. Cuba legalised the US currency and began allowing free enterprise, surprising analysts who predicted the demise of Communism in Cuba. Relations with US finally improved under President Obama, with a prisoner exchange in 2014, followed by reopening of embassies in both nations in 2015, and ultimately a US presidential visit in 2016.
US President-elect Trump would be wise to continue with normalising diplomatic relations, as 50 years of isolation policy did not pay dividends. Pre-Castro Cuba was a playground for rich American tourists, and surely the proprietor of Trump Hotels can at least see the long-term economic benefits.
Whether or not one liked the leader from this small island-nation, Fidel Castro remains an icon of revolution. His concluding remarks during his final speech to party members in 2016 seems quite fitting, "We will march unstoppably." Farewell Fidel, as thousands are celebrating and mourning your death, you made an indelible mark in this world.
The writer is a Texas-based Communications Analyst.