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The health of Cuban President Fidel Castro has recently made international news headlines. Dida Halake shares with us his perceptions of Fidel and the 1959 revolution.

“The United States will not tell us who our friends are. When the United States supported the racists in our country, Cuba and Libya stood with us for our freedom.” -Nelson Mandela, ex “terrorist” and South Africa’s first Black President.

Some years ago, an English Professor and I were talking about the life of Muhammad Ali. The London newspaper we were looking at had a massive double-page spread of the great man. Looking bloated and shaky, Ali was surrounded by adoring children in Soweto. I think this was just after Chris Hani had been assassinated by a white supremacy Boer; Ali was also pictured with Hani’s children whom he had gone to comfort. The professor said, “It is a pity Ali is now in such a state. Parkinson’s is a terrible disease.” I was so shocked at what the Professor had said that I couldn’t speak.

The professor’s comment was so shocking because in his one life, Muhammad Ali has been blessed enough to spread as much love as a million Mother Theresas around this cruel world of ours. The man’s humanity touched so many lives that I doubt whether there are many men my age, from Cambodia to Canada, who don’t relive those feelings of first love on hearing the name Ali. Even today, here in England, whenever I mention his named to anyone, eyes light up and people start talking as if they knew the man as a personal friend; try the experiment yourself and see. It is what Muhammad Ali was and what he did that will live after him, and so with Fidel Castro who lies in a hospital bed as I write.

It was in 1956 that Castro, then a young fugitive lawyer, landed on his home soil from Mexico with a band of revolutionaries, including Che Guevara, and headed for the mountains. From the Sierra Maestra Mountains, Castro and his band of guerrillas would, in three short years, sweep the hated and corrupt US-installed Batista-dictatorship out of Havana, flushing the Mafia criminals who had made Havana their weekend brothel after him (a bit of this is in the movie “The Godfather,” where Don Michael is caught in the Revolution as he goes to Havana to settle scores with Roth).

It was twenty years later, in the heady decade of Black Power and revolutions across Africa, that events came together to cement my life-long love of the Cuban Revolution. In 1976, Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement was at its height. The racist government in South Africa made the mistake of forcing the African children to have lessons in the hated Boer language of the Dutch. Soweto erupted in a revolution that was organized and led by the school children. This children’s revolution led directly to South Africa’s freedom and Mandela’s presidency. Fearing the revolutionary ideas of the government of newly-independent Angola (and Angloa’s support for Namibia’s SWAPO Freedom Movement), the Racist Boers ruling South Africa next invaded Angola. Castro condemned Apartheid South Africa’s attempt to bring down the popular MPLA government in Angola. Cuban soldiers helped Angola defeat the Boer invasion and the US negotiated a deal to save the Boers; the Cubans will leave Angola and go home and the Boers will leave Namibia (The Cuban intervention saved the independence of Angola and, at the same time, accelerated the independence of Namibia). This first defeat of the racist Boers was not lost on the 1976 “Soweto Generation” of school children, one of whom is now President Thabo Mbeki’s adviser; the lesson was that the Apartheid War Machine is not unbeatable. To the young Africans of my generation, from Gambia to Ethiopia and from Algeria to Mozambique, Castro was a hero, with a capital H, for helping us defeat South Africa. It is funny looking back now how the South African blacks’ fight against the Boers was our fight throughout the African continent … but that is how it was in those days.

A year later, in 1977, the United States armed the Somali government and encouraged it to overthrow the government of Ethiopia (the US was miffed because it had just been thrown out of Ethiopia, a long-term ally). The US-armed Somali Army made rapid progress and captured a large chunk of Ethiopian territory and threatened the integrity of the country (remember that Ethiopia is still the seat of the African Union and was, with Nkrumah, the driving force for African Unity). Then Castro’s 5,000 Cuban soldiers landed in Ethiopia and Somalia was quickly defeated. Somalia then descended into the chaos that has made it the only country in the world without a government for over 15 years now. It was sweetly ironic that the same Somalis caused the US military one of its most humiliating retreats (see the movie “Black Hawk Down”). By the way, as I write, the USA is on the other side again – this time encouraging Ethiopia to take on the “Islamists” in Somalia (“Islamists” who have brought a form of peace and stability to Somalia for the first time in 15 years). Sorry, back to Cuba!

US propaganda described the Cuban Revolution of 1959 as “Communist.” This was completely false. Castro was a Christian, liberal, financially well-off, Cuban middle-class lawyer, just as “Communist” Mandela was in South Africa. Castro’s revolution was simply a nationalist revulsion resulting from Cuba’s appalling degradation; just as we are appalled at the state of much of Africa today. Castro’s revolution did not promise “Communism.” If I recall correctly from my university research paper on the Cuban revolution many years ago, Castro actually made a speech condemning the Cuban Communist Party.

Castro simply promised good homes with toilets, schools and medical care for the people. He promised, above all, dignity to an exploited and prostituted colonized people. Now, it is difficult to deliver for your people if all the companies and wealth in the country are owned by foreigners who take all the money out.

The native Cubans are mainly a beautiful olive-coloured mix of Spaniards and the Africans who arrived as slaves at around the time that the first Europeans passed by Senegambia, only stopping long enough to steal a few people. Before the 1959 Revolution, the Cubans existed exactly as we Africans existed under European colonial rule: poor third-class servants with no constitutional rights in our own land. From this perspective, which is the perspective of the majority of Cubans, the 1959 Revolution was the onset of real independence for Cuba. Incidentally, the “exiles” in the US do contribute much to the Cuban economy through remittances to loved ones back home, just as we Africans abroad do.

So Castro and Co. nationalised all companies for the Cuban people. The USA responded with an embargo and an invasion. To avoid strangulation, Castro cleverly declared his revolution “Communist,” only after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by US-backed Mafia-criminals. I emphasise “only after” because British TV has just this minute put these events in the wrong chronological order! Then the Russians came in to support Cuba with arms, oil and 2 billion dollars a year of financial assistance. With this assistance (and we must state Cuba did pay for some of it from their own agricultural industry), the Cuban Revolution was able to survive and deliver on its promises to the Cuban people, becoming stronger and stronger in the process. In Africa, Nkrumah was termed a “Communist” when he turned to others for help to build the Akasumbo Dam (turning to others only after Ghana was blocked for financial help from the World Bank).

So I end as I started. I thank God for the gift of Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro. I thank God for being enriched by their lives even though I never met either in person. I was in the same bookshop as Ali in London in the 1990s as he signed copies of his book for a massive throng of admirers, so many people that I couldn’t get near him even after 90 minutes of waiting! We may all pass into the next world soon, but the glorious achievements of Ali’s and Castro’s lives remain to inspire others.

1st September 2006
Viva Fidel
By Dida Halake