As with Che Guevara, his one-time comrade-in-arms, Fidel Castro was the man who made revolutions sexy. With his wild beard, olive-green military fatigues, darkly petulant good looks and trademark cigars, El Comandante became the anachronistically glamorous face of leftwing totalitarianism. He was Marxism-Leninism’s poster boy, a revolutionary enfant terrible and, in a cold war firmament of red stars, the most brilliant, shining – and long-lived – exemplar of recklessly unrepentant revolutionary zeal.
But behind the photogenic image, there was deadly serious intent. During the cynical, paranoid years of the post-war era, Castro brought the passion of a true believer to the ideological contest between east and west. He defied the all-powerful United States and encouraged Soviet dreams of world domination. He became a symbol of resistance and an inspirational figure to leftwing insurgents across Africa and Latin America, aiding and abetting their anti-colonial independence movements. Isolated, abused and furiously plotted against, he played the part of political underdog to perfection, an eternal martyr to the cause of global liberation.
Yet Castro was also a manipulative demagogue, an oppressor and a relentless persecutor of those who dared challenge his will. Once in power in Cuba, he brooked no opposition. Violent abuses of accepted legal standards and human rights, initially excused as a revolutionary necessity, became the regime-sustaining norm. Over more than 50 years following his successful 1959 coup d’etat, he proved remarkably inflexible, doctrinaire, choleric and long-winded. He was unwilling to learn from obvious policy mistakes that, by degrees, turned Cuba into the relatively impoverished, illiberal and closed society it still is today.
Although there were significant achievements, notably in healthcare and education, Castro’s idealistic brand of state socialism, anti-capitalist collectivism and emancipatory struggle ultimately foundered. Yet the triumph of the west’s rival neoliberal, free market model may be shortlived, too. Castro survived just long enough to witness a dawning ultra-nationalist, materialist, post-ideological counter-revolution, personified by Donald Trump. He might, with justice, say: “I told you so.”
That the “maximum leader” never gave up on his socialist beliefs, right to the bitter end, is a cause for admiration, if not approbation. In one of his most quoted remarks, Castro declared “a revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past”. Making what now turns out to be his final address to the Communist party’s congress in Havana in April, he admitted his day was almost done – but his mortal battle for the future was not…