Published On: Mon, Nov 28th, 2016

‘History will absolve me’: Fidel Castro dies at 90

fidelHAVANA - The founder of the Cuban Revolution and president of Cuba for almost 50 years, Fidel Castro, died on the night of Friday, November 25, in Havana. He was 90 years old.

He ruled Cuba under a one-party system until he stepped away from power in 2008 allowing his brother Raul Castro to succeed him as president of the Republic.

In Latin America and beyond, Fidel has held an almost mythical status for leftist revolutionary movements for over half a century. He has become a figure of legend, arguably as much for those who revere him as for those who reject his legitimacy as a leader, Global Voices contributors Firuzeh Shokooh Valle and Ellery Roberts Biddle noted.

Under Fidel's rule, Cuba became the first country in post-colonial Latin America to refuse economic aid from the United States and unequivocally defy its political agenda in the region. In the 1960s and '70s, Cuba became a leader in universal education and healthcare systems, women's rights, and in providing medical relief in the aftermaths of natural disasters in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Under Fidel's command, Cuba also provided significant military support for socialist uprisings in countries including Angola, Nicaragua and what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Simultaneous to the radical innovations of the Cuban revolution, the Castro government's endemic state censorship, jailing and persecution of dissidents, anti-LGBT policies and hypercentralized economic model were equally prominent features of his rule.

Castro was also known for his fiery, passionate and very long speeches. In one of his most famous addresses, he challenged his critics: “Condemn me, it does not matter, history will absolve me.”

Cuba suffered the consequences of a punitive and controversial US-imposed economic embargo from the 1960s, a policy that became a prominent weapon in the political and ideological arsenals of both the US and Cuban governments. For decades, Cuban government and intelligence agencies have routinely thwarted US government efforts to infiltrate or overthrow the Castro government.

After the fall of Soviet Union in 1989 the island entered what was called “The Special Period in Times of Peace,” in which the sudden lack of support from the USSR brought severe economic hardship to the country. Economic reforms of the 1990s generated more opportunity for industries such as tourism to take hold. For some Cubans this represented a breach of the socialist contract of the Revolution; for others, it was a necessary step to preventing the country from going into a complete economic meltdown.

US President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro normalized diplomatic relations in 2014, but the embargo can only be officially ended by the US Congress where the Republican party controls a majority of seats.

The Cuban government has announced nine days of national mourning and a series of tributes.

Revered and despised in perhaps equal measure, what few would contest is Fidel Castro's status as a towering figure in modern world history.

Fidel Castro’s achievements in improving access to public services for millions of Cubans were tempered by a systemic repression of basic freedoms during his time in power, Amnesty International said following the death of the former Cuban leader.

"There are few more polarizing political figures than Fidel Castro, a progressive but deeply flawed leader," said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

After his accession to power following the 1959 revolution in Cuba, Castro oversaw dramatic improvements in access to human rights such as health and housing. This was accompanied by an unprecedented drive to improve literacy rates across the country.

"Access to public services such as health and education for Cubans were substantially improved by the Cuban revolution and for this, his leadership must be applauded. However, despite these achievements in areas of social policy, Fidel Castro’s forty nine year reign was characterised by a ruthless suppression of freedom of expression,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

“The state of freedom of expression in Cuba, where activists continue to face arrest and harassment for speaking out against the government, is Fidel Castro’s darkest legacy," she added.

Over more than five decades documenting the state of human rights in Cuba, Amnesty International has recorded a relentless campaign against those who dare to speak out against the Cuban government’s policies and practices. Over the years, the organization has documented hundreds of stories of “prisoners of conscience”, people detained by the government solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Repressive tactics used by the authorities have changed in the last years with fewer people sentenced to long-term prison for politically motivated reasons, but the control of the state over all the aspects of Cubans’ life remain a reality. Repression takes new forms in today’s Cuba, including the wide use of short-term arrests and ongoing harassment of people who dare to publish their opinions, defending human rights, or challenging the arbitrary arrest of a relative.

The government continues to limit access to the internet as a key way of controlling both access to information and freedom of expression. Only 25% of the Cuban population is able to get online and only 5% of homes have internet access.

Upon establishing his provisional government in 1959, Castro organised trials of members of the previous government that resulted in hundreds of summary executions. In response to an international outcry and amid accusations that many of the trials were unfair, Castro responded:

"Revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts, but on moral conviction... we are not executing innocent people or political opponents. We are executing murderers and they deserve it."

“Fidel Castro’s legacy is a tale of two worlds. The question now is what human rights will look like in a future Cuba. The lives of many depend on it,” said Guevara-Rosas.

According to Michael Weissenstein, the AP's bureau chief in Havana, the news of Castro's death produced a widespread sense of shock in Cuba, even though he was an old man who had been in poor health.

"I think for many people, until they heard the news, they didn't realize what it would be like to wake up in a Cuba without the man who had reshaped it over the last 60 years," Weissenstein said.

Meanwhile, the Miami Herald reported that Cuban-Americans in Miami were rejoicing at Castro's passing.

However, Castro’s death comes at a time when a majority of Cuban Americans are changing their minds about opening up free trade and diplomatic relations with Cuba. A Florida International University poll in September found that 56 percent of local Cubans “strongly” or “mostly” favour re-engagement with the communist nation.

Chairman of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica, noted that Castro generously shared his country’s expertise with other developing countries and CARICOM member states have benefited significantly and continue to do so from Cuba’s contribution to their development.

In recognition of his role in that regard, the CARICOM heads of government bestowed an honorary Order of the Caribbean Community on Castro, the only such honour granted to a non-CARICOM citizen.

Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) director general, Dr Didacus Jules, said the poor and the marginalized had lost the greatest champion of social justice and equity.

“Fidel was a steadfast friend of the Caribbean and his contributions in education and health have been the greatest gifts to the long term viability of Caribbean societies. His solidarity with Africa and the developing world led to the end of Apartheid and oppression in many parts of the world," Jules said.

Cuba’s willingness to fight side-by-side with Africans made Castro a towering figure on that continent. In 1975, as Angola gained independence from Portugal, it offered a safe haven to then liberation movements hunted in their own countries.

When the apartheid government, aided by the United States, attacked Angola, it was Castro who came to the Africans’ aid. He sent 36,000 troops who succeeded in pushing the South African soldiers back while also training African fighters. Cuban troops remained in Africa until 1988, when an apartheid South Africa agreed to withdraw and grant independence to Namibia. Castro’s defiance of the United States was seen as defiance of imperialism and neo-colonialism by African freedom fighters.

Nelson Mandela once reportedly said that when he heard of the Cuban army’s victories in Angola, he was heartened by the idea of a non-white army out-maneuvering a white army. Upon his release, Castro was one of the first leaders Mandela met with, and dismissed criticism of his friendship with the politically isolated Castro.

"We are now being advised about Cuba by people who have supported the apartheid regime these last 40 years,” Mandela said on a visit to Havana in 1991. “No honorable man or woman could ever accept advice from people who never cared for us at the most difficult times.”

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