Thursday 22 March 2018

Castro: Hero or dictator?

The former Cuban President was seen as a ruthless despot by some and hailed as a revolutionary hero by others

EL COMANDANTE: Fidel Castro in 2006. Photo: Adalberto Roque/Getty.
EL COMANDANTE: Fidel Castro in 2006. Photo: Adalberto Roque/Getty.

Peter Orsi

The death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro divided the world's leaders yesterday, as left-leaning governments rushed to praise his revolutionary spirit while others decried him as a cruel dictator who brutalised and impoverished his own people.

Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela, led the tributes from world leaders after the announcement, which was greeted with shock in Havana and celebrations among expats in Miami.

"The commander in chief of the Cuban revolution died at 22:29 hours this evening," his brother, President Raul Castro, announced with a shaking voice on national television.

He ended the announcement by shouting the revolutionary slogan: "Hasta La Victoria Siempre!" (Towards victory, always!)

However, other leaders were less favourable in their remarks about the Communist leader, who is understood to have died in his home in Havana aged 90.

"Fidel Castro was a dictator who oppressed his people for 50 years," said Cecilia Malmström, the EU's trade commissioner.

"Strange to hear all the tributes in the news today."

Barack Obama, the outgoing US president, said in a statement that "history" would be the one to judge Castro.

"At this time of Fidel Castro's passing, we extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people. We know that this moment fills Cubans - in Cuba and in the United States - with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation.

"History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him."

Fidel Castro has been suffering from intestinal problems since the early 2000s. In April, he told politicians that he would die soon but that the revolution's ideals would live on.

"I'll be 90 years old soon," he said at the time. "Soon I'll be like all the others."

His brother said the revolutionary leader's remains would be cremated early on Saturday, "in compliance with his expressed will."

The bearded Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution and ruled Cuba for 49 years with a mix of charisma and iron will, creating a one-party state and becoming a central figure in the Cold War.

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Fidel Castro as the "symbol of an era," the Kremlin said in a statement Saturday.

"The name of this distinguished statesman is rightly considered the symbol of an era in modern world history," Putin said in a telegram to Cuban President Raul Castro cited by the Kremlin.

"Fidel Castro was a sincere and reliable friend of Russia."

He was demonised by the United States and its allies but admired by many leftists around the world, especially socialist revolutionaries in Latin America and Africa.

Transforming Cuba from a playground for rich Americans into a symbol of resistance to Washington, Castro outlasted nine U.S. presidents in power.

He fended off a CIA-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 as well as countless assassination attempts.

His alliance with Moscow helped trigger the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, a 13-day showdown with the US that brought the world the closest it has been to nuclear war.

Wearing green military fatigues and chomping on cigars for many of his years in power, Castro was famous for long, fist-pounding speeches filled with blistering rhetoric, often aimed at the United States.

At home, he swept away capitalism and won support for bringing schools and hospitals to the poor. But he also created legions of enemies and critics, concentrated among Cuban exiles now living in Miami who fled his rule and saw him as a ruthless tyrant.

In the end it was not the efforts of Washington and Cuban exiles nor the collapse of Soviet communism that ended his rule. Instead, illness forced him to cede power to his younger brother Raul Castro, provisionally in 2006 and definitively in 2008.

Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela, hailed his legacy. "To all the revolutionaries of the world, we have to continue his legacy and his flag of independence, of socialism, of homeland," he said.

Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, said he was "a great one". "Fidel is dead. Long live Cuba! Long live Latin America!"

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto tweeted: "I lament the death of Fidel Castro Ruz, leader of the Cuban revolution and emblematic reference of the 20th Century," he said on Twitter.

Elsewhere, French President François Hollande said Castro "incarnated the Cuban revolution" in its "hopes" and its "disillusionments".

"Fidel Castro was a figure of the 20th century. He incarnated the Cuban revolution, in the hopes that it aroused, then in the disillusionments it provoked," he said in a statement.

"An actor in the Cold War, he was part of an era that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. He succeeded in representing for Cubans the pride of rejecting external domination."

He added that the controversial embargo which "punishes" Cuba should be lifted once and for all."

"On the occasion of Fidel Castro's death I want again to say that the embargo which punishes Cuba should be lifted definitively," he said at a summit of French-speaking nations in Madagascar.

Fidel Castro's death comes as relations have thawed between Cuba and the US, to which he responded: "We don't need the empire to give us anything."

Castro led a coup in 1959 to overthrow the regime of the US-backed former Cuban president Fulgencio Batista, and remained hostile to Washington throughout his life.

The leader of the French Communist Party, Pierre Laurent, who told French TV that the dictator had "liberated his people in 1959, at a time when the island was in some ways the brothel and the casino of rich Americans. Then he faced American imperialism… He was one of the leaders of the movement of human emancipation in the 20th century. The revolution he led took place at the time of decolonisation and was part of this movement to restore the sovereignty of peoples. That is what will remain in history."

In Britain, former London mayor Ken Livingstone said Castro was an "absolute giant of the 20th century", and blamed the US for the restrictions on civil liberties under his leadership.

He said: "I'm sure they will, over time, move towards something like a traditional west European democracy. It could have happened a lot earlier if you hadn't had, the entire time, a blockade by America, attempts to overthrow the regime, eight assassination attempts authorised by American presidents."

Mr Livingstone said Cuba could reform now it was not under threat of American invasion "even if Trump goes a little bit bonkers".

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme "of course Fidel did things that were wrong", adding: "Initially he wasn't very good on lesbian and gay rights, but the key things that mattered was that people had a good education, good healthcare and wealth was evenly distributed.

"He was not living as a billionaire laundering money off into a Panamanian bank account or anything like that, he was good for the people."

The US president-elect of the issued a typically statesmanlike and reserved tweet in reaction to the news of Castro's death. "He's dead!" tweeted Trump.

In the capital, the death caught many people by surprise in the early hours of the morning. In Old Havana, people gathered around their radios, listening to state-run stations play revolutionary anthems and recite facts about Castro's life.

Carlos Rodriguez, 15, was sitting in Havana's Miramar neighbourhood when he heard that Fidel Castro had died.

"Fidel? Fidel?" he said as he slapped his head with his hand in shock. "That's not what I was expecting. One always thought that he would last forever. It doesn't seem true."

"It's a tragedy," said Dayan Montalvo, a 22-year-old nurse. "We all grew up with him. I feel really hurt by the news that we just heard."

Havana student Sariel Valdespino said he was "very upset". "Whatever you want to say, he is public figure that the whole world respected and loved."

Mariela Alonso, a 45-year-old doctor, called the retired Cuban leader "the guide for our people."

"There will be no one else like him. We will feel his physical absence," she said.

Cuban state television was carrying special programming celebrating the life of Castro. The programming included footage from years past of Castro giving speeches on revolutionary struggle.

In the US, however, expat Cubans took to the streets of Miami's Little Havana to celebrate news of the death.

Thousands of people waved Cuban flags in the air and whooped in jubilation on Calle Ocho - 8th Street, and the heart of the neighbourhood. Honking and strains of salsa music from car stereos

Cuba's government announced that Castro's ashes would be burried on December 4 in the eastern city of Santiago that was a birthplace of his revolution.

That will follow more than a week of honours, including a nearly nationwide caravan retracing, in reverse, his tour from Santiago to Havana with the triumph of the revolution in 1959.

©Associated Press

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