Editor’s Note: Sinan Antoon is an Iraqi-born poet and novelist. The English translation of his third novel, The Baghdad Eucharist, is forthcoming this spring. The opinion this article belong to the author
Antoon: For many in the world, especially the global south, he will be a potent symbol for courage and steadfastness
Was Fidel Castro, who died in Havana last Friday, a dictator or a revolutionary hero and icon? Media outlets in the US and elsewhere in the West are at pains to reduce Fidel Castro’s rich life and complicated legacy to a single word: dictator.
The perspective of Cuban exiles and their descendants, who danced jubilantly in Miami, was disproportionately amplified and eclipsed other narratives about the history of the man who led one of the greatest revolutions of the twentieth century and “turned a colony into a country”, in the words of the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.
A country that tops the charts in its zone and competes with advanced countries terms of its education and healthcare systems (free access to education, 0% illiteracy, universal healthcare) and life expectancy (78). All of this was achieved in the most adverse conditions with a brutal US embargo imposed more than five decades ago, which has cost Cuba over a trillion dollars.
One’s ideological position, whether conscious or not, influences how one views Castro. Many of us who either grew up in or are from the Global South are inclined to see Fidel and Cuba differently. We, after all, inhabit a region where nationalist leaders who defy imperialism (whose concrete consequences are a lived reality, not an abstract concept) and strive to build strong economies not beholden to global capital are often deposed by military juntas supported by the West.
We also live in a region where the US and other western, liberal democracies have supported and armed brutal dictators and overlooked their horrendous crimes for decades.
This, I think, makes us more critical when a third world leader is demonized or celebrated in the global north.
For many of us in the Arab world, Cuba and its people were allies in the darkest and most critical times. Whether it was Algeria in its struggle against French colonialism, or Palestine in its quest for self-determination, Cuba was there when the governments of the “free world” were silent partners of the other side. Castro’s vision of solidarity and active support for the aspirations of people and liberation movements all across the global south transcended rhetoric and made a crucial difference.
I first heard of Castro and Cuba in the 1970s. I didn’t know what the stakes were at the time except that the apartheid regime of South Africa was on one side whilst the Cubans were fighting alongside the Angolans. Many years later, I was to learn that the Cuban intervention and support in Angola was decisive in weakening the apartheid regime.
Mandela wrote from prison that this “was the first time that a country had come from another continent not to take something away, but to help Africans to achieve their freedom.”Mandela’s first visit outside South Africa after his release from prison was to Cuba to personally thank Castro and the Cuban people for their unmatched support. Whatever one may think of Castro’s problematic and objectionable policies inside Cuba and the limitations on and lacks of freedoms, his role in helping end apartheid must be in the balance.
Cuba’s support for countries of the Global South has continued. Reportedly, there are 15,000 Cuban doctors working in 66 countries.
In the days following the end of the first Gulf War of 1991, I saw a group of men and women on one of Baghdad’s streets speaking Spanish. I was surprised, because all foreigners (except a few journalists) had left the city in the days preceding the long bombing campaign by the US (in which, to quote then secretary of state James Baker, the US bombed Iraq “back to the pre-industrial age”).
When I approached and asked them where they were from, they said they were a team of doctors and nurses who had come to help Iraqis – who were already suffering from the effects of the sanctions the US had imposed on them. By the time these sanctions were lifted, they had killed one million Iraqi civilians. Fidel sent us doctors, not missiles or depleted-uranium.
Fidel had many flaws and they are well known to the world by now. His legacy should be scrutinized, but not reduced. For many in the world, especially the global south, he will be a potent symbol for courage and steadfastness. For the legitimate dreams of social justice and dignity in the face of predatory capitalism.