For today’s young, the name Fidel Castro sounds like an antique. But for my generation and the one before it, Castro cut a picture larger than life. He was the one that humbled 11 American presidents, almost ignited a nuclear war, overwhelmed several assassination attempts including from a limber beauty, overthrew capitalism, became one-man contagion of revolution around the world, was a lion in the Bay of Pigs invasion, a despot who was both loved and reviled, an exporter of change but whose legacy may be that he refused change when it knocked on his door.
With his phallic cigar, green fatigue, John the Baptist beard, domed forehead and luminous eyes, Castro was the most important Marxist alive in the 1980’s when I was a student at Ife. Fellow students loved to be called Marxists. Some donned Castro’s beard. A few had fatigues. We had a group called the Alliance of Progressive Students (ALPS), and it throbbed with Marxists. They ate and drank Lenin and Marx. They were fascinated with the Soviet Union, but Russia was a bastion. Yet its personages were bulls. They had force but lacked style. They had charisma but not colour. They had men like Brezhnev, Andropov. Earlier was Nikita Khrushchev, the poor who could not stand up to Kennedy. If the Soviet Union was a shadow of bears, Cuba was a mirror alight with a lone star.
Castro was the one alive, and he inhabited every romantic philosophy about change. The ALPS students were brilliant, audacious and even contemptuous of those who did not belong. They celebrated lack, canonised collective suffering without knowing it, showed contempt for material acquisition to the point of devaluing the virtue of productivity, acclaimed tyranny in the name of promoting the common touch. They were the mainstay of student unionism. Since Ife propelled student activism of those years, it is arguable that the course of students’ imbroglio roiled from the ideological heart of ALPS. They were fantasists in the league of Don Quixote, a novel by Cervantes and acclaimed the greatest novel ever written. Castro compared himself to Quixote. In his essay on Napoleon, Ralph Waldo Emerson said the French general bred many young clones who were known as little Napoleons. Well, my ALPS friends and some professors were little Castros.
I had quite a few friends who were ALPS members, and I thought they were the secular equivalent of the religious bigots on campus. They bullied from half-baked knowledge, spewed out cants, quoted history tendentiously, dreamed of communes like some lecturers and other groups who tried but failed capitally. Some of them were still active after their Ife days.I recalled prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, I had a discussion with my editor Lewis Obi at the
I recalled prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, I had a discussion with my editor Lewis Obi at the African Concord about the fall of socialism, and he encouraged me to write it. It was titled “The Last days of Socialism”. I met a few of the old ALPS men at the residence of the late lawyer and human rights avatar, Gani Fawehinmi, for one of those occasions that undermined the IBB regime. Some of them scoffed at my piece and said when the revolution came, I would be in the forefront.
Castro died last Friday at the ripe age of 90, after about four decades on the throne, the longest person on an executive throne in living memory. Ghaddafi was dispatched in disgrace; the Thai leader was ceremonial and so is the queen of England.
Many wonder why we should celebrate a man who lived for an idea no one wants to use these days. He died without repentance. But that was the world he knew. He fomented his revolution when democracy was still an ideology of doubtful fairness. It was an age of countervailing propaganda, and the success of ideologies was often a matter of whether you wanted equality more or wealth less.The collapse of the Soviet Union and the chain effect in Eastern Europe settled the matter in favour of the Americans and western liberalism. Professor Fukuyama in a famous essay declared the end of history marked by the triumph of liberal ideas.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the chain effect in Eastern Europe settled the matter in favour of the Americans and western liberalism. Professor Fukuyama in a famous essay declared the end of history marked by the triumph of liberal ideas.
Castro understood power and he held on to it aggressively. He banished a Havana of erotic excess, American decadence with all its image of a big, bright Babylon, of bordellos, drugs and deep inequality powered by a corrupt political class.
Castro was a man of myth and symbolism. At a big hall, the revolution was ushered in with the release of many doves. As he spoke on the podium, one bird flew down and perched on his shoulder. He was not a man of faith but the bird made his image soar into myth. God must be behind him.
After he left the stage, his country still has an antique architecture, the 1960’s type vehicles and widespread poverty by western standards. But he gave the world two great gifts. Advances in medicine and world-class education. Historian Tacitus quoted Aristotle as saying the mind and body are the two great benefits of governance. The people can do well after that. But you need a riubric to turn them into wealth. Like my ALPS friends and the Soviet Union, a good mind and body needs to be free. That led to the birth of Gorbachev’s Glastnost and Perestroika. The 2008 collapse also told us freedom has its limits. The Bernie Sanders campaign also tells us that we need capitalism but we need to save it from itself by addressing inequality within its rubric, but not the ideas of Marx and Castro.
Castro’s system could not generate its own prosperity. It relied on money from the Soviets until communism fell. Hugo Chavez also helped. His Venezuela has also fallen.
The problem with Castro was that he grew up as a rebel but ended up as the establishment man. That is the irony of history. When the world changed and embraced a new sort of economic system, he did not budge. He merely introduced cosmetic reforms until Chavez money and he reversed them. He was an unflinching revolutionary who did not understand that every revolution needs the dynamic thinking of a revolutionary.
Part of it was his biography. He thought he was the light of the world, he was the Jacob, in the words of The Proverbs. “The Lord sent word to Jacob and it lighted upon Israel.” He saw himself in such egotist terms. He failed as the conduit.
The lesson was that every leader should know when the ovation is loudest for any idea. He had become a dinosaur but he did not know it. He drew much love but his wine bottle was at its bottom. He insisted on still sipping furiously.