The room went silent at the UN’s 2001 World Conference Against Racism when Fidel Castro entered. He took the podium and firmly denunciated not only racism, but also the deep scars inflicted by capitalism. “The inhuman exploitation on the peoples of three continents,” he said in reference to Africa, Asia and Latin America, “marked forever the destiny and lives of over 4.5 billion people living in the Third World today.” It was this history, he said, that left “the current victims of that atrocity” in poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and sickness. Castro’s words mirrored reality. He would not end there. It was hope, not despondency, that captured his personality. “I believe in the mobilisation and the struggle of the peoples!” he said. “I believe in the idea of justice! I believe in truth! I believe in man!”
It was hard to contain the applause. Castro, in his customary green fatigues, took in the adulation. There was nothing insincere about it: the leaders in the room admired the guerrilla. He said things that many of them believed, but had come to set aside. These were the ideas of their youth and of their anti-colonial traditions. But they had set them to mute. Never would we hear such honesty from these leaders of the Third World. But their applause suggested something important. Castro spoke for their suppressed values. His words rang true, even as their articulation would be sneered at by the Global North and their representatives in the Global South. The most severe mockery would be reserved for Castro’s hopefulness, his talk of mass mobilisation and struggle. Words like ‘justice’ and ‘truth’ had been emptied of their content. They would now mean the opposite. Commitments to mass mobilisation and struggle evoked excitement in some, condescension in others. It was the part of Castro’s resilient message that set him apart.
Castro, who represented a beleaguered revolution in a small island, stood for otherwise suppressed historical forces. Against all odds, the guerrillas of the Sierra Maestra defeated the mafia leadership in Havana and defended itself from the Yankees of Washington, D.C. At the inauguration of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1961, Cuba’s president Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado spoke in a language that irked the more staid leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Jawaharlal Nehru and Josip Broz Tito. Underdevelopment, he said, can be “overcome only through a struggle against and by total victory against imperialism”. Determined that imperialism needed to be confronted, Cuba hosted the Tricontinental meeting fifty years ago. It was here that Castro said that his government would “coordinate support for revolutionary wars of liberation throughout the colonised world”. Che Guevara was already in the Congo, working with African revolutionaries. Cuban material support – in terms of military and medical training – came to Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Angola. It was the Cuban assistance to the militants in these struggles that helped defeat Portugal and summon Portugal’s own Carnation Revolution against its fascist state in 1974. It was the Cuban intervention in Angola that helped defeat the South African military at the 1988 Battle of Cuito Cunavale, which broke the back of the South African apartheid regime and contributed to its demise in 1994. Cuba did its work and then withdrew. It did not seek to occupy – to get business deals or to create military bases. It came to help and then, having helped, it left.
In 1983, Castro arrived in New Delhi to hand over the presidency of NAM to India. He was received like a folk hero, the triumphant leader of a Third World then in great distress. The debt crisis had ended whatever hope had been kindled from the anti-colonial movements. Finance ministers lined up at the International Monetary Fund and at the various commercial lenders to raise funds for depleted treasuries. The will to fight for another world had been squashed. Fidel Castro had other ideas. He was not ready to bend his knee. What about a debt strike, he asked? What if every one of the NAM states refused to service their debts and what if they demanded that their debts be renegotiated? Castro received a standing ovation. But no one decided to follow him. There was no debt strike. Instead, country upon country faced a policy slate (neo-liberalism) that cannibalised their resources. Castro continued to beat the drum, warning against the direction taken by the planet. He spoke about the failure of the world’s leaders to craft a global response to the perils that faced us all: a financial system that had become a casino, a social project that created perilous levels of inequality, a consumption pattern that would devour the earth’s resources, wars that are the child of greed and hunger. New ideas had crept in to corrupt thought. “The market has become today an object of idolatry,” he said in 1999, “a sacred word pronounced at all hours.” The richest 10 per cent of the world’s population today controls 89 per cent of the world’s wealth. This kind of thinking, Castro said, has “impaired the human mind”. Nothing held Castro back. When journalist Ignacio Ramonet accused him of being a dreamer, Castro responded, “There’s no such thing as dreamers, and you can take that from a dreamer who’s had the privilege of seeing realities that he was never capable of dreaming.” Solutions to such grotesque inequalities were needed. They cannot be found in apps and in microcredit. Much grander thoughts are required. Castro persisted with that ambition. It was his boldness that allowed so many people to breathe.
In 1953, a lieutenant and his squad captured Castro and some of his comrades. Castro hid his identity for fear of execution at the spot. The soldiers wanted to kill the guerrillas. The lieutenant walked about calming them down. “You cannot kill ideas.” He repeated, “you cannot kill ideas.” Later Castro wondered what made the lieutenant save his life and repeat that statement. “Our ideas did not die,” Castro said. “No one could kill them.” Without the long period of struggle and experimentation, without the years “we had to educate, sow ideas, build awareness, instil feelings of solidarity and a generous internationalist spirit, our people would not have had the strength to resist.” You cannot kill ideas. Castro, for the Third World, was not merely another leader. He was the mirror of its aspirations. That mirror is now shattered.
Vijay Prashad is Professor of International Studies at Trinity College and Chief Editor of LeftWord Books.