28 Nov Blog: Will Fidel’s mission be completed?
By Gert Oostindie
Fidel Castro has died. Over the final years of his long life he admonished his compatriots to complete the mission he started in the 1950s. Will they? Gert Oostindie does not think so: but neither does he expect a sudden regime change.
The death of Fidel on November 25, 2016, is breaking news. Few political leaders were as dominant at home and as highly visible in international politics as he was, and none demonstrated his same staying power. This message reverberates in political reactions world-wide, as well as in the press reports that started circulating hours after his death on November 25, 2016. All press bureaus had their obituaries ready – probably for many years – with one or two paragraphs added for his last days spent in untypical isolation. In fact, my own reflections on his legacy were published somewhat untimely in 2008 in the Dutch weekly de Volkskrant at a time he was already set on one side by his brother Raúl.
Judging Revolutionary Cuba is judging Fidel Castro, and vice versa. Ever since I first visited Cuba as a young student of Cuban colonial history in 1981, up to my last visit earlier this year to help make a television documentary on President Obama’s historic visit to Havana, I too had to come to terms with Fidel and his regime. Cuba is simply not a country that lets you get away with just enjoying its tropical attractions. Its political system is too omnipresent to ignore. Suffice it to say that economically the communist system was a failure from the start, surviving only thanks to massive Soviet aid. That same aid allowed the much-praised successes in the fields of medicine, education and income distribution. Politically, the system was anything but democratic and harsh to opponents. Internationally, Cuba was at once a source of inspiration, particularly for much of Latin America, as, increasingly, a voice of the Cold War era.
Contemporary geopolitics are no longer about Cold War issues, and over the past decade Cuba has had to accept an economic transition, more or less Vietnam or China style, but pursued with much less conviction and consequently at a much slower pace. Politically, there has not really been an opening.
A few years ago I came upon this billboard in Vedado, Havana. A gentle greybeard, referring to his younger days as a militant revolutionary, tells his fellow Cubans how he has honoured the promise made back then, and that they will now complete his work. Will Fidel’s compatriots indeed continue his mission? I don’t think so – but neither will the system collapse at short notice. First, because the regime had already managed the transition from Fidel to Raúl Castro a decade ago, destroying illusions of regime change anytime soon. Second, because millions of Cubans still equate patriotism with support for the present regime, if only because the alternatives seem scary too.
(Gert Oostindie is director of KITLV and professor of History at Leiden University. Oostindie’s principal areas of research have been comparative Caribbean studies and Dutch colonial history. He published and edited, mainly in English or Dutch, over 25 books and authored a large number of articles on the colonial history and decolonization of the Dutch Caribbean; on history, ethnicity and migration in the Caribbean and Latin America in general; on Atlantic slavery and its legacies; and on postcolonial migrations and the significance of colonial history to Dutch national identity.)