TO BE instantly recognisable worldwide by one’s first name or initials is a unique testament to fame or notoriety.
JFK as President of the United States and Elvis as musical megastar or, in modern times, Beyonce, and then Serena in tennis circles, meet the former category in their different ways whereas Fidel Castro occupies both.
Simply identifiable as Fidel, he became a world icon as a revolutionary who deposed Fulgencio Batista, a corrupt and despotic dictator in his own right, in order to protect the poor while others have reviled him as a brutal oppressor of the Cuban people for over half a century.
His passing last week reportedly caused joy and grief in equal measure. Thousands of Cuban exiles in Florida’s ‘Little Havana’ showed their jubilation and relief at his death which has brought hope of an end to extreme political repression in their homeland. In contrast, within Cuba itself, crowds expressed anguish and sorrow and nine days of official mourning were declared.
In 1959, Castro came out of his lair in the Sierra Maestra mountain range in eastern Cuba and took power by the gun, claiming that he did so on behalf of the downtrodden poor and promising freedom and prosperity which could only be achieved through bloody revolution. He then proceeded to use force to weed out all opposition to his self-declared revolution and persecuted and murdered those who crossed him.
For all the benefits Castro brought about in the shape of good healthcare and education, it is clear that through a brutal dictatorship and political repression he inflicted untold misery, poverty and suffering on his own people to the extent that thousands fled the country, with many settling in the US and several families in The Bahamas.
As well as being merciless to dissenters at home and seeking to support terrorism abroad, Castro was responsible for the most dangerous moment in recent world history by precipitating the 1962 missile crisis between the US and the Soviet Union. This brought the world close to nuclear war before Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev stepped back from the brink and withdrew the USSR’s missiles in Cuba from where, barely 90 miles away, they had been threatening the American mainland.
It remains a mystery to many why a man in charge of the harshest and most repressive Communist regime of modern times should still be romanticised by some as a hero and champion of his people. Following the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the image of bearded youth and swagger in military dress standing up to a bullying America resonated amongst the Left and continues to do so, though the Canadian prime minister’s swooning reaction to his death was surely not only naïve but also misguided.
The US policy of isolating the Cuban regime and imposing a trade embargo played in to Castro’s hands and ensured that he would seek the support of the USSR while perpetuating the myth of the brave leader protecting his small island state from its giant capitalist neighbour intent on its destruction.
Despite passing the presidency to his equally hard line brother in 2008, Fidel Castro retained his status of great liberator despite such claims being widely discredited. Without any visible sign of the new Cuban leadership softening its stance and loosening its political stranglehold, President Obama nonetheless took executive action in 2014 to chart a new course with Cuba, including the re-establishment of diplomatic relations which should lead to greater engagement and co-operation, in particular increased trade and travel.
He himself made an historic visit there earlier this year which attracted much criticism. It now remains to be seen whether President-elect Trump may derail this action unless Cuban leaders offer some political concessions by moving away from a one-party dictatorship.
If Cuba opens up permanently to the rest of the world, the obvious threat to the Bahamas is competition for tourists. The Ministry of Tourism apparently considers that this will provide greater opportunities for co-operation on a Caribbean-wide basis. However, tourism can be a cutthroat business, with each destination seeking to improve the quality and cost of its product in order to attract more visitors at the expense of their rivals in the region. So we hope that the ministry will take a hard look at this issue and determine what action needs to be taken in terms of quality and price to enhance the attraction of our country to those who will now be tempted by a revitalised Cuba.
We should not be lulled into a false sense of security about co-operation with other countries who, in reality, are our competitors. Above all, we should not underestimate the likely interest of Americans in visiting Cuba which offers more variety than The Bahamas. The quality of Cuba’s tourism product may not compare at present with our own. But theirs will surely improve, so we need to seek ways of offering something even better.