From standing up for African liberation to fighting against western imperialism, Fidel Castro is to Africa what Saints are to the Catholic Church.
For many in the west, especially the United States of America, Fidel Castro, the former President of Cuba who passed way this weekend at the tender age of 90, is a tyrant in the league of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Here in Africa, Castro is Saint; a champion of the Third World, advocate of socio-economic justice, vanguard of African liberation and model of people-centred leadership. Both perspectives reflect a man who, for the better part of five decades, was a thorn in the flesh of the USA and a reliable shoulder for African liberation movements, a legacy that came about from his charismatic leadership of Cuba against Western Imperialism and Capitalism, and struggle for National Sovereignty and International Socialism.
Castro’s journey to African sainthood began thirty years before he set his foot on the continent. It started in the late 1940s, when as a Law undergraduate at the University of Havana, he became a vocal critic of the corruption and human rights abuses of the then Cuban Government, led by President Grau. This political activism, against corruption, elitist domination and economic inequality, would follow Castro through his brief legal career as an attorney for poor Cubans to his long revolutionary warfare for a new Cuban social order built on social and economic justice. His achievement of the latter, manifested in his leadership of Cuba from 1959, would launch the next phase of his ambitions to fight imperialism and colonialism across third world countries and to promote socialism as a viable means to socio-economic justice. Such objectives made the USA and much of the west turn their backs on Castro, but it also led Marxist and liberation movements across Africa to embrace him as one of their own.
Virtually all of Africa’s revolutionary anti-colonialist heroes were endeared to, inspired and supported by Fidel Castro. Amilcar Cabral, leader of Guinea and Cape Verde’s independence movement against Portugal, was a dear friend to the Cuban leader who described him as “one of the most lucid and brilliant leaders in Africa.” So too was Morocco’s opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka, Guinea’s Sekou Toure, Congo Kinshasa’s Patrice Lumumba, Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella, Angola’s Agostinho Neto, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane, Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela among several others. Castro’s friendship with many of these African leaders included material and military support for their anti-imperialist and socialist campaigns, the greatest impact of which was felt in Angola, where Neto’s MPLA, backed by thousands of Cuban forces defeated Apartheid South Africa and US-supported FLNA and UNITA in the Angolan Civil War and led to the independence of Namibia while contributing to the eventual collapse of Apartheid in South Africa.
Beyond Castro’s material and military support for the fight for African liberation, his transformation of Cuba from a neo-imperialised, mafia-dominated, fantastically corrupt, very poor and largely illiterate state into a highly educated, less corrupt, more socio-economically equal state with free access to universal healthcare and utilities, served as moral inspiration to millions of Africans who till this day are still largely trapped in the former and are in desperately in the need of the latter. However, like Catholic saints, Castro also has his fair share of African critics, a significant number of whom will be found in Somalia which the Cuban leader’s soldiers fought against in in support of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist government of Ethiopia during the Ethio-Somali War over the disputed Ogaden region.
Catholic saints are famed for their intercession on behalf of those who seek their assistance. In the same right, Fidel Castro did come to the aid of several Pan-Africanist movements, some of which were tremendously successful; such as the respective victories of the MPLA and FRELIMO in Angola and Mozambique, the Independence of Namibia and the fall of Apartheid in South Africa among others. However, given that Castro’s objectives in Africa, which he considered to be “the weakest link in the imperialist chain,” were to dislodge western domination and propagate socialism, it would thus be considered largely unsuccessful. African states, including those in which he directly intervened, are now more than ever under the influence of the West and Capitalism, with widespread corruption and poverty, record high inequality and grossly bereft of quality education, healthcare and other basic amenities.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate Castro’s legacy in Africa is to take note of the fact that while he died a peaceful death at the ripe old age of 90 with Cuba still adhering to his socialist principles, few of his comrades in Africa enjoyed such comfort. Amilcar Cabral, Mehdi Ben Barka (kidnapped in France never to be seen again), and Eduardo Mondlane were killed before they had the chance to implement their ideologies. Agostinho Neto, Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara died just as their leaderships were getting into gear, Sekou Toure’s socialism spiralled into meaningless authoritarianism while Luis Cabral (half-brother of Amilcar Cabral and first President of Guinea Bissau) and Kwame Nkrumah were overthrown and forced into exile for the rest of their lives. For many of these leaders, their revolutions died with them. Though they remain very popular in their countries and across Africa, their veneration is bereft of the desire to imbibe and replicate their ideologies; the same can be said for Saint Fidel Castro of Africa.