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No man is an island, not even in the lush and potentially self-sufficient Caribbean. Cuba, during its first difficult decades after the revolution would not have survived without a political mentor and a military protector in Moscow. But then it could not have survived without a tolerant Europe that always refused to sign up for the American embargo.
Even among moderate opinion in Europe, Fidel was more the lead in a politico-romantic drama than a threat to the soft underbelly of the United States. My neighbours in my Tenerife house tell me Raúl Castro has been a regular visitor even during the years of conservative Spanish governments to his relatives who live nearby.
Besides, Castro was always liked by most of his people. He has given Cubans tangible improvements on the most important things of life- education and health. He has never been an East German Honnecker, grey, tyrannical, aloof and unyielding. Yes, he has locked up dissidents and on occasion had them tortured. But he has long allowed the Catholic Church a good deal of freedom and he always kept a certain distance from Moscow, constantly reminding the Cubans that it was their home-grown revolution that overthrew the run-the-country-like-you-run-a-casino bad guys of the dictator Batista, not some heavy-footed "liberating" outsiders. "You know who I mean!"
Castro has charm, charisma, style and a lot of show, all the things that no European Communist ever had. I have on my study wall a photo of my closest Latin American friend, a nun, Valéria Rezende, sitting chatting to an alert looking Fidel. He makes himself look boyish and humble even though this photo is only ten years old. Valéria was on a visit to Cuba to look at the role of women. Castro heard her speak at the opening day of the conference and invited her home. She chatted alone with him for three hours, being gently quizzed by the maestro on the socio-political life of the depressed, backwaters of Brazil where Valeria works, inspiring young people to fight for a better life. The next day he invited her again for another chat. This is how he worked.
The danger of the blanket hostility towards Fidel that has long been de rigueur in Washington is that it always misses the opportunities for détente. Although today Castro still supports the likes of Chávez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia it is a long time since he has unleashed his revolutionary fervour on the South American mainland. By 1990 his continental colleagues were relaxed enough to vote Cuba the traditional Latin American-held seat on the UN Security Council.
Washington has never forgiven him for his African interventions, in Ethiopia and Angola in particular. But the fact is the South African government only agreed to withdraw its invading force in Angola, where it was fighting in support of the rightist forces of Savimbi’s anti-government movement and also seeking to undermine SWAPO, based in Angola, struggling to wrest Namibia from South African rule, after being stalemated by the Cuban army and air force. At that point South Africa decided to take up the compromise proposals that had been on the table for four years. Arguably without that Cuban daring-do white rule would still be in the saddle in South Africa. It turned the tide.
Castro has presided over many years of bad economic times. His communist convictions repressed even the smallest kind of individual initiative. Yet time, if anything, is now working in his favour. Opening the island to tourism has been a great success, even if very few Americans can take advantage of it. Like Brazil and Chile, Cuba is benefiting from the rise in commodity prices. Castro’s friendship with Chavez is giving Cuba low cost oil in return for Cuba providing more than 20,000 doctors, dentists and sports trainers to work in the poorer areas of Venezuela.
Washington will make a grievous error if it believes it can bag a quick success by taking advantage of Fidel’s illness. Change has to come to Cuba. But the Cubans who live on Cuban soil must be allowed to do it on their own if bloodshed and chaos are to be avoided and the good and useful things that Castro has achieved are not to be destroyed.Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London
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