January 1st 2014 was the 55th anniversary of the day in 1959 that Che Guevara and co. marched on Santa Clara, marking the victory of the Cuban revolutionary war for the 26th July movement, overthrowing the US-backed Batista dictatorship. The years of guerrilla warfare from the moment the first rebels arrived on the eastern shore of Cuba aboard the ‘Granma’ in 1956 until ‘Liberation day’ in 1959 were some of the toughest years in Cuban history and it has gone down amongst the greatest rebellions of all time.
Since then of course Cuba has faced numerous other difficult situations, Fidel Castro found himself being used as a dangerous pawn in the Cold War, economic restrictions and the complete trade embargo placed on Cuba by the US have not helped the economy grow either. They were invaded at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and for many years it seemed a matter of time until the US would once again take over the small island. The fall of the Berlin wall that marked the end of the Cold War in 1989 also had a damaging effect on Cuba, as it no longer had a superpower to trade with, and was still embargoed by the US. Due to this, times were tough for Fidel Castro and his government; the majority of the world distanced themselves from the idea of a centrally planned economy and Cuba found itself running out of friends to turn to.
This said, in many ways the Cubans have stuck to their guns and had massive success in doing so. What needs to be remembered when looking at Cuba is the state the country was in when Castro took over after 1959. The country had been ravaged to satisfy US interests for years and had become a haven for American playboys and mob bosses; the government was corrupt and the peasantry were constantly oppressed by army and rich bosses. Education was poor, healthcare was virtually non-existent and people didn’t have basic human necessities. When you look at Cuba for what it was at this time- effectively a third-world country- the turnaround produced by a government that has genuinely cared for its people is remarkable. Cuba now has one of the best healthcare systems in the world, renowned for being home to some of the best doctors on the globe, and consequently has a slightly higher life expectancy that America. It is one of the few countries in the world with a 99.8% literacy rate thanks to a massive literacy drive and free education all the way to university level, compared to around 60% before the revolution. These are the kinds of social rights that Cubans fought and died for during the revolution, and to this day it remains one of the only countries that has stood up to the US and come out of the other side victorious.
All this could be about to change according to some commentators however. With Fidel Castro taking a step back in 2008 and handing over to his brother Raul, and Cuba’s economy beginning to stagnate, this country of idealists has had to make some compromises. In recent months people have been allowed to work for themselves in certain professions (for the first time since the revolution), buy new cars (at unrealistic prices for now though), and the nation’s currency has even been devalued in order to act as a pull to tourists. All these economic changes, tied in with media coverage of President Obama shaking hands with Raul Castro (signalling the first diplomatic relations between the two countries in years), have led some to speculate that this is the end for socialism in Cuba, and that soon the country will once again submit to the whims of the superpower only 90 miles off its coast.
While this assumption is understandable, there is no way that the Cuban government, or the Cuban people, would throw away all the work that has transpired over the last 55 years. These economic changes are coming about because the country simply can’t sustain itself given its current expenditure, not because their system has failed, but because they are using a system that was designed with worldwide unity in mind. Their economic system proved to provide miracles when they were a member of a union of countries adopting a similar stance. This was somewhat revived over the last decade within Latin America thanks to the work of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who seemed to unite the left-leaning governments in the area and was, until his sad passing in January 2013, creating great progress by working with leaders such as Evo Morales in Bolivia, ‘Lula’ in Brazil and of course Fidel Castro to bring about a new wave of relative prosperity in their nations.
Things change in international politics however, and the death of Chavez seems to have marked a stagnation of this successful union. Fidel, Lula and many other leaders have handed over the reins of their countries and they no longer seem as connected- perhaps simply due to the loss of the strong friendship that the last generation of political leaders in Latin America seemed to have. This has consequently left Raul Castro back at square one; he is receiving little to no help from any friends abroad. Fidel, with all his years of experience, is looking as fragile as ever. It is without doubt, a difficult time for Cuba, and I’m sure that it will be a struggle to fend off the interests of the US while still caring for its citizens, yet I still have faith that Cuba will continue into a new dawn of prosperity. It is true that the ‘revolution generation’ is coming to an end, and there will be a new breed of young people in Cuba bursting with entrepreneurial spirit, but the Cuban people are also strong and resilient, and in the end I have no doubt that despite less economic restrictions socialism won’t disappear in Cuba. Ultimately, they won’t stand for being a plaything for the rich and famous in the US.
So, as a great admirer of Cuba and the courage the nation has shown over the last 50 years to dare to be different in a world that seems to have united against its ideas, I hope that when I do finally get the chance to visit it will still be the country I believe it to be now; a country of strong beliefs and ideals that isn’t scared to follow its own path. I hope that in my lifetime I get to see Fidel’s Cuba.
By Simon Winstanley