There may be a number of reasons why Fidel Castro remained a distant figure to our local politics.
Constitutionalism is deeply rooted in our political culture, and to secure political power without elections is anathema to the population
Given his prominence in left-wing politics and regarded as an icon of the left, it may be surprising that Fidel Castro has never been viewed with admiration amongst the Leftists in Mauritius. There may be a number of reasons why he remained a distant figure to our local politics. Constitutionalism is deeply rooted in our political culture, and to secure political power without elections is anathema to the population. Fidel Castro came to power through an armed revolution. After anti-government forces inside Cuba had caused the dictator Fulgencio Batista to flee the country in 1959, Fidel Castro, with the help of some well- trained revolutionaries, took over the government. Instead of going for a “humanist” revolutionary government, Castro later proclaimed himself to be a Marxist-Leninist and pursued a socialist programme.
In 1962, when the Cuban missile crisis brought the USA and the USSR into direct confrontation, it was the two protagonists John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev who occupied the centre stage. Later we learnt that Fidel Castro, in a letter dated 26 October 1962, had suggested to Khrushchev a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the US since he was personally convinced that if this was not done, the US would strike first. But Khrushchev was not willing to start a new Armageddon for the sake of Cuba and backed down under pressure from the US. In Mauritius the local sympathies went for John Kennedy who then represented the hopes and the aspirations of young people around the world. Two years later, the first state school in Mauritius providing comprehensive education was named after the American President John F. Kennedy.
By the 1970s, left-wing ideals and ideologies had become popular among many young people, yet Fidel Castro never became a hero of the left. To be associated with Fidel Castro and his armed struggle, which had become a model for socialist revolution in Latin American countries, would have damaged the political prospects of the left and made them vulnerable to criticisms. Moreover the Soviet system was never held as a model for Mauritius, and the liberal left could not identify themselves with a Castro who supported Soviet Russia in sending its tanks to crush the Czechoslovakian revolution in 1968.
The closest affinity which a few young leftists displayed for the Cuban revolution was perhaps an admiration for Che Guevara, the faithful comrade of Castro, and often one occasionally came across a poster of this revolutionary fighter adorning the walls of their rooms. For a few romantics, admiration for Che Guevara was such that they even came to regard an armed struggle, perhaps only rhetorically, as the sine qua non for any social or political change. In their eyes any change not brought about by armed struggle was not worthy to be called a struggle or even a revolution.
Articles in the local left-wing press favourable to liberation movements in Africa could not avoid mentioning the involvement of Cuban troops in the decolonisation process. After having trained guerrilla fighters to support liberation movements in Latin America, Castro welcomed the struggle for decolonisation in Africa as a part of a world revolution to promote socialism. Cuban troops were sent to several African countries to assist liberation movements. Cuban advisers and troops had been present in Algeria and in the Congo in the 1960s. In the 1970s they played a decisive role in Angola against Portuguese imperialism, helped to weaken the apartheid regime in South Africa and contributed to the independence of Namibia. Apart from Cuban soldiers and military advisers, Cuban doctors were sent to provide medical services and train medical personnel in Africa. At present South Africa sends thousands of its students to be trained in Cuba.
In Cuba, reforms after the revolution made health services freely available to all. The eradication of illiteracy, the empowerment of women, racial equality, and the removal of extreme poverty were the other major achievements of Cuba under Castro. In other sectors, the revolutionary government failed miserably, to the great disappointment of many leftists throughout the world. The dream of a socialist society as an alternative to the Soviet system soured when Fidel Castro not only suppressed elections but also established a brutal and repressive regime, causing thousands of upper and middle class Cubans to leave for the US.
Whether a repressive regime was the consequence of pressure and economic sanctions by the US, the supreme capitalist country in the area, or the personal reluctance of Castro to pursue a more democratic path will remain a controversial issue. René Dumont, a French socialist who had been to Cuba to advise the government on its economic policy, was later to criticize the regime for its authoritarianism, its centralization and its Socialism-from-Above culture. In return for his honest criticisms, Dumont was branded a CIA spy.
In spite of all the limitations of the Castro regime which made Cuba look like an abandoned country in the 20th century, Fidel Castro remained an icon for the left for having challenged successfully US imperialism over several decades. Attempts to dislodge him from power or even to assassinate him failed several times and until his last days he never compromised with US. He inspired revolutionary movements and guerrilla warfare in Latin America. A brave and charismatic leader, he remained committed to socialism right to the very end. His solidarity with the Third World was widely appreciated and he was the last great revolutionary of the twentieth century. His courage and commitment remain an inspiration for those who still dream of a better world.