Guest Columnist: Issa Aremu
“The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom, and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character.” – Nelson Mandela
The world recently observed the 90th birthday of the ever activist albeit retired Cuban revolutionary leader, Fidel, on August 13, 2016. Born on the 13th of August 1926 near Birán, Cuba Fidel Castro Ruz eventually emerged as the revolutionary leader of Cuba, following the historic Cuban revolution he led in 1959. In July 2006, President Fidel Castro had gastric surgery and temporarily handed over control of the government to the former Defence Minister, Raul Catsro. He stepped down from power in 2008, 50 years after together with his compatriots in the Cuban Communist party had transformed his country into the first socialist independent/welfare state in the western hemisphere.
The received image of Fidel’s Cuba in Africa (no thanks to the western media), is that of a defiant anti-American “strongman” who miraculously survived countless assasination attempts by the world-knows-who. A great communicator and polemicist, Fidel in an extensive interview once observed that: “In the West, where you suppose that there are cultured societies and that people think, there’s such a strong tendency to associate historical events with individuals and to magnify the role of individuals. I can see it myself: Castro’s Cuba, Castro did this, Castro undid that.
Almost everything in this country is attributed to Castro, Castro’s doing, Castro’s perversities. That type of mentality abounds in the West, unfortunately, it’s quite widespread.
It seems to me to be erroneous approach to historical and political events.” Celebrating Fidel’s birthday in an ideologically unipolar world, is a celeberation of alternative development ideas no less a celeberation of a genuine consistent friend of Africa and Africans. Africans are legitimately romantic about the historic emergence of Barack Obama as the 44th president of United States of America, which probably explains why African leaders uncritically assembled like pupil-statemen at the first US-Africa Leaders’ Summit hosted by Obama in 2014 in Washington (not Addis Ababa, headquarters of Africa Union, AU), the summit that by design coincided with Obama’s 50th birthday. But if African leaders were discernable enough, beyound blood affinity, the real and original first “African-American President” was Castro, not President Obama.
Castro once said of Cubans: “We are a Latin-African nation…African blood flows through our veins”- No quotable quote of profound unconditional love for Africa from Obama. Obama actually promised and lived “tough love” (not unconditional love!) for his ancestral continent. Che Guevara, Fidel’s was in the Congo fighting with Patrice Lumumba for the liberation of Congo in 1961. In the same year, Cubans sent troops to back Algerian freedom fighters against French colonialism led by Ahmed Ben Bella. Cuba sent as many as 30,000 Cuban volunteer troops to repel racist South African soldiers who were bent on undermining Angolan independence in 1976.
In January 1975, the dying Portuguese colonial power was compelled to sign an agreement granting independence in November of that year following the struggle of People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Desperate to stem the tide of change, given that Mozambique under Frelimo also got independence same year, the racist South Africa invaded Angola from Namibia. No independent African state was in the position to come to the rescue of Angola. Fidel’s Cuba rose to the challenge and South African troops were beaten to a retreat. That singular historic Cuban resistance against South African aggression paved the way for Angolan independence in 1976. Cuba was the only frontline non-African country in the league of Tanzania, Zambia and Nigeria that felt the heat and sacrifices of liberation struggle. Cuba was among the first countries (after Nigeria led by dynamic late General Murtala Muhammed) to recognise MPLA-led government and was the country that pushed for its UN membership which was ironically vetoed by United States of Africa.
Africans would also recall the historic battle of Ciuto Cuanavale in South eastern Angola in 1987 with Cuban involvement. That historic battle against racist troops led to series of events which eventually led to Namibian independence. The value-chain of Cuban solidarity goes beyond the military. During a visit to Angola in 1977, the then Cuban defence minister, Raul Castro now Cuban president, invited Angola to send 2,000 children to attend schools and universities in Cuba. Cuban doctors and nurses have served and are serving in virtually all African countries as part of comprehensive development cooperation. In his historic speech on Cuba Policy Changes in December 2014, President Obama singled out Cuba as a country that has “…sent hundreds of health care workers to Africa to fight Ebola” with expressed optimism that… American and Cuban health care workers should work side by side to stop the spread of the deadly disease”.
Here in Nigeria, former President Shehu Shagari administration proudly in 1982 hailed the Cuban doctors for their courage and sacrifices to serve in rural Nigeria scorned by Nigeria’s doctors. In 2000, as many as 10,000 Cuban doctors, one third of its total doctors were serving in Africa.
The same solidarity applied to education. When late Julius Nyerere of Tanzania visited the famous Isle of Youth in Cuba, an internationalist school where African youths were undergoing schooling free of charge, he reportedly said: “There is no more beautiful place under the sun”. A conference sponsored by the UN Special Committee against Apartheid held in Havana in May 1976, a Cuban leader Armando Hart called racism the “ideology of the exploiters”. That was at a time both Britain and America were bursting sanctions against the outlaw racist regime and were even in bed with the hated apartheid regime through the notorious “constructive engagement”.
In recent times, both the debtor-and creditors-nations, mostly in Africa found attractive the options of partial and total debt-cancellation and even debt relief. And that was precisely what Castro had long promoted in his decade-long battle of developmental ideas. He had compared the debt burden “to that torment in Greek mythology in which a man is doomed to push a large stone uphill for all eternity, a stone that always rolls down again before reaching the top.” Fidel had argued that most debts were “unpayable and uncollectible”. We must credit the series of debt cancellation in Africa to the audacious alternative views of Fidel Castro, not necessarily the astuteness of “negotiators” or so called altruism of creditors. Interestingly the world has wisely shifted to Cuban development paradigm after the scandalous market collapse of 2007 of course without acknowledging Fidel and Cubans who promoted the role the sate and governance in development. Cuba has the lowest HIV prevalent rate, thanks to education and non-commercialisation of the battle against the scourge. Fidel’s Cuba ranks high on UN development index, much to its nurtured human capital through quality literacy and good health.
Long Live Fidel Castro!
• Aremu is NEC member, Nigeria Labour Congress