Tuesday, February 19, 2008

For better and for worse: Fidel Castro's African adventures

The bets are off. Castro is gone; from power at least.

You could say that Fidel Castro’s rule says something about his panache for beating the odds, but he did something even some of his most fervent enemies – and hundreds of espionage novelists around the world – thought he would never do: Announce his own retirement before going to the grave.

"To my dear compatriots, who gave me the immense honor in recent days of electing me a member of parliament ... I communicate to you that I will not aspire to or accept -- I repeat not aspire to or accept -- the positions of President of Council of State and Commander in Chief," Castro said in the statement published on the Web site of the Communist Party's Granma newspaper, reported in Reuters.

For better or worse, everyone has been a little moved by Fidel Castro. As a journalist, I find nothing admirable with his often despotic rule. As a one-time resident of a post-communist state, however, I feel that I well understand some of the true benefits of the system he promoted and attempted to export around the globe. (I also understand the foolhardy and megalomaniacal nature of trying to keep alive something like communism in 2008.)

As an American, though, I cannot help but share a sense of awe of what he did to and for his small island nation just miles off the coast of Florida, USA.

As a blogger concentrating on Africa, I’ve tried to dig up some of Cuba’s many incursions on the continent. Probably like Castro’s rule at home, Cuba’s experience in Africa has examples of the very good and very bad.

First, of course, there are the doctors. Cuban doctors and health professionals were first sent to Algeria in 1963. By 2004, according to Inter Press Service, Cuba’s international medical program had grown to 20 African nations and seven countries in Latin America and two in Asia. The Cuban government set up medical schools in Equatorial Guinea and Gambia. Cuban professors also teach at universities in Ethiopia, Uganda and South Africa.

These health professionals often lived and worked in rural settings, helping bring tropical diseases under control, and eventually working on the fight against tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

We cannot forget the military interventions, either. The Cuban military’s high point was most likely beating back the heavily armored South African Zulu column and CIA-backed guerillas in Angola, indefinitely prolonging an already nasty post-colonial civil war. A low point came most likely when Che Guevera tried to lure “jet-setting” Joseph Kabila to fight mercenaries head on in Zaire. Cuba also helped the Marxist government in Ethiopia repel a Somali invasion in 1977, sending relations with the U.S. over the edge right in the middle of a supposed thaw.

Some would say Castro’s African excursions eventually bled the country dry. At the height of the Cold War, the country had 65,000 soldiers (and civilian advisors) stationed in 17 different African countries. Others would say Cuba had it hard enough as one of the few truly Marxists-Leninist states in the world; the interventions were supposed to buy them friends.

History will be Castro’s final judge. But – for better and worse – he clearly made his mark on the world.

No comments: