‘History will absolve me‘ — Fidel Castro

Notebook Dec 9, 2016 at 5:51 pm

HG_Notebook_color-pic(“History Will Absolve Me” is the title of a four-hour speech made by Fidel Castro on 16 October 1953. Castro made the speech in his own defense in court against the charges brought against him after he led an attack on the Moncada Barracks. Wikipedia)

The death of Cuban leader and revolutionary Fidel Castro was an apt occasion to review his contribution to his country and the world.

The cyberspace was full of memorial tributes, videos and quotes from both state leaders and personalities and the ordinary common people, especially Cubans.

The western media, however, was not remiss in its obsequious role of demonizing world leaders like Castro who fought the policies and wars of the U.S. government. Stephen Kimber wrote in Huffington Post (Dec. 2, 2016) and decried the treatment given by mainstream western media to the legacy of Fidel Castro.

The young Fidel Castro in a reproduction of a picture at the Museo de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, with quotes from his famous speech defending himself in a court of law in 1953.

The young Fidel Castro in a reproduction of a picture at the Museo de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, with quotes from his famous speech defending himself in a court of law in 1953.

Here is his conclusion: “The media is one great echo chamber of conventional American mass media un-wisdom: about Castro, his life, his death, his legacy; about Cuba’s past, its present, its future.”

The author then gave some samples of how major and mainstream western publications described Castro’s legacy which almost always included words like “brutal dictator,” “tyrant,” “oppressor,” “demagogue”.

I myself was appalled when I read the word “tyrant” referring to Castro, on a headline of article onthe front page of Toronto Star. A Star columnist who attended the Cuban leader’s funeral unleashed her usually impassioned venom on the political and personal life of Castro.

Kimber, the author of the Huffington Post article, wrote what the pro-U.S. western media coverage missed in Castro’s legacy. My apologies to Kimber for extensively quoting from his article:

“Let’s start with six of Castro’s signature humanitarian achievements.

“The National Literacy Campaign. In 1961, in what Oxfam described as “one of the most successful initiatives of its kind, [Castro] mobilized teachers, workers, and secondary school students to teach more than 700,000 persons how to read.” By 1962 — just three years after the revolution — Cuba’s literacy rate was 96 per cent, one of the highest in the world. Since then, Cuba has dispatched literacy volunteers to other under-developed countries to improve their literacy. Cuba has a higher literacy rate than Canada.

Castro when still active in state affairs in his old age.

Castro when still active in state affairs in his old age.

“Cuban public health care is the best in the developing world. Cuba has 90,000 physicians, more than we do in Canada. On a per capita basis they have three times more than we do. The infant mortality rate is lower than it is in Canada, and life expectancy is about the same. Cuba also produces 70 per cent of its own medicines, and so the prices are a fraction of what we pay.

“Cuban Medical Internationalism. Today, there are 55,000 Cuban medical personnel in 67 different countries, responding to every kind of natural disaster and health crisis — from earthquakes to Ebola. That is more than is provided by all G-7 “developed” countries. At home, Cuba provided free long-term care for 26,000 victims of the Chernobyl disaster, mainly children.

“The Latin American School of Medicine. Originally established in 1999 to educate students from poor countries to become doctors, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called it “the most advanced medical school in the world.” A Fidel Castro initiative following the destruction wrought on the region by Hurricanes Mitch and Georges, ELAM has graduated more than 25,000 doctors from 120 countries. Students’ education is totally free; their only obligation is to return to their own countries and practise in under-served communities.

“Operación Milagro, a program spearheaded by Cuba and Venezuela that has provided free medical treatment to more than three million people with eye problems in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa since 2004.

“The struggle against apartheid. Although more controversial than Cuba’s achievements in education and health care, Castro’s decision to send troops to Angola in support of independence movements during wars of independence there in the 1970s and 1980s is widely seen as the beginning of the end of apartheid. By defeating the South African army, writes historian Piero Gleijeses, “Cuba changed the course of history in southern Africa.” Or, as Nelson Mandela himself put it: “What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?””

I was in Cuba three months ago in August and although did not intend to conduct a proper investigation on the political and social conditions of the country and stayed only for a week with my wife, we couldn’t help but talk to a lot of Cubans. We talked to the management and staff of the resort hotel we stayed in, the chefs, waiters and waitresses of restaurants we ate in, the drivers of carts, the receptionists, bar and tour staff, room service and laundry staff, market vendors, museum and store helpers and most of all our two tour guides on our two separate travels to Havana from Varadero. One is a lawyer and the other is an English professor, both of whom spent hours on the bus and the car with us while talking about anything under the sun that has something to do with Cuba, its history, politics, economy, education, health services, the everyday lives of the people, housing, transportation, Cuban cigars, rum, piñacolada, home-based restaurants, lobster and fish, souvenirs, music, market hustlers, students, artists, ballet, the list goes on.

My most important observation is that the Cubans are a happy people. They talked about serving the guests as their important role in their work and everyone of them would take the extra effort and be patient with accommodating our requests.

Waiters, waitresses and chef enjoy their break and pose for a picture for tourist friends.  Photos: HG

Waiters, waitresses and chef enjoy their break and pose for a picture for tourist friends. Photos: HG

The ordinary workers especially in the hotel restaurant, were always in happy mood and eager to serve and in friendly conversation. When they were not so busy at times when the guests were not too many, they’re in animated conversations and often laughing among themselves.

They talked about their families and children, their lives, their work. They helped us with translation to Spanish and were excited to talk about their kids and their schools.

The two tour guides were deeply knowledgeable on anything about Cuba. The lawyer tour guide spoke for hours on the front of the bus facing dozens of seated tourists on the road to Havana. I taped a major part of her talk about a wide range of topics from history to culture, music, economy, Spanish language, travel tips and the indigenous peoples of Cuba. I told her later that we learned a lot about Cuba that maybe we couldn’t learn from reading books in the library. It was a broad and deep education for us in one sitting.

Our second tour guide, the English professor, gave us an overview and details of the Cuban history and revolution, especially during a tour inside the Museo de la Revolucion. With the artifacts, documents, pictures and other objects displayed in the museum, he talked about stories, names, dates and places he certainly knew by heart.

Another observation is that Cubans are proud of country and their leaders. They revere Fidel Castro and brother Raul, and their heroes Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, Jose Marti and others. They are aware that they are not as rich as other countries like Canada but they don’t aspire to live in another country. Everyone we met were proud about the free education, from elementary to PhD. Anyone can study to be a doctor, lawyer, educator, engineer or any profession. Health and medical services are free, housing is subsidized. The tour guide said you can buy house for your family for as low as the equivalent of U.S.$3,000 and after you’ve paid for it, you don’t have to pay property tax. (What? I asked.)

The famous Madrigal Trio performing in a home-based restaurant in Havana.

The famous Madrigal Trio performing in a home-based restaurant in Havana.

A third observation: when ordinary workers in the restaurants were probed about their wages, everyone said they’re not paid big salaries like those in Canada and the U.S. but they manage since housing and food are subsidized, education and health services are free and they don’t need big ticket items like expensive cars. Not one of them claimed earning the equivalent of one hundred dollars a month from salaries. But the hotel people and other travel-related jobs earn a lot more from tips from tourists.

We walked the streets freely, explored the market areas, mingled with the locals and tourists and we did not experience being harassed or conned by hustlers. We didn’t see a single homeless person. It was said in an article about Cuba that the only place you will see homeless Cuban children is in Miami, Florida.

The professor tour guide said that entrepreneurship and small business are being encouraged in Cuba and that’s why he’s excited about building a modest tour service agency and promoting it on the internet. He has partnered with a relative who drives a classic 1955 Chevy while he does the talking while on the road to Havana and on the streets, plazas, museums and marketplace.

Then there’s this waitress in a buffet restaurant who said she’s a part time hairdresser to supplement her salary.

Of the few dozens of Cubans who spoke candidly about their lives, not a single one expressed a desire to live in another country. Unlike in the Philippines where, almost anyone who’s jobless or underpaid or couldn’t practice his or her profession, almost always want to work abroad. The lack of decent jobs has come to a point that daily about 6,000 Filipinos leave to work overseas.

In Cuba, apparently, people love their work, their country and their leaders like Fidel Castro. In 1953, he ended his long speech defending himself in court after a failed rebellion with the famous line “History will absolve me.” He was convicted with his fellow rebels. More than six decades later, grateful Cubans and peoples and state leaders from other countries helped by Cuba with its legendary doctors and medical and military aid, know fully well history has absolved Fidel.