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Castro: gravedigger of his revolution

Historic moment: Tor Eigeland, who was the travel columnist for Bermuda’s old Mid-Ocean News, captured this iconic image of Fidel Castro proclaiming the victory of the Cuban Revolution in Havana in 1959

For everyone in Bermuda on October 27, 1962, it suddenly seemed the end wasn’t nigh, it was here.

At precisely 6.36 that morning, a massive thundercrack explosion at the East End reverberated throughout the island.

It was immediately followed by a seismic shock wave, which reportedly cracked the glass in windows as far away as Sandys parish.

Then a towering orange fireball rose over the vicinity of the US Air Force’s Kindley Air Force base, one capped by a roiling black mushroom cloud.

It was a terrifying moment at the height of what one historian has called “the most dangerous moment in human history” — the 13-day superpower stand-off over the deployment of Soviet nuclear ballistic missiles in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. With the United States and Soviet nuclear arsenals on hair-trigger alerts, the prospect of Armageddon had never loomed so large. And when a B47 US Air Force bomber helping to enforce the naval and aerial quarantine of Cuba from inbound Soviet ships suffered a mechanical failure and ploughed into the Ferry Reach foreshore while taking off from Bermuda early that Friday morning, nerves already as taut as piano strings almost snapped.

It was initially feared, of course, that one of the Soviet ballistic missile submarines known to be operating near Bermuda during the Cuban Missile Crisis had unleashed a pre-emptive strike on Kindley. Either that or perhaps that a nuclear weapon carried by one of the American aircraft flying out of Bermuda to participate in the blockade had accidentally detonated.

The rumours of war were eventually extinguished along with the flames of the aircraft wreckage. But for many Bermudians, that nightmarish Cold War accident, one that caused the entire island to reflexively duck and cover because they feared the worst had indeed happened, would come to be forever associated with the often reckless adventurism of Fidel Castro.

His delight in playing the role of provocateur, and his decision to allow Moscow to use Cuba as a base for offensive weapons and as a staging area for sabotage and subversion throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America, had led the world to the brink of catastrophe.

Bermuda, normally so isolated from the major events of the day, had been provided with a heart-stopping foreshadowing of the Apocalypse. Any lingering romantic notions on the island about Castro as a picaresque and plucky figure in battle fatigues shouting defiance at the US, the eternal David to the capitalist West’s Goliath, were likely incinerated along with the Ferry Reach hillside that morning.

Certainly Castro’s export brand of revolutionary socialism found very few takers here during Bermuda’s unsettled period of political transition in the late 1960s and early 1970s — shunned rather than embraced by even the island’s more doctrinaire leftists.

The slogans and shibboleths of his revolutionary internationalism were only occasionally parroted here by a relative handful of radical militants and the type of damaged personalities who gravitate towards fringe politics. And the reality is by the time he died last Friday at the age of 90, even the cranks of the world had largely abandoned the long-time Cuban strongman’s philosophy, a volatile mixture of Leninism, nationalism, froth-mouthed fanaticism and magical thinking.

Ultimately, Castro was both the leader and gravedigger of the revolution he became emblematic of. He freed Cuba from one corrupt and repressive dictatorship, only to establish his own authoritarian regime, one characterised by the destruction of his country’s economy, the ruthless nationalisation of private property, the wholesale militarisation of its society and an absolute intolerance for dissent, which has led to its jails housing some of the longest-held political prisoners in the West.

Under his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, Cuba had become a Caribbean casino and brothel for wealthy Americans, even while international corporations plundered the country’s natural, agricultural and mineral resources with the rapaciousness of latter-day conquistadors.

After Castro toppled Batista in 1959, his initial idealism quickly gave way to opportunism. He clearly needed Soviet backing to offset any attempt by the United States to reassert its influence in Cuba and his subsequent rush to embrace socialism was his method of guaranteeing it. Not only that but an alliance of convenience with the Soviet Union also allowed him to pursue a frankly megalomaniacal vision of engaging in worldwide hostilities with the US and its allies. “When this war is over,” he wrote to a friend from his revolutionary headquarters in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains in 1958, “a much wider and bigger war will commence for me: the war that I am going to wage against [the Americans].”

This hatred for the United States was to remain his primary fixation, and distraction, until he resigned as president in 2008 on the grounds of ill health. Castro sapped his country’s finances, shaped his domestic policies and international military and economic relations, and blinded himself to increasingly pressing realities at home to pursue his vendetta against the US with an implacable and seemingly inexhaustible malice.

Acting as a Soviet surrogate and hired ruffian in Cold War proxy conflicts throughout the Americas and Africa in the 1960s and 1970s undermined the country’s frankly remarkable progress in such fields as medicine, education and tourism by diverting scarce resources away from these areas. His internationalism also contributed to Castro adopting repressive police-state techniques to deal with opponents who believed social justice and reform should first be achieved in Cuba before the country meddled in the affairs of other nations.

When the Cold War ended and the old Soviet empire collapsed in 1989, so did Cuba’s economy. The country’s role as a privileged Soviet client state had abruptly become redundant. Massive subsidies from Moscow that had kept Cuba functioning, while its foreign military adventures and domestic suppression ensured the continuation of a longstanding US policy of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, were cut off. The increasingly impoverished country staggered along, but by the time Castro stepped down in 2008, Cuba’s manufacturing sector was all but moribund, its agricultural and mining industries were contracting, per capita debt was twice the Latin American average — and, most tellingly, more than 20 per cent of Cuba’s 14 million people had chosen to leave the country.

It is hardly coincidental the rapprochement with the US, which led to the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba in 2015 and a gradual easing of the American economic embargo, began within weeks of Castro’s departure from office. As the American historian Barbara Tuchman remarked, given a charismatic but impractical leader scornful of pragmatism and compromise and willing to act against his own self-interest, “every successful revolution puts on in time the robe of the tyrant it has deposed”.

Castro was no exception.