For many, Fidel Castro was a revolutionary hero; an icon of anti-imperialism, who – in the course of a long life – doggedly and defiantly championed their cause on the world stage.
As President Jacob Zuma remarked of Castro in his tribute in Havana last week, “He stood with us in solidarity, supporting our struggle... We knew that we could rely on Cuba, a trusted friend and ally of the oppressed”.
In the West, too, the self-styled standard-bearers of socialism have bowed and scraped and fawned and swooned while lauding ‘El Comandante’.
The leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, called Castro a “champion of social justice”. He noted that “for all his flaws, Castro’s support for Angola played a crucial role in bringing an end to Apartheid in South Africa”.
There can be no doubt that Castro was a friend to the ANC and an ally of the oppressed in apartheid South Africa.
Yet that was not the totality of his life history.
Amidst the euphemistic eulogies and honeyed homages – beyond the hackneyed verbiage of “internationalism” and “solidarity” – the world would do well to remember that, at home, Castro was an oppressor, a torturer and a murderer.
His only daughter, Alina Fernández, aligned herself with Cuba’s dissident movement. She tried for years to flee the island before escaping in 1993. Disguised with makeup and a wig, and forced to leave her own daughter behind, she travelled to America on a forged Spanish passport. Of her father, Fernández simply remarked, “Fidel is a tyrant”.
After defeating the corrupt Batista regime in 1959, Castro promised his people freedom from colonialism and dictatorship. But, instead, he hitched his fortunes to the Soviet empire and established an autocracy at home.
Castro turned Cubans into slaves of the postcolonial state.
In this way, he was the very antithesis of his friend and fellow revolutionary, Nelson Mandela, who battled a corrupt regime, and led South Africa from an authoritarian state towards a constitutional democracy.
Castro was a dictator, pure and simple.
That is the correct term for someone who forbade free and fair elections; locked up his political opponents; ruthlessly controlled the media; brutally suppressed freedom of expression, religion, and movement; and handed over the reins to his brother when illness forced him to cede power.
These are the bald facts about the Castro regime that history, for all the romantic revisionism in the world, cannot – and will not – absolve.
In spite of his posturing about imperialism, under Castro, Cuba became a colony of the Soviet Union. He was prepared to sacrifice his people to a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This was an act of bloodlust and fanaticism that so appalled the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, the Cold War superpower was compelled to remove its missiles.
Castro ordered and sanctioned hundreds of thousands of executions. He built concentration camps and prisons on an unprecedented scale, and jailed and tortured a higher proportion of his own people than Stalin.
According to recently released German intelligence files, Castro – a professed opponent of fascism – tried to hire former Nazi SS officers as instructors for the Cuban army. He murdered more Cubans between 1959 and 1962 than Hitler killed Germans during his first six years in power.
Castro persecuted gay people, forbade them from joining the Communist Party and rounded them up in prison work camps. Gays comprised a significant number of the 125 000 Cubans – “worms”, as Castro called them – who were allowed to leave the island for the United States in the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.
Almost one in five Cubans was forced into exile to escape his reign of terror. It is estimated that nearly 80 000 of them lost their lives at sea, as they fled in rickety boats.
Castro destroyed the Cuban economy and impoverished the vast majority of his people.
Despite the much-vaunted claims about Cuba’s education and health systems, Castro’s schools provided indoctrination rather than education. He created a two-tier health-care system. The majority of Cubans received inferior medical care compared to Castro and his henchmen.
And on an island where about two thirds of the population is black, today the civil service is estimated to be 70 per cent white.
Cuba’s history, like South Africa’s, is a story of the struggle against colonial oppression: a struggle for dignity.
President Zuma stated in his funeral oration that Fidel was a “great fighter for the ideal that the poor have a right to live in dignity”. He suggested that this is why the Cuban revolution was and still remains an “inspiration to South Africa and the world on how to achieve a better life for the poor”.
Castro was undeniably a staunch ally against apartheid, but this is precisely the wrong lesson to take from his death.
Castro stripped his people of their dignity. He made them poor. The anti-colonial liberator turned into the post-colonial oppressor.
South Africa should honour its own negotiated revolution – and the memory of Madia – by upholding our Constitution and its cornerstone, the Bill of Rights.
We should remember the bonds of a shared history with Castro’s Cuba, without them becoming the shackles of a future that lives in the past.
Cardo is a DA MP. This is an edited version of a speech given in Parliament.