Dubai: News of the death of Fidel Castro brings back memories of the year I spent in Cuba as a student at the University of Havana.
I got to see the influence of Castro on his people. As a foreign student, I didn’t have to queue for rations but still, as a young idealist, I couldn’t help but admire the Cuban president’s dedication to his cause.
It was hard to tell who was genuinely loyal to Castro and who was being forced to do so. The affection and reverence for the charismatic leader seemed real.
Apart from our language studies, we studied the island’s history. My lecturers at Castro’s alma mater did not hesitate to extol the virtues of “El Commandante”. One beamed with pride when she spoke about the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1960, a failed CIA-backed military invasion of the island. That victory over the “Yankees” was a badge of honour, collectively worn by a people, steeped in the belief that their revered leader has taken on that powerful country just 180 kilometres away across the waters of the Caribbean Sea.
Those who adored him boasted of the island’s free education and free health care for all. To them, Castro was a pragmatist, completely dedicated to the revolution that brought freedom to the exploited masses.
I did not attend any of Castro’s six-hour speeches at the “Plaza de la Revolucion” (Revolution Square), but I did watch some of it live on TV. I can still hear the echo of the signature chant, “Patra o muerte” (fatherland or death), followed by the thunderous response from the crowd, “Venceremos” (we shall prevail).
It was easy to spot the president on his way to work (or returning from work) in the back of black Mercedes, part of the presidential motorcade. All you have to do is go to “Quinta Avenida” (5th Avenue), the main artery that run through Havana.
Love him or hate him, Fidel Castro stepped on the world stage and made his mark. While he was at it, he outlasted ten US presidents, and that is no mean feat.