Editorial: Fidel Castro - Tarnished legacy of a revolutionary

"Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me." Those were the words of Fidel Castro in October 1953, at his trial for the rebel attack which launched the Cuban Revolution, eventually overthrowing the government of Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Cuba this week mourns the death of its revolutionary leader. Today Cubans will pay their respects at a memorial in the Plaza de La Revolucion and at other ceremonies around the country before Castro's ashes are interred on Monday. Contrasting the grief in Castro's homeland have been scenes of celebration in Florida as Cuban Americans who despised Castro's regime danced in the streets. So how will history judge Castro?

The concept of a charismatic revolutionary, exiling himself to Mexico to gather a guerilla force and overthrow an authoritarian regime no doubt has a mythical and romantic quality. That's embodied in those iconic images of a bearded, cigar smoking Castro and the often stylised Alberto Korda photograph of Castro's second-in-command - Che Guevara.

Once Batista was overthrown however, Castro's efforts to lift his people were less successful. He turned against America, which responded with sanctions. Castro aligned with the Soviet Union's Nikita Khrushchev. This led to the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, a failed American-led attempt by Cuban exiles to wrest control from Castro, and took the world to the brink of nuclear war.

The Cuban people were thrown into poverty. Foreign investment disappeared and the nation's finances were depleted by Castro's wage and rent policies. Cuba lacked basic goods and its technology was frozen in time - evidenced by the re-tooled 1950s cars that still roam the streets.

Those who dissented suffered. Members of the previous government went before the courts and hundreds were shot. Newspapers were closed. Homosexuals were persecuted. In 1964, Castro admitted holding 15,000 political prisoners.

Castro's interventions in Africa and the developing world became more adventurous. By 1989, when the Soviet empire collapsed, he had an army totalling more than 250,000 of regulars and reserves. At home, many of his people were facing starvation and thousands attempted to flee on home-made boats to the United States.

There were achievements during Castro's reign. Health care and life expectancy improved. Diseases were eradicated. Literacy and education were lifted and higher education became universally available. During the Ebola outbreak, Cuba reportedly had the largest contingent of foreign doctors in Africa.

Castro's opposition to colonialism prompted Nelson Mandela to call him a "source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people".

An ill Castro resigned in 2008, and handed power to younger brother Raul.

Relations with America thawed and in December 2014, President Barack Obama announced the US would re-establish diplomatic relations with Havana. That progress is now under threat from a Donald Trump presidency.

Fidel Castro leaves his country with the marks of decades of isolation, and still recovering from a 1990 economic crisis. He will never be forgotten as a revolutionary who overthrew a corrupt and oppressive regime but his people continue to struggle with the regime that followed.

- NZ Herald

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