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Castro was no Mugabe

THE death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro last Friday, though evoking mixed feelings, marked the end of an era.

Editor’s Memo,Faith Zaba

While Castro to some extent reminds Zimbabweans of President Robert Mugabe, it would be simplistic to draw casual comparisons between the two because they are different in many ways. The former Cuban leader was a revolutionary at heart who supported liberation struggles in Africa and Latin America and one of the most remarkable political figures of his time. Mugabe, on the other hand, is more of an opportunist driven by self-interest and power. He even failed to support South Africa’s fight against apartheid despite his public rhetoric against it.

Castro’s rule has similarities with the reign of most post-colonial leaders in Africa and elsewhere in the world, but more so in Africa where for liberation heroes morphed into villains. They started off very well, but soon enough the transformation from liberator to dictator became complete.

As the comrades go full circle from heroes to villains, liberation legacies are reduced to tatters on the altar of power and political expediency. This has been the pattern in many post-colonial societies.

Cuba’s circumstances are very different from Zimbabwe, but there are parallels. Unlike Cuba which was caught up in Cold War mayhem, Zimbabwe mainly had a better opportunity to succeed. In fact, the country’s former coloniser, Britain, is the leading donor, together with the United States. Britain has poured in billions of United States dollars since independence in 1980 to help the southern African country to succeed. But owing to gross incompetence, mismanagement and corruption, this has not materialised. Cuba was by contrast immediately put under US siege.

While he achieved a lot on education, health, water and social progress, the late Cuban leader was a tyrant whose needlessly inflexible rule condemned his people to backwardness and unimaginable suffering, poverty and human rights violations.

After taking over power, Castro did not extend people’s freedoms, he was undemocratic and his economic policies were not viable.

However, he should be commended for making major strides in health, education and the provision of clean water.

Figures from Unicef show that Cuba’s youth literacy rate stands at 100%, as does its adult literacy rate. The country’s high ratio of doctors to patients and its proactive, community-centred approach to healthcare has long been the envy of many Western countries. It has managed to keep its population of 11 million people healthy into old age. Life expectancy in Cuba is 81 years for women and 77 for men.

Castro also helped other countries to fight colonialism by providing medicine and assistance in education. For Africa, his greatest legacy was when he sent Cuban troops to Angola in the 1970s to support a left-wing government over the initial objections of Russia. Cuba helped defeat apartheid-sponsored insurgents in Angola and helped Namibia’s independence from South Africa in 1990, adding pressure on the racist regime.

These are great things he did, yet it is difficult to ignore that by clinging to dogma and a communist system that had failed, he left Cuba stuck in a time warp. Even its benefactor, the Soviet Union, had already changed. This showed his inflexibility and moribund vision. As a result, Cuba is stuck in the 1960s. For decades, time stood frozen in Cuba.

Other countries changed and they are now prospering. China is one such example. This is not to absolve the culpability of the United States.

There is no question that Cuba’s economic growth was hampered by Washington’s sanctions. The US did everything to disrupt the Caribbean island nation including threats of invasion and even assassination attempts on Castro.

However, this did not give the Cuban leader excuses to stubbornly pursue policies and models that do not work.

The Cuban story is far more complex than the Zimbabwean one, but there are similarities. Mugabe did well after independence, particularly on the health and education front. But after that he started squandering all the gains of independence in his desperate quest to hang on to power.

Even if there are these negative similarities between Mugabe and Castro, at least the former Cuban leader knew when to step down as he did in 2008 due to ill-health. Despite his deteriorating health and visible signs of frailty for a long time, Mugabe seems uninterested in retiring anytime soon.

Instead, he has indicated that he wants to die in office, despite having brought untold suffering on Zimbabweans through his inept and calamitous rule.

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