I was fourteen when I bought my first Che tee-shirt in a shop in London.
A poster on my bedroom wall followed. Then started the Spanish lessons, as I determined to go join la revolución (it didn’t matter where – as long as it was a jungle and I got to wear fatigues). At school, when my teacher sent me home one evening with instructions to write out ‘I will not preach about the virtues of world communism’ 100 times, I found an old Soviet guidebook and transcribed the passage in Russian, making the punishment far more time-consuming just to make a point. In my Canadian high school, when everyone showed up in national hockey jerseys during the Canada Cup, I was the lone boy in the red CCCP shirt.
Looming large over this teenaged awakening was Fidel Castro. Perhaps it was fitting that the great Cuban leader resonated so strongly to such an innocent mind, because what defined him and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevera more than anything else was their romanticism. When he became governor of Cuba’s central bank after the 1959 revolution, Guevara – in the words of his friend Ricardo Rojo – ‘knocked the props from under the widespread belief that money was sacred’ by signing Cuba’s banknotes, simply, ‘Che.’
Unlike the prophet of communism Karl Marx, who saw material conditions as primary motives of human life, Che and Fidel believed that a new type of human motivated by moral ideals rather than money could be brought into being. And in an age where the standard career-model among Western politicians seems to be to leverage a few years in office into a lucrative post-political gig on the speaking and consulting circuit, there was something deeply compelling about a man who, as Che had done, left the summits of power to return to the jungles to fight. Showing up first in Africa and later back in Latin America, Che was finally captured and killed in Bolivia in 1967 – as the journalist I.F. Stone would put it, ‘like an early saint, taking refuge in the desert.’
Fidel stayed behind in Havana, and continued the laborious task of building a new society. I retained my fascination with socialism, acquiring along the way the dubious distinction of being one of the few ever Canadians to actually vote for the Communist Party (which in Canada was little more than a front operation for Soviet spies). As I grew older, and began studying communism, I grew a bit more hard-nosed – attracted as ever to the premise, but increasingly mindful that the practice was more complicated than expected. Cuba’s experiments with moral rather than material incentives didn’t yield quite the bounty Che and Fidel had hoped for. It turned out, as one Jamaican Prime Minister who was critical of his neighbour’s revolution put it, that ‘it takes cash to care.’
Cuba did care. Its expansion of medical services and education to the general population gave the lie to the economic assumption that human development merely followed economic growth, and that therefore the only thing which mattered was growth. Nonetheless, it did take a lot of cash to care, and Cuba benefited immensely from Soviet subsidies during the Cold War. When these were cut off at the end of the 1980s, amid Russia’s descent into economic and political chaos, Cuba struggled mightily.
Yet to her credit, she kept her mettle. Unlike, say Vietnam’s rapid adoption of its doi moi economic reform as soon as it was cut off from the Soviet Union, Cuba stayed the course, marching proudly to its own drum. The economy did not perform glitteringly, evincing all the problems of central planning – inefficiency, misallocation, poor product quality. But the country always looked after its poorest citizens in a way that put many richer countries to shame.
Nonetheless, there was a price to pay for this achievement. Many of the romantics who, like me, delighted in Fidel Castro’s repeated flipping of the bird to the US, wouldn’t want to have lived in Cuba. We liked our freedoms. So too would have Cuban dissidents, who were forced to leave or languished in Cuban prisons.
Fidel Castro thus leaves a mixed legacy – social progress, economic stagnation, political repression. But perhaps what he will be remembered most for by history will be that very thing which attracted a young teenager in Canada to the thought of la lucha: his romanticism. In the reportedly modest life he led, in a career of public service in which he neither abandoned his ideals nor leveraged them into a fat income-stream, Fidel Castro stood as a reminder that we can live by the noblest of sentiments. We might make mistakes — some grievous – and it might be unreasonable to expect a whole society to share these motivations, thereby making an economic model based on ideals alone a weak one. But such lives can remind us that we don’t just have to be in it for the money, status and power.