Fidel Castro, Last Of Latin America’s Absolute Monarchs

Not unlike a zealous Christian, Castro learned from Catholicism a dogmatism and opposition to pluralism that he imposed on his island nation for decades.

Fidel Castro in Havana in 2005
Fidel Castro in Havana in 2005
Loris Zanatta

BUENOS AIRESFidel Castro was the last of the Hispanic rulers in the absolutist tradition of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille. He lived a lot, and talked even more. He did not just live his life, but related it, trying to fix his history and thoughts in interminable speeches, gatherings, books and interviews.

He was repetitive and obsessive, and by no means averse to manipulation. Familiar with the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels" idea that a lie must be asserted, shouted out and repeated until people believed it, he insisted there was no torture in Cuba, that his government had eliminated racism and did not train guerrillas. These were all false, but Castro's devotees believed them as they still do. Belief, faith and the sort were apt concepts for one of the most charismatic leaders of the 20th century, the epoch of transition between the religious and secular worlds.

Castro founded a secular religion and imposed it as a state religion, and he was its "Caesaropapist" head. He propounded his dogmatic ethics, and his every word exuded a sense of judgment between good and evil.

Vice patrol

War and struggle: these were dominant words in his discourse. In contrast with other contemporary pontiffs, Castro managed at least to carve out a society in his own image. It was the Jerusalem where his chosen people had found salvation from the ills he was fighting: individualism, selfishness, consumerism, indiscipline, gambling, sex and drugs. His litanies against "vice" were positively pastoral in tone.

His popularity is due precisely to this ability to play out, with a greater dose of histrionics than anyone, the role of a modern-day Savonarola, that 15th-century Florentine lambaster of sins. Castro the moralizer denounced Western civilization, liberal democracy and the market economy, fueling a personal myth and swelling an army of devotees who loved him more for what he represented than what he was.

And Cubans paid the price. His Jerusalem was a failure — an autarchic, Spartan redoubt and setting of poverty, privileges and arbitrary rule.

The capital of revolutionary values has another facet: suppressing dissent and free spirit, and everything that evokes originality, creativity, beauty and social mobility. Few of Castro's devotees living in Western societies would tolerate the life of the average Cuban.

To understand Castro, instead of delving into Marxist texts, it would be better to look to the very rural and Catholic homeland of his father, Galicia, home to another dictator, Spain's Francisco Franco. Castro's worldview was formed from there, amid the recurring masses and vigils of his Jesuit schools and a world imbued with the doctrines of Saint Thomas Aquinas and fascism. Two things remained alien to Castro as he studied through school and university. One was work, as his father was wealthy and paid his schooling. The second, the traditions of the European enlightenment and the liberal views it propounded.

This vision instead became his lifelong enemy, as it was for the most conservative Catholic traditions. There was nothing strange then in his discovering Marxism and embracing it with religious fervor. At the time, a generation of Latin American Catholics were abandoning the fascist utopia for communism. It seemed to be nothing more than a Christian heresy and a coherent-enough development of Christian precepts. The Argentine writer Leopoldo Marechal described Cuba in the 1960s as the society closest to the Christian ideal.

History's laws

Yet such humble origins would hardly do for Castro. Communism was not the past, but the future. History had its laws and these were pushing it toward the Marxist society. His mission was thus providential, and he ... a messiah. That was the spirit he conveyed to the Cubans in the 1960s, when everything seemed possible and he promised them material prosperity. And while he was being hailed by many as a liberator, he began jailing gays and anyone playing the Rolling Stones.

Cuba was soon not so much rising toward the heavens as sinking into misery. The famous 10-million-ton sugar harvest target of 1970 was a dramatic, and enormously costly failure. A normal government would have given up — but not a Catholic monarch.

A Nicaraguan priest visiting the island was at one point "illuminated" to see all Cubans living in "Christ-like" poverty! As the dream of prosperity gave way to the more humdrum task of managing poverty, Castro turned his energy to another project, a global crusade against the West. The United States's doggedly hostile policies provided him with a perfect opportunity. In the 1970s, while Soviet subsidies kept the Cuban economy afloat, Castro traveled the world and sent troops to Africa. He would be the Third World's champion.

In the 1980s, as democracy began to return to Latin America and Mikhail Gorbachev shook the foundations of the communist world, Fidel returned to his roots. The Catholic doctrine, he told his friend the priest Frei Betto, is 90% identical to the principles of the revolution. There he found another matrix to subordinate the individual to a collective whole that also sees pluralism as a threat, detests liberal democracy and the market, and which seemed to hold the soul of the Cuban revolution.

The end of the Soviet Union ushered in the "special period," which uncovered the system's every vice and problem, from corruption to nepotism, shortages and hunger. People risked their lives to reach Florida.

Castro, who did not know how to lose, returned to the old arguments. Sacrifice will yield redemption, and suffering, glory. He began speaking about other things, like the past or the revolution's triumphs. He had no choice but to start letting tourists and investors in, in spite of the contagion he dreaded for his purified people. Opening the country brought back some of the vices he said he had extirpated from Cuba, but also a little prosperity, not to mention inequality as only some Cubans would end up holding the dollars. An irredeemable rift was opening between doctrine and reality.

Such has been Cuba's track in recent years, and while it may sound cynical, France's Libération daily was perfectly on track with its headline on Castro's death: that he died too late. In Castro's lifetime, so many countries that had worse economic indices than Cuba 60 years ago, have left it behind, whether his father's Spain, or Latin America's Chile and Costa Rica, with no zealous followers for being mere, liberal democracies!

Castro's ideal was in the end something like a Christian society, and he pursued it come hell or high water, with zeal, authoritarian methods and inefficiency. Only when failure became blatant did he allow small poisonous pockets of deviation and liberalization to infect his people: those same people in whose name Fidel always spoke without knowing them much at all. Just like Ferdinand and Isabella.

*Loris Zanatta is a professor of Latin American history at the University of Bologna.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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