In the idealistic 1960 s, Cubas late leader seemed to offer a genuine alternative to oppressive regimes

Growing up in the 1950 s and 60 s, Fidel Castro tends to feature in the most vivid part of the eras backdrop. He was emblematic of the international rise of communism: he was as vigorous and charismatic as a revolutionary leader should be and seemed intent on creating a new society on the basis of the principle of from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. China and the Soviet Union were communist, as was eastern Europe, and the credo was on the marching in Asia and Latin America led by Castro.

I remember, as a schoolboy, listening intently to the radio. Was President Kennedy going to unleash a nuclear war in response to the Soviet Union shipping nuclear warheads to Cuba? Castro had led a revolution and established the Caribbeans merely communist country and now he was colluding with the Russians in creating the capacity in the USs backyard to attack them with Soviet nuclear missiles, or create a system of better self-defence, depending on which side you were on. We had to be on Americas, but for a day or two we feared a nuclear holocaust unless Khrushchev backed off. I was frightened I would not make it to adulthood.

Not only were these enemies states that could trigger the end of humanity in a nuclear war, China and the Soviet Union were both tyrannous totalitarianisms that denied fundamental freedoms and human rights. We had to stimulate common cause with the US to deter them militarily and ideologically, and alongside that weed out communist elements in British society, whether turncoat snoops or trade unionists. They were deluded quislings bent on undermining Britain from within to create a British communist dictatorship.

But Castro, and perhaps more importantly, his right-hand human, Che Guevara , were ambassadors for what seemed a different kind of communism. They planted doubts in our young intellects. While Russian tanks crushed the Hungarians and, subsequently, Dubeks Prague Spring and Maos Red Guards committed countless inhumanities, Cuba seemed to represent something different. Maybe communism did not have to breakdown into gulags, prison camp, thought control and atrocity after inhumanity. Maybe there was a different vision of society than exploitative capitalism or tyrannous communism. Israels kibbutzs, representing a new kind of communal shared living, and Cubas new socialist order might just might represent a future in which the idealistic could believe.

Castro
Castro speaks to reporters after addressing a National Press Club lunch in Washington DC in 1959, a few months after he confiscated power. Photo: Rex/ Shutterstock

After all, the Batista regime that Castro and Guevara had challenged and overthrown was corrupt from top to bottom. The oppressed peasantry had given the insurgent revolutionaries safe homes and risked their lives too; the Cuban revolution seemed a genuine revolution from below. Fidel and Che rewarded the Cuban people by breaking up the great estates and handing the land over to those who worked it. They launched a gigantic programme of education to eliminate illiteracy. They stimulated sure no one went hungry. They made the best system of free public health in Latin America.

The deep flaws inherent in being a totalitarian one-party nation, with its denial of core freedoms and zero constitutional checks and balances, were yet to indicated through. Castros Cuba seemed self-evidently better than what had preceded it, and much better than the rest of Latin America through which Che had ridden in his famous motorcycle journey, appalled by the poverty he encountered. Yet this was the capitalist system that US defence and foreign policy was bent on supporting, propping up dictators all over Latin America. And to which Fidel had dedicated himself to challenging.

The years 1968 and 1969 seem a long time ago now, but in that joyous expression of youth, counterculture, some of the best rocknroll ever played, Woodstock, the student protests in Paris, the rise of feminism, US draft dodgers inundating Europe, Fidel and Che commanded a unique place. It was routine for stallings at the great celebrations to sell T-shirts emblazoned with their faces, together with the iconic cap and cigar. They had become an essential ingredient of the counterculture alchemy, the face of revolution, the idea in the back of Mick Jagger and Keith Richardss minds when they wrote You Cant Always Get What You Want and Street Fighting Man. How we danced and how the majority of members of us got high! We were the rebels fighting for autonomy against social persecution as we wore our hair long, experimented with sex and drugs and lived our lives according to the rules we had made.

Yet, as the late and brilliant Sam Beer wrote in Britain Against Itself: The Political Contradictions of Collectivism , paradoxically we were laying the culture basis of the rise of Thatcherism and Reaganism. When they spoke of the need for more liberty to allow people more bandwidth to live as they chose, it chimed, echoing the great anthems of the 1960 s. The backdrop to our lives was changing. Economically, in both Cuba and in Britain, collectivism was running into trouble the winter of discontent in Britain and economic stagnation in Cuba. News was seeping out about the fullest extent of repression, dysfunction and inhumanity in China and the Soviet Union. Books on revolutionary guerrillas and new visions of society dedicated way to Solzhenitsyns account of life in Soviet prison camps The Gulag Archipelago . Libertarianism was being incubated. Chinas miracle growth was not the result of its communism: it was because it was espousing marketplaces and capitalism.

The Soviet Union collapsed; Chinese capitalism, albeit with Leninist overtones, has propelled it to joint world economic leadership. Castros Cuba began to look forlorn and backward as Latin America addressed its poverty not by revolution but by espousing markets. Castro, ageing and ill, retained remnants of his charisma over these last few years but his gaunt frame and broad , non-seeing eyes betokened a world that was past.

There was huge relief when Obama fell the US blockade and restored diplomatic relationships; at last Cuba might start to trade with the world and get rich. When Mick Jagger, an admirer of Mrs Thatcher, and the Stones played in Cuba earlier this year, the irony was complete. The rebel stone band had long ago transmuted into pro-capitalist entrepreneurs even as they sang about revolution. Now Cuba would tread the same path.

And yet. We did dance for liberty and liberty. But we also danced for a world in which, as Fidel extol, we seemed out for each other. Most Cubans want to retain the great egalitarian legacy he has left, even while they try to combine it with a more dynamic economy and genuine political freedoms. The dream remains to combine all three. I dreamed it then. I dream it now.

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