Mark Entwistle is Managing Partner of Acasta Cuba Capital Inc. and a former Ambassador of Canada to Cuba.
Several months ago, Fidel Castro Ruz himself publicly reminded Cuba that he would soon be 90 years old and would not last much longer. But it is still sobering to witness the passing of a historic figure.
A man of sometimes mercurial temperament, iron will and resolve, and unflagging confidence and belief in his own ability and historic destiny, it is hard to think of a modern world leader who had more direct personal impact on the direction of a country than Fidel Castro did in Cuba over seven decades.
He was 100 per cent Cuban, his beliefs formed and forged in the crucible of Cuban history, which he understood, interpreted and drew around himself as the protector of the heritage of José Martí, 19th century father of Cuban independence and philosopher-king of Cuban nationalism.
The coming week will be solemn in Cuba as Cubans on the Island mourn the passing of Fidel, many privately and emotionally, and almost all with a sense of respect for the historic role he played as symbol of the Cuban nation to the world. It is the Fidel who channeled Martí that they mourn or recognize rather than Fidel as socialist theoretician.
The dancing in the street in Miami by several thousand Cuban Americans is one sliver of the nuanced Cuban reality, but there are many millions of Cubans who live in Cuba itself who will not be dancing, not because they are afraid of the police, but because of a sense of loss and regard for the patriotic integrity of the Republic of Cuba.
The passing of Fidel Castro is personal for me. When I served as Ambassador of Canada to Cuba in the mid-1990s, I met with Fidel many times and spent probably 100 hours with him in conversation about almost everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. I am sure he would have had a view on kitchen sinks as well had that come up. My son, who was three years old at the time, would ask Fidel why he only wore the same olive green clothes and wondered why he didn't have other clothes.
Canada's special relationship with Cuba over 70 years of unbroken relations has provided Canadians with a unique front-row seat through a rolling panorama of Cuban history from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s when Canadian banks financed the Cuban sugar industry through the upheaval of the Cuban Revolution and into the current period of aggressive evolution. Through this optic, the legacy of Fidel Castro comes in sharper focus.
The Cuba that Fidel Castro has left behind is very different than that of the late 1950s. It is a more independent, self-reliant and proud Cuba than in the period of former military dictator Fulgencio Batista, in which Cuba had been under the economic and political hegemony of the United States. Private American corporations had owned perhaps 80 per cent of fertile agricultural land and most of the utilities. These are simply facts. Fidel concluded that Cuba could never again allow such reliance on a single partner, and found it psychologically challenging to give up parts of the Cuban national economy to foreign director investors as much as this became increasingly necessary.
Large-scale investments in social infrastructure have created a society in which there is no illiteracy, which has 14 universities, and which still boasts some of the very best health indicators in the world despite severe budget pressures. Fidel Castro believed strongly that Cuba's competitive advantage must lie in education.
At the same time, his laser focus on redirecting Cuba's history caused him to push aside other Cubans who did not share his vision, causing hardship and emotional angst for many who left Cuba or stayed under suspicion. The fact of the hostile U.S. trade and investment embargo against Cuba certainly hardened his palpable sense of Cuba's vulnerability to a clear and present danger from the neighbour 90 miles away across the Straits of Florida.
Cuban national identity has changed perhaps irreversibly as a result of Fidel Castro – Cubans like the taste of prouder independence and they now expect as a birthright of citizenship proper education and access to health care. Fidel Castro went further and to different places than José Martí could have imagined.