The tiny island of Cuba with no major natural resources, military prowess or strong economy, produced two of the most famous and charismatic leaders of the last one hundred years; Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro Ruiz. Both have lasting legacies and assured places in world history as people who defined their generation and had global cult-like followership. Though contemporaries, both had unique farewell addresses fifty one years apart; while Che made his on April 1, 1965, Fidel gave his on Tuesday April 19, 2016.
Addressing the Seventh Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in his valedictory address, Fidel was philosophical "Soon I will be 90 years old…Soon I will be like all the rest. Everybody's turn comes" Like a man passing on a flaming torch, Fidel, a proud marathon runner of ideas and principles, told those he is leaving behind to continue the race: “The time will come for all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban communists will remain as proof on this planet that if they are worked at with fervour and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need; and we need to fight without truce to obtain them.” Here, Fidel is reminding his comrades, that the struggle for human emancipation is not Cuban, but global. In this he is continuing Che’s 1965 thesis that all lovers of humanity must fight for a new moral, cultural, political and material world: “We will make the human being of the 21st Century… creating a new man and woman with a new technology.”
This may be the last time we will hear from Fidel in public; the first time was sixty three years ago when he stood in the dock for treason following the attack on the Moncada Barracks. Rather than plead for mercy and his life, the then 27-year old rookie lawyer had on October 16, 1953, told the court "Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me." Indeed, history has absolved him.
In his 1965 farewell letter to Fidel and the Cuban people, Che, who was originally an Argentine medical doctor, had resigned from the party leadership, his post as Minister, rank of Commander and Cuban citizenship and headed for Africa to fight against the dictatorship of General Joseph Mobutu (later known as Mobutu Seseseko) He saw himself as a citizen of the world whose duty is to fight injustice and oppression anywhere they rear their heads.
He explained to Fidel why he was leaving Cuba “I feel that I have fulfilled the part of my duty that tied me to the Cuban revolution in its territory, and I say farewell to you, to the comrades, to your people, who now are mine…Other nations of the world summon my modest efforts of assistance.”
On a clear mission to carry out revolution in other parts of the world, Che told Fidel “I carry to new battlefronts the faith that you taught me, the revolutionary spirit of my people, the feeling of fulfilling the most sacred of duties: to fight against imperialism wherever it may be. This is a source of strength, and more than heals the deepest of wounds.”
He had no material wealth or savings to bequeath to his family, but he was confident that the new Cuba which would cater for all citizens will also take care of them. “ I am not sorry that I leave nothing material to my wife and children; I am happy it is that way. I ask nothing for them, as the state will provide them with enough to live on and receive an education.”
After fighting on the side of the Lumumbists –followers of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba- in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he moved to the jungles of Bolivia. Che had written “To die under the flag of Vietnam, of Venezuela, of Guatemala, of Laos, of Guinea, of Colombia, of Bolivia, of Brazil-to name only a few scenes of today’s armed struggle-would be equally glorious and desirable for an American, an Asian, an African, even a European.”
Two years after his farewell, Che was ambushed in the Bolivian jungle, interrogated and murdered by Bolivian forces and their American “advisers” who not only advised he be executed summarily without trial but also be buried in an unmarked grave so that his resting place does not become a shrine. But to convince humanity that Che had truly been killed, his hands were cut off; they killed a man, but not his ideas.
It would be 32 years before his remains and those of his six other comrades would be discovered and moved to Cuba. At Che’s reburial in October 1997, Fidel had wondered “Why did they think that by killing him, he would cease to exist as a fighter? Today he is in every place, wherever there is a just cause to defend. His inerasable mark is now in history and his luminous gaze of a prophet has become a symbol for all the poor of this world.”
Fidel survived ten American administrations some of who had signed his death warrant and sent assassins after him. President John .F. Kennedy not only authorized the CIA to assassinate Fidel, but also militarily invaded the island in what became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Following the 1959 revolution, Cuba was isolated by other Latin American countries in an attempt to force it to change; rather, Cuba changed Latin America so much that the United States which engineered the isolation, has itself restored diplomatic ties.
Celebrating Che and Fidel, is celebrating ideas, programmatic vision, unparalleled conviction and uncommon commitment to a cause, people and the universality of humanity.
The ideas of Fidel and Che were incendiary; they glowed in the hearts of youths, captured the imagination of generations and, even people who do not agree with their ideas and actions, could not deny their faith in humanity and commitment to building a better world. Today, more than ever, we need to create what Che characterized as a New Man and Woman, a new globalization and a new humanity. World without end. Amen!