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Fidel Castro of Cuba passed on recently at the age of 90. I met him in Cuba in late 1988 as Minister of Information and Culture. I told the story in my seventh of the 11 letters to my countrymen. It was entitled “Tomorrow’s Leaders” . I share here my recollection of the meeting as published in my Reflections on Letters to my Countrymen:-
I met Castro in Havana late last year (1988) and came away strengthened in my belief that a people determined to keep a date with history can make it, despite constraints of monumental dimensions. For 30 years, this fiercely loved and respected leader held sway in the western hemisphere, just 90 km from the shores of the world’s most powerful nation whose perspective to life Castro did not only not share but also debunked at every forum and in every speech.
But at Tropicana, a bee-hive of a tourist Centre, you could see Americans in the hundreds. They flew in from Florida and elsewhere, attracted to the offerings which sweat and blood had engineered in the turbulent years of Cuba’s history.
A drive through Havana shows you a city being stripped naked. What is going on? Rehabilitation: reconstruction. Old Havana has to retain its narrow streets, its architecture, those wooden beams and roofs that glued together for many many years a monastic order only now equaled by the hold which the pre-occupation with self-reliance and the determination not to be enslaved by anybody, giant or midget, had occasioned. Only Cubans can build Cuba, restore the degenerating structures of Old Havana. And this they would achieve, working day and night.
If I had a bug bite to see how Castro thinks – what’s it that had made him sustain over the years; why does he sound so present anywhere in the third world; why are Cubans, white and black, mixing so freely together in their daily toils – then you can understand why you should accept, even share in my glow, my seeming bias.
After more than an hour with this great contributor to the emergence of a third world perspective in the ideological divide, I decided I had no reason to shut the doors of my mind to a man who spoke sound sense because what he said, and says, is true. Cuba depended on others to feed itself once upon a time but now, Cuba which is one-tenth the population of Nigeria and about the same percentage of the area, produces food enough to feed 40 million people. That is, Cuba has worked hard enough in the last thirty years to produce enough to feed four times the population of the country.
We looked at a map of the world, Castro and I, located Cuba on the map, and Nigeria on it. In fact, as I spoke of the opportunities the giant of Africa offered; the minimum of five ecological zones which would enable us to grow any tropical food; the lay of the land, from the mangrove swamps of the riverine areas in the South, to the desert conditions in the extreme North; as I spoke of the gems, from tin and gold and bauxite through uranium and columbite to lime-stone and kaolin and crude oil; as I spoke of the large population, vibrant, colourful and extremely innovative; as I spoke of the cultural heritage and the immense variety of its manifestations; as I spoke and spoke and spoke, inspired by the promise of our under-twenty-fives, more than 16 million of whom are in school, a school population one-and-a-half times the population of Cuba, I saw a glint in the eye of this great fighter for freedom, this accomplished innovator, this inspirer of the deprived. I thought I plucked from the depth of his almost inscrutable being, a vague idea of what he would do if he had been in Nigeria. But I went on to relate our experiences since independence, in retrospect, born of lack of tenacity in execution of programmes. I told him of what bold decisions our government has taken to tackle our problems and build a tolerable future for the youth, our elders of tomorrow who now have an opportunity to rule today.
Castro was not disappointed at what we were doing. He in fact expressed excitement at the way we are taking the stubborn bull of backwardness, oppression, exploitation and retrogression by the horn. It is difficult but what we in Nigeria are trying to do now is what Cuba started 30 years ago and has not and cannot stop doing. Do you stop growth, and think you will grow?
But I had access to a book, a most illuminating book, after I left Castro. The title is “The World Economic and Social Crisis, its impact on the under-developed countries, its somber prospects and the need to struggle if we are to survive “. It was a report he made to the Seventh Summit Conference of Non-aligned countries and was published in Havana in 1983. The data contained in that book are official, from western world sources. They are beyond suspicion of bias and as Castro himself says in a general statement to heads of state, government leaders, political leaders and statesmen in general, and especially of the third world, the data are demonstrative of the tragedy of the people of the third world. He expressed conviction that it would be impossible for us to situate ourselves in the reality of today’s world if the panorama presented by the facts and problems set forth in the book “is not made readily available to statesmen for their daily use and profound meditation”.
He recognized the enormous variety of widely differing concepts, ideologies, beliefs and perceptions which the third world has taken in but was emphatic that one thing we have in common, even with the developed world, is our responsibility to mankind. He then went on to identify the burdens of the third world; the overwhelming problems of accumulated poverty and backwardness an immense external debt that the vast majority cannot pay; an increasingly brutal inequality that hangs over peoples and is combined with the squandering of enormous sums in an absurd arms race in the midst of the dreadful exploitation that weighs on our nations in the most diverse forms; and the horrendous historical heritage of centuries of colonialist and neo-colonialist plunder in each of our countries, right up until the present situation, in which the exploitation is that much more refined, that much more merciless, that much crueler than ever before in history.
As I read Castro’s message to his colleagues of the non-aligned movement, I could see him clearly in that spacious office of his in Havana. With what he has been through in the struggle against oppression and brutal denial of a people’s right to live, he should know and without shame accept how gloomy are the realities and prospects for the future viewed as a whole. These realities could generate pessimism and discouragement, he said, “if we were not sure of our aims”.
True, the realities are inevitably a bitter pill to swallow “but if we are to face up to the realities, we have first to become aware of them”.
I am becoming guilty quoting from the address that serves as a preface to this enormously illuminating work which this great man inspired young and bright researchers in Cuba to produce for presentation before his colleagues in the Non-aligned movement. But if we must appreciate the problems of Nigeria which gave rise to our version of the Structural Adjustment Programme, I would have to quote this long but immensely inspiring piece from Castro’s address. He said,
“We do not have, nor do we think anyone has, magic remedies for such difficult, complex and apparently insoluble problems. History shows, however, that no problem has ever been solved until it has become a tangible reality of which everyone is aware. Today, we are faced with the most universally serious and anguishing situations ever known to mankind. In short, for the first time we are faced with the question of whether or not we are to survive. But, no matter how enormous the difficulties, no matter how complex the task, there can be no room for pessimism. This would be to renounce all hope and resign ourselves to the final defeat. We have no alternative but to struggle, trusting in the great moral and intellectual capacity of the human race and in its instinct for self-preservation, if we wish to harbor any hope for survival”.
There, across the Atlantic, is Cuba presided over by Castro, struggling to survive because its people know there is no alternative to struggle if you must survive.
Now 28 years after my meeting Castro, he has left us, focused and disciplined and committed as he was when he took power in January 1959 from a most corrupt, undisciplined and unrepentant regime headed by Fulgencio Battista.
May his legacy to the Cubans and the third world continue to remind us of the need to sustain our striving to grow.
Prince Tony Momoh
Minister of Information (1986 – 90)
Prince Tony Momoh