All hail to the last and best of the socialist dictators

Castro ushered in a period of personal liberation and a rebirth of national pride
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IT'S NOT every day that Fidel Castro cancels one of his marathon speeches. But the occasion of the Cuban baseball team soundly thrashing the United States to scoop the Pan American title, to be added to their Olympic gold in the sport, is perhaps a suitably historic one. Not quite the Bay of Pigs, but 40 years after their revolution, the Cuban experiment is alive and (a few defections notwithstanding) in sporting, musical and cultural as well as political terms, quite thriving. This is, superficially at least, all the more surprising as we reflect that it is now 10 years since Cuba's allies, the Communist regimes of eastern Europe, began to collapse like a line of dominoes. What has happened to them, and why did Cuba survive?

At this distance it is possible to make some reasonable assessments about the consequences of this spectacular implosion, which went on to snuff out Gorbachev's attempt to create a democratic socialist Russia. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, the three countries the West most cared about, have received massive amounts of aid and are currently being integrated into Nato. They will be absorbed into the European Union within a decade. The West certainly did not care about the former Yugoslavia, allowed to collapse into barbarism.

Despite constant predictions that the worst was over, Russia continues to sink further into poverty. The Russian people have lived through a depression twice as deep and twice as long as that suffered by the American people in the 1930s. The average life span of a Russian male has slumped from over 70 years to 58 in the space of just eight years - testimony to mass unemployment and surging alcoholism and suicide rates.

Only its isolation allows the barbaric dictatorship in North Korea to continue in power. Vietnam and China have adopted the exact opposite of Yeltsin's economic policies. By allowing light industry and the consumer sector the freedom to grow side by side with the old state industries they have transformed the material conditions of their peoples.

In contrast to all of the above, the island of Cuba remains a beacon of hope for the peoples of the Third World. Che Guevara remains one of the most romantic figures of the 20th century. Even in his seventies and after the burdens of over four decades in power Fidel Castro remains a commanding and respected presence on the world stage. The continuing efforts of the CIA's propaganda machine to depict him as a brutal torturing monster is undermined daily by the tens of thousands of tourists who freely travel round Cuba, mixing with its citizens and returning with a very different tale to that concocted in the cellars of Langley, Virginia.

The contrast between the fortunes of communism in Cuba and eastern Europe rests in their very different origins. The Warsaw Pact regimes were client states imposed by Stalin's troops immediately after the war. In Cuba the revolution arose from below as students and peasants fought in the forests and slums of Cuba to throw off the brutal American-backed dictatorship of Batista. In the years leading up to 1959 the mafia had gained a stranglehold on the Cuban economy and perhaps as many as one woman in six had been coerced into prostitution. When Castro and Guevara came to power they ushered in a period of personal liberation as well as a rebirth of national pride which had been crushed under six decades of US-backed puppet regimes.

Life expectancy under Castro has risen from 59 years in 1958 to 75 years today. Infant mortality has declined from 60 children per thousand to just seven today. Not only are these figures comparable with Britain, but are dramatically better than the figures in America's urban ghettos. As Frank Dobson struggles to recruit enough new doctors to provide a full range of healthcare, Cuba has the highest number of doctors per head of population in the world.

Like Tony Blair, Castro's top priority was education, education, education - so much so that the literacy figures for Cuba long since overtook those of the US. And all of this has been achieved in the face of the most severe and sustained blockade ever imposed on any country in peace time. One of Boris Yeltsin's first acts as Russia's leader in 1992 was to comply with America's request to cut off all aid to Cuba, thus precipitating a dreadful recession on the island. Sensing the chance of victory the US Congress passed the Torricelli Law which banned all exports to Cuba from any subsidiary of any US firm. This blockade has not simply been aimed at weapons technology. Recently two European companies were forced to stop supplying Cuba with heart pacemakers, one because it had taken over by a US company, whilst the other had one tiny component made in the US in its pacemakers. As half the world's pharmaceutical industry is owned by US companies many vital drugs that Cuba cannot buy elsewhere are barred to it.

Castro responded by enlisting the whole Cuban nation in a massive struggle for survival as the economy was re-geared to cope with the renewed sanctions and the end of Russian subsidy. A series of deals with Canadian and Latin American companies laid the foundations for a huge increase in tourism aimed at replacing the rouble subsidy with the US dollar. In order to survive, Castro gave foreign companies the security they required for their foreign investments by allowing them to export their profits if they chose to do so. The result is a flourishing tourist trade with the numbers of visitors doubling each year over the last four years and likely to break the two million target this year.

Whatever errors Castro has made pale into insignificance compared with the accumulated errors of the last nine US presidents. America still has its weight behind the old mafia families' campaign to get their assets back, but that is not the reason the US has tried to crush Castro. Cuba can never be a military threat to the US but the fact that one of the poorest nations on earth has been able to create health and education systems comparable in many ways to those of the West whilst coping with the 40-year economic blockade is the most dramatic threat to US ideology and economic ruthlessness.

Yes, I regret that Castro has not introduced democracy, but perhaps if they hadn't faced four decades of blockade there might now be a functioning democracy fused with Cuban socialism. But even without formal liberal democracy the life of the average Cuban has been infinitely superior both economically and spiritually to what America and its corporations has been able to impose on most of the Third World.