SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — The leader of a small, Caribbean nation, Fidel Castro was a major figure across much of the world, inspiring quixotic insurgencies, pouring soldiers into successful wars of liberation, helping define the politics of a whole continent. His death has been met with mourning, honors and recriminations.
Yet in Latin America, Cuba never successfully exported a socialist system quite like its own, although many members of an idealistic generation died trying to emulate it. Castro had more enduring success in nurturing a later generation of leftist leaders who won power at the ballot box.
“Their success at exporting revolution was really quite mixed,” said Geoff Thale, program director for the Washington Office on Latin America. “It is really more the symbolism of that support from Cuba — and Cuba daring to go against the wishes of the United States and the Western world — that mattered.”
In mourning the Cuban’s death, Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, called Castro “the 20th century liberator of our peoples.”
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But for Venezuela’s opposition, Castro was a symbol of all they don’t want for their country, which is struggling with sizzling inflation and widespread shortages. “What has died is the very idea that by dividing people and subjugating them through hunger and fear, you can guarantee the eternal power of a demagogue,” the Democratic Unity coalition said in a statement on Castro’s death.
Castro backed revolutionary movements in many parts of Latin America, but most crumbled under brutal repression or local apathy.
Cuban-inspired revolutionaries did take power in Nicaragua in 1979, and Humberto Ortega, former head of the Sandinista army that won the 1979 revolution, told a local TV station that Castro’s support of Nicaragua “was vital for help achieve our revolution.”
“But he (Castro) also warned us that the Cuban model, of a single party, a state-run economy and all the rest, couldn’t be replicated in Nicaragua because the conditions were different,” Ortega recalled.
In Africa, Castro is honored more as an anti-colonialist crusader than a revolutionary. Cuba sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight in countries such as Uganda, Namibia and Mozambique in the 1970s and 1980s, something it never did in Latin America.
Cuba inspired or helped install ephemeral socialist-minded regimes such as the People’s Republic of Angola, in part as a cat’s paw for Soviet interests but also because Castro believed in the anti-colonial cause, and often acted independently of the Soviets.
Castro “was a peerless figure of transcendent historical importance who marked his era, not just because of the role he played in his country,” Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos said, citing Castro’s “unforgettable contribution … to the defense of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Angola” against rebels linked to South Africa.
Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi thanked Castro for “his incomparable and unforgettable contribution to the fight for the cause of independence.”
One of the first things Nelson Mandela did after being freed from prison in South Africa was travel to Cuba, whose revolution he cited as an inspiration.
“The Cuban people hold a special place in the heart of the people of Africa,” Mandela said in a 1991 speech. “The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African Independence, freedom and justice, unparalleled for its principles and selfless character.”
Individual Africans, such as Namibian-born African media expert Ebba Kalondo, remember the Cubans well. Her country’s independence was won in part because of Cuban troops fighting South Africa.
“My country would not have achieved Independence when we did had it not been for Cuba. Their blood waters our freedom. Thank you Fidel,” Kalondo wrote on her Facebook page.
Castro’s willingness to put Cuban lives on the line especially impressed Africans. About 6,500 Cubans died in liberation wars on the continent.
Kalondo wrote in an email that Cuba was the only country to fight alongside Africans in their liberation battles, making it part of the African family. “The only thing Cuba asked of Namibia or Angola was to transport the remains of its fallen soldiers back home,” she added.
Thousands of young idealists in Latin America died or went to jail in the 1960s and ’70s fighting in scattered, quixotic guerrilla movements inspired by Cuba.
Later, Castro won friends by helping save lives rather than sacrificing them.
In Bolivia, where Cuban revolutionary hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara was killed in 1967 while futilely trying to foment an uprising, Cuba today is known more for rural literacy campaigns and free cataract surgeries benefiting 600,000 people.
Castro also was a steadfast supporter of rural activist Evo Morales, who was disdained by U.S. policymakers, in the years before Morales won Bolivia’s presidency at the ballot box.
In El Salvador, Cuba gave advice and support to leftist guerrillas during the country’s 1980-92 civil war. With peace, they became a political party and now hold the presidency. They also maintain a free-market system, the country’s currency is the U.S. dollar and money sent home by migrants working in the United States is a mainstay of the economy.
Medardo Gonzalez, leader of the party formed by Salvadoran rebels after 1992 peace accords, recalled Castro’s almost obsessive fascination with guerrilla tactics when meeting with rebel leaders in the 1980s. “He spent hours with us, discussing both general strategy and tactics,” Medardo said.
Eduardo Sancho, a rebel leader who adopted the nom-de-guerre Comandante Ferman Cienfuegos, said Cuba did not direct the uprising, but did enforce unity among the movement’s divided factions.
But younger Salvadorans worry more about the government’s offensive against violent street gangs, themselves partly born of the civil war, when young Salvadorans fled to the United States and formed the feared Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs.
Castro “was a man who fought for his people, and had the courage to confront U.S. power,” said Sebastian Perez, a Salvadoran. “I know he helped the guerrillas and that some here love him, but some hate him, as well.”
Associated Press writers Jorge Rueda in Caracas, Venezuela, and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.