Fidel Castro. Picture: AFP

Fidel Castro. Picture: AFP

In Africa, where Che Guevara T-shirts are ubiquitous among the youth, the reputation of Cuba’s leader, Fidel Castro, who died aged 90 last Friday, retains much political and cultural élan.

In SA particularly, Castro’s legacy has been enhanced by a history of standing up against apartheid, battling PW Botha’s army in Angola, and defying the colonialist powers of Britain and the US across the continent.

As true as that is, it is equally valid that plaudits he earned as the totem of committed communist ideology are off the mark. The reality is that Castro’s politics remained murky and troubled till the end.

It remains true that Castro was a strident anti-imperialist — widely beloved for standing up to the US for more than five decades, even as he comfortably supported Russian imperialism in Africa and elsewhere.

In Oriente province in 1941 a young Castro, the son of a labour broker with substantial landholdings, first came to the approving attention of the Santiago newspapers for beating striking black Haitian cane-cutters with the flat of his machete. "If Fidel had not succeeded in the Sierra Maestra [from where he waged war against Fulgencio Batista’s forces]," one of his supporters would later write, "they would say of him today that he was a loquito, a good boy, who unleashed repression against the labour movement."

Journalist Patrick Symmes’ book, The Boys from Dolores: Fidel Castro and his Generation, shows the young Castro as a huge fan of Benito Mussolini, enthralling his mates by imitating Il Duce’s speeches from his Jesuit school balcony.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Castro (who had often fallen asleep reading Mein Kampf, according to classmate José Antonio Cubeñas) walked out onto the balcony proclaiming the event "our first victory". Cubeñas added, however, that Castro was never an ideological fascist and was definitely not an anti-Semite.

Symmes puts his own description of Castro as a young fan of fascism down to youthful dilettantism. Yet in adulthood, in the post-fascist era, Castro joined the conservative nationalist Orthodox Party, which aimed to supplant foreign economic power on the island — especially that of the US — with that of its own upwardly mobile class.

In the final phase of the revolution, Castro inherited control of the 20,000-strong Cuban armed forces by default. This meant his triumphal 1959 march on Havana was as stage-managed as the 1922 march on Rome organised by Mussolini.

Once in power, in typical Latino strongman style, Castro used that military to crush all dissent, including other anti-Batista organisations. He militarised and impoverished Cuban society, destroyed the 80-year-old free labour movement by corporatising the unions along fascist lines, and built a personality cult around himself.

Yet even those who became his enemies could not deny Castro’s magnetism and symbolic influence for African liberation movements, including the ANC.

For Cubans, it was another story. Castro spurned the democracy he had promised in favour of an autocracy centred on himself. But his politics remained occluded as he navigated space for a "tropical communism" that adapted the line of his sponsors in Moscow to suit Cuban contingencies.

One clue to Castro’s politics lies in his former schoolmate, Luis "Lundy" Aguilar, telling Symmes that on visiting Castro at his penthouse suite in the requisitioned Havana Hilton in the early days after the revolution, he was shown the leader’s bedroom. "Lundy spied the books on Castro’s night table: a volume on Marx that looked like it had never been opened, and a well-thumbed copy of the speeches of [Argentina’s Juan] Perón."

In fact, it was only three years after the revolution, when the US blockade forced Cuba to turn to the Soviet Union to buy its sugar crop, that Castro famously declared he had "always been" a communist. From 1967, Cuba’s biggest trading partner was not, in fact, the Soviet Union, but Francoist Spain.

Still, it comes as a shock that Cuba’s self-proclaimed "Marxist-Leninist" chief was a lifelong friend of Perón, whose "Third Way" right-populist regime welcomed Nazis and other fascists fleeing the gallows in post-war Europe. Perón was a regular house-guest of Castro’s and when he died in 1974, Castro declared three days of mourning.

Nor did his friendship with the ultra-Right stop there. Records show he was also lifelong friends with Manuel Fraga Iribarne, Franco’s longest-serving interior minister, who was responsible for the executions of perhaps 200,000 "enemies of the regime".

So, in his intimate political compass, Castro stood revealed as not only a rather conventional Latin American military strongman, but also a distinctly fascist-aligned right-wing populist.

Anthony DePalma in his New York Times obituary for Castro, said: "To many, Fidel Castro was a self-obsessed zealot whose belief in his own destiny was unshakeable, a chameleon whose economic and political colours were determined more by pragmatism than by doctrine."

Perhaps that was the lasting legacy of fascism and Perónism on Fidelismo: Castro’s resolute sense that he — and in Cuba, he alone — was the man of destiny.