Fidel Castro was an egalitarian revolutionary who led the overthrow of a fascist dictatorship, inspired progressive politics across the world, survived hundreds of assassination attempts and introuced world-class, free education and healthcare.
Fidel Castro was an authoritarian dictator who executed political opponents, jailed dissidents and established a one-party state in his homeland.
The fact that both of these statements are true, highlights just how complex his legacy is. Despite the polarizing aspects of his actions and character, Castro is a man who has now joined the pantheon of genuinely world-changing twentieth-century leaders following his death, aged 90, this past weekend.
Cuba declared nine days of national mourning on Saturday after Fidel’s brother and current Cuban leader Raúl announced his passing across national media, even as others (including US President-elect Donald Trump) used Castro’s death to score cheap, one-sided political points on the internet.
The immediate response to Fidel’s death — in keeping with public opinion on his life and actions in general — was pretty polarized. It prompted a notable number of balanced reactions, but most were devoid of nuance and markedly partisan in the perspective.
As with most leaders who for better or worse deserve consideration as “great” statesmen of their time, Castro occupied both the role of hero and villain on the world stage. Which of these roles he played depended largely on one’s perspective.
Many on the left praised Fidel’s commitment to free education and healthcare and fearless criticism of US imperialism, while they tended to downplay his regime’s worst excesses such as the repression of domestic dissent on Cuba and his belief in and use of the death penalty, even for political opponents.
Those considered centrist, liberal or on the right often highlighted the Cuban revolution’s failure to provide political liberty to its citizens and pointed to the somewhat repulsive cult of personality Castro created, while sidestepping the crippling effect the US blockade had on Cuba’s economy and neglecting Castro’s support for noble causes the world over from South African liberation to the fight against illiteracy and (more recently) Ebola in Africa.
The muddy truth lies somewhere in between both perspectives.
‘History Will Absolve Me’?
The positive international effect Fidel Castro’s Cuba had was manifest not only in the generation of idealists it inspired but also his government’s consistent support for noble causes often neglected by richer and more powerful states who pride themselves on their humanitarianism.
Not for nothing did Nelson Mandela, the darling icon of liberals the world over, count Fidel as a lifelong friend and ally.
After all, while the US, UK and a host of other capitalist democracies were happily trading and supporting supporting the barbaric racism of Apartheid South Africa, Fidel championed Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) in their struggle against the regime by sending Cuban soldiers to fight and eventually defeat Apartheid forces in neighbouring Angola. This is still considered a key stepping stone in toppling the regime and liberating South Africa’s black majority population.
On the homeland itself, the belligerent siege mentality fostered by Castro should be understood in the context of repeated US aggression against the 1959 Revolution, which included a failed invasion authorized by then-president John F. Kennedy at the Bay of Pigs and what many consider a concerted terrorist campaign of sabotage and outright violence led by the CIA that began just four months after the guerrillas overthrew the military dictatorship of General Fulgencio Batista.
When the world reflects on the response from Castro’s Cuba to external forces, it must be viewed as actions taken with very little to work with. Instead it was pushed by a combination of US hostility and basic economic necessity towards the Soviet bloc, meaning Castro soon declared himself and the Revolution to be Communist as he had not before winning power.
On the island itself, Castro imprisoned dissidents and those who opposed the Communist dictatorship he eventually established. The political repression enacted by the one-party state on Cuba makes for grim reading and has been well-documented by Human Rights Watch among other organizations with more balanced track records.
Whatever the socialist utopia is supposed to look like, it surely should not include such blatant violations of free expression.
Then again, the US government, who often slam the political situation on its island neighbor, imprisons dissidents too, as do Russia and China and many other states besides to their great discredit.
Castro’s support for the execution of former Batista officials and supporters in the years after 1959 was a swift example of how violence against political opponents was always a key and ugly component of the Cuban Revolution that Fidel championed, gun in hand, from the front.
The killings are rightly used by many liberals in the West as a tool with which to tarnish Castro’s legacy, which in this author’s opinion it certainly does.
It’s rare that those who cite the executions that happened in Cuba after 1959 cry foul over other violence abuses of political power, such as outgoing US President Barack Obama’s illegal targeted assassination campaign, for example, which has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians over his eight-year presidency, many of them children.
The closer one looks at world leaders like Castro or any of the 10 US presidents he outlasted, the murkier and more morally dubious their collective actions seem.
We should listen to Cubans on both sides: that includes the innumerable citizens who have described the harsh repression and abuse they faced from the Communist regime and also the millions among the poor rural population who still thank Fidel personally for providing them with basic economic rights and services for the first time in Cuban history.
According to the United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO), Cuba has among the best education and healthcare systems in the world, despite being among the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere, and these world-class and essential services are free for all Cubans as they are not in many more wealthy capitalist countries.
And 57 years after the Revolution, Cuba is still extremely poor, as a recent photo essay showed without recourse to cliches or romantic idealism.
Widespread poverty is an indictment on the Communist regime that has failed where more moderate, center-left governments in Latin America like that of ex-president Luiz Inácio “Lula” Da Silva’s Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil succeeded in a relatively short space of time — raising millions out of destitution through economic growth and social programs, albeit in a different set of circumstances.
The lasting, grinding poverty on Cuba should be seen within the context of the economic chokehold placed on the island by the US, the most powerful economic and military state in world history. Such an economic siege would have struck down the healthiest of economies. In Cuba’s case the embargo has compounded already-existing hardships on the island since JFK introduced it in the ’60s, as many of Castro’s fiercest critics now accept.
Indeed, Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Havana and lift the embargo (not to mention his poised and almost conciliatory statement released soon after Fidel died) suggest a certain reticence on the part of the current US government regarding the failure of its own policy and those of its predecessors in this regard.
Whatever the future holds for Cuba and the Revolution going forward, the world has lost one of its most influential and polemic figures and will probably not see his like again.
Fidel’s legacy, like those of most other “great” political figures in world history, remains complicated and fascinating in equal measure and will be debated into the future with the same sought of passion the man lived by and inspired throughout his extraordinary life.