In several respects, the passing of Fidel Castro puts an end to a geopolitical era. Under the Obama Administration, the United States and Cuba have sought to strengthen ties with one another, while Fidel’s beating heart was the elephant in the room that symbolically more than anything prevented these developments from feeling entirely real. If Fidel’s brother, Raul, steps down in 2018 as he has publicly stated to be his intention, then it will be the first time in over 50 years that Cuba will be presumably be lead by someone other than a Castro.
In writing this blog post, I have no desire to write at you so as to sway you to agree with me on whether Castro was a force of good or evil in the world. He has an extensive Wikipedia page, and if you’re older than I am there’s a good chance he was part of your daily news reports for years. The path he chose affected people’s lives in invariably different ways, and it is quite clearly possible for large swathes of Cubans to love him and for other swathes to loathe him.
The international reaction has been generally predictable. The likes of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio aptly represent the conservative response that he was a brutal dictator who should be remembered for just that very fact. People on the left such as Reverend Jesse Jackson and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have opted to paint a more charitable picture of Castro as a revolutionary who sought to stand up to American imperialism to afford a better life for the Cuban poor. President Obama, in characteristic fashion, has chosen to publicly take the middle ground.
I personally struggle to come to a conclusion other than that his legacy is extremely complicated and mixed—and in order to feel compelled to opine one need to have an appreciation for the nuances for both the times in which Castro reined and the man himself. Overly-simplistic narratives do little justice to the landscape that he altered. As such, the caricatures of the soulless tyrant on one hand or the benevolent liberator on the other, for me at least, miss the mark.
His willingness to make access to quality health care and education basic human rights is very difficult for even his sharpest critics to criticize. His dedication to social spending allowed for Cuba to boast jaw-dropping literacy rates, average life expectancy numbers, and low infant mortality rates. Before he took power, like elsewhere in Central and Latin America, the life of the peasant was, to draw from Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish, and short.
Castro was unwavering in his commitment to thwart American imperialism. With a platform that acknowledged the exploitation of the Cuban worker at the hands of large American corporations, he had a strong mandate from the Cuban underclass. When the U.S. threatened him with and eventually made good on the promise of a total embargo, he proved to the world that he would stick to his anti-imperialist guns no matter what. Love him or hate him, he was a fighter, and he didn’t live on year after year due to a lack of American attempts to get rid of him.
The darker side of his legacy is a penchant for political repression in the form of state violence. The likes of State murder of political dissidents, long-term detention, and censorship of the press do not cast his regime in a particularly good light. Apologists may appeal to the idea that Castro was forced to do this because if he did not a rightwing U.S.-backed opponent would have seized power from him, but this seems to let him off the hook for a series of tactics that from what I can see was most assuredly excessive.
The debate can wage on forever. Some will say his economic practices kept the majority of Cubans, although equipped with basic human services, poor, while others will point out that it’s hard to retain much capital when hit with an embargo from the world’s leading economy right next door, and further yet income inequality in Cuba is much less stark than in Central and Latin American countries in which the United States were able to select political puppets to enforce their economic agenda.
Many will consider Castro’s decision to exile thousands of Cubans to Florida to be inhumane. Someone more sympathetic to him will argue these just consisted of the families that were all too eager to exploit the vast underclass. But still, can that be proven, and is to live in a successful capitalist family suddenly grounds for exile from your homeland? These arguments go in circles, and you could debate Castro’s approaches forever. In my humble opinion, as before, he got some things right and he got some things wrong.
With all this being said, what perhaps remains the most troubling to me is a point raised eloquently by New Yorker Staff Writer Jelani Cobb. As he puts it, “The moral outrage at Castro’s use of torture & murder benefits from amnesia about the many American-backed tyrants who did the same.”
Quite clearly, what he means by this is that Fidel Castro stirs up a hatred in so many Americans that other State leaders who have also committed large-scale human rights abuses simply do not. Cobb goes on to cite Trujillo, Mobutu, Batista, Pinochet, and Duvalier—and if all these names don’t ring a bell then you are indeed forgiven, albeit helping to prove his point.
These names don’t jump off the page for much of the American population, I would gather, because we are not taught about them. Even with regard to someone like Augusto Pinochet, I had hardly ever even heard his name until studying Chilean history this year. He, in fact, overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende, and then proceeded to massacre hundreds of Chilean citizens in the national soccer stadium. They mostly consisted of Chilean peasants, coal miners, and trade union representatives.
If you would like to read up on authoritarian regimes that have been supported by the United States, fortunately Wikipedia has you covered. You could spend hours, days, years reading up on it.
The point in writing this is not to suggest that one cannot bemoan the moral deficiencies of someone like a Fidel Castro. He did bad things, and it is the duty of history to objectively hold him accountable for them.
In the same token, it is not particularly levelheaded to rail against the political repression practiced by Castro and look the other way when systematic genocide is carried out by regimes that are or were aided by the U.S. And spoiler alert, a lot of American puppets lacked the endearing qualities of fighting for education, health care, and the anti-apartheid movement that Castro championed. A number of these regimes in Latin and Central America, Africa, and Asia were just unequivocally bad regimes that carried out the practice of destruction on their homeland.
To what extent the American media and elites are complicit in getting us to hate certain rulers that have defied American imperialism and look the other way on other repressive rulers if they carry out American interests in the international arena is hard to say. Investigative journalists like Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill at The Intercept appear to be of the mindset that they very much know what they are doing to mislead us. In their view it is no accident that Americans know of Fidel Castro’s misdeeds, but would struggle to find Nicaragua on a map let alone be able to identify the wide scale atrocities committed by right wing death squads that outweigh anything Castro ever did.
It is a troubling question, and one that I find hard to answer. Do Americans wish to perceive their foreign policy to be for good in the world? Well, of course, the answer is yes. Does this wish blind us from seeing when our actions don’t do good—contributing to a selective memory? The answer is probably, yes, sometimes, but I’d like to think there are a lot of us that will admit when we get something wrong—like Vietnam or Abu Ghraib or our continued illegal detainment of political prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Like anything else, it’s mixed, and the more you know the more you may have wished you hadn’t known at all.
I also would say that history is long and confusing and complicated. The average American does not have the time nor the patience to read about the history of every nation America has involved itself with regard to its domestic affairs. It’s frankly daunting, and the American education system just doesn’t last long enough to get around to all of it. And then once you’re out of the classroom, the media isn’t exactly leading you in the direction of thinking critically about the places where the U.S. contributed to the demise of millions of lives.
I don’t know. It’s cliché, but moments like this attest to the notion that one ought to question everything. Keep thinking, keep reading, and stay vigilant in finding the information that isn’t delivered to you on a platter. Ironically, that’s probably exactly what Castro would have wanted, but who ever said complicated people can’t give sage advice anyway?