As Donald Trump has informed us via twitter, “Fidel Castro is dead!” Thanks, man-baby. How would we ever get the latest without you? And with that exclamation point you threw in there – well, who can say you aren’t The Great Communicator now?
For the people that loved Fidel, he was a heroic savior, and for the people who hated him, a murderous tyrant. In any case, his was a remarkable life. A successful revolutionary at 32, the “maximum leader” of a country for most of five decades, and a major thorn in the side of the greatest military and economic power in history.
He was an educated man, a man of great physical courage, unbreakable conviction in the rightness of his cause, and a spellbinding orator. When he was arrested by Batista in 1953, he said,
“I know that imprisonment will be harder for me than it has ever been for anyone, filled with cowardly threats and hideous cruelty. But I do not fear prison, as I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who took the lives of 70 of my comrades. Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”
In an effort to prove he wasn’t a dictator, Batista released him and his followers after being elected president the following year, and in 1959 was overthrown by Castro.
As Maximum Leader, Castro micro-managed every aspect of life in Cuba. Many say he improved health care and literacy for the people of Cuba, or at least the ones he didn’t rob, jail or murder.
Will history absolve him? No way.
As we have learned the hard way, the problem with overthrowing a regime is figuring out what to put in its place, and Fidel chose to throw in with the bad guys. He declared himself a Marxist-Leninist and cast his country’s fate with that of the Soviet Union. Apart from bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war, this meant assuring dependence on an economic model that could never succeed.
To be fair, he had little choice in the matter. With Castro instituting agrarian reform, “nationalizing” foreign oil interests, and eventually seizing all foreign-owned property, the U.S. figured he had to go.
Decades of mutual hostility and intransigence ensued, and it may still be difficult to get beyond that, even now with Castro gone.
But the real problem with Castro, and the reason history will not absolve him, is that he saw himself, personally, as the Cuban government. Dictators all over the world, whether religious, military, or royal, all have the same problem.
When a country gives itself over to a cult of personality, when its military is accountable only to one individual, when no orderly succession is enshrined in the founding documents, and when the “strongman” retains his grip until he is incapacitated decades later, the “revolution” is lost and the citizens will suffer.
A benevolent dictator is still a dictator.