“Fidel Castro is dead!” This astute observation from President Elect of the United States Donald Trump was published on Saturday afternoon, November 26, 2016, the day the world learned that the Cuban leader had passed away. While the difference between the PEOTUS’s statement and President Obama’s lawyerly and ambiguous remarks came as no surprise, other conflicting statements on Castro’s legacy issued by leaders and political commentators from all over the world piqued my interest. Is the American view of Fidel Castro as a brutal dictator accurate? What does the rest of the world see that we might be missing? I do not believe that I will reach a definitive answer to either of the previous two questions, but I do hope to paint a more wholesome picture of a world figure that will be remembered and analyzed for years to come.
The US-backed strongman Fulgencio Batista ruled Cuba in the 1950s. Batista, originally elected President by the Cuban people in 1940, was a highly unpopular dictator from 1952 to1959. The Cuban Revolution in 1959, led by young Fidel Castro and his Argentinian confidant Ernesto “Che” Guevara, was viewed with dismay from the United States, but was welcomed by the majority of Cuba’s oppressed and rural population. Through the traditional American Cold War perspective of history, this revolutionary victory was dangerous in that it brought communist ideals to America’s doorstep. To many of the Cuban people, however, their revolutionary triumph represented the idea of self-determination championed by their US neighbors almost 200 years earlier. To be sure, this revolution was not peaceful. Castro and his movement had many of the opposition killed in order to consolidate power. History, however, is often forgiving to blood spilling in the name of the common man and his right to self-government.
Castro quickly made clear that his movement was socialist by aligning himself with the Soviet Union, one of the world’s two superpowers at the time. This move turned American leadership and many of the American people away from Cuba for the foreseeable future. In September 1960, Fidel Castro announced to the United Nations that he would eradicate illiteracy in Cuba within one year. In April 1961, less than a year later, a US trained paramilitary group invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. This ill-advised operation was one of the first of many attempts to overthrow or assassinate Cuba’s young leader. In October of 1962, the Soviet Union began moving nuclear weapons towards Cuba. The United States and its President John F. Kennedy were rightfully alarmed. The situation was eventually resolved through diplomacy, but the United States and Cuba were even more polarized than before.
Over the next forty years the Castro regime was characterized by strong education, strong health care, and systematic suppression of the media and political dissidents. Castro’s conflicting record on human rights is of particular interest to the question of his legacy. Literacy among Cuban children and adults was 100% in 2010, but the progress in educating Cuba’s populace did not come without a cost. Castro and his regime used the nationalized education system to promote socialist ideals and to suppress citizens’ freedom of thought. Cubans with the highest level of education often struggled to find good work due to the regime’s constricting economic policies.
Cuba under Castro also became a world leader in healthcare and medical research. The island nation’s infant mortality rate of 4.3-percent is lower than that of the United States and the average life expectancy of its people is on par with the world’s richest nations. Even without the financial support of the Soviet Union and a crippling U.S. Embargo, Cuba educates a surplus of medical professionals who go on to work all over the world. Recently, Cuba sent as many as 15,000 trained medical professionals to West Africa to fight the spread of Ebola.
These achievements, however, were important benchmarks for Castro’s regime not just because they increased the average person’s quality of life; rather, these achievements were a necessary prerequisite for the regime to maintain a legitimate claim to power. If things were going well in some areas, like education and healthcare, citizens were much more likely to forgive a regime that suppressed their freedom of expression and freedom of information.
Despite his high profile enemies, namely the United States of America, Fidel Castro managed to make many international allies. Nelson Mandela praised Castro as a symbol of freedom while visiting the Cuban capital shortly after his release from prison. In the years prior, Castro had supplied as many as 30,000 troops to oppose US-backed Apartheid forces in South Africa. Castro is seen as a hero in many parts of Africa because his people fought alongside fledgling nations struggling to gain independence in the wake of oppressive colonialism.
In short, Fidel Castro’s international legacy is one of mixed emotions and conflicting actions. Castro led a valiant but bloody revolution that led the Cuban people out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire. His progressive education system eradicated illiteracy and provided high-level degrees while indoctrinating its pupils with a single-party socialist philosophy. Education gave Cubans a great ability to think, but economic policies provided them with few opportunities to apply their talents. Abroad, Castro supported Davids struggling for independence against imperial Goliaths, but his own domestic oppression inspired many of those same Davids to become dictators.
As a nation, we should continue to hold world leaders and historical figures to the highest standards of human rights. However, as a privileged and often psychologically isolated nation, it is important that we challenge ourselves to look at the world through diverse perspectives.