Last Man Standing
Fidel Castro is dead.
The last man standing in the Cold War, who survived the attempts of nearly a dozen American presidents to dislodge him from power, who elements of America’s foreign policy apparatus attempted to murder an uncountable number of times, has finally succumbed to age and decay, leaving behind a completely transformed Cuba at the age of 90. He was the ruler of that lovely island nation for fifty years, and its destiny will be forever tied to him; it is hard to imagine a 20th-century political figure who had as much impact on the world, particularly coming from such humble origins and commanding the authority of such a relatively small population. Castro was a controversial and complex figure even to those who admired him, and his story, even now that it has come to a definitive end, will be impossible to summarize with simplicity or ease.
That’s not to say that people aren’t going to try. Even now, mere hours after the news of Castro’s death reached across the water to U.S. territory, the public — which has been trained for the last half-century to think of him as an irredeemable monster — and the press — which has done the training — are reacting as if, after years of living under an unbearable tyranny, a house has finally fallen from the sky and squashed the Wicked Witch of the Caribbean. Commenters on social media and in the mainstream press are falling all over themselves to affect a moral pose and celebrate the demise of an insatiable blood-eater, with the Miami Herald, its circulation numbers boosted by the wealthy exiles who have loathed Castro since the beginning for cutting off their share of the parasitic exploitation of their countrymen, going so far as to revive the idiotic idea that he was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (In fact, Kennedy tried to murder Castro dozens of times, launched an all-out invasion of Cuba that resulted in disaster and humiliation, and brought the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust to prevent Castro from arming himself with the same kinds of weapons the U.S. had in far greater numbers.)
Of course, one shouldn’t overlook the violence and repression the Castro regime unleashed on the people of Cuba. Castro did things to people that should rightly be condemned by anyone with the sense to understand that it is the role of a socialist leader to reduce the amount of human suffering in the world, not to increase it. It was not only the wealthy capitalist class who were harmed by his rule, and he was never a friend to democracy. But to ignore, as almost all American journalists and politicians have done for 57 years, the role that the United States has played in the way Cuba’s political, socioeconomic, and cultural life has developed under Castro is to be willfully ignorant of a far greater and more fearful degree of oppression and evil than the man in the fatigues and cigar could have imagined in his most bloody fantasies.
It is not merely that Castro was an identification figure for rebels, underdogs, and those who love a good David-and-Goliath narrative. He stood up to the greatest imperial power of his time — a power that literally tried to kill him time and time again — and he was practically the only leader in the Western hemisphere to make a serious stand against imperialism, colonialism and apartheid, so his status as a defender of the rights of common people to have a say in their own governance should not be understated. But like any other figure of his status, his decisions were sometimes guided by ego, passion, revenge, and spite. As much as Castro was beloved by millions at home (a fact that often goes unmentioned when discussing how much the comfortable political class of South Florida despised him), building a cult of personality around him is a predictable folly. It has never been a simple matter of being pro-Castro or anti-Castro, except in the United States.
And, of course, that is the key to this issue. While it’s pointless to get ground down into an endless volley of both-sides-do-it, for Americans to feign unprecedented outrage at the sins of Fidel Castro while preparing a gleeful dance on his grave is rank hypocrisy of the worst order. Even ignoring the fact that Castro had approached American diplomats and offered the possibility of a cooperative relationship only to be rebuffed by radically anti-communist elements in the State Department, Castro’s Cuba — and the attitude towards dissent, towards civil rights, towards the democratic process, and towards international affairs that he displayed — was inextricably linked to five decades of constant pressure from the U.S. to destroy it. Just as it did everywhere else in the underdeveloped world, America used whatever means it had at its disposal, from violent terrorism to military action to interfering with elections to constant propaganda and economic sabotage, to force regime change in Cuba. And lest we fool ourselves that we were trying to liberate the Cuban people, we should remember that not only did the bloody dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, which Castro overthrew, enjoy the full support and backing of the United States, but also that there are dozens of examples all around the world of American power overthrowing a popular elected leader (so long as it was socialist, and held the opinion that its own people, not foreign governments and corporations, should decide what should be done with its wealth and resources) and installing a nightmarishly violent despot (so long as he pledged us his loyalty and concentrated his violence on the native left).
Regardless of our own feelings about Castro, his fight was not our fight, and his mistakes and errors were, if not entirely forced, at least enabled by the fact that we considered his homeland our own personal possession to do with what we liked. The economic embargo we weighed Cuba down with for half a century crippled its ability to trade, to build diplomatic relations, and to acquire the basic elements of survival forced it to make deals with the devil; had we not been so relentlessly dogmatic in our opposition to Castro, we might have worked with him and gently steered him away from his worst excesses. It is one thing for us to argue that evil is evil no matter who promotes it, and quite another to hold up the example of Chile as the paragon of Latin American economic triumph while many of those who spilled the blood that made that miracle possible still draw breath. In particular, Henry Kissinger still enjoys every luxury of life money can buy and has the ear of presidents, but he is responsible for the death of more innocents in the name of American hegemony than the entire population of Havana; we have no right to dance a tango to el fin de Castro when that death-dealing ghoul has outlived Fidel by three years and never spent a day in prison. Castro’s foreign entanglements may not have worked out, but he at least took a firm position against colonialism and racism, while in every country that surrounded him, from Vietnam and Iraq to Nicaragua and Honduras and a long list beyond, America has consistently backed brutal dictators whose thirst for the death of their enemies make Castro look a piker.
Through all this — through seeing all his comrades assassinated and disappeared, through seeing the countries he emboldened to throw off their masters’ shackles being pulverized back into servitude, through the demise of the Soviet Union and the transformation of China, through a punishing economic embargo and endless attempts to end his life at the hands of spies, finks, and assassins — Fidel Castro managed to sustain his country’s economy, provide some of the best health care in the world to his people for free, educate his countrymen to one of the highest literacy rates in the Americas, and, yes, stand up to the most powerful military force in history. For all his violence, he killed fewer people during his entire reign than die in prison in a typical year in the United States. He lived long enough to see his greatest enemy voluntarily elect a wannabe despot so transparently corrupt and contemptuous that he wouldn’t have passed muster in the most degraded of banana republics, and for his troubles, he died just in time to have a nation that has sown misery, death, and despair across the globe condemn him as a monster. His legacy will likely be a return of the kind of capitalist oppression, complete with gold-plated luxury hotels, that marked the Batista regime; and his work to provide education, health care, and decent lives to his people will be the first casualties of the kind of austerity politics that ‘realist’ politicians will insist are necessary to attract foreign investment. It will be as if he never existed.
Fidel está muerto; ¡Viva Fidel!