Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of the few which eclipses even Margaret Thatcher’s in bitter divisiveness. To his supporters he was revolutionary hero; a symbol of inspiration for Latin Americans who had felt themselves, for years, the victims of American imperialism and international indifference. He took a nation which had suffered under Spanish colonialism and US-backed dictatorship and installed a government which earnestly pledged itself to the emancipation and equality of the Cuban people above all else.
He expanded national healthcare, funded revolutionaries worldwide, and stood as a bulwark against the United States’ intrusion into Latin America. It is little wonder then, that innumerable statuses and think pieces lionising Castro have emerged across social media in the wake of his recent passing.
But such unequivocal praise misses the point. To consider Fidel Castro a hero is, at best, naive; at worst, immoral.
Like Cromwell, Robespierre, and Stalin before him, Castro’s anti-dictatorial revolution was one which created a new dictatorship. He ruled with an iron hand, flouting conventions on human rights in the name of a greater revolutionary good. Human Rights Watch accused the government which Fidel founded of multiple human rights abuses – from the unhappily restrictive censorship and lack of religious freedom, to the utterly tyrannical arbitrary imprisonment; unfair trials; and extrajudicial execution. Political activism is still forbidden and harshly punished, with Cuba being the only American nation which consistently ranks among Freedom House’s annual list of the most oppressive regimes worldwide.
Che Guevara, his revolutionary brother in arms, commanded death squads under Castro’s instruction, and summed up his view on human rights thus: “A revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.”
Hardly a humanitarian sentiment.
Castro’s success in nationalising healthcare is undeniable, as is its affordability and the equality of access to it. Such successes have not, however, been repeated in other policy realms. His classical, planned socialism created an economic quagmire, which left ordinary citizens grasping for food and caused income growth to utterly stagnate during his reign. When Castro took power in 1959, GDP per capita sat at $2,067.
By 1999 it was $2,307, a paltry increase in comparison to regional neighbours like Panama, Ecuador, and Puerto Rico; all of which shot upwards by several thousand dollars in the same period. Some of this can be blamed on the American trade embargo, but one need only glance to China’s economic success to see the empirical truth that the economic liberalisation of a socialist state increases economic activity and the average person’s income and wealth. This is not a matter of ideology, it is a matter of statistics.
Finally, Castro’s international legacy is hardly without blemish. Among the global revolutionaries he funded were the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), an organisation guilty of electoral fraud, arbitrary arrest and torture; as well as the Ethiopian Derg, responsible for a devastating campaign of political mass killings, and the horrific Ethiopian famine of 1984.
Beyond that, any nobility to be found in Castro’s defiance of American imperialism is undone by his cozying up to the Soviet Union, an authoritarian regime whose crimes and transgressions are too numerous to list here, save to say that Castro’s willingness to accommodate Soviet missiles in Cuba brought the world closer to nuclear holocaust than ever before or since. While both President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev allowed cool headed diplomacy to win the day, the same could not be said for Castro, who, in 1992, freely admitted that he had, during the Cuban missile crisis, recommended the Soviet warheads be used against the United States.
Fidel Castro’s greatest importance lies in his symbolism. For a people and a region who have, undoubtedly, suffered under a series of cruel, abusive, and condescending American administrations, his defiant nationalism can be considered admirable. But, if we are to temper our admiration for the words and politics of Thomas Jefferson (as we must) with the admission that raped his own slaves and supported Native American genocide, then any praise of Castro must be extremely qualified praise.
He was a dictator, a violator of human rights, an ideologue, a military hothead, and an apologist for governments more abusive and repressive by far than his ever was.
Fidel Castro was, arguably, a great man. This does not make him good.