One of the last great revolutionary leaders of the 20th century has passed away. One may hesitate to call Fidel Castro “great” – but whether you admire or revile him, no one can deny that he exercised global influence over a generation of revolutionary leaders, from Latin America all the way to Africa, and managed to keep his small nation in defiant opposition to the United States for over half a century.
As an expert on revolutions, I can offer some perspective on Castro as revolutionary leader. He was not a monster like Stalin or Mao, who blithely embarked on policies that slaughtered or starved tens of millions and dismissed the costs. Rather, Castro came to power and ruled as an idealist who believed he was rescuing the Cuban people from the harsh exploitation of early 20th century capitalism, in which American companies reaped much of the profit generated by Cuba’s economy, while Cuban men labored like slaves on sugar plantations and women turned to prostitution to support themselves. Unlike the Russian and Chinese Communists, who fought their way to power in bloody civil wars that tore their countries apart for many years, Castro and his revolutionary guerillas were a small force that played cat and mouse with the army of the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Their achievement was to just survive and win popular admiration, until Batista’s own apparent disregard for his people and his nation, and his dependence on his U.S. patrons, led both his army and the Cuban people to abandon him, allowing Castro’s forces to take over the island.
Once in power, Castro was embraced as a nationalist hero. When Cuban refugees tried to persuade American President John F. Kennedy to support their effort to take back the island, promising that Cubans would rally to their side and desert Castro, the result was one of the unmitigated disasters of U.S. diplomatic history. The promised defections never materialized, and the invasion forces at the Bay of Pigs were sent packing. But one of the results was to ensure that Castro would always see the United States as his dire enemy. Already leaning toward communism as a way to bring equality and hoped-for economic betterment for ordinary Cubans, Castro forged ever stronger-ties with the Soviet Union and became a champion of communist and anti-American guerilla movements and governments around the world.
Of course, Castro’s imposition of a communist system on Cuba strangled rather than strengthened the economy. Castro’s early policies provided some widely-admired gains, as his barefoot teachers and investments in health care gave Cubans universal literacy and one of the highest levels of doctors per capita in the world. Unfortunately, both gains were squandered, as Cuba’s socialist economy provided no opportunities for the newly-literate to become successful entrepreneurs, and Cuba’s medical personnel were sent around the world as a way to gain support and earn hard currency.
As the oppressiveness of communist party rule and the stagnation of what had been Latin America’s most advanced economy became apparent, Castro had to deal with rising voices of opposition. He dealt with them harshly. Even old comrades were imprisoned, and thousands of opponents were executed. As in other communist regimes, there was no freedom of press, speech or assembly. But Castro’s rule was more frustrating than dangerous for ordinary Cubans. After the years of the murderous Batista regime, which sent death squads throughout the countryside and sold nearly half the economy to American interests, Castro’s regime was seen as a significant improvement. As one Cuban émigré put it to me – “Castro is like changing a wife-beating husband for one that is kind but lazy and cannot keep a job. At first, you are grateful just not to be beaten every day. But eventually, you do start to wonder when your economic situation will ever improve.”
The best hope for such improvement will come from the integration of Cuba into the global economy, with new opportunities for foreign investment, trade, travel, and migration. This is the path that President Obama and Cuban leader Raoul Castro, Fidel’s brother, are embarking on, however hesitantly on the part of the latter. Some may hope that such actions will accelerate after Castro’s passing – but it is almost certain that insulting Fidel’s memory and attacking his legacy will have no positive effect on his brother. What we have learned from the last fifty years is that Cuba’s government will not be forced or bullied into changing its ways; rather it may shift gradually if Cuban are treated with the respect and dignity that they believe Castro’s revolution – even if it did nothing else – earned for their country.