Longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro is dead at age 90. While many around the world spoke highly of Castro’s success in greatly reducing illiteracy and proving basic services like health care, I have long been critical of his reign and his enablers in the West. Whatever success he achieved, he did so through a brutal dictatorship that denied freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and other basic civil liberties. For those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s, he was a defining character of our generation. The menace across the border. When we were being taught to shelter under our desks in any nuclear attack, it was his image with that of the Soviet premier that would be flashed across the screen. It was a time of utter madness and mania — on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Castro clearly had the leadership skills and courage to be much more after overthrowing a corrupt puppet like President Fulgencio Batista. Instead, he elected to follow the Soviet communist model and reduced his economy to little more than an agrarian state that was frozen in time — as vividly shown by the cars from the 1950s that still drive around the island. He ordered the torture of thousands and the killing of opponents. It is certainly true that the United States has an equally horrific record in supporting Battista and his cronies and repeatedly trying to overthrow Castro or destroy the Cuban economy. However, Castro is quoted as saying that “history will absolve me.” Certainly there are some professors on the left who have always idealized dictators like Castro or Hugo Chavez. From Bernie Sanders to Dr. Jill Stein to 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick there have been expressions of support for Castro’s record on educational and health benefits. However, history can not wipe clean, let alone absolve, a man whose legacy is soaked in the blood and suffering of tens of thousands of political prisoners.
He was an interesting historical figure to be sure. Many do not know that Castro was a lawyer and came from a wealthy family. He was born in 1926 to a servant of a Cuban sugar plantation owner. He father eventually recognized him as his son but only when he was 17 and Castro then took his name. He attended Jesuit schools before joining the University of Havana law school. By then, he was a committed socialist. It was after the failed 1953 attack on a military barracks and the trial that he said in his own defense “history will absolve me.”
I do not question the remarkable life of someone who overthrow a dictator and stood off the world’s most powerful country. That took guts and leadership. However, he then replaced one dictatorship with his own dictatorship. People were tortured in the many of Communism rather than capitalism. Reporters and political dissidents were jailed in the name of the people. At a time when Communism was denying freedom in Eastern Europe and rolling tanks through the streets to prevent democratic elections, Castro embraced the Soviet empire. His government ultimately representing little beyond authoritarian power masked by collective rhetoric — a point driven home by the fact that he was replaced by his own brother like some Communist Aristocracy. Likewise, the claim of a government of the people would be a tad more convincing if the Castro brothers ever let the people choose their government. Instead, they jailed opponents, barred the free press, and stomped out any protests over their rule. Those apologists internationally (who often cite how teams of Cuban doctors would travel the world or literacy advances) did not live under their autocratic rule without democratic freedoms and basic rights. Castro offered doctors and education in a trade for basic civil liberties. Only the greatest moral relativists viewed that as a fair trade.
Nevertheless, world leaders like Justin Trudeau expressed “great sorrow” at the passing of Castro. Journalists like MSNBC Andrea Mitchell insisted Castro “will be revered” for “education and social services and medical care to all of his people.” Really? He will be “revered” because he gave his people services while torturing and jailing those who wanted democracy? Mitchell may want to check out the free medical care that Castro gave people like Armando Valladares, who was initially a supporter of Castro but was arrested when (as a worker at the Office of the Ministry of Communications for the Revolutionary Government) he refused to put a plaque on his desk that read, “I’m with Fidel.” He was arrested and spent 22 years in Castro’s prisons being tortured, starved and left in solitary confinement. He might not be as reverential about those services, but then again Mitchell did not have to live under the dictatorship of the Castros.
One can certainly argue that he had little choice when the CIA was mounting aggressive attacks. However, Castro had long before adopted the ideology of the “people’s revolution.” It was simplistic and violent. It ultimately denied the fundamental human rights that belong to all people. He did so in the name of equality. He succeeded in achieving equality by reducing a society of a level only slightly above agrarian status and became a willing pawn for the Soviet Union. Without the shipments from Soviets to keep his population alive, his government would have collapsed. To this day, the island operates on the lowest level of economic exchanges and production. His unquestioned success on literacy and health care is no substitute for human rights. He placed his name on a long list of dictators who emerged from political and economic chaos. He did not end the brutality but merely justified it as a means for a new cause.
That is what history will remember about Fidel Castro.