Fidel Castro died, finally. His life was consequential, but his death was anti-climactic. The world has been expecting Castro’s demise for at least 10 years when he handed power to his brother Raul because of illness, and Cubans have been waiting far longer. But like Cuban communism, Castro seemingly refused to die, even when his ideas long ago failed to inspire widespread enthusiasm, and indeed led his country to ruin and generated resignation, fear and rejection among Cubans who had to live under the only totalitarian system this hemisphere has ever seen.
Six years ago, Cuban dissident Yoani Sanchez captured the mindset that results from being forced to live according to what most Cubans considered a discredited ideology when she wrote: “Fidel Castro, fortunately, will never return.” To the vast majority of Cubans, Castro, or at least the appeal of his ideas, was already dead.
When I first visited Cuba in 2002 for a series of official and non-official meetings, it became clear to me that nobody there, except maybe two people, believed in communism. The level of cynicism was high, apparently reminiscent of the final years of Soviet socialism, and it was extensive. I met nobody who was pleased with the current state of affairs. That has not changed, though for a time Chavista Venezuela came to the rescue with oil subsidies and other support that are now unreliable with the failure of Venezuela’s own socialist experiment.
There will always be some nostalgia and belief in the region about the legend of Castro being a crusader for the poor and a champion of social equality, but fortunately, the Cuban model in today’s Latin America holds little to no appeal. And the crude reality of Castro’s legacy is more widely recognized than ever before. As the Peruvian establishment newspaper El Comercio noted, Castro was “simply, the bloodiest, most repressive and longest-lasting dictator of Latin America.” And although the authoritarian system he set up has not yet been defeated, his death marks a symbolic endpoint in the worst excesses of 20th century repression in the region.
Fidel Castro represented the worst of the worst of Latin America’s centralizing tradition. In the region’s history, nobody had so much control over so many aspects of people’s lives for so long a period as he did. He achieved it through sheer intolerance and cruelty. From the beginning of the revolution, he did not hesitate to imprison and execute his closest allies, “friends” and even children when it served his purposes. People will debate for a long time how many millions of lives he disrupted, how many thousands of political dissidents he imprisoned, and for how many tens or hundreds of thousands of lives lost he is responsible. But he was a master of deceit and a cunning manipulator of public opinion; in person, he was a “snake charmer” in the words of Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. As Yale Professor Carlos Eire notes, “His lies were beautiful and so appealing.”
Here too, he was the most talented of Latin American dictators. Castro justified the worst crimes through the supposed achievement of the greater good—national sovereignty, universal health care and education, social equality, the fight against imperialism, etc. Never mind that the reality was quite different. With all its problems, Cuba, the most developed country in Latin America before the revolution, became relatively less developed and even more dependent on outside powers after the revolution, first on the Soviet Union, then on Venezuela. And if we are to believe Cuba’s official figures, plenty of countries around the world and in Latin America showed equal or greater gains in social development indicators without having to sacrifice civil, political or economic liberties. The extent of control that the communist nomenclatura has over others in society represents an inequality of power that Cuba had never before seen.
Castro knew that much of the outside world would overlook that reality and buy into official myths. He didn’t always lie. The use of moral equivalence in argumentation, or the old trick of suggesting that criticism of the new regime was the same as support for the old status quo went a long way. Castro knew that the world was imperfect and turned Cuba into the focal point of what Latin America had long been: a place where outsiders could project their vision of utopia or express dissatisfaction with the many things wrong in their own societies. In this way, the revolution became useful to intellectuals, journalists, activists, and countless others around the world. In this way also, Castro’s cynicism about the downtrodden, world peace or whatnot was unmatched. As my colleague Juan Carlos Hidalgo notes, just three years ago the regime hosted a summit of Latin American leaders, which called on the region to strengthen human rights and democracy.
How the future will unfold in Cuba is unpredictable, but we can expect its military dictatorship to remain in control in the short term and probably longer. The regime has been preparing for Fidel’s death for the past decade and its repression has increased over the past year. Without Fidel, though, there may be less fear to experiment with change. Whatever change comes about, however, will be undertaken by a regime intent on maintaining power. It will be a task that will be harder and harder for anybody to control.
Castro’s death gives us the opportunity to do as my friend Javier Fernandez-Lasquetty suggests, and pay homage to the millions of Cubans who have suffered under the tyranny he imposed, including writers like Heberto Padilla and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, activists like the Ladies in White or the late Oswaldo Paya, journalists and intellectuals like Antonio Rodiles, and the many, many Cuban dissenters who continue to face despotism with dignity. The world is a better place because of them.