(Cross-Posted by Vincent Lofaso from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs / COHA) – On November 25, 2016, the fiery Cuban revolutionary who perpetrated massive violations of human rights and his ability to challenge U.S hegemony passed away. His brother, Raul, the current president, announced his death on Cuban state television, providing few specifics as to the cause of his passing. Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz (90 years old) leaves behind a legacy that, in the polarized debate over Cuban policy, can be seen through one of two lenses.
For many, particularly the Cuban-Americans who fled the island, Fidel Castro was a leader who oppressed his own people, ordered political executions, and jailed thousands for criticizing his regime. But to his faithful supporters, Fidel Castro was a freedom fighter who fended off American imperialism in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s by overthrowing the U.S. backed leader, Fulgencio Batista. As president, the tall bearded socialist resisted the Bay of Pigs invasion and challenged the United States during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Thus while many Cuban expats are celebrating Fidel’s death in the streets of Little Havana, Miami, Cuba itself, is mourning the loss of a national hero who fought for his own people and transformed Cuba from a small agricultural Caribbean nation to a respected global player.
From his rise to power in January 1959 to his resignation in 2006, Fidel Castro’s human rights record never matched the idealism of his rhetoric. According to the Human Rights Watch, “Many of the abusive tactics developed during [Fidel’s] time in power—including surveillance, beatings, arbitrary detention, and public acts of repudiation—are still used by the Cuban government.”[i] Additionally, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez published a tweet describing Castro’s Cuba as “Su legado: un país en ruina, una nación donde los jóvenes no quieren vivir (a country in ruins, a nation where young people do not want to live).” [ii] Castro’s suppression of those who disagreed with his policies motivated many Cubans to brave the 90-mile maritime journey to Florida, which was already home to a large percentage of Cuban-Americans. These Cuban exiles have come to dominate U.S. policy towards the small Caribbean island and “they have established the paradigm for academic writing and commentary on Cuba, controlled the media narrative, and in general obstructed our ability to understand Cuba as a country, Fidel as a man, and socialism as an alternative development strategy.”[iii] There are a number of hardline Cuban-Americans in Congress that would like to reverse the Obama Administration’s actions towards Cuba. They create a significant challenge to the normalization of relations as it requires Congress to lift the embargo.
But, given a fair analysis of Castro’s legacy, we must not only look at the atrocities he committed, but also the way he transformed Cuba, a small island nation, into a serious player in the international community. In a sense, Castro’s greatest success was making Cuba a proud principled nation. Despite the controversy surrounding his socialist policies, Castro stuck to his core values in advancing health programs, biotechnology, culture, and art. Furthermore, Fidel Castro was well known for putting words into action. Castro advanced domestic policy by “[building] his legacy on agrarian reform, establishing one of the world’s most ambitious literacy campaigns and developing a free, world-class health care system. He went on to nationalize companies, refineries and land and would serve as head of the Communist Party of Cuba from 1965.”[iv] Castro’s international efforts also formed to his legacy. He contributed to anti-apartheid movements in South Africa, supported the Sandinistas who overthrew the Somoza government in Nicaragua, and sent doctors around the world on medical missions to support communities that had limited access to health facilities. Cuba also joined the non-aligned movement, in which the island nation took no side during the Cold War. In 1979, Castro gave a speech at the United Nations touching on Cuba’s involvement in NAM; “the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of non-aligned countries in their struggle against imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, apartheid, racism and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference or hegemony as well as against great power and bloc politics.”[v] On December 14, 2004, a breakthrough came for Cuba in Latin America. Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez signed the Cuba-Venezuela Agreement that led to the foundation of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) which aimed to exchange medical and educational resources for petroleum. The international body which also included Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Honduras all agreed to advance socialism in Latin America. Through these actions, Castro transformed Cuba into a reference point for developing countries disillusioned with the United States foreign policy.
The death of Fidel Castro coincides with a series of changes both in Cuba’s domestic and foreign policy. Since Castro stepped down in 2006, his brother Raul has strived to develop the island’s economy, a strategy that may have political and cultural ramifications down the line. According to Cuban expert Peter Kornbluh, Raul Castro, “has created a private sector which now accounts for almost 27 percent of the Cuban workforce; it’s largely tied up in tourism, but not completely. It continues to grow, but very slowly, in some ways too slowly for the Cuban population that has waited a long time, and has had its expectations raised by the normalization of relations with the United States.”[vi] The Obama Administration has worked tirelessly to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba. Some of these actions include reopening embassies in Washington and Havana, allowing more travel to the island, and even importing more American business to help transform the Cuban economy. With the election of the Republican candidate Donald Trump, many of these reforms do not appear to be threatened. It is imperative that Trump, and his fellow Cuban-American party members to take a nuanced position that benefits both the United States and Cuba. For now, they can blast the abuses of the deceased Castro as much as they desire. In the future however, they would be wise to continue on the path of normalizing diplomatic relations and expanding commercial ties.
By Vincent Lofaso, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
[i] Gilsinan, Kathy, “How Did Fidel Castro Hold on to Cuba for So Long?” November 26, 2016 The Guardian https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/11/castro-death/508811/
[iii] Yaffe, Helen, “Comandate Fidel: Combatant to the End” November 26, 2016 Telesur http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Comandante-Fidel-Combatant-to-the-End-20161126-0013.html
[iv] “Fidel Castro: A Latin American Legend” November 25, 2016 Telesur http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Fidel-Castro-A-Latin-American-Legend-20160812-0020.html
[v] “Castro Speaks, Meets Officials at UN: Departs for Home” October 12, 1979 Latin American Network Information Center http://lanic.utexas.edu/project/castro/db/1979/19791012.html
[vi] Gilsinan, Kathy, “How Did Fidel Castro Hold on to Cuba for So Long?” November 26, 2016 The Guardian https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/11/castro-death/508811/