Fidel Castro remained a paradox up to end of his life. Like other charismatic leaders who outlived their youthful promise – Chavez, Gaddafi, Mugabe, Ortega – there seemed little connection between the rambling of his later years and the brilliant fluency of the handsome commandante who entered Havana in revolutionary triumph. Forced by the Cold War to embrace the Soviet Union, under his leadership Cuba became an object lesson in the price small countries would pay for daring to thumb their noses at the United States.
And yet, despite myriad economic setbacks and an unrelenting campaign of dirty tricks and propaganda, Castro’s Cuba not only endured, it often excelled, against long odds, embarrassing its ideological rivals in sport, education, culture and medicine. That, too, was part of his legacy.
Viewed from a Caribbean perspective, Cuba was never quite the socialist nightmare of the American political imagination. Its terrible human rights record, particularly with respect to freedom of expression, seemed less shocking within the hypocrisy of the Cold War. Castro was unquestionably a dictator, but it was hard not to notice that during its most strident denunciations of his regime the US was willing to overlook and, in several cases, facilitate, the horrors of Pinochet, Somoza, Stroessner and other Latin American strongmen, usually for the most cynical and self-serving reasons.
In an era of diffident and opportunistic nationalisms, Castro’s repression at least seemed of a piece with a genuine vision of economic self-sufficiency. This authenticity remained attractive to true believers despite the Revolution’s growing list of failures and excesses. For many, Fidel’s ability to withstand America’s constant meddling was also an inspiration, even though it required draconian censorship and the exile of a considerable fraction of the country’s middle class.
As the decades passed Cuba’s refusal to come to terms with America exacted a terrible toll. When the Soviet Union unraveled, the bankruptcy of Castro’s economic vision became impossible to conceal, particularly the failure of its agriculture. Apart from its triumphs in health care and pharmaceuticals there was no industrial base worth the name, thanks to a generation of mismanagement and underdevelopment. When subsequent economic subsidies from Venezuela disappeared with the collapse of Chávez’s comparably flawed economic vision, the Revolution’s vulnerability, the failure of its nationalist ambitions, was undeniable.
As Walter Russell Meade observes: “In the end, Fidel became what he hated most: a failed Latin caudillo, presiding over a corrupt and despairing society, propped up by the Catholic Church and the United States.”
Cuba’s fragile economy threatens Castro’s already dwindling legacy. Within a generation the very people that he chased away so eagerly to Miami will likely regain control of the economy and restore the sort of tourist-based, US-friendly relationships that the Revolution viewed so warily. It is hard to consider the prospect of this transition without some ambivalence, especially when the often reactionary politics of the diaspora is taken into account.
In light of these paradoxes, it is possible to look upon Castro as a “remarkable leader” – in Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s widely-mocked phrase – and yet conclude his long reign did enormous damage to Cuba. In many ways Fidel almost certainly knew that this was the case. During his 1953 trial, he famously declared that he did not fear imprisonment or torture, nor “the fury of the miserable tyrant who snuffed life out of 70 of my brothers.” Then, in one of his most memorable utterances he dared the court to jail him”: “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.” By the end of Fidel’s life, History’s verdict was in, and it wasn’t nearly as kind as he’d hoped.