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Castro: It’s Complicated!

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Fidel Castro, Prime Minister of Cuba, smokes a cigar during his meeting with two U.S. senators, the first to visit Castro's Cuba, in Havana, Cuba, Sept. 29, 1974.  (AP Photo)

This morning has seen all the Twitter SCORCHING HOT TAKES on Fidel Castro, especially from liberals dying to replay the Cold War. At a time when their own nation has just put a fascist in office despite losing by more than 2 million votes, it’s very, very important for some people to demonize Castro for his dictatorial terror and attack Jimmy Carter for a basic condolence to an old enemy. Meanwhile, the left has largely provided quite nuanced takes on Castro, largely because we’ve mostly moved on from the days of romanticizing the man while both respecting his accomplishments and seeing his failures.

Fidel Castro was a tremendously complex person who attempted to rebuild a society around ideas of justice while also refusing to allow democratic institutions to form. He sought to resist U.S. imperialism while openly hoping his island would be devastated by a nuclear attack. He brought outstanding medical care and education to his own people and the poor around the world while limiting the ability of educated people to use their skills at home. He was on the front lines of fighting the oppression of people of color by U.S. allies around the world while also supporting some pretty awful people around the world himself. In other words, let’s leave the hot takes home and try to think a little harder about the meanings of the Cuban Revolution.

To talk about Castro in any useful way, we have to look at the historical context of the period from 1958 to 2016. But even before we get to that, we have to look at the history of Cuba before 1958. From the mid-19th century, the United States attemtped to dominate Cuba, first attempting to acquire it in the 1850s in order to entrench slavery and then investing heavily in sugar on the island after the Civil War. It was the focus of U.S. imperialism in 1898. American concerns over just what involvement in Cuba would mean led to the Teller Amendment, barring the U.S. from turning Cuba into a colony, as it would do in the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. But there are many forms of imperialism, as the U.S. would find. When Cuba received its sovereignty in 1902, it was effectively a colony in all but name, as the Platt Amendment stripped Cuba of any actual control over its affairs. This forced Cuba to give the United States Guantanamo Bay, which the U.S. still holds as an imperialist possession and where it has done things at least as bad since 2001 as anything Castro ever did. It also gave the U.S. effective veto power over Cuba’s foreign policy and economic decisions and allowed the U.S. to invade to enforce its interests any time it wanted. The U.S. military would then occupy Cuba between 1906 and 1909, in 1912, and between 1917 and 1922. In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt ordered ships to Cuba for another invasion, leading to the resignation of Gerardo Machado. Ramon Grau took over, immediately rescinded the Platt Amendment, leading to the US refusing to recognize his government. This opened the door to Fulgencio Batista, the dictator who killed up to 20,000 people with the active support of the American government until he fled Cuba on New Year’s Eve 1958. Turning Cuba into a sex tourism paradise under mafia control led to widespread dissatisfaction and a variety of revolutionary movements that Castro eventually consolidated under his control when he walked into Havana on January 1, 1959.

Castro, along with Fanon, the Algerian revolutionaries, Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara, served as an inspiration for billions of people around the world seeking freedom from colonial overlords, issues that the Untied States was almost always wrong about. Over and over again, the U.S. supported oppressive regimes that denied the nationalist longings of people around the world. Sometimes, those were democratically elected governments, such as those of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. Sometimes they were revolutionary movements such as that Ho Chi Minh. Sometimes, the U.S. assassinated popular leaders like Patrice Lumumba in Congo and replaced them with men like Mobutu Sese Seko, one of the worst rulers in the 20th century. Sometimes, the CIA would foster right-wing military coups against people like Salvador Allende and place monsters like Augusto Pinochet into power.

This is the world into which Fidel Castro entered. Castro stood up against this massive injustice around the world from the United States. While Dick Cheney was openly defending South African apartheid in Congress, Castro was sending troops to Angola to fight the South Africans and providing critical support to Nelson Mandela. All of this also led to the independence of Namibia and helped turn the international tide against apartheid. When the FBI and Nixon administration was declaring war on black radicals fighting internal colonialism in the U.S., Castro gave them a place to flee. When the U.S. was engaging in illegal wars to destabilize Nicaragua, Castro supported the Sandinistas. Not all of Castro’s international moves were as consistently on the right side as these, including his opposition to Betancourt in Venezuela. But in the end, at worst, Castro’s fight for global justice has a complex legacy.

And this is the world context in which we have to evaluate Castro. In the end, which nation is better off today, Cuba or the Dominican Republic? Or any of its similar neighbors around the Caribbean basin. While many Americans demonize Castro as a monster, have the Cuban people been worse off than the U.S. client state in the Dominican Republic under the homicidal maniac Rafael Trujillo or his hack assistant Joaquin Balaguer, who came to power with the assistance of Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 invasion to eliminate the movement behind democratically elected but now overthrown Juan Bosch? I think that’s pretty unlikely. Cuba and the DR have similar histories, economies, racial makeup, and interactions with American imperialism. We can’t actually know the answer to this, but if you look at Mexico, at Nicaragua, at Honduras, at Guatemala, at Haiti, at Jamaica, and at the Dominican Republic, it’s really hard to see how their histories since 1958 have somehow been more free and prosperous than that of Castro’s Cuba. And while this is not the final statistic on these issues, of all the nations listed above, the UN Human Development Index ranks Communist Cuba 1st, and 5th in all of Latin America.

Castro’s policies were a mixed bag. He absolutely provided outstanding health care and education to his people. This is something beyond what far wealthier nations have achieved. No one can really deny the success of these policies. The literacy program implemented immediately after the revolution was a wonderful success, more than any U.S. supported leader ever did for the average Cuban. He reforested a lot of land, creating some of the most intact ecosystems in Latin America. He instituted enormous gains for women’s equality in Cuba. He attempted to implement an officially anti-racist government. Of course, one cannot just erase racism by government decree and whites still control more power in Cuba than Afro-Cubans, although on this issue Cuba is certainly no worse than the rest of the world, including the United States.

However, one cannot deny that Castro made many, many errors along the way. The fundamental problem of 20th century state socialism is that the dictatorship of the proletariat was also in fact a dictatorship of a few elites. And that’s never good. Not trusting the Cuban people, he repressed much about Cuban culture and created a isolated island that did not foster new ideas. While one can absolutely defend the executions of top Batista leaders in the revolution’s aftermath (after all, the U.S. was fine with Batista’s own executions, not to mention those of Mobutu, Pinochet, et al) and the land expropriation from the wealthy if we place them in the context of the time, his long-term fear of challenges to his power led to a staid regime that did not offer much hope for a better life for most Cubans after the initial gains of the Revolution. He oppressed gays in terrible ways but on the other hand Ronald Reagan condemned thousands of gay people to die of AIDS and the U.S just elected Mike Pence as Vice-President so American liberals should probably look at their own nation first on this issue. Castro’s prison camps where he placed dissidents were an unnecessary error from a man increasingly fearful of losing control of power. That there are still dissidents in Cuban prisons is a shame. And let’s not forget the Cuban Missile Crisis, where Castro was furious at Nikita Khrushchev for pulling out the missiles, even though it meant saving Cuba. That kind of monomaniacal vision is what made the 20th century scary.

Ultimately, the problem with Castro’s visions is that one can’t build socialism within a world economy on a single product, whether oil or sugar. The attempts for massive sugar harvests to build socialism were poorly thought out. Relying on being a Soviet client state to escape the American monster only worked so long as the Soviet Union had the ability to support it. Once it faded, Cuba had nothing until Hugo Chavez came along and gave it super cheap oil. For the social benefits of the Revolution to many everyday Cubans, economically, it is hard to see it as anything but a failure.

In the end, the U.S. was the best friend Fidel Castro had in terms of helping him consolidate and keep power. The Bay of Pigs invasion was the tool Castro needed to tell his people that the United States was indeed their real enemy. The embargo, the second greatest failure in the history of American foreign policy, allowed Castro to blame his own failings on the United States, often with quite a bit of justification. But the needs to cater to the interests of the old white landowning Cuban repressive class now in Florida was more important than actually engaging the Castro regime and creating reforms, even while we were doing that quite successfully with China and Vietnam and to some success with the Soviet Union by the Gorbachev era.

It was long past time for Castro to go. I don’t know quite when the sell-by date passed. One presumes 1991 as much as any. Unfortunately, the greatest failure of Castro is the inability to imagine a future without him. Today, Raul Castro has slightly opened the nation, but obviously it is still suffering from limited freedom. Fidel Castro was not a good man, but neither was he a demon. Will Cuba be better off without him? Probably at this point. Would Cuba have been better off today than if Castro had never taken power? That answer is far from clear. Thinking about Castro not in terms of simplistic moral judgments that ignore the complicity of the U.S. in Castro’s rise and what he was responding to but rather placing him in the context of the second half of the twentieth century is the proper way to evaluate his impact. And that impact is deeply complicated, divisive, and ambivalent. At worst, that makes him no worse than most world leaders from the era, especially from the global South, where nations and rulers have long been subject to imperialism, destabilizing covert operations from the United States, and postcolonial povety.

…That every commenter either says “this post is wonderful” (thanks!) or “this post is terrible” is hilarious to me because it basically sums up every single discussion about Fidel Castro for the last nearly 57 years.

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