Hated and loved, Fidel Castro transformed Cuba. As an idealistic and patriotic young lawyer, Castro took issue with social injustice, brutality and corruption of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship in Cuba. He repeatedly tried to overthrow the dictator and eventually succeeded in 1959. Castro ruled Cuba since 1959 until 2006 when illness forced him to step down and in 2008 he officially transferred power to his brother Raul Castro.
To Cubans (early on) Fidel Castro was a hero. He liberated the country from a dictator, established free healthcare and free education, sought to assert Cuba’s power and autonomy by nationalizing foreign businesses in Cuba (without financial reimbursement to the owners). The latter decision further strained the already antagonistic relationship with the United States which supported Fulgencio Batista’s regime. To ensure Cuba’s independence from the United States, Castro aligned himself with the Soviet Union. (This alliance provoked the Bay of Pigs invasion and led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Consequently, diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba were severed and the United States imposed an economic embargo on Cuba which treated into effect in 1960 and ended only last year.)
With nearly all economic activity state-sponsored, Cuban economy did poorly under Castro. The US embargo was hard on the Cuban economy as well. Still, for as long as the Soviet Union existed, Cuba’s economy had some financial backing. Once Cuba’s former ally seized to be communist – and became Russia, again – the economy of Cuba suffered even more and the quality of life in Cuba deteriorated to intolerable levels.
The initial enthusiasm for Castro’s rule cooled off quickly among Cubans. The much appreciated change he originally created brought about unexpected hardship. Lack of political and entrepreneurial freedom, lack of well-paying jobs, political prosecution, etc. led to frustration that forced mass exodus of Cubans willing to risk their lives in a bid to reach freedom in the Land of Opportunity. (We speak of immigration often; we don’t speak of human suffering enough. In the case of the exodus from Cuba, families were torn apart, refugees died before reaching the American shore… There were many human tragedies that didn’t get the attention they deserved.)
Fidel Castro was a legend, a revolutionary who risked his freedom – and life – to overthrow a dictator terrorizing Cuba. He’s been Cuba’s political leader for nearly 50 years. He’s done a lot of good for Cuba and Cubans. (Even today, Cuba has high rates of literacy and one of the lowest rates of infant mortality.)
But that’s not his only legacy. The rebel eventually became a dictator who prosecuted political dissidents, violated the human rights for which he once fought, isolated Cuba from the world, neglected the country’s infrastructure, let its economy collapse and let “his people” suffer crushing poverty, lack of freedom and hope for the future. His international alliance with the Soviets brought the world to the brink of nuclear war….
Ceasar said: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The classic quote applies to Castro. There is no doubt that his rise to power and the early years of his presidency were inspired by noble intentions. There is no doubt also that his government – just like the one before him – eventually became corrupt and paranoid, inflicted severe damage on Cuba and immense suffering on generations of Cubans.
Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader who established the only communist government in the Western Hemisphere will go into history as a controversial figure. As representatives of the older generations of Cubans are mourning his passing today; many thousands of younger Cubans in Miami’s Little Havana and elsewhere are celebrating the end of an era that brought pain and suffering on their families. Fidel Castro has died. Cuba still isn’t free.
Anything L.A. Magazine’s Editor, Eve Elrich