It is an irony of modern history that such despots as Stalin and Mao among the Communist dictators and Franco and Salazar among the non-communist ones, are forgotten immediately after their passing. It is an irony too that even after the exit of the Castros, the relatively younger successor has pledged to continue with their dictatorial policies.
The fact that Raul will retain control of the all-powerful party apparatus is ominous. However, such public pronouncements mean very little when the real facts and inadequacies of one of the longest serving dictatorships come to light. It is a question of time when the Castros would be relegated to the limbo of history and gradually forgotten.
Contrary to popular belief, the pre-Castro Cuba was well developed in such parameters as education and health service with a per capita income that was comparable to Italy’s. A young Fidel Castro wanted to contest the parliamentary election as a candidate of the Orthodox Party, but the Batista coup of 1952 shattered his dream and when he entered Havana in 1959, he was acclaimed as a true liberator.
Eisenhower immediately recognized the new regime. It was followed by recognition of the Vatican. Fidel Castro was invited to the White House where he met the Vice President, Richard Nixon.
But what changed the perspective of Washington was the news of the summary trials and executions of soldiers who remained loyal to Batista. This brutality was extended even to sympathizers of the Batista regime, which included Castro’s supporters who resisted his efforts to put in place a personality cult.
Castro modified the Constitution and reintroduced capital punishment in order to terrorize and entrench his supreme control. He reintroduced capital punishment. One of his top commanders, Eloy Gutierres Menoyo, was imprisoned for 22 years for criticizing Castro. All this resulted in a rift between the Vatican and Castro which was rectified only 40 years later in 1998 when Castro was compelled to invite Pope John Paul II.
Castro’s break with the US followed the nationalization of properties of American citizens. The annoyance of the US increased when he publicly claimed to have received weapons from the Soviet Union and its allies and spoke of spreading the revolution throughout Latin America. The US embargo followed and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion under the Kennedy administration ended the prospect of a rapprochement with the US.
This animosity towards the US was used deftly by Castro to emerge as a “maximum leader” and continue his long rule which was ended not by the US but by the failure of his health. He acknowledged the indirect fillip that the US provided to his fame by a remark that “a revolution not faced with an enemy runs the risk of falling asleep”.
Castro declared Cuba to be a one-party communist state to consolidate his own power. What really helped in perpetuating his long years in personalized dictatorship was an unwritten assurance that the Kennedy administration gave to Khrushchev after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, specifically that the US would not intervene directly in Cuba. This was honoured by Kennedy and all the subsequent US Presidents.
However, even decades after the revolution, hundreds of political prisoners languished in jail without any fair trial and there was widespread under-nourishment that could not be concealed by Castro’s boast of excellent healthcare and literacy rate and performance in sports.
One of his major shortcomings was his failure to comprehend the internal machinations of the Soviet Union on which it was totally dependent. Its subsidy totalled $5 billion annually together with subsidized oil. Castro lacked the foresight to put in place the elementary infrastructure to ensure self-reliance. Its overdependence on sugar continued and the Soviet oil tankers returned empty.
The rise of Gorbachov in the 1980s with his perestroika and glasnost led to a reduction of subsidies and free flow of oil. The Soviet Union insisted on a higher rate which Cuba was unable to pay.
An act of desperation led to fuel rationing and introduction of a new economic order in which Cubans were allowed to possess dollars and compelled to go in for joint business ventures, accepting in principle subsequent majority foreign ownership. The subsequent opening up of tourism mainly under Spanish entrepreneurs and ownership made it the No. One foreign exchange earner… in place of sugar.
However, the Cubans were forbidden to visit these tourist spots which were reserved exclusively for foreigners. It also led to social problems of drugs and prostitution. The economic woes persisted and thousands made a desperate attempt to flee. Soviet assistance made the Cuban army the best equipped in Latin America, and was strategically used in the liberation struggles in Angola and elsewhere.
But when the soldiers returned home, there was considerable resentment as Castro’s Cuba could not pay their salaries and pension. One major failure of Castro was his inability to comprehend the winds of change that were sweeping through Latin America in the 1990s. It was described by Huntington as the democratization of Catholicism.
He remained an odd man out, presiding over an authoritarian regime which lacked any mechanism of reforming from within. He wrote his own epitaph in 2013 that “the Cuban model does not even work for us any more”.
As The Guardian remarked, Castro was immensely successful in securing sovereignty in a continent with its ‘geographic fatalism’, but that sovereignty itself became a limited one with Castro’s over-dependence on the Soviet Union and with its collapse his own fate was sealed.
With the continuation of the US embargo there is little chance for the post-Castro leadership to drastically alter its outmoded industrial structure and policies in a situation where its one-time financier and firm supporter, Venezuela, has itself become a fragile state.
In such a grim situation, the post-Castro Cuba will have to abjure the system of a police state and one-party dictatorship with extensive restrictions on the use of internet that was built during the six decades dictatorship. It will find itself difficult to readjust itself in a world which has little resemblance to their uninspiring stint.
The question of that change is not “if” it will happen, but when. The period of Cuban exceptionalism led to its isolation, underdevelopment and unnecessary and humiliating dependence on a foreign power. Its subsidized existence was continued by Castro without any rational justification.
History does not deliver its judgment on the basis of longevity alone. Far more important is the vision and the achievements of a leader. In that endurance test, a Churchill or a Washington would always score over tyrants like Mao, Stalin, Salazar, Franco and the Castros.
The writer is retired Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.