When Fidel Castro died at age 90, perhaps the greatest achievement of Cuba's communist Commandante was to have outlasted 10 American presidents and five decades of American opposition. During his 57 years in undisputed power, Castro excelled in playing the role of a socialist David facing the gringo Goliath. Now it is up to Fidel's “kid brother” Raul (aged 85) to run the revolution.
Tributes to the fallen dictator ranged from the predictable proletarian sop from such luminaries as Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, Bolivia's Ivo Morales and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, all curiously denizens of failed states.
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered a slobbering and bizarre paean to Castro's rule that sullied Canada's good name.
Interestingly, few world leaders attended Fidel's funeral, not even Vladimir Putin (Russia was once Cuba's patron), China's Xi Jinping, and recognizable names from the European Union, except for the failed Greek socialist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who called Castro “an emblematic figure of the Cuban Revolution,” did not attend either.
Trudeau was too embarrassed to go. As a Canadian opposition parliamentarian Lisa Raitt wrote, “Will Justin Trudeau stand with millions of oppressed Cubans, or stand with their oppressor?”
U.S. President Barack Obama offered equivocal and almost self-conscious condolences. President-elect Donald Trump described Fidel as a “dictator” and called for a free Cuba.
Looking back, there was a watershed of U.S. policy between President John F. Kennedy's dangerous showdown with Castro and the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the long decades of bipartisan pressures on Castro, until the Obama administration's final melting of Cold War tensions between the neighbouring countries.
But as the Wall Street Journal advised editorially, “Mr. Obama's 2014 decision to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations has provided new business opportunities for the regime but has yielded nothing in additional freedom.”
For a long time, Cuba was taboo to Americans, and then Obama made it trendy for Americans.
But because of Castro, it has long been trendy for Cubans to flee to the U.S., more than a million have done so to become one of America's more successful immigrant communities. Fifteen thousand Cubans executed by Castro's thugs could not make it.
Despite the years of despotism and dictatorship, Castro's Cuba has always been a kind of a talisman to the Latin American Left and more improbably an iconic beacon to some Western intellectuals in academia and the arts. Throwing aside the inconvenient truth of Cuba's harsh human and religious rights abuses, progressives would, in the words of Prof. Paul Hollander, be “political pilgrims” visiting Castro's tropical isle in search of an elusive socialist Utopia.
Still, Americans should not underestimate the serious political attraction of Castro's charismatic personality and the confrontational aura that the Havana regime held in the psyche of Latin America and much of the Third World.
But let's recall a bit of long forgotten history. First off, Fidel really “retired” a decade ago, allowing the day to day rule to his “kid brother” Raul (85), so it stayed the family business.
But in the BC Era (Before Castro), Cuba was not some wretched and rundown tropical island, but a developing country which on the socio-economic scale boasted among Latin America's highest literacy rates, the third highest doctor-to-patient ratio, and the region's lowest infant mortality rate. Yes, there was corruption and the resident dictator Fulgencio Batista was more the norm in the region than the exemption. Nearly sixty years later, Cuba boasts one of the few dictatorships in Latin America.
Yet it was Revolutionary Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s that charmed the Left and challenged and threatened stability in Central America. Remember Cuban-backed militants in places like Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras? Or regular Cuban army units supporting Angola's Marxist regime in the 1980s? Or its secret police advisers in places as far-flung as Ethiopia, Bolivia, and Venezuela?
Of course Commandante Fidel played his biggest role at home. He destroyed agriculture, confiscated private property, closed Churches, and grabbed American assets. JFK's economic embargo on Castro's regime, still in force, is based on the nationalizations of U.S. property.
So now that Fidel is past, will liberty and democracy come to Cuba? Not likely soon. After all, Raul and an effective security apparatus remain firmly in place. But without the image and the myth of Fidel, Cuba will undergo inevitable political change.