In death, as in life, Fidel Castro has the world’s attention. In the week since his passing, the nature of his legacy has been as fiercely debated. Most conservatives remember him as little more than a tyrant. But even on the left there has been little agreement about whether and how one of the twentieth-century’s most important socialists should be honored or condemned. For some, he is an icon of resistance to U.S. imperialism. He defied the most powerful empire in the world, and, in the words of Nelson Mandela, helped “destroy the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor.” For others, he is above all the architect and head of Cuba’s single-party state and the repression that entails. Still others explain the repression as a legitimate and necessary response to very real threats from the United States.
The Cuban Revolution, with Fidel as its head, has since its beginning been understood as belonging not just to Cuba, but to the world. Fidel cloaked himself in protean myths for domestic and international audiences. So did his enemies—how else to explain the CIA’s effort to poison Castro with a powder that would cause his iconic beard to fall out?—until Fidel became something of a prism, whose color seems to change based on the viewer’s angle of vision. But learning from Fidel’s life, in the interest of expanding human freedom, requires looking past the mythologies and facing squarely both the powers arrayed against him and the costs of the decisions he made to confront them. Neither Cuba’s economic woes, nor its repressive political climate, can be blamed solely on the threat from the United States. On the contrary, Castro’s aversion to democratic rights was his own act of economic self-sabotage. A freer Cuban socialism would likely also have been a more prosperous one.
Fidel Castro was born in 1926, the illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner and a maid whom he only later married. His father was a sugar producer who made his money selling to the infamous U.S.-owned United Fruit Company. As a young lawyer, he joined an anti-corruption reformist party that hoped to do away with the venality of Cuba’s democratic governments. In 1953, with Cuba now under the control of dictator Fulgencio Batista, he led an attack on the Moncada Barracks. Many of his comrades were killed; Fidel was arrested instead and released in 1955, in a gesture that Batista hoped would reduce pressure on his government, but would very soon come to regret.
After training and preparation in Mexico, Castro and eighty-one followers sailed to Cuba to start a guerrilla war. The landing was disastrous, but Castro and a few key leaders (including Ernesto “Che” Guevara) escaped to the Sierra Maestra mountains. There, Castro finally proved an adept military commander and a shrewd politician, attuned to the power of symbolic leadership. Several U.S. journalists made pilgrimages to visit him; he told them all that he was engaged in a struggle for democracy, and began to attract a certain celebrity in the United States. The equally important anti-Batista struggle in the cities proved more deadly, eliminating Fidel’s potential rivals to revolutionary leadership. By New Year’s Eve of 1959, when Batista fled and Castro began a nine-day march to Havana, Castro had emerged as the undisputed leader of the victorious revolution.
The first years of the revolution were its most heroic. The Cuba Castro came to rule was not a poor country—in 1959 it had more televisions per capita than did Italy—but that oft-cited statistic concealed the enormous gulf between urban and rural standards of living. Castro cut rents in half by decree. New laws improved the status of women and Afro-Cubans. Peasants, who had been scorned, were greeted in the cities as part of the nation. Castro expertly created a sense of a national project for Cuba, and the enthusiasm of the crowds who thronged to see him was, at that time, genuine. In 1961, a massive literacy campaign sent educated city-dwellers to the countryside to teach illiterate peasants to read. It also provided its young volunteers with a valuable education, as they came to better understand the rural poverty many Cubans still lived in.
At the same time, Castro favored autocratic solutions to political problems. His friend Che had been in Guatemala in 1954 when the CIA had helped overthrow its democratically-elected leftist president, Jacobo Arbenz, who had tried to nationalize some of the United Fruit Company’s land. Changing structures of power in Cuba would mean challenging large businesses, including U.S.-owned business and an upper class that frequently identified with U.S. culture. Internal and external enemies would inevitably appear, and Castro reasoned, both self-servingly and surely correctly, that electoral democracy would be a lever the United States could use to divide Cuba. The memory of Cuba’s corrupt, pro-U.S. elected government must also have factored into his thinking. In February of 1959, he promised to hold elections within two years—elections he could have won overwhelmingly—but they never took place.
Instead, by the end of 1959, Cubans began to lose the right to dissent and to criticize the direction of the revolution. Huber Matos, a military commander and former guerrilla aligned with the non-communist left, was arrested in October. He twice tried to resign his position, citing the growing influence of communists in government, and was given a twenty-year prison sentence. Like other political prisoners, Matos described forms of torture, including frequent beatings, solitary confinement, and being left in a dark pit filled with rats. Dissent became dangerous and potentially criminal. At the end of 1959, pro-revolutionary newspaper workers began by inserting little comments responding to articles and columns that they considered denigrating to the revolution. But, encouraged by official messages from Fidel, in early 1960 they seized news outlets, placing them in state hands. A pluralistic scene including new revolutionary voices instead developed into a state monopoly on information and publishing, and labor unions too were gradually brought under full state control. Those who didn’t conform to Cuba’s ideas of revolutionary behavior, including gays and those who demonstrated “counterrevolutionary” ideas and practices, were sent to labor camps. “For the Cuban people,” wrote Carlos Franqui, a longtime friend of Fidel’s and an independent socialist, “opposition and counterrevolution became synonymous.”
It used to be widely debated whether Fidel had secretly been a communist long before taking power, and thus “betrayed” the non-communist leftists like Matos who had been part of his anti-Batista coalition. His letters from prison after the botched Moncada raid do indicate a determination to confront the United States, though not on communist grounds. But fundamentally, he had needed the non-communist left in the struggle against Batista, especially in media relations that assured Cuba’s nervous northern neighbor that his revolution might be compatible with its interests. Then, once in power, as tensions with the United States escalated, he found that he needed the communists far more.
Conflict with the United States was perhaps not inevitable, but it was extremely likely. Castro’s anti-Batista campaign had gotten some support within the U.S. government, including from parts of the CIA, and when he visited the U.S. in April 1959 they even offered to share intelligence about communist activities in Cuba. (He assented but never responded to their first message.) But, in the main, U.S. policy, after it turned on Batista, was to find an alternative to Castro, especially after he took power. In October of 1959, Castro established links with the KGB; Cuban diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union were opened in May 1960. By this point, the United States had committed to a policy of regime change. Its best-remembered failure in this endeavor was the 1961 Bay of Pigs landing, where a U.S.-trained army of exiles was soundly defeated by Fidel’s troops. The victory helped consolidate his power and added to his legend, making him the man who had defeated the United States. Che, in a private meeting in Punta del Este, Uruguay, only half-jokingly thanked the U.S. representative for the attack. Less than two weeks later, Castro proclaimed the revolution socialist (it had previously been described simply as “humanist”); by December it was “Marxist-Leninist.”
For much of the 1960s, Cuba seemed to represent the possibility of a new kind of communism, and leftists worldwide rallied to its example. Social movements in countries throughout Latin America looked to Cuba as they mounted their own campaigns for national sovereignty and political reform. Even in the United States, parts of the New Left took cues from what they imagined to be a more uninhibited socialism in Cuba, despite the regime’s increasingly evident rejection of the freedoms they espoused: in Cuba, marijuana was illegal, the counterculture was counterrevolutionary, and many homosexuals were in camps. Allen Ginsberg, who defended the revolution through the Fair Play for Cuba committee in the United States, was invited to serve on a literary prize jury in 1965. While there, he spoke out against homophobia on the island and was placed on the next available flight out, which happened to take him to Prague. (He was in turn expelled by the Czech government, and monitored by the FBI for having gone in the first place.)
Cuba inspired many kinds of leftists, but the “Cuban model” of change, from the start, was about armed revolution, not civic dissent. Cuba took to training guerrilla fighters and supporting insurgency throughout Latin America. Some of the governments these guerrillas attacked were despotic, but others were democracies. The insurgencies all failed, including the one in Bolivia that led Che to his death in 1967. Part of the problem was that the basic theory of change—that a small foco, or vanguard, of guerrilla fighters could cause a cascade that would lead to revolution—matched the myth of the Cuban Revolution but not its actual experience, which involved a long-standing, multi-class opposition movement along many fronts. It was an illusion that cost the lives of many young guerrillas, full of fire to change the world for the better, and helped to justify U.S.-backed counterinsurgency that supported the rise of dictatorships throughout Latin America.
Other questions about the “Cuban model” also began to arise. Many of the artists and intellectuals who came to the island as revolutionary tourists and volunteers in the 1960s returned with their own concerns. René Dumont was a French agronomist who had advised Castro on and off since the early days of the revolution. “I found in Cuba the traces of a magnificent struggle, and a people caught up in the joy of liberation; but I also found great economic disorder,” he wrote. His meetings with Che, then head of the National Bank, revealed that Che was more concerned about instilling revolutionary consciousness than in actually democratizing the means of production—for example, by giving farmers in state-owned cooperatives a sense of collective co-ownership. Dumont observed that productivity had fallen by 1963 compared with 1958; unemployment had only technically been ended, and absenteeism was creating a new form of it. In 1965 competent technicians were replaced with committed revolutionaries, regardless of whether they knew what they were doing.
A restive population now dealing with shortages and queues, might, in a democratic system, have sent the government useful signals about the need to change its approach. Instead, society and production were militarized, and those who questioned it denounced. Dumont, who published his constructive criticism in 1970 in a book called Is Cuba Socialist? was accused of being a CIA agent, the Cuban government’s standard practice for discrediting inconvenient ideas. “Censorship is the original sin of communist societies,” Dumont wrote, “which think they can protect themselves by staving off criticism. In the end they are self-defeating.”
In 1970, Fidel announced efforts for a sugar harvest of 10 million tons—the largest ever. Plans for an industrialized Cuba had been abandoned. Workers in the cities (and a few volunteers from abroad) were brought to the fields to participate. It was a fine act of solidarity, but they lacked skills, and continued to draw their higher city salaries while producing less than an experienced cutter. Even if the 10-million-ton harvest had been achieved, which it was not, it would have dumped millions of tons of excess sugar on the rest of the Latin American market. These economic problems, and this type of centralized decision-making, were a product of the structure of Cuba’s government, not the U.S. embargo put in place in 1962.
Much of the halo had come off of the Cuban Revolution by the early 1970s. Castro’s backing of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the forced self-confession and imprisonment of the poet Heberto Padilla in 1971 led many international defenders on the left to a break, asserting that something like “tropical Stalinism” had emerged on the island, betraying their hopes for an alternative socialist model. The government had developed its own potent secret police and deputized citizens to act as informants. The first half of the 1970s was, in cultural terms, the most repressive that the island had ever experienced. And if the goal had been to break away from “dependency” on the United States, the political scientist Robert Packenham observed that it had been replaced with political and economic dependence on the Soviet Union, with debt and energy dependency even worse than they had been and much else no better.
Still, most Cubans appreciated the universal services of health and education. The revolution did eradicate extreme poverty. Even critics of the regime like the writer José Manuel Prieto asked, in assessing the revolution: “Which of its opponents hasn’t wished for the Cuban Revolution to be worse than it truly is, for the greater weight and forcefulness of his argument against it, to avoid confusion and keep from having, in the midst of his diatribe, to acknowledge its better intentions?” Moving away from the foco model, Cuba deployed troops to Angola in the 1970s and ‘80s, aiding the anti-apartheid cause. Cuban-trained doctors do important public health work throughout the world, and poor students from Latin America and elsewhere can receive training there.
Cuba’s left-wing dissidents nevertheless remain committed to a more expansive socialism. “Socialism is done from below, [not created by] an elite . . . that spreads the misery more or less equally and cares only about maintaining decent indicators in healthcare and education,” Erasmo Calzadilla, a writer for the independent Havana Times, told Dissent last year. If Cuba has been less repressive than other Communist governments, it is in part because it realized it could use Florida as its tropical Siberia: the country’s most discontented, by and large, sought their own exile on U.S. shores.
As Fidel aged he was capable of self-reflection, and even self-criticism. When revolutionaries triumphed in Nicaragua in 1979, he advised them not to confront the United States as directly as he had. The 1990s were a time of serious privation in Cuba, as the collapse of the Soviet Union exposed the socialist dependency under which Cuba operated. And however much they praised Fidel himself, none of the leaders of the “pink tide” governments that came to power in Latin America in the early 2000s did much to emulate the “Cuban model.” Some introduced social missions, similar to Cuba’s, and created state-owned enterprises, but at most they harassed private business and opposition parties and the press rather than outlaw them. Fidel stepped down from his leadership position in 2006 for health reasons, though his younger brother Raúl remains the primary political force on the island until his planned retirement in 2018. Raúl has taken limited steps to decentralize economic production on the island, allowing certain small businesses to operate legally, and relaxed some restrictions on information technology, although access remains quite limited. In 2010, Fidel accepted responsibility for the persecution of homosexuals in the 1960s and 1970s, and expressed regret. Though most Cubans want to retain some parts of the revolution’s institutional legacies, there is a widespread understanding that more changes are needed.
Fidel will live on in myth for decades to come, as an icon of revolutionary anti-imperialism: the man who challenged the U.S. empire and won. Opposing U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War was bound to produce worthy acts: the example of a sovereign Cuba was no small thing, nor was aiding Mandela with Cuban troops in Angola. Yet Castro has only Khrushchev to thank for the fact that he is not remembered as the man who brought nuclear holocaust upon the world. (During the missile crisis of 1962, expecting a U.S. invasion, he had encouraged Khrushchev to prepare a nuclear first strike, expressing his willingness see Cuba destroyed if it meant the similar destruction of U.S. imperialism.) Castro was no puppet of the Soviet Union, but he endorsed its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and, as head of the Non-Aligned Movement, of Afghanistan in 1979. He has also been a reliable ally of Vladimir Putin, as well as Mexico’s neoliberal president Carlos Salinas. He emerged on the scene as an icon of youthful leadership, and leaves behind what is surely the most geriatric government in the world. Many younger Cubans view him as an anachronism, a man out of time.
In an interview published in 1992, Fidel argued that true democracy cannot exist in the midst of social inequality and injustice. Many would agree. But he then concluded that the Cuban system was the most democratic in the world. He may have had historical and political reasons for not placing much faith in electoral democracy in Cuba. Yet to help address the forms of social inequality and injustice that the revolution itself created, a more open political system would have had real value. Cuba’s experience under Castro shows that “bourgeois rights” like freedom of speech and association, still very much lacking on the island, are fundamental, if hardly sufficient, to securing social and economic rights. Insofar as his life still inspires people to want to work to make the world a better place, it must be through the discovery of further alternatives, rather than emulation. The goal must be a democratic socialism not just distinct from that of the defunct Soviet Union, the possibility of which he once seemed to represent, but also from the socialism he created in Cuba.
Patrick Iber is assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso. He is the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (Harvard University Press, 2015).