Reflections on Fidel Castro’s Mixed Legacy

 Grieving Cubans in Revolution Square, Havana;  Little Havana Celebrations of Castro’s death

Grieving Cubans in Revolution Square, Havana;  Little Havana Celebrations of Castro’s death

     Reactions to Fidel Castro’s demise have been strongly polarized. Denunciations from the Cuban American community have been particularly harsh. The first Cuban-American elected to Congress, said Castro was a “tyrant and thug” and hailed his death as an opportunity to “work for a Cuba that is free, democratic, and prosperous”. In Miami, Castro’s death sparked celebrations on the part of the Cuban American community. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement praising Castro has been widely criticized for its failure to mention the repressive nature of the regime and its human right violations. While the tributes of Latin American left leaders were generally effusive, leaders of the centre and centre right, did not focus on the negative aspects of Castro’s legacy. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto praised Castro for being “a friend of Mexico” and for “promoting bilateral relations based on respect, dialogue and solidarity”. Chile’s President, Michelle Bachelet, whose democratic credentials are impeccable who was herself imprisoned and tortured by another dictator said: “Fidel Castro fought for the ideals of dignity for his people and social justice, indelibly marking the history of America”. Brazilian’s new right wing President Michel Temer called Fidel Castro a "leader of convictions," who "marked the second half of the 20th century with the firm defense of the ideas in which he believed". Despite the recent failures of the regime, including severe restrictions on political freedoms and deprivations such as food shortages, many in Cuba, did mourn his death. Recent televised reports showed long lines of mourners in Havana, many tearful, paying their respects.

The Historical Context of the Revolution

     What are we to make of this divergent reaction to his rule and his legacy? Fidel Castro’s legacy is a mixed one—a mixed legacy that is the complex product of history. Latin America is a region with long-standing social deprivations and historically high levels of inequality. Intransience at both ends of the political spectrum, an unwillingness to compromise, and a marked tendency to play fast and loose with civil liberties and political freedoms are features of most countries of the region. The region is also characterized by a tense and often conflictive relationship with the United States. U.S. interests in the region have produced repeated interference in domestic affairs. 

 Bay of Pigs Invasion, 1961

Bay of Pigs Invasion, 1961

    Cuba came under American domination during its struggle for independence from Spain when the U.S. intervened and occupied the island from 1898 to 1902. By the late 1950s, U.S. interests owned 90 percent of Cuban mines, 80 percent of its public utilities, 50 percent of its railways, and 40 percent of its sugar production. While the island produced a substantial middle class, people in the rural areas suffered extreme poverty and unemployment in general was high. Dominated by U.S. criminal elements, including the mafia, the country became a haven for prostitution and gambling. In 1952, a military coup brought Fulgenio Batista to the presidency. His government was corrupt and brutally repressive employing wide-scale violence, torture, and public executions. His regime was linked through business interests with the American mafia.

    This was the context within which the Cuban Revolution occurred. Castro was by no means a Marxist and certainly not a committed Communist when he took power. However, the sharp deterioration in his relationship with the United States quickly spurred his movement toward alliance with the Soviet Union. With Cuban expropriation of land from American-owned corporations along with the nationalization U.S. owned power companies, U.S. opposition to the Castro regime became explicit and Castro feared U.S. intervention to remove him from power. This concern was not unfounded given the litany of U.S. military interventions in the region from the early twentieth century (Panama, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Haiti, Mexico, Guatemala—all before 1955). Concerned that the U.S. would end Cuba’s sugar quota, Cuba then struck a sugar trade agreement with the Soviet Union. This move precipitated the failed American Bay of Pigs invasion. Now fearing a large-scale U.S. invasion, Castro called on the Soviet Union for protection, agreeing to the placement of Soviet missiles on the island. Tense negotiations, involving U.S. commitment not to conspire to remove Castro from power, eventually secured their removal. However, the following years witnessed repeated C.I.A. attempts to assassinate Castro

Winners and Losers


    The Cuban Revolution brought education, health care, clean water, and housing to the rural poor. The Revolution, however, did not benefit all Cubans, and those who opposed the regime were substantial in number. New economic controls meant that the better off could no longer obtain the consumer goods they were used to as foreign exchange earnings were diverted from consumer goods to other purposes to improve the lives of the poor. About 500,000 Cubans, most of them business people and professionals, fled Cuba during the 15-year period after the Revolution. As political and economic conditions worsened, hundreds of thousands more fled the country in the following years. Castro’s tightening grip on the island, repression and human rights violations, combined with the island's loss of subsidies from the Soviet Union and the detrimental impact of the U.S. trade embargo were all important contributors to this outflow. Arguably, the ongoing opposition of the U.S. to the Cuban leader and his policies fueled Castro’s anti-American rhetoric and allowed him to justify his repression of dissent. 

 Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro

    Castro’s great appeal, despite his many failings, was his nationalism; he stood up to the imperialist colossal to the north as no other Latin American leader had, thereby gaining the admiration of many Latin Americans, including the grudging respect of Latin American political leaders who did not necessarily share his political views. Internationally, he established an independent and strong presence, which made many Cubans proud. His regime was often on the morally correct side of history, supporting the opponents of brutally repressive regimes in South Africa and Nicaragua. Since 1963, Cuba has sent doctors and other health workers throughout the Third World to treat the poor, serving desperately poor neighbourhoods that host country doctors often refused to serve.

    Latin American history is awash with dictators, some of whom, in terms of total damage done, are considerably worse than others. It is tempting, as an outsider, to suggest that given Castro’s achievements in social rights combined with his assertion of Cuban independence and national dignity, his legacy is a more positive one than some of the region’s other dictators—and so we should praise him and forgive his transgressions. Anyone who was, or had a family member, languish in a Cuban prison for decades for disagreeing with the regime would vehemently reject such a proposition. We should admit Fidel Castro’s serious failings (and understand where they came from) while acknowledging his substantial accomplishments. We in Canada have it all—social and political rights. There is no reason why Latin Americans, in general, and Cubans in particular, should not have it all as well. There should be no necessary trade-off between social and political rights, even though Castro may have believed there was. Let us hope that Cuba builds on its substantial accomplishments of the past and moves toward a democratic future.