The recent death of Cuba's fabled former "Jefe," Fidel Castro Ruiz, undoubtedly one of the major political figures of the 20th century, provoked a predictably broad range of reactions reflecting the bitter controversies over his legacy. Castro's death at 90 came nearly 10 years after he surrendered the reins of unchallenged power he exercised over Cuba's political life. For nearly half a century "El Jefe" -- the Chief -- as many dubbed him, was quite literally "president for life," first secretary of the ruling Communist Party and commander-in-chief of the Cuban military. This authority he passed dynastically into the hands of his younger brother, Raul, who is now 85.
Fidel Castro's rule outlasted that of ten US presidents, from Eisenhower to George W. Bush, all of whom were united across timelines in their unity and zealous commitment to the overthrowing of his regime, including by means of the abortive CIA-organized Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, literally hundreds of assassination attempts, and the longest economic blockade of any country in world history. He leaves Cuba less the hated American created pariah than it was at the height of the Cold War and a country that hitherto Caribbean leaders had, out of nearsightedness and ignorance, looked at with contempt and scorn.
Indeed the longevity of Castro's political career was, without a doubt, quite astonishing. There can be no doubt that he exhibited some of the machismo elements of the old, traditional, Latin American caudillo during his rule. He could be ruthless in relation to those he saw as political rivals and opponents of the Cuban Revolution. But, undeniably and simultaneously, he also possessed an unquestionably personal charisma, charm and a degree of humanism that attracted support from both the oppressed masses of Cuba and wider layers of intellectuals and radicalized youth internationally.
So the reaction to his death by the US media was predictable. There was no love lost between the United States and the old uncompromising revolutionary even after the historic visit of President Obama. Castro had heaped derision on the U.S. president's visit writing pointedly "Cuba does not need lessons from imperialism." Editorial denunciations in the US media by politicians and reactionary Cuban e'migre' elements in Miami all celebrated the death of the "brutal dictator." The shameless dancing in the streets of Miami's Little Havana and the non-stop coverage, replete with the most ugly anti-Castro language by the mainstream media, bordered on outright triumphalism driven by a deliberate neglect of the historical context of Castro, the revolution, and Cuba. For one, all of the coverage and superficial analyses downplayed the open hostility of the United States against Cuba and its endless failures to enact regime change in a small, poor Caribbean island just 90 miles from its shores.
The narrative that "what matters is that Fidel Castro was a dictator" deliberately obfuscates the historical context and the realities of Latin America and the world when he came to power in 1959. The fact is that in those days Latin America was dominated by rightwing despots, the vast majority backed, armed, encouraged, and mollycoddled by successive United States governments. Any and all attempts to replace these governments with more democratic and progressive people-oriented ones usually ended with death by military force -- something that continued right into the 1980s.
Castro, an astute and skilled political leader, understood that with United States companies expanding in the Latin American and Caribbean regions, the only way to transform Cuban society was through revolution and armed overthrow. But nowhere in Latin America suffered more from the brutal and baleful influence of US intervention more than Cuba, for reasons of both of history and geography. Today, many ignore and conveniently forget the fact that the Fulgencio Batista Zaldvar regime was one of the most barbarous on the continent. The degree of corruption in Cuba under Batista was accentuated by the United States based criminal organization, the Mafia that exerted an unprecedented level of control on all of Havana's main businesses, yet successive US governments unflinchingly supported this gangster regime.
After 1959 Castro had to defend the revolution's hard-won achievements against the threats of successive US governments and of the Miami-based terrorist groups who bombed Cuban planes and hotels with impunity, well into the 1990s. Nor has any other country so dependent on US commerce seen its economy so completely strangled by a 50-year embargo, which applies not to just to US firms but to any firm that trades with the US. And while Castro was no saint and could be intractable when it came to so-called "enemies of the Revolution," there is no getting around the fact that even with the brutal and illegal American embargo Cuba progressed under Castro and helped a number of nations caught up in the throes of the post-World War II liberation movements to gain their independence. One cannot speak of African independence without evoking the commitment and support from the revolutionary people of Cuba. It was the Cuban military that crippled and defeated the United States backed apartheid armies of South Africa helping Angola and Namibia gain their independence. It was to Cuba that Ethiopia turned to when Italy threatened to invade.
And while rightwing Cubans and their enablers in the United States Congress crow about the demise of the former Cuban president, the fact is that he enjoyed widespread support and admiration from among all of Cuba's diverse groups. Older Cubans remind their grandchildren today that the freedoms they now enjoy did not come easy and the improvements among the poorest sections of Cuban society were caused by Fidel Castro and the revolution that he led in 1959. Let me use just one neighboring comparison to explain the forward march of the Cuban people. Today, the murder rate in Cuba is less than one quarter that in the Dominican Republic that is roughly the size of Cuba; life expectancy is six years higher (79 vs. 73), and the Cuban infant mortality rate is roughly one-sixth the Dominican. Cuba's literacy levels and infant mortality rates, it should be added, are also superior to those in the United States.
Indeed, the simplistic commentaries in the US media that promoted a common theme of "Castro as dictator," and his alleged penchant for political repression, deserves to be placed in historical context. After all, as history so eloquently notes, the United States has, over the course of a century, supported countless dictatorships responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Latin America. In Batista's Cuba torture was routine. President John F. Kennedy himself, not me, commented that the "regime was responsible for the political murders of at least 20,000 Cubans."
Again, historical facts tell us that as vicious as the Batista regime was, it was not unique to the region. During the same period, Washington supported and armed true despots like Raphael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier in Haiti, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua all of whom murdered, tortured and killed thousands of their own people. Successive United States presidents "looked the other way." Those who attempted to alter the existing order by democratic means were dispatched with brutal violence, as seen in the CIA-organized overthrow of the Jacobo Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954.
By 1950 -- nine years before the Cuban Revolution - the masses of Latin America and Cuba held a seething resentment for Washington and its support of vicious dictators. This dual oppression became so pronounced that it sparked popular uprisings all over the continent. It was in this climate that the Cuban Revolution was born. This is the historical context of the Cuban Revolution. It was and is the DIRECT result of the contradictions rendering Cuban society apart due to the DIRECT behavior and policies of the United States government. The Cuban Revolution is the illegitimate child of the United States government. They cannot be separated. The Cuban Revolution was and is hated by the United States ruling class because of it SYMBOLISM. It demonstrates an ALTERNATIVE path to socio-economic development. That was the reason for the blockade and the hostility towards Cuba. If the Cuban Revolution succeeded successive American Administrations FEARED its social and political impact and consequences on the American people long told that capitalism was the only system with the ability to "lift all boats."
Fidel Castro, Marxism And The United States
After the overthrow of Batista, United States political, civic and business leaders genuinely believed that the Cuban Revolution was going to be short-lived and things would settle down and get back to "normal" -- gambling, corruption, greed and criminality -- all money making enterprises. But that did not happen and the United States ruling class was horrified and angry that Castro was actually serious about changing social conditions on the island and raising the living standard of its impoverished masses. So, in response to limited land reform, Washington sought to strangle the Cuban economy, cutting Cuba's sugar export quota and then denying the island nation oil.
Castro retaliated with nationalizing of US property and Cuban-owned enterprises, and turned to the Soviet Union for help, thus stoking Washington's anger to red-hot. Striking a Faustian Bargain, Castro turned to the utterly discredited Cuban Stalinist Popular Socialist Party, which supported Batista, and strongly opposed his guerrilla movement. The Stalinists provided him with the political apparatus that he and the nascent Cuban Revolution lacked.
To put things in historical context Castro was representative of a broader bourgeois-nationalist and anti-imperialist movement that swept the colonial and oppressed countries in the post-World War II period, that gave rise to figures like Ben Bella in Algeria, Nasser in Egypt, Nkrumah in Ghana and Lumumba in the Congo, among others. Like Castro, many of them attempted to exploit the Cold War conflict between Washington and Moscow to secure their own interests.
While the rising expectations of the Cuban masses and the obstinate reaction of US imperialism served to push Castro to the left, he was in no sense a Marxist Leninist. While sincere in his original intentions to implement significant reforms of Cuban society, his political orientation was always of a pragmatic character.