I was lying in my bed in the morning, scrolling through my social media feeds as per usual, when I discovered that Fidel Castro had passed away. Now, this was not one of those David Bowie moments where you are minding your own business (i.e. peacefully reading on the bus), and suddenly the whole world stops because you find out that this one incredibly influential person has died. This, for me, was not that significant a moment.
It wasn’t until I received a text from a friend asking if Castro was a good or bad guy that I started to ponder the entire situation. I’d never paid much attention to Cuba’s situation before, let alone that question. I knew the basic facts – Castro was a revolutionary leader who had stayed in power for decades, opposing American capitalism and imperialism, resulting in a lifelong conflict with the world’s most powerful nation. But the more I tried to find answers to the question at hand, the more confused I got.
Tweets and comments from a range of powerful politicians and other prominent people kept popping up, both condemning and praising the five-decades-long Cuban leader. The general public seemed torn as well – some were celebrating from relief, some were mourning. What was it about this man that sparked such conflicting reactions?
Who Was Fidel Castro?
To gain a better understanding of this it is important to look at the history of how he became president. Castro was first of all a revolutionary leader – a freedom fighter who overthrew a dictator. He drew a picture of a social revolution aiming to restore the brief Cuban democracy that Fulgencio Batista’s coup had ended. He promised free elections and vowed to end American domination of the economy and the working-class oppression that came with it. He was a symbol of freedom more than anything, a hope for change and a brighter future for Cuba.
It is vital to remember the fact that he was just a regular man who wanted change. Beyond his law degree, he had no experience in economics or government. His revolution did not have much of a clear sense other than improved education, independence from the US, and a different society to what existed under Batista. It quickly became apparent that he couldn’t keep a majority of his promises – one being to make Cuba a democracy again.
What Did Fidel Castro Do?
Democracy to the side, most of the arguments repeated by Castro supporters have to do with what they refer to as social progress. Social progress entailing a universal education and health care system, as well as racial integration (he welcomed people of colour, who earlier were only peasants in the countrysides, into Havana and other cities that were overwhelmingly white).
But although he did bring a good health care system and education to the Cuban people, he deprived them of free speech and economic opportunity. Even though he did succeed in stopping a tradition of racial segregation, most of his government remained white. He also sentenced thousands of dissidents and homosexuals to prison or forced labour. All the negativity surrounding his name makes you wonder how he managed to stay in power for more than half a century. Why did it not trigger a second revolution? Maybe it was because of his extraordinary charisma, nationalism, authoritarianism and manipulative personality. Who knows. But it is hard to deny the fact that he was more than merely a tyrant and dictator.
The United States often portrayed Castro as a villain – the communist who violated human rights -which is fair enough considering his track record of executing those opposing him. He was also a great manipulator of difficult situations and for decades his regime controlled all publications and media outlets as well as restricting access to goods and information. Castro had a great understanding of the power of images and used this to help him retain the loyalty of many Cubans, often blaming America and its embargo for many of Cuba’s sufferings.
But for many, he was also a representation of the anti-colonial struggle in the way he stood up to America – which combined with his tolerance for communism and his government nationalising all enterprises on Cuban land, led to a decade long portrayal of Cuba as an ideological disaster by America. The many American assassination attempts on Castro were justified by the phrase “freedom for the Cuban people” when in reality their concern was more about freedom for US capital.
The list of pros and cons could go on and on. For all the positives about Fidel Castro, there are always counter-arguments and vice versa. But what is definite is that he will be remembered as one of Latin-American most influential leaders, and despite all of his wrongdoings he pushed Cuba in the direction of progress. Which, at the end of the day, together with his critique of capitalism is why he had a devoted group of supporters throughout his lifetime.
It will be interesting to see if the Cuban society eventually will add a layer of democracy to its future narrative, building on what they have achieved thus far – maybe setting an example for other democratic nations in desperate need of universal health care and education.
In the days following his death, a vast number of news outlets writing in Castro’s memory have paired his name up with words like dictator, tyrant or zealot. Still many see him as much more. Even Canada’s Justin Trudeau described him as “a legendary revolutionary and orator”. Fidel Castro managed to transform Cuba from a tiny island to a nation, disproportionate to its geographical size, playing a role on the world stage alongside some of the world’s most powerful nations. For some he is a hero, others he is a tyrant, however, I believe you cannot truly define him as either-or.
As American-Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy tweeted in the light of his death “Fidel Castro was a revolutionary who initially brought good things to Cuba and then became a dictator. It’s important to recognize both.” As with many other historically important people his mere being was a controversial one. And although his death might not have had the same effect on me as David Bowie’s, he sure did make a huge impact on the world.
Written by Nilo Danai.