Fidel Castro: tragedy of a revolution that turned sour
The late leader brought great social advances to Cuba, but with these came repression
When Fidel Castro and his fellow guerrillas seized power in Cuba in 1959, it marked the start of the most radical effort yet undertaken in Latin America to tackle the region’s terrible social injustices.
As the contrasting reactions around the world to news of his death 57 years later demonstrate, the historical value of that experiment is still a topic of heated ideological debate.
To many, Castro was a freedom fighter, an anti-imperialist and harbinger of greater social justice in the region of the world most scarred by inequality.
And he was those things. But others are correct to point out he was also a bloody dictator, another Caribbean caudillo like the one he overthrew, exercising an iron grip over his fellow Cubans in order to maintain by means of incarceration, exile and – when he deemed necessary – show trials and firing squads, an economic model that did not work.
The social advances the Cuban revolution initially achieved are undeniable. The landlord class in this former slave society was the first to suffer. In the cities rents were reduced, while in the countryside land was redistributed.
Public health was revolutionised, dramatically reducing infant mortality rates. A famous campaign that rapidly eliminated illiteracy is still a model in the region – Bolivia recently declared illiteracy defeated after a Cuban-inspired and guided programme. Afro-Cubans made major social advances as the informal but rigid segregation that afflicted pre-revolutionary society was tackled.
The result was that Castro’s Cuba boasted the lowest inequality ranking in Latin America and always performed well, by regional standards, on the UN’s Human Development Index, meaning it became for many Latins proof that more egalitarian societies could be constructed out of the legacy of pillage, slavery and imperialism that make up centuries of the region’s history.
But Cubans paid a high price for this social triumph. A voracious reader himself, Castro might have eliminated illiteracy, but he closely controlled what books his citizens had access to. Cuba remains the most censored society in all of Latin America.
Social advances came at the cost of a severe curtailment of liberty.
Harsh one-party rule was instituted. The population could not be allowed to question the revolutionary elite or its faith in Marxism.
Widespread popular participation was always one of the hallmarks of Cuban revolutionary society. But there was still dissent that Castro confronted with traditional Leninist responses as well as some of his own. There were labour camps. Dissidents were sent to psychiatric wards along with other “enemies” of the regime, such as homosexuals.
And in order to relieve build-ups of popular dissatisfaction with his rule, Castro tolerated mass exoduses such as the one from Mariel port in 1980 when 125,000 “undesirables” fled across the Florida Straits.
This need for control was also apparent within the Communist Party, where the word of Castro was absolute, however much he feigned otherwise. Those who crossed him were expelled, jailed or forced into exile.
Castro’s and Cuba’s tragedy was that all these repressive means did not achieve their enlightened end. They were deployed to protect a failed model. He would hear no talk of dismantling it even when it became clear communism was impoverishing the whole island, leaving it dependent on handouts first from the USSR, then Venezuela.
When he came to power in 1959, Cuba was behind only wealthy Venezuela, Uruguay and Argentina in per capita income among Latin American nations. Now it ranks just above the poorest countries in the western hemisphere and this poverty is putting the social gains of the revolution at risk, with inequality on the rise and the public sector struggling to maintain basic services.
By sticking to a rigid interpretation of communism decades after it was clear it was failing Cuba, by maintaining its grip through a repressive state apparatus that denied Cubans a proper say in their own future, Castro the young revolutionary eventually degenerated into another conservative Caribbean dictator like the one his friend Gabriel García Márquez so brilliantly portrayed in his novel The Autumn of the Patriarch.
Márquez never disowned Castro. To him gringos who wondered about the apparent contradiction of his support could never fully understand the revolution’s significance within Latin America.
But Márquez lived in Mexico City, not Havana, and was young during the revolution’s blissful early days. He remembered the shame of what came before and the injustices that right-wing capitalist rule still inflicts on places such as his own Colombia.
In contrast, most Cubans today only remember a time when the Castros were in charge. Many might be nervous about what comes after. But that does not mean they don’t long for an after, all the same.