A hero or a tyrant?

Rupert Cornwell 

Castro's legacy will echo long beyond his death. Lionised by many, dismissed by others as a man who locked his people in a socialist prison, there is no doubt that Cuba's former leader made the island matter.

Castro in Berlin. (Photo:  German Federal Archive )

Castro in Berlin. (Photo: German Federal Archive)


For opponents, he was a tyrant who locked his people in a socialist prison and threw away the key. To his supporters, he was a revolutionary, an anti-imperialist and a hero. Indisputably however Fidel Castro was one of the most remarkable political figures of his age.

For better or worse Castro, who died in November 2016 aged 90, belonged in the company of Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-tung, Nasser and Nehru, as an embodiment of 20th century nationalism. His power base was no more than a lush island in the Caribbean. But there in Cuba he created the first communist state in the western hemisphere, important enough to be the epicentre of our closest brush with nuclear conflagration.

In the process he became the world’s longest lasting head of government, for 50 years successfully defying the United States. Indeed like his country, Castro was defined, at least as much as by anything he did, by the sheer proximity of the superpower 90 miles to the north on the other side of the Straits of Florida.

For him, like his countrymen, there was no escaping the shadow of America. The National Archives in Washington even contain a 1940 letter from Castro to Franklin Roosevelt, in stiff, slightly florid handwriting, asking the president to send him a $10 bill. For his pains, the 13-year-old Cuban schoolboy received a reply but, alas, no money.

Quickly, Castro emerged as a leader of the left-wing, mainly student radicals who sought to overthrow the US-supported dictator Fulgencio Batista. The struggle would last seven years, and begin with not a victory but a defeat, the failed attack on the Moncada military barracks on 26 July 1953.

Castro was tried and sentenced to 15 years in jail but released after only two – deemed by Batista, absurdly, to constitute no threat to the regime. In 1955 he travelled to Mexico to enlist support for the cause, and became friends with an Argentinian medical student named Che Guevara who was keen to join the Cuban revolution.

The rest is the stuff of legend: the return to Cuba with 81 fellow insurgents on the rickety ship Granma, the establishment of a rebel stronghold in the mountains, and the guerilla campaign that eventually toppled Batista in January 1959. By then Castro and Che were international celebrities, lionised, romanticised and vilified according to taste. They have remained so ever since.

The country that Castro took over was little more than an American satrapy; the capital Havana was a playground for US tourists where the Mafia ruled. Abruptly, this world vanished, to be replaced by a socialist state. American assets were nationalised, the mobsters were stripped of their casinos and prostitution rackets, and Cuba’s giant neighbour turned from patron and provider into implacable foe.

Within months, the Eisenhower administration was plotting to overthrow Castro and similar efforts would continue for decades. By a conservative count, the CIA mounted at least eight separate assassination attempts against him, some almost comic and involving such devices as exploding cigars. Every one of them failed. By the end, Castro had outlasted 10 presidents, before he stepped down because of illness in 2008, having run the country for 49 years. And such was his historical shadow that even afterwards, Fidel Castro was synonymous with Cuba.

His indestructibility was demonstrated almost from the start. The Eisenhower-era CIA plan to invade Cuba was inherited by JFK, resulting in the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. Castro gloated in his enemy’s humiliation. “What the imperialists cannot forgive us,” he declared, “is that we have made a Socialist revolution under their noses”, he declared.

It was the first official pronouncement that Cuba was a socialist state – but Castro realised that the protection of a far more powerful socialist state was needed if the revolution was to be made safe. Thus the alliance with the Soviet Union, and the deployment of missiles to the island that led to the Cuban missile crisis when the superpowers came nearer to a nuclear exchange than ever before, or since.

Castro, for once and to his chagrin, was no more than a pawn in the crisis. However Cuba was too small a political stage for Castro. By 1966 he had set up the Latin American Solidarity Organisation (OLAS), in effect a clearing house for revolutionary movements across the continent. “The duty of a revolution is to make revolution,” was its slogan.

Castro was a foe of the US, ergo he was pro-Arab and anti-Israel. If Washington backed a capitalist right-wing regime, he would back its opponents, frequently as a proxy for the Soviet Union. He sent troops to fight in conflicts from Central America to Africa; between 1965 and 1979, opposition figures claimed, 14,000 Cubans had died in Havana’s foreign wars. Did any small country ever punch above its weight so widely, and for so long on the world stage?

Castro was no less a polarising figure for his domestic policies. Cuba’s change of ideological allegiance saw the import of the communist command economy, with all its failings and inefficiencies. The revolution brought communism’s political evils too: the one-party state that tolerated no dissent, committed gross human rights abuses, jailing and sometimes executing those who dared speak out against it.

But Castro’s version of socialism had merits as well. Education was vastly improved, and illiteracy – some 60 % in the Batista years – was all but eliminated. Ditto state-supplied healthcare, now available to everyone. The achievement was all the more remarkable given the middle-class exodus and brain drain of the years following 1959, and the sustained hostility of US administrations, egged on by a virulently hostile Cuban exile population based in politically crucial Florida.

The hostility lessened somewhat under Jimmy Carter, only to intensify again under Ronald Reagan, as part of his crusade against communism worldwide. Most damaging of all however would prove the revolution in Moscow. Mikhail Gorbachev had little time for Cuba and Castro; Boris Yeltsin, first leader of the Russia that replaced the Soviet Union in 1991, had even less.

Times were desperate. As Russian aid dried up, the Cuban economy contracted by 40%. But Castro was always above all a survivor – even of what he termed, euphemistically, this “special period”. Then providentially, a new saviour arrived in the person of Venezuela’s new president Hugo Chavez, an anti-American nationalist like Castro, and more important a source of subsidised replacement oil and foreign currency.

But Castro, by then well into his 70s, realised that Cuba’s system had to change in order to survive. His policies became more pragmatic. He could still deliver a four-hour address without notes, but his customary fatigues now sometimes gave way to business suits. He promoted tourism as a source of income, and even looked more kindly on the Catholic Church – a rapprochement sealed by Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998.

By then Cuba was moving closer to the regional mainstream. The old revolutionary had mellowed, while many Latin American governments – in Brazil and elsewhere – were edging leftward. Only the hostility of the US remained unabated. Much was expected of Barack Obama, but he relaxed previous policies only at the margins.

In fact the US had done more than anyone to keep him and the regime Washington so loathed in power. Time and again, America’s clumsy and myopic persecution of the regime enabled his to define his country against it, and play that nationalist, patriotic, card. Every failure could be blamed on the embargo and plots orchestrated by the CIA. 

Whatever one’s view of Castro’s methods, there was no doubt he believed it was his special mission to save his people. His political hero was not Lenin, but Jose Marti, the 19th century fighter for Cuba’s independence from Spain. Castro was no Marxist ideologist but a man of action, who would describe Hemingway as his favourite writer. He was a womaniser, but also rather Latin and Catholic too in his social conservatism, an opponent to abortion and gay rights.

And make no mistake, he was ruthless. The pigheaded enmity of the US certainly helped; its hostility provided an eternal justification for Castro’s methods, perversely only serving to  shore up support for him at home. One can but wonder – how much more effective and destructive of the regime might have been free trade and normalisation of relations? But even without the unmeaning help of the US, Castro would have been tough to dislodge. His energy was formidable, his appetite to control was boundless.

Nor will he be quickly forgotten. In a sense, Castro and the socialism he proclaimed have indeed disappeared into what Reagan called “the trashheap of history”. Yes, Cuba might have been freer and more prosperous had it been a liberal democracy. But Castro gave the country self-respect. His refusal to accept US hegemony struck chords in his region and beyond, and they have echoes even now. Pre-Fidel Cuba had been little more than a banana republic. Under him, for better or worse, it mattered. Few countries, surely, has ever punched above their weight for so long. And none have been so dominated by a single human being.


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This article originally appeared in The Independent on 26 November 2016.
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