Latin America has been plagued by long-serving tyrants. Since Fidel Castro ruled Cuba for 47 years and appointed his brother to succeed him through 2018, he set a new record for family dynasties in the region.
Given an early history of political violence and attempts to kill him since 1959, it is a miracle that Fidel died in bed at 90. Although his death has provoked different reactions on both sides of the Florida straits, his impact on the late 20th century is unquestioned.
In order to assess that legacy, however, one needs to look at American policy toward Cuba, and compare Cuba today with Cuba before the revolution or with comparable states in Latin America, not the United States.
When Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar overthrew the elected president in 1952, he received American support. His government was corrupt. His police tortured and murdered opponents. Havana was a brothel run by the Mafia, and the economy was controlled by American interests.
After a prolonged urban and rural struggle, Batista fled Cuba and Castro seized power. He transformed Cuba, defied the United States, inspired revolutionaries in Latin America and Africa and thrust a small semi-colonial country onto the global stage. Besides setting a record for longevity, he changed the lives of millions of Cubans and influenced the foreign policy of two superpowers.
Although he promised democracy, Castro converted Cuba into a dictatorship which summarily executed Batista supporters and jailed its critics. When he signed an alliance with the Soviet Union, many supporters accused him of betrayal and joined an exodus of upper- and middle-class Cubans, who have left their mark on their new country.
After Castro seized American property and signed a trade agreement with Russia, the CIA organized an invasion by Cuban exiles. When the invasion failed, Castro and Nikita Khrushchev installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, bringing us to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon.
After the missiles were removed, President John F. Kennedy imposed an embargo on Cuba while the CIA continued to launch raids, conduct sabotage and plot to assassinate Castro.
The embargo not only failed to remove him, but it gave him an excuse on which to blame Cuba’s failures and justify his dictatorship. Besides surviving the blockade, he sent troops, doctors, nurses and teachers and provided disaster relief to countries in Africa and Latin America.
Today, every Cuban child has access to free education through graduate study. All Cubans enjoy free health care, and Cuba provides free medical training to students from all over the world, including the United States. Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate and higher literacy rate than we do, and Cubans live as long. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba went organic and became a global leader in sustainable farming.
Although Cuba is a dictatorship that jails dissidents, many Latin American countries have suffered under harsh dictatorships that tortured and murdered their victims, or had them disappear, while receiving economic and military assistance from the United States. There are some pockets of economic growth in the region, but millions continue to live in poverty under corrupt and self-serving regimes.
Cuba’s record on human rights is deplorable, but perhaps the greatest failure of Cuban socialism has been the inability to develop a stable and viable economy to meet the basic needs of all Cubans. Castro did not diversify the economy or prepare for a future without Russian subsidies or cheap oil from Venezuela. Cuba now imports 80 percent of its food, and its economy depends on tourism and remittances from exiles.