Did Fidel Destroy His Own Legacy?

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No one can deny Fidel Castro his place in history. He was, by any measure, the most prominent political figure in Latin America in the 20th century, maybe since Christopher Columbus. The question is whether the narrative will be mostly about bold dreams and progressive change—or about oppression and stagnation in Cuba.

Fidel imposed his will on virtually every aspect of life on the island. He never trusted the Cuban people with any political rights or freedoms, but he succeeded in dismantling an old, unjust order, ending US hegemony over Cuba, and sharply reducing the country’s enormous disparities in income and opportunity. All these advances, however, were largely in place within his first decade of rule. Castro’s legacy was firmly established. His mistake was keeping an iron grip on the country for the next three and a half decades. If he had yielded power, the Cuban people could have taken advantage of his legacy, which included the best education and health services anywhere in Latin America, and pursue the task of building a modern, prosperous nation. Instead, as the years passed, Cuba became increasingly frozen in time, as Castro’s new order, turned into an unchanging and tyrannical old order. 

Fidel Castro’s revolutionary triumph in 1959 energized leftist parties and movements across Latin America, and helped to sparked guerrilla insurgencies in some nations (the last of which, in Colombia, coincidentally ended in a negotiated peace within days of Castro’s death). Only one other insurgency actually succeeded—in Nicaragua, where an aging, although popular, revolutionary leader has today established a family dynasty similar to the caudillo he displaced in 1979.  In many nations, however, the Castro-revitalized left, particularly where it undertook armed insurrections arose, provoked military takeovers and brutal regimes, often supported by the US. While unfair to point all the blame at Castro, he was key element in a deadly mix that led to many national tragedies.

With the end of the Cold War in 1990, with democratic governments replacing military rule, and the fading of armed conflicts, Cuba lost its geopolitical relevance in the hemisphere, except in the US where it became a bitter issue in domestic politics.    

But there was one more chapter to be written about Fidel, Cuba and Latin America. The election of Hugo Chavez in 1998, followed by the emergence of left wing governments in much of the region—including Brazil and almost all of its neighbors—brought Cuba and Castro back into the spotlight. He was still an inspiration and hero of the political left,   But by 2006, a severely ill, incapacitated Fidel Castro turned  the country’s  leadership over to his younger brother Raul—who subsequently  brought a further round of attention to Cuba when, in  2014, he joined President Obama in announcing plans to normalize the long hostile relationship between their countries. From all appearances Fidel was never fully comfortable with his brother’s decision to make peace with the US, and used his fading influence to slow the pace of slow pace of change in Cuba and dampen, to the extent he was able, enthusiasm for the new US relationship.  By insisting on a rigid, outmoded set of ideas, Fidel had long left Cuba poor and backward.  And he may once again have undercut Cuban prospects to free itself from an unhappy past and build for the future—an opportunity that appears likely to recede as a new administration takes over in Washington.

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