There are few leaders who inspire the kind of irrational passion that surrounds the recently-deceased Fidel Castro. He is a hero and a villain, and to have an opinion on him so often forces you to choose between the two.
But there is another way to judge leadership. To understand Castro’s true historical legacy, we should think of him geopolitically.
That means setting aside moral judgements, which rely on evidence that’s so readily cherry picked, and pushing past propaganda to look not on Castro’s intentions or his personality but his geopolitical outcomes.
All leaders who are judged in such a manner must therefore pass a basic question: How much did they secure their nations and/or states, and for how long can their methods work?
Security, of course, should break down as both physical security from invasion and rebellion as well as economic and social security from recessions, poverty, and unrest. We are asking, in essence, about how well a leader used their ever-limited power to strengthen their nation-state. Such strengthening goes beyond mere morality, because murder is murder and always wrong in the eyes of the ethicist. But to murder someone who might corrupt or weaken a nation-state is wise geopolitical policy. After all, it’s hard to argue that murdering Hitler in 1931 would have weakened Germany.
So how does Fidel Castro fare? Well, let’s begin with his work securing Cuba physically.
Cuba’s close position to the United States has long been its chief security threat. As early as 1854, U.S. politicians, especially Southerners, wanted to purchase or conquer Cuba: it is essentially a gigantic Hawaii, a sugar-rich plantation-friendly island ripe for exploitation. The reality is, once the U.S. got a hankering for Cuba, it was difficult for Cuban elites to resist their gigantic northern neighbor. They had two equally bad choices: either become part of the United States itself, or act like they were.
Remember this made all the sense in the world to U.S. elites in the 19th and early 20th centuries. All American conquests up to that point had not only worked out pretty well but had paid handsome dividends: the Louisiana Purchase, the Florida Purchase, the Mexican cession had all combined to make America as powerful and wealthy as Great Britain’s massive empire by 1900. When you consider that in geopolitics leaders can only be judged by how much they secure their nation-state, these conquests made a huge amount of sense.
And why not Cuba as well? It was hardly the first part of the Spanish Empire America coveted.
But it was far from ideal for Cuban nationalists, who thought of Cuba not as an American state-in-waiting but as a budding nation-state. So they accommodated their gigantic northern neighbor, passing the Platt Amendment in 1901 and only repealing it in part in 1934. Even today, Guantanamo Bay remains in America’s hands because of the Platt Amendment.
Essentially, Cuba functioned like an America vassal, giving preference to U.S. business interests (and criminal interests as well). Since the key to political survival in Cuba was how much one could please the Americans, not Cuban citizens, this led to a fair level of increasingly hefty corruption. By the 1950s, Cuba’s state siphoned off huge chunks of wealth for its elites and for the Americans. Headed up by Fulgencio Batista, this Cuba kept the Americans at bay but did little else.
So it was natural that there’d be a revolt: what wasn’t natural is that the United States would blunder its response so badly. Self-assured that a new Cuban government would recognize the obvious and once more align with the U.S., America did little to stop Castro’s revolt from becoming a full-on revolution; the Americans even embargoed Batista at one point.
When Castro took control in 1959, he had ambitions to be more than just another American stooge. Having broken through Cuba’s politics by force, he had never had to compromise with American interests, nor rely upon Cubans allied to them. He had, briefly, a fresh slate.
But that did not change geography. Less than 100 miles from Florida, even under a caudillo like Castro, Cuba was doomed to end up yet again dominated by the United States.
So Castro did the wisest thing he could under the circumstances: he found the only power on Earth that could stop the Americans.
By running headlong into both Communism and the Soviet alliance network, Castro killed two birds with one stone. Under Communism, he could expel all American interests. With the Soviets as allies, he could prevent an American invasion that might try to restore those interests. The Americans almost did overthrow him during the Bay of Pigs invasion, but worry the battle might lead to a bigger escalation in the Cold War convinced President Kennedy it was best to keep American air power out of the fight.
Having at least four American military interventions from 1901-59, Cuba then enjoyed an unrivaled degree of physical security. The USSR was too far away to vassalize Cuba as it had Eastern Europe; the Cuban Missile Crisis had taught Moscow that Cuba was a valuable thorn in America’s side, but could trigger a massive American response if overused. Castro had the best of both worlds: complete security from America and an alliance with a superpower that both needed him and was too far away to dominate him.
Never again has the United States, or any foreign power, threatened to invade Cuba. Even after the end of the Cold War, Castro used relentless propaganda and diplomatic maneuvering so that even without superpower sponsorship, his figure cast a huge shadow across Latin American-U.S. relations. By 1991, to invade Cuba was to stir up anti-Yankee feeling on a scale the U.S. simply couldn’t afford.
This is without a doubt Castro’s biggest success. For 500 years, Cuba was a Spanish colony: then, for another fifty, it was a de facto American one. To be so close to a superpower, and to be so small, is to surely to be dominated by it. Yet Castro found a way: first through the Soviet Union, and then through his astute diplomacy and propaganda that made war deeply unattractive to the United States.
So that’s physical security. What about the security of society itself?
And we should define what we mean by “social security”. This should encompass political stability, crime, and factors that might lead to unrest, like riots or protests.
This is where Castro gets undue accolades. Having worked in an authoritarian country myself, countries that severely restrict politics, free speech, and civil society can appear, from the outside, as utopian. That’s because all the real social problems are suppressed, not solved. When your media can’t talk about racial discrimination, your society looks an awful lot like it doesn’t have racial discrimination. This was certainly the case of my once-upon-a-time home, the United Arab Emirates, whose authoritarian leaders still pat themselves on the back for their supposed tolerance while their country’s deep-seated racism goes largely unreported or challenged.
Communist states are actually very good at the appearance of social security: the USSR lauded its ethnic and national harmony right up to its collapse. Yet all those years of Soviet brainwashing did little to keep Azerbaijanis and Armenians from despising one another, nor did Tito’s Communist idealism bridge the divides between Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks in the former Yugoslavia. In other words, once Communism weakens, all the social problems that lay underneath are rapidly and painfully revealed.
So we should automatically suspect the Castro cheerleading that says Fidel cured Cuba of racism; the reality is he was just very good at hiding it. This is less a criticism of his leadership than an acknowledgement of facts: Cuba was, after all, a colony of Spain for some 500 years, and was very much a race-based slave society until 1886. There would be hangovers from that; expecting Castro to fix them entirely is just as unreasonable as believing that he fixed them at all.
Yet there are also basic truths as well: Cuba does have a laudable healthcare system and an education system well above its Latin American peers. The education system will now be tested more thoroughly as change comes to the island: will Cubans be able to compete in a globalized world, or has Castro’s schooling made them capable only of being successful in Castro’s Cuba? But that doesn’t undercut that both health and education made great strides in Cuba under Castro.
And the final judgment: how much did Castro’s megalomania cost Cuba?
By its very nature, megalomaniacs who post their pictures everywhere and decide they’re gods on Earth always distort society. This is because in said societies, loyalty is always more valuable than efficiency. To mimic the great leader is always more powerful than to outsmart him, and doing the latter is outright dangerous.
The question then boils down to how much this tendency distorts a nation-state’s geopolitical power. There are relatively harmless cults of personality: in the UAE, it is the obsession with Sheikh Zayed, the first president, dead since 2004. But that’s harmless partially because the UAE is a resource-rich nation that largely keeps to itself and can afford to stuff the state’s ranks with indolent yes-men.
Cuba is not so resource rich, nor did Castro’s cult of personality confine itself solely to Cuba. From the 1970s onwards, Castro became convinced he offered a unique version of Cuban socialism that needed to be exported. To that end, he used Cuban power and Cuban lives on foreign adventures. He deployed soldiers to both Angola’s civil war and Ethiopia’s Ogden War, projecting power far beyond Cuba’s normal abilities via Soviet logistics. There wasn’t much reason for Cuba to deploy so many soldiers for so long: the Soviets were not about to ditch Cuba had it failed to send troops to its proxy wars.
The dead are hard to count, but some sources report as many as 14,000 Cubans died in Castro’s African adventures; worse, from the perspective of power, neither campaign managed to establish a Cuban-leaning government. The Ethiopians under the Communist Derg essentially self-destructed and were overthrown; the Angolan MPLA, the faction Castro sent soldiers to support, does control Angola, but with nary a benefit for Cuba. Cuba, which is heavily dependent on foreign oil, imports no oil from Angola these days, but rather mostly from Algeria, which it never sent troops to.
Castro’s intent was spread his own version of Communism throughout Africa: he had no rational reasons to do so beyond megalomania. Not only did he get Cubans killed, but he failed to achieve any of his objectives. That is a stark failure.
Moreover, Cuba’s economic model, based largely on the force of his personality, has stagnated to a critical level. When propped up, it can creak along: its most recent patron was Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, which offered up to 99,000 barrels of oil per day as part of Chavez’s own megalomaniac tendencies. But Venezuela is a basket case today and can’t afford such largesse.
Rather than acting like China’s Deng Xiaoping, who used his authoritarian powers to bring necessary reforms to China, Castro instead steadfastly held to his view of Communism, waffling back and forth between reform and consolidation. His motivations may well have been fear of unleashing a society less stable than it appears: he reportedly muttered that the Cuba model didn’t even work for Cubans anymore, and so ideological blindness doesn’t seem to be the culprit. If that’s the case, Castro’s gigantic shadow may have been an even greater disservice to Cuba. Will he be Cuba’s Tito, whose cult of personality held together a country that would otherwise be slaughtering itself? Time will of course tell, though Cuba’s isolation and smallness probably precludes the same kind of devastating civil war.
A man of truth and justice, or just another man?
Castro certainly thought he was more than just a man: those who try to export Revolutions always do. His propaganda machine was efficient in pointing out the hypocrisies of the United States and its allies, while his state readily suppressed most of the evidence that his nation was anything but perfect. Castro’s long rule cannot be characterized as wholly one thing or another, but merely phases of many things. There was the young man who deftly secured Cuba from a superpower intent on dominating it; the middle aged man whose delusions of grandeur left behind Cuban graves in African proxy wars; and the old, decaying man, who grew to fear change so much he did little more than try to stagnate the present.
It’s hard to argue Cuba would have been better off had it remained dominated by the U.S. It might well have resembled Mexico with its cartels or Puerto Rica with its wealth disparity, both of which can blame the United States as being the source of much of their problems.
Yet it is equally irrational to argue that Castro himself, through sheer force of personality and goodness, did much beyond secure Cuba from the U.S. Cuba’s vaunted education system may soon be tested in the coming years through trade and foreign competition, which Cuba has largely been shielded from. It’s healthcare system may only be effective so long as Castro’s iron will to invest in it influences state policy. Meanwhile, the social cracks that must exist doubtless wait for their day to emerge: between rich and poor, African descent and European descent, between Castro’s supporters and his inevitable detractors. His commitment to stagnation in his later years will surely have a price to be paid now that he is safely dead.
His foreign wars were stark failures, merely a man desperate for legacy getting other people’s kids killed in wars Cuba neither needed nor benefited from. These, more than anything else, should be the darkest marks on his record.
Propaganda aside, Castro deserves a grade of average, for on balance his securing Cuba from the U.S. is negated by his African adventures and lack of political imagination in his later life. He was, in the end, just another caudillo strongman, whose long shadow must now be overcome.