After the death of any great historical figure, people conduct assessments of their achievements and failings. In the case of Fidel Castro’s legacy, the emotional reactions can be very strong on all sides of the political spectrum, even beyond the Cuban exiled community.
One of the great Cuban patriots and independence activists of the 19th Century, José Martí, once famously declared that “Cuba and Puerto Rico are two wings of the same bird“, by which he meant that the two were destined to one day soar into freedom together as sovereign and independent nations. He was saying this from the standpoint of the 19th Century, when both islands still belonged to Spain and the Spanish-American War hadn’t yet snatched them from the Spanish empire. The mutual respect and love between the two islands, together with the huge cultural similarities, were so entrenched that when the Puerto Rican nationalists gathered in New York City to invent a Puerto Rican flag, they copied the Cuban flag and merely inversed the colors. To this day, Cuba is still the main country speaking frequently for Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination before the United Nations.
But the two wings of the bird would not take flight. What happened, instead, was that Cuba gained independence, was for a time a neo-colony of the U.S., and eventually people revolted against Americanization and rampant corruption under the Batista regime and went full communist. Its citizens may be sovereign, but they’re not exactly “free” to speak their minds, to freely associate and have their grievances heard, to read a free press, and other such signs that we normally associate with freedom. And Puerto Rico never gained its independence, its residents were given American citizenship 100 years ago, its nationalist movement was violently suppressed, and eventually they became indolent American consumerists like the people of the mainland. Puerto Rico is now beginning a process to be formally admitted into the union as one of the United States now that an economic crisis has revealed deep cracks in the undemocratic “commonwealth” status that it enjoys within the US.
But the naïve idealism of José Martí still resonates with many, and the death of Fidel Castro stirs very strong passions among many in the Boricua community. Some of the remaining independentistas are praying for Puerto Rico to produce its own Fidel. Others who, for decades, have heard the horrendous stories told by Cuban exiles, are terrified of that possibility. Outside of Miami, Puerto Rico received the largest amount of exiles from Fidel’s Cuba, and generations there grew up listening both to American anti-communist propaganda from the Cold War, and to the stories of the Cubans who survived atrocities, had their property seized, lost family members in public executions, etc.
Let’s start with the good. Fidel was anti-imperialist discourse in action, and in some ways he walked the walk … yet he allied himself with the Soviet Union, which was an imperialist project. To his credit, perhaps he didn’t have a choice, or else the Cuban people would have starved as they were isolated in a neoliberal world and suffered as a result of the US embargo.
All these decades later, the main (and perhaps only) positive aspects of his legacy that are undeniable are his role in helping to end apartheid in South Africa, and the availability of free, universal health care and education for his constituents. Some of his other anti-colonial efforts did not succeed as impressively as these.
Then there’s the bad: scarcity, poverty, lack of freedom, lack of democratic participation of the Cuban people in how their country is run, and homophobia.
The list of crimes of the revolution is too vast to cover in detail, but I will here focus on homophobic repression because it’s the most viscerally appalling and disappointing to me as a gay man on the left of the political spectrum. Anecdotes and testimonies of the abuse suffered in Cuba under Fidel have from time to time trickled through and shocked the LGBT community abroad. In the initial years of the revolution, gays were rounded up and put in forced labor camps and were constantly attacked and humiliated by Cuba’s national-socialist regime in its first two decades. Later when the AIDS virus spread among gay men, they were confined (“quarantined”, according to the regime) in special prisons. (To be fair, Stonewall did not happen until 1969 in America and life prior to Stonewall was also hell, and in deeply religious strongholds like Mormon Utah gays were still subjected to shock therapy well into the 70s).
One of the survivors of the labor camps–author Reinaldo Arenas–wrote an account which was later made into the movie Before Night Falls. The Daily Beast published a posthumous article in memory of Fidel remembering the atrocities of that era, citing Arenas’ account:
It was a sweltering place without a bathroom. Gays were not treated like human beings, they were treated like beasts. They were the last ones to come out for meals, so we saw them walk by, and the most insignificant incident was an excuse to beat them mercilessly.
Later–too late, in my view–in 2010 during an interview with a Mexican journalist, Fidel assumed full personal responsibility for the abuses against the LGBT community. He did not exactly make amends, or go much further than to acknowledge his abuses. Instead, he said that the Communist regime had to foil so many attempts by the CIA and “traitors” against the revolution, that he was not “paying attention” to what was being done to homosexuals.
Many of his gay victims would denominate this “lack of attention” as reckless and inhumane, or accuse him of lying, and of having instead focused too much of his attention on homosexuals. In truth, his regime had become paranoid. Intellectuals, poets, artists and authors are frequently seen as a threat by authoritarian regimes, and the gay community has always and everywhere been a bastion of creativity, which raised suspicions among the austere Communists.
In the late 1970’s, homosexuality was decriminalized, and Fidel’s niece is today an activist who fights for the recognition of LGBT rights in Cuba. But is this enough? And can the revolution justify all these crimes, considering that its only two great successes in Cuba are top-notch universal free health care and education, which are also available in a few free-market countries that didn’t need an armed revolution? Cuba may be socially developed and its citizens may be healthy, eloquent and educated, but in terms of its economy, perpetually-dysfunctional Haiti is the only country in the Western hemisphere that lags behind Cuba. Surely people have a right to expect that such a great sacrifice as the revolution should have produced a country with living standards far above what is enjoyed by Cubans today.
Uruguay has even more of the social progress we see in Cuba (legalized cannabis, gay marriage), as well as a free market system that has made it one of the most prosperous, stable countries on the hemisphere whose citizens enjoy a first-world-level quality of life. Thousands of people didn’t have to die and freedoms didn’t have to be taken from people. Gays didn’t have to be criminalized. Ideology and collectivism didn’t have to replace humanity and individualism.
While we may admire how he was stalwart in his values, Fidel’s legacy, when assessed against how the world has progressed and when measuring the “sacrifices” versus the achievements, was mostly one of terror and authoritarianism. Let’s hope that Fidel’s death will eventually prompt the kind of reform that will preserve the good things attained by the revolution, as well as secure freedom, democracy, and prosperity for the people of Cuba.