Half a century of Fidel Castro is enough for anyone. Cubans, however, must surely lament that he had so easy a replacement, and with the same name, no less. The official stepping down of Fidel in Cuba is not necessarily in and of itself huge news – Raul, his brother, has been firmly in power for about a year now, anyhow. This is, nevertheless, an interesting opportunity to reflect upon his legacy as the longtime ruthless dictator of Cuba, the spokesperson for the global Communist movement during the Cold War, and as an active proponent of the exportation of his evil totalitarian regime in Latin American and elsewhere throughout the world. All in all, taking a cue from Senator John McCain, I hope that Fidel meets Marx real soon.
Fidel emerged on the international scene when the Soviet Union had long before lost its ability to romance Western intellectuals with its promises of a better way of the life using the Soviet model. No Soviet leader seemed to possess the particular flair of Lenin to soften the hard reputation created by Stalin, and no Soviet leader seemed be able to credibly convince the Third World that Communism was their best and only option without immediately arousing suspicions. Eventually, the Soviet Union would use Fidel Castro as its unofficial ambassador to the Third World, uphold Cuba as the model for exporting red revolution, and funnel weapons and information through their Caribbean comrades.
Ironically, however, Soviet intervention in Latin America largely came after Castro’s revolution, not before. Although the KGB had made contact with and recognized the revolutionary potential of both Castro and his brother, Raul, years earlier, they repeatedly failed to grant Castro’s requests for material aide until a few weeks before his insurrection’s success. In fact, the Czech weaponry dispatched to Havana only arrived after Castro had taken over. Despite the obvious leftism espoused by Castro’s closest aides, Raul and Che Guevera, his own ideology and loyalties were less clear, even though the CIA quickly concluded that he could not be turned. Any lingering doubts were gone when, after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, Fidel cancelled elections and hunkered down while the Soviets stepped up operations.
Castro would be the one to encourage the Soviet Union to bring nuclear missiles to Cuba, not only in relation to the famous crisis during the Kennedy years, but also again in the 1980s, when he was paranoid about a possible American invasion by the Reagan Administration. He would help orchestrate aid to Communists and their sympathizers in nations ranging from Nicaragua to Angola. Fidel spearheaded the rhetorical fight against the West at every opportunity in marathon speaking sessions that could last several hours. His principal loyalty, however, was always to his own power: Fidel would back the crackdown on dissidents in Eastern Europe in order to reconcile himself with the Soviet Union and get material aid but then change course, fearing to give any excuse to the United States to take him out. And yet, we had needed no excuse before: by one account, we failed 638 times, sometimes comically, always tragically, to kill the man.
Beyond the jailing, torturing, and murdering of dissidents and beyond his fanning the flames of the tensions behind the Cold War, Fidel oversaw the horrible mismanagement of the Cuban economy. As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, “The end of Fidel isn’t a sufficient condition for Cuban freedom, but it is a necessary one”: Cuba had the third highest per-capita GDP in Latin America in January of 1959. Now, it is certainly among the poorest, and has subsisted only on substantial aid, first from the Soviet bloc, and now from Venezuela and China.
Fidel’s brother and successor Raul offers a mixed portrait. He has traditionally been the enforcer in the administration, taking care of dirty business so Fidel would not have to, and was the clear ideologue when they first started out. “Optimists,” however, point to his governance of the army, which controls most of the privatized elements of the Cuban economy, and his encouragement, after the fall of the Soviet Union, to bring about more capitalist reforms. They call this the ‘China Model’ (aren’t entrenched totalitarians great?). Still, with time, I am confident that we can start to see needed reforms on the island, and that a free Cuba lies just over the horizon. The United States needs to prepare for this eventuality as best as possible by demanding human rights recognition and supporting democratic opponents to the regime.
But though there may be light at the end of the tunnel for Cuba, Castro’s true successor may not be Raul but Hugo Chavez, the leftist strongman at the presidential helm of Venezuela. Employing a flamboyant distaste for the United States, Chavez uses Castro as a role model in his governance of Venezuela. Unfortunately, Chavez can, unlike Castro, rely on Venezuela’s rich natural resources to fund his socialist schemes and provide money to anti-American regimes around the world. And the irony of it all? This rentier state’s largest purchaser of oil is the United States. Let us hope, though, that Venezuela can escape Hugo quicker than Cuba escaped Fidel.