By the time his death at 90 was announced late Friday, Fidel Castro had become what he most feared during a prolonged and dramatic life — an irrelevancy, a living museum piece trotted out for ceremonial occasions, but no longer the man in charge of Cuba’s destiny. He was the living embodiment of the Cuban Revolution, to be seen and applauded in public functions, but real power had passed to his brother Raúl and others in the inner circle.
His great triumph was merely to have survived for so long, to have outlived so many adversaries. Nearly from the start, Castro made it his mission to challenge the might of the United States, a role he relished. He managed to confront and bedevil 11 American presidents — one-fourth of all American chief executives — while deftly avoiding the kind of strategic mistake that would provoke a military strike against him.
Unceasing defiance of the American Colossus made Castro a hero to millions, including many who did not otherwise share his left-wing politics. He was the most influential figure of the 20th century in Latin America, the lion whose roar gave voice to the resentment and grievances, real and imagined, that accumulated over decades as the United States rose to become the dominant force in the hemisphere. At the height of his power in the 1970s, his admirers in the Third World — disregarding his status as a Soviet pawn — chose him to lead the Non-Aligned Movement.
But all of his prominence and power came at a terrible cost to the Cuban people, and therein lies his most lasting, tragic and unforgivable legacy.
In one of the great paradoxes of the era, Castro successfully posed as a champion of the downtrodden around the world, even as he trampled on the rights of downtrodden Cubans. His many admirers abroad chose to ignore, and illogically justify, his denial of freedom to the people of Cuba even as they fought for the right to enjoy civil liberties and freedoms at home.
Fidel Castro destroyed civil society, replacing social cohesion with neighborhood committees that spied on Cuba’s citizens. Elections? Never in more than 60 years; only the Communist Party existed. Independent newspapers and free expression? None. Only state organs of propaganda.
Freedom to worship was restricted, and the institutional church was treated with suspicion and disrespect. Private property was abolished. Public and private school systems were replaced by indoctrination in schools designed to serve Communist ideology.
And he also ruined an economy that had been the third-largest in Latin America when he took power by promoting disastrous agrarian and economic experiments. The damage became most painfully apparent after a disintegrating Soviet Union ended its massive subsidies to Cuba in 1991.
Withdrawal from a $4-billion-a-year habit wasn’t pretty. Cuba’s centralized economy went into a tailspin.
After an intestinal illness forced him to cede control to brother Rául in 2006, the government made necessary changes to the economy that Fidel would once have condemned — throwing the doors open to tourism, adjusting to the demands of needed foreign investors and allowing more Cubans to become self-employed and own small businesses.
While economic transition remained a work in progress, the police state created decades ago by Cuba’s Soviet masters and their allies for the regime’s benefit remained intact. It is Fidel Castro’s most enduring creation.
Now, after surviving countless assassination attempts, communism’s bankruptcy, economic collapse, his failed revolution, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz has passed into history.
This is a moment to celebrate the prospect of a future without Fidel Castro. He should be remembered as the cynical dictator who nearly destroyed Cuba for the gratification of his own ego. Building a free, open and prosperous democracy would be the Cuban people’s greatest, most satisfying payback.
The totalitarian dictator is dead. May his police state and inhumanity be buried along with him.