Fidel Castro (1926-2016), Without Illusions


I have a somewhat late-breaking obituary of Fidel Castro, up now at Dissent magazine. Rather than a straight obit, I’ve tried to take stock of the different responses to Fidel on the left.

In death, as in life, Fidel Castro has the world’s attention. In the week since his passing, the nature of his legacy has been as fiercely debated. Most conservatives remember him as little more than a tyrant. But even on the left there has been little agreement about whether and how one of the twentieth-century’s most important socialists should be honored or condemned. For some, he is an icon of resistance to U.S. imperialism. He defied the most powerful empire in the world, and, in the words of Nelson Mandela, helped “destroy the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor.” For others, he is above all the architect and head of Cuba’s single-party state and the repression that entails. Still others explain the repression as a legitimate and necessary response to very real threats from the United States.

The Cuban Revolution, with Fidel as its head, has since its beginning been understood as belonging not just to Cuba, but to the world. Fidel cloaked himself in protean myths for domestic and international audiences. So did his enemies—how else to explain the CIA’s effort to poison Castro with a powder that would cause his iconic beard to fall out?—until Fidel became something of a prism, whose color seems to change based on the viewer’s angle of vision. But learning from Fidel’s life, in the interest of expanding human freedom, requires looking past the mythologies and facing squarely both the powers arrayed against him and the costs of the decisions he made to confront them. Neither Cuba’s economic woes, nor its repressive political climate, can be blamed solely on the threat from the United States. On the contrary, Castro’s aversion to democratic rights was his own act of economic self-sabotage. A freer Cuban socialism would likely also have been a more prosperous one.

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