26 November 2016


Compared to his historical peers, Fidel Castro at least had a sense of his own limitations. He did not feel the need to rule or reign until his last breath, and in his brother he apparently had someone he could trust in a way few of his peers did. Nevertheless Castro's death is being celebrated in the streets of Miami and elsewhere as the demise of a tyrant, and that's understandable. His repression of civil liberties in Cuba was inexcusable and his tendency to see any dissident as an American agent was either dishonest or pathological. Yet it would be wrong to let the knee-jerk liberal judgment preempt further analysis of Castro's place in history. The civil-liberties standard is not the only one applicable to political leaders. Many people around the world still see Castro as a great man, not only as a revolutionary leader, but as someone through whom Cuba has improved life in other countries. This is the part when someone mentions literacy rates, public health, etc., and someone else asks what good literacy is if you can read only what Fidel allows, or what good longer life is if you have to spend it all under a dictator. I don't know if there's have an objective answer to that, but I suspect that we can be too quick to jump to conclusions about other people's quality of life. Nevertheless, I expect history to judge the Castro brothers harshly, not just because history is often written by liberals but also because most people assume now that Cuba would have been better off today had the 1959 revolution never taken place, no matter how much longer the prior dictatorship stayed in power, so long as a liberal regime followed it. History seems to show that Marxism-Leninism was the answer nowhere, except arguably in China where it served to clear out centuries of deadwood so a modern economy could be built on largely non-Marxist principles. China was a model often urged on Castro,  but one he never embraced. Whether he was right or wrong depends on your opinion of today's China, but his failure to make Cuba any kind of paradise certainly makes him less of an idol or icon today than his comrade Che Guevara. That only shows that it's easier to revolt than to rule, and if there's any tragedy to Castro's story it's that he will always be judged more harshly than Che because he chose the harder course.


Anonymous said...

The problem with Castro - and all other 20th century "socialist" revolutionaries, is that after eliminating the old regime, they do not hand the reins of power over to the people. If communism is meant to be the ultimate ideal of citizens partaking equally in power, it fails miserably in that none of these revolutions end up with "the people" any better off than they were in the prior regime.

A truly revolutionary revolutionary would walk away from power after winning the fight. America's own George Washington is the standard. He at least attempted to walk away from it all, but gave in to the demands of "the people" to become the first leader of the new country.

Samuel Wilson said...

The problem with Marxists, and Leninists like Castro in particular, is that their talk of citizens partaking equally in power always refers to some point in the future that can only be reached by submission to the dictatorship of the proletariat or its self-appointed representatives in the vanguard party -- or in the worst case, submission to the Maximum Leader. Real democracy can't exist until real communism is achieved, but who can hold their breath that long?

Perhaps Washington was less a revolutionary than a rebel. For comparison purposes, a rebel is interested only in overthrowing oppressive government, while an actual revolutionary wants to rule in the old regime's place. If the rebel's preference is to play Cincinnatus and retire once his work his done, that leaves the field to the revolutionaries. Paradoxically, the rebel can become a unifying figure because of his apparent disinterest in politics, so long as revolutionaries can transcend their differences to get behind him. Charles de Gaulle is arguably a similar case, having walked away from public life after leading the French resistance, only to be called to power during a crisis in 1958.