On Friday 25th of November, Cuba’s former leader and outspoken critic of capitalism died on what was perhaps the most capitalist day of the year with Black Friday shopping surged ahead. As if underscoring this contrast some world leaders praised his life while others offered their sympathies but uttered their frank criticisms regardless. Elements of Miami’s Cuban diaspora celebrated the death of what they saw as a dictator whilst others elsewhere in the Caribbean region mourned the loss of someone they saw as a stalwart opponent of the US and defiant liberator. Which was true? Undoubtedly, it all boils down to perspective.
Castro’s revolution aimed to free his country of America’s imperialist control and machinations carried out via Fulgencio Batista, considered a puppet of the US. Cubans were 2nd class citizens in their own land as the island practically turned into a playground for Americans. Under the new regime guided by his Marxist-Leninist outlook all were to be equal and their interests provided for. However in time a paradox common to many such communist revolutions emerged where, with absolute power vested in the state, the bulk of society’s voice and influence slowly diminished as their interests and needs became whatever those governing best determined them to be.
On the one hand, many praise Cuba’s free healthcare, advances in medical research and world renowned doctors whilst on the other, critics are quick to point out that these doctors are essentially indentured labourers exported like a commodity wherever the state demands. Where they go their payment is strictly regulated with the government receiving it first before redistributing a portion of it. Additionally, Cuba’s education is absolutely free at all levels yet the press, free movement and free expression are generally repressed and judiciously regulated. Special permits were needed to access a monitored internet and leave the country under the elder Castro with this only changing slightly when he handed power over to his brother Raul. The media and press was and to an large extent still is largely state owned and operated in a nation where the most influential leaders are already decided, particularly not by the populace’s free vote.
Conversely, state controlled salaries and a nationalized economy mean most only have funds available for a very basic but ‘equal across the board’ standard of living yet inequality persists. Despite accounting for more than 60% of the populace black and mulatto Cubans are rarely, if ever seen in state, leadership or any major position with unemployment levels obscenely high for the demographic group. Even in the face of these numerous issues the elder Castro managed to survive numerous assassination attempts, plots against him by the US, a botched invasion and even the hectic rigours of the Cold War with punishing embargoes and sanctions from his next door neighbour Uncle Sam. Not only this but even after his retirement he maintained a shrewd grasp of politics and frequently made visits to both ally and critic alike in the Latin American region and abroad.
Yet, in his later years the former president was often seen sporting brand name tracksuits, even merchandising his image at one point. Regardless, many still celebrate Castro’s revolution and actions, if only as a symbolic opponent of the US’ influence. Hate him or love him, there is no denying that Fidel Castro was one of the 20th century’s most iconic political figures both regionally and globally with his death marking the end of an era as the last, lone communist strongman passes into history. His influence and role in the Caribbean region’s evolution should neither be understated nor diminished and perhaps as the man himself once said, history shall exonerate him.