Will history absolve Fidel Castro, or will he end up vilified?
BY ANDRES OPPENHEIMER
How will Fidel Castro be remembered? Will history absolve him, as he
defiantly proclaimed as a young revolutionary in the early 1950s? Or
will he end up like so many other Latin American strongmen, who wielded
immense power in their time but are now vilified in history books?
One of the few things that can be stated with some degree of certainty
is that Castro will go down in history as the most powerful Latin
American caudillo of the 20th Century.
There were other populist leaders in the region who drew massive crowds
at home and commanded international attention — Juan Peron in Argentina,
Getulio Vargas in Brazil, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela — but none played as
large a role in world affairs as Castro.
Peron and Chavez, perhaps the Latin American leaders most comparable to
Castro, nationalized foreign companies, organized massive street
demonstrations in their support and embraced a fiery anti-imperialist
rhetoric. But Peron never became a central player in the Cold War
between the two superpowers that dominated world affairs for much of the
second half of the 20th century, and Chavez's dreams to become the Third
World's leader fizzled as soon as oil prices began to decline in the
Castro, by comparison, not only brought the world to the brink of
nuclear war during the 1962 missile crisis, but for several decades was
a major backer of insurgent movements and leftist regimes in Latin
America, Africa and the Middle East.
Beyond that, whether history will be generous to the longest-ruling
Latin American dictator is a major question mark. If Latin American
history is any guideline, there are reasons to believe that Castro's
image as a benevolent dictator who stood up against the United States —
as he has long been seen in parts of Latin America — will be
overshadowed by a cold analysis of the shattered country he left behind,
and by his brutal repression of political and press freedoms.
In the short run, history's verdict is likely to depend on which group
ultimately takes power after the departure of Castro and brother Raul.
History, after all, is written by the winners.
If Cuban opposition forces rise to power in the coming years, as
happened in most Eastern European countries after the fall of communism,
Castro is likely to go down in history as a despot who left his country
in ruins and suppressed virtually all civil rights.
If the Communist Party remains a powerful force in Cuban politics, as
Argentina's Peronista Party did after Peron's death, Castro's followers
will most likely rally around the memory of his achievements, real or
imagined. Some aspects of his regime — such as his defying the United
States, or his policies to guarantee free health and education services
for all — may be supported by future Cuban politicians, even if they are
likely to distance themselves from Castro's totalitarian ways.
A MAJOR ADVANTAGE
Castro's many political stands could support almost any cause.
From that point of view, Castro will have a major advantage: He has
been in power for so long, and has espoused so many — and conflicting —
political stands, that almost any cause has the potential of being used
by future politicians as inspired by him. Future politicians may quote
Castro the democrat, before his public conversion to communism in the
early years of the revolution; Castro the communist in the 1960s; Castro
the Third World nonaligned leader, as he presented himself in the 1970s;
Castro the leader of a developing nation who warned against a unipolar
world in the late 1980s; Castro the supporter of state-supervised
capitalism in the 1990s; or Castro the humanist Christian, the image he
sought to project during Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998.
Anthony Maingot, a longtime Castro watcher and professor emeritus of
Florida International University, has stated that historians will be
fighting for a long time over Castro's true ideology. Castro may end up
like Karl Marx, who went through several political stages in his
writings, which are respectively described as his true beliefs by his
"Historians will be asking themselves, who was the real Fidel? The first
one, the democrat who fought against a dictatorship? The second one, the
revolutionary who took power to help the poor? Or the third one, Fidel
the Stalinist?" Maingot said. "In the end, it will very much depend on
how he is perceived to have behaved in his last moments in power. The
last years are the crucial ones, because those are the ones historians
look at the most."
Most likely, Castro's image is likely to be shattered, as the influence
of his closest allies wanes and long-suppressed horror stories from his
political enemies and previously intimidated victims of his regime come
to the surface. Once the floodgates of information are opened, there
will be an avalanche of gruesome testimony from political prisoners and
other victims of his regime, many of whose stories had been largely
dismissed as anti-Castro propaganda.
As happened in the aftermath of other long dictatorships, many Cubans
are likely to be shocked by these revelations, which they ignored — or
chose to ignore — during the Castro era. In Cuba's case, the pent-up
resentment against its longtime leader may be greater than in other
countries that have endured extended periods of authoritarian rule.
Few regimes have been in power for so long, and kept such a tight lid on
information. Unlike other Latin American de facto regimes, which often
tolerated independent newspapers and between-the-lines criticism of
their presidents, Cuba's censorship has not allowed the slightest
criticism of the country's Maximum Leader for the past five decades.
During most of Castro's time in power, no newspapers outside the control
of the Communist Party were allowed, and the Cuban leader's image was
protected to the point that his private life was out of bounds for the
For decades, Cubans did not see any picture of their president in
civilian clothes or in social gatherings. They were only allowed to see
images of their comandante carrying out his official duties in his olive
green uniform — talking in front of a microphone, greeting visiting
dignitaries or taking part in patriotic activities like cutting sugar cane.
In the early 1990s, a senior journalist with the Communist Party Youth
daily Juventud Rebelde privately complained to me that he had received a
memo reminding editors that it was strictly forbidden to publish
pictures of the comandante eating. The memo followed an incident in
which one Juventud Rebelde editor had tried to run a picture showing
Castro at a tourism hotel's dedication ceremony, holding a shrimp over
his open mouth.
The editor said the picture was censored by higher-ups and never made it
to the newspaper.
"We can't show him eating, we can't show him resting, we can't show his
family.... He has to be larger than life," the editor said after the
If what happened in Russia and Eastern Europe is any indication, Cubans
are likely to be deluged with revelations about Castro's private life
and political blunders once they are allowed to read about them.
Screaming headlines are likely to give new details of the hundreds of
mansions at Castro's disposal in Cuba, the foreign bank accounts with
government funds that he used as he pleased and the privileges enjoyed
by his children from various marriages and liaisons. Five decades of
press censorship are likely to come back with a vengeance against the
once larger-than-life maximum leader.
There will also be an avalanche of criticism of Castro's quixotic
scientific experiments, such as his orders to Cuban scientists to
genetically produce mini-cows that would be given by the state to each
household to produce free milk, or his multimillion-dollar programs to
produce miraculous cures for everything from AIDS to impotence.
Programs that were once sold to the Cuban people as definitive solutions
to their country's misery will be seen as the crazy ideas of a
Of course, some Cubans may come to remember the Castro days with mixed
feelings, and even some nostalgia. Much like Chile after Pinochet, or
Paraguay following the fall of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, or Eastern
Europe after the fall of communism, Cuba's political opening — whether
it is sudden or gradual — may be traumatic.
As street crime rises and a growing economy creates a newly affluent
middle class, there may be nostalgia for the times when law and order
prevailed, and when the little the government had to give was shared
more or less evenly among all members of society.
But, barring a historical world shift away from democracy, these partial
vindications of Castro's rule are likely to be eclipsed by his
totalitarian ways in the eyes of future generations.
Future history books may talk at length about Castro's efforts to create
an egalitarian society, and may even grant him some temporary successes
in improving Cuba's health and education standards, but the first lines
of his biographies will not be able to avoid referring to him as a
dictator. Much like happened with Chile's military ruler Gen. Augusto
Pinochet, who was called "president" by the international media while he
was in power, and "dictator" as soon as he left office, Castro is not
likely to escape the D word.
No Latin American president in the 20th Century kept a tighter grip on
power than Castro, nor remained in power for so long. Paraguay's
Stroessner spent 35 years in office, Chile's Pinochet ruled for 17 years
and Haiti's Francois Duvalier for 14 years.
Nicaragua's Somoza family ruled either from the presidency or behind the
scenes for 43 years. The Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo held the
presidency twice — 1930-38 and 1942-52 — and controlled the country for
31 years. But neither the Somozas nor Trujillo held absolute power as
long as Castro. Not even Latin America's absolute rulers of the 19th
Century matched Castro's stretch in office. Argentina's Juan Manuel de
Rosas ruled ruthlessly for 23 years and Paraguay's Gaspar Rodriguez de
Francia, who held the title of El Supremo, governed for 26 years. Most
of them are now seen as men who led their nations into dark periods of
Even Peron, whose image in Argentina's history books was cleaned and
embellished following the victory of a Peronist party government in the
'80s, has not escaped the years of criticism that preceded his public
"Today, in Argentina, the defense of Peron is not as passionate as it
used to be," said late Argentine Peron biographer Tomas Eloy Martinez.
"Even his supporters concede that Peron's authoritarian traits created
the seeds for the military regimes that followed."
If the world continues on its globalization course, and the recent
U.S.-Cuba agreement to normalize relations continues to bring together
the two countries, Castro's anti-U.S. rhetoric — the political weapon
that made his so popular among many Latin Americans — will become a
Many Cubans may remember Castro as a narcissist leader who carried out a
deranged venture to challenge the United States for personal political
gain, instead of taking advantage of Cuba's proximity to the world's
largest market in order to improve the island's standard of living.
As Cubans look to the United States for help to rebuild their country,
many may shrug off the question of whether Castro will be absolved by
They may conclude that, as Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner once
said, history may absolve Castro, but geography will condemn him.
Source: Fidel Castro: How will he be remembered? | Miami Herald -