By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, J.D.
Founder & President, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice; Fellow/Geopolitics & Global Justice, Centennial Institute
On November 25, 2016, the death of former Cuban President Fidel Castro marked the close of an enduring era of dictatorship and brutality. As Western sensibilities about socialism have changed since the Cold War and as current generations have a limited reference to history, some are viewing his life and legacy in “revolutionary” rather than dictatorial terms. But history reveals what current sentiment may not – revolution is not always a good thing…and it certainly wasn’t for Cuba under Castro.
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruiz ruled the Republic of Cuba for 47 years – as Prime Minister from 1959-1976 and then as President from 1976-2006. In the context of present day governance, only certain monarchies have ruled longer than his tenure. After the overthrow of Fulgencia Batista in 1959, Castro not only assumed power in Cuba, but also control of Cuba. With his Marxist-Leninist ideology, Castro
established Cuba as a one-party socialist state – the first and only of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. Under the guise of social “reforms,” Castro took control over Cuba’s business, military, and politics.
Castro’s foreign policies focused on “anti-imperial” efforts – which generally meant anti-Western and anti-Democratic perspectives. These efforts included supporting various Marxist governments in Chile, Nicaragua, and Grenada and allying with the Soviet Union. He became recognized globally for his leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement and later anti-globalization ideas. He also created alliances in Latin America.
Particularly during the Cold War and prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. opposed Castro’s government and made various efforts to oust him including assassination attempts, economic blockages, and the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Castro’s response ultimate led to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 – the closest we have come to the threat of nuclear war.
Castro’s domestic policies focused on central economic planning and expansion of healthcare and education, as well as state control of the press and suppression of dissent. While some today acknowledge him for the advances he made in healthcare and education in Cuba, many others have been more concerned with the oppressive nature of his government through the years. Wide scale human rights abuses, including prisons and firing squads for dissenters, and an impoverished people, outweigh his “advances.” Many Cubans fled to the U.S. during his dictatorship ship to avoid the economic and political oppression in their country.
Because of both his foreign and domestic policies, Castro became a controversial figure both within Cuba and around the globe. Although, he received many recognitions and awards for his socialist and anti-imperialists perspectives and revolutionary persona, those recognitions came predominately from anti-Western and anti-Democratic regimes. But Western and human rights organizations have roundly denounced his policies and practices for these past five decades.
And now, in the wake of Castro’s funeral, there are various leaders, celebrities, and others who are casting or recasting Castro as a “social revolutionary“ rather than a brutal dictator. But in this casting and recasting, let us not forget that “social” in this context was “socialist” – state controlled and oppressive. And “revolution” in this context was an overthrow of democracy and its freedoms. Regardless of social policy, when a leader takes control of a country for nearly 50 years and takes it in a direction that is diametrically opposed to liberty, then “revolutionary” means “dictatorship.” And even dictators can see the value of social policies such as healthcare and education, as they become a principle means of state control and suppression of dissent. Castro certainly understood that, even if we don’t today.
There is no doubt that Fidel Castro was a historically significant figure who has left an indelible mark on Cuba and the globe. But his influence was not one that benefitted his people or country – his revolution resulted in distress for Cuba. And no matter the current narratives on his life, legacy or social policies, Castro was nothing more and nothing less than a revolutionary dictator. It is from that lens that we should evaluate his impact.