It may be too early to assess the significance of Fidel Castro, the longest serving contemporary leader outside of Queen Elizabeth. “Too soon to tell,” had famously responded a Chinese revolutionary leader, Chou En-lai, when in the 1960s he was asked about the impact of the French Revolution in modern history.
Yet we can be sure about one thing, or two. Castro, the leader of a small island that only tardily obtained its independence from Spain, had an outsize influence on world politics. Two key factors contributed to that: he allied himself with the Soviet Union, the archenemy of his big neighbor 90 miles across the sea to the north, the United States, his anathema and yet his linchpin to glory.
For Castro had an innate ability to turn on his rivals’ words and weapons against them. Outgoing U.S. president Barack Obama may have acknowledged that particular trait of Cuba’s leader, reverting more than fifty years of hostility and embargo. There was no point in swimming against the tide. Every attempt at hitting at Castro, his regime or his country bounced back badly, making them stronger in the process.
There can be little doubt that Castro was a convinced Communist. Yet it is also true that Marxism-Leninism’s call for a dictatorship of the proletariat provided the ideological justification for Castro’s own autocracy. It escaped few observers’ attention that, beneath the now fading ideological colorings, it had much older roots in the figure of the Latin American strongman, the “caudillo.” And Castro was the quintessential one, and perhaps the last one.
Much is to be said about the willpower that turned this man into a source of endless fury and frustration in the biggest power of the day, then and now. It obviously took much more than tyranny and brutalities to turn him into the undisputed leader of Cuba. Three centuries after that other islander, English poet John Donne had penned that “No man is an island,” this Cuban child of a Spanish landowner and his maid came to embody his island.
Castro was indeed an island onto himself in other ways, too. His stubborn refusal to acknowledge the geopolitical realities of the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union caused immense hardship to the long-suffering Cuban people. Then again, the Communist regime’s repressive machine may not be the only explanation. Many a tyranny has fallen mightily for all the power of its police state.
So yes, Fidel Castro’s life was the stuff of legend. That does not amount to condoning the summary executions that he carried out as soon as he came to power and the egregious violations of human rights that are inevitably associated with any dictatorship of whatever political orientation. It merely comes to prove that in our current era of unlimited information legends do not pass reality check. Too many of Castro’s atrocities are documented as to be forgotten or be absolved.
None of that will matter to the loyal coreligionists and admirers of Castro, of course. “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” has written Orwell. Legend has it that Stalin’s mother was taken aback when she came to visit him at the Kremlin and she couldn’t understand how her son was there. “What are you doing here?” she asked him. “Do you remember the Tsar? I’m something like that,” Stalin responded. So no, Castro did not make any claim to sainthood. But, in the ideological puritanism he espoused, he too yearned for “something like” sainthood.