Castro outlived his vigorous, effective years, and was at the center of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but these aren’t reasons to forget his positive contributions to social justice. No world leader is perfect, and Fidel admittedly imprisoned thousands, executed hundreds, and kept Cuba under a tight rein, but this is what it took to counter the evils of capitalism in a capitalist-dominated world and US-dominated hemisphere. Overthrowing the US-supported, Mafia-infested Batista dictatorship was inspired by a desire to benefit the Cuban majority and took tremendous courage. Ditto for opposing US persecution for so many years. Though he ruled longer than any other world leader except Queen Elizabeth II, I don’t think personal power was Fidel’s main objective; preserving the social and economic equality of the revolution was. Little by little, capitalism is creeping back in Cuba, but that doesn’t mean the goals of the revolution were wrong, or that they can’t be achieved — hopefully less violently and more democratically — in more places in the future.
My personal connection to all this, apart from my being a confirmed socialist, is twofold. I first became aware of the Cuban revolution, which took place in 1959, a year after the fact when I asked a friend at the girls’ boarding school I attended what the words “26 julio” inscribed on her pencil case meant. She explained that it was the name of the revolutionary movement that had overthrown Batista. This wasn’t the only thing that made Buella different, and a year later she committed suicide. Bucking the tide isn’t easy.
Second, I was 18 years old, a freshman in college, in October 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. I believe that events that occur in one’s young adulthood can affect your thinking for the rest of your life. The Great Depression marked my parents, who always “saved for a rainy day,” and the Cuban Missile Crisis turned me into the opposite: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may be dead.” All that hiding under desks in preparation for possible Soviet bombers may have inspired these feelings, too, but the fear was more focused and intense in ’62. My parents were also strongly affected by World War II, as I was by the Vietnam War, which taught me to completely mistrust my own government — a lesson I’ve never unlearned.
Some of the news stories today seem to blame Castro for the Cuban Missile Crisis. No. He accepted the Russian missiles because of the threat the US posed to Cuba (the Bay of Pigs, over 600 attempts on his life, and a ridiculously long economic blockade). The US government can never allow a socialist government to succeed, especially in its own backyard. It also backed death squads in El Salvador and crushed the Nicaraguan revolution via economic blockade and the contras, who bombed newly built schools and hospitals and killed civilians right and left. And Vietnam…
To me, on balance, Castro and Ho Chi Minh are heroes. Viva la Revolución!