The death of Fidel Castro and the 20th century fight against totalitarianism

The death of Fidel Castro has brought a variety of reactions from world leaders, ranging from praise by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to the muddled comments of Canada’s Justin Trudeau to our own Donald Trump’s statement that Cuba’s former leader was a “brutal dictator.”  Castro seemed to be an anachronism for some time, a relic of the Cold War that should have been left behind long ago.  But with a resurgent Russia, China on its steady rise, North Korea lingering as a repressive regime, and an American election that leaves many questions about where we are headed, the twentieth century’s conflict between totalitarianism and democracy is far from over.

As with the history of Iran, American involvement in Cuba’s affairs cannot be left out of consideration.  We propped up the strongman, Fulgencio Batista, after he had seized power in a military coup as a means of promoting American business interests and regional influence.  It should have come as no surprise that Castro turned to the Soviets after we rejected his calls for aid to restore the Cuban economy that Batista had looted.

And for decades, Castro and Cuba were a thorn in the side of America.  He served as a reminder to ten presidents that while American power is extensive, it is not unlimited.  This is something that Kennedy learned, having joined Premier Khrushchev on the brink of world war.  Some of Kennedy’s successors missed that lesson, though, as the Iraq War and following occupation illustrate.

The attitude of the Cuban people to their regime and the Castros, Fidel and Raúl, is difficult to measure.  What polling does exist shows moderate support for the current system, with higher percentages among older Cubans than young adults.  A little over a third of the island’s citizens agree with the country’s political system, and sixty-eight percent support their healthcare.  Seventy-nine percent are dissatisfied with the economic situation, and ninety-six percent oppose the embargo imposed by the United States.

Given the restrictions on free speech in Cuba, it’s a good question to ask how accurate these results are.  State television has attempted to score propaganda points by putting on Elian Gonzalez who as a five-year-old boy was returned to his father on the island by the Clinton administration.  Now he’s twenty-two, and he said regarding Castro, “He is a father to me and, like my father, I wanted to show him everything I achieved.  There are still things I wanted to show him, to make him feel proud.”

Is this honestly Gonzalez’s own opinion, or was he reading from a script?  It’s hard to say, though repressive regimes often manage to find enthusiastic adulation among segments of their populations.  Outsiders look in and feel smug or at best pity over the people revering their Dear Leaders, but this ignores the overwhelming influence produced by strict control of the message that’s allowed.

What Cuba demonstrates, from the Bay of Pigs incident to the present, is that freedom is hard to impose on a nation from outside.  We did it to the Axis powers after the Second World War at a huge cost, but our success hasn’t been so great ever since at this endeavor.  What we have to learn is that if we care about basic rights, we have to win and maintain popular support for them.  Tyrannies like Castro’s survive when the people are kept, either by physical force or by psychological force, from resisting.  That’s something that we in this country need to learn if we are to prevent a similar regime here.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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