The death of Fidel Castro, the self-proclaimed maximum leader of the Cuban revolution, “provokes many emotions,” Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami said Nov. 26 at the Our Lady of Charity National Shrine in Miami. Never shy of being at the center of controversy, Castro passed in the same way he lived, full of mysteries, contentiousness, innuendos, secrecies and even surprises. Although the severity of his illness was well known, very few outside his inner circle expected his death Nov. 25. With his passing, Cubans and observers seem divided about what future awaits the island of 11 million people.
Asserting a nation
For a minority, the legacy of Fidel Castro is his resistance and unabashed nationalism. He transformed the image of Cuba from another recreational Caribbean outpost to an assertive nation, at times even attaining notoriety in international affairs. Skeptics should remember Cuban involvement in Africa, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the defeat of the American-led invasion of Playa Girón among the most valuable foreign prizes.
He understood, perhaps better than anyone else, that as island nations go, Cuba had to forge strategic partners around the globe to survive, and to that end, his regime promoted an adventurous internationalist policy that was second to none. In a recent conversation with a former ambassador from South America who is an unapologetic critic, Cuban security intelligence apparatus and diplomacy were regarded among the most effective in the world.
On the domestic front, supporters can point to the widespread access to free education and health care. Today, it is common to speak to a Cuban diplomat who came from humble means or a doctor whose family made a living working the fields. Cuba’s development no longer favored big cities like Havana. Even today, visitors regard the island as safe even though pockets of extreme poverty and crime still exists throughout, including in the capital.
Abuses and failures
All these exploits, however, came with a hefty price tag. Castro’s discourse divided families, sometimes irreconcilably. Close to 3 million Cubans abandoned the island after the revolution, in search of opportunity and more freedom from his autocratic, authoritarian rule.
The country’s human rights record is dismal and unprecedented. The sophisticated mechanisms of control and repression are still the envy of other nondemocratic regimes around the globe. His style of participatory democracy is a clever façade at best. Political institutions are neither autonomous nor without corruption or parasitic bureaucratization.
Castro also must be accountable for many policy mistakes. His aspiration to beat his foe to the north disrupted the national economy and the life of fellow islanders. In 1970, he hoped to produce 10 million tons of sugar but came up short. He also failed to realize that, by flooding international markets, sugar prices would eventually plummet. Perhaps the most comical expression of his eccentricity was his quest to surpass the record of milk production set by an American herd with his cow Ubre Blanca. For many years, the country was mobilized to celebrate the infamous cow, and after her death, she was eulogized in the Communist Party official newspaper and a marble statue erected in her memory. No one dared challenge him.
Castro’s harshest mandates were reserved for those who did not sympathize with him or simply doubted some of his rhetoric and convictions. His relationship with the Catholic Church is a case in point. The Church is one of the most enduring institutions in Cuban history, dating back to colonial times. Castro, like other members of the Cuban elite, was educated in Catholic schools. As in other Latin American countries, after World War II, the Cuban church aligned itself with the political elite, and this meant an ambivalence displayed toward the revolution, even though the archbishop of Santiago, the second largest city on the island, earlier helped spare Castro’s life after the failed Moncada uprising.
In an extensive interview with writer Frei Betto in 1985, Castro claimed the official split with the Church came after his revolutionary government enacted radical legislation affecting the rich. This may be just another case of revisionist myopia. When the Church broke with Castro, his revolution was already ruthless, arbitrary and definitely not magnanimous.
The reaction to the break was predictable. Castro accused priests of counterrevolution. Foreign-born priests became personae non gratae. Seminaries, schools and convents were closed. Catholics were harassed and intimidated. Eventually, during the 1960s and ’70s, attending Mass was frowned upon.
The visits of three popes, in 1998, 2012 and 2015, combined with the aging of the regime, ultimately accomplished for the Church what no dissident could, a rapprochement of sorts.
By the time Castro’s death was announced, the Catholic Church could celebrate Mass free of impediments, members of the Communist Party professed their faith openly, and the Church increased its visibility. All of this was contingent on the Church staying out of politics, not openly challenging the regime, and continuing to preach reconciliation, peace, solidarity and an end to the U.S.-imposed embargo. Upon Castro’s death, the Catholic hierarchy echoed Pope Francis’ condolences to his family and continued to pray “that nothing disturbs the coexistence among us Cubans.”
What all of this means for the future is unclear. One historical fact might offer some clues: No revolution in history has managed to experiment with meaningful reforms and political relaxation until revolutionary cadres are out of sight. In this sense, the Church and the people of Cuba can only hope for future opportunities to make changes to the legacy he left behind.
Enrique S. Pumar is chair of the Department of Sociology of The Catholic University of America.