Fidel Castro is dead. Maybe you’ve heard.
This blog is not devoted to events in or the history of Latin America, as you’ve presumably figured out by now, and this is for the simple reason that this is a part of the world I just haven’t studied apart from the most perfunctory American and world history courses in college. There are plenty of people who have studied those things, though, and many of them have written excellent pieces in the couple of days since Castro died, with more still to come I’m sure.
One thing I do have more than a passing familiarity with, however, is American foreign policy, particularly its dumb, petty, vindictive aspect. And nothing exemplified that side of US foreign policy over the past half-century or so better than the Cuban embargo, which accomplished nothing apart from deepening the immiseration of the Cuban people, punishing them for the crime of living under an autocrat who picked the wrong Cold War team. Well, that’s not fair–it also bolstered Castro’s authority by giving him a scapegoat for all of Cuba’s economic struggles (more than a scapegoat, since the embargo really did contribute significantly to those struggles).
I also, being familiar with the post-WWII Middle East, know a tyrant when I see one, and Castro was a tyrant. He jailed and killed political opponents, stifled basic civil liberties, was terrible to his country’s LGBT citizens, among his many charming aspects. I understand why Cuban expats reviled him. I don’t think history will “absolve” him, because that’s not how history works and there’s really no absolution for people who do terrible things. You won’t find any lamentations to his passing here.
I also understand why in some communities–the African American community in the US, large parts of post-colonial Africa–many revere Castro’s memory. Granted, those people didn’t have to live under his rule, but people who did live under his rule didn’t simply hate Castro for his brutality. His legacy includes a health-care system that achieves better outcomes at a lower cost than the garbage fire that is the US health care system, and an educational system that exists primarily to educate children instead of to enrich charter school operators. Many Cubans seem to have appreciated those things, go figure. If you believe that education and health care are also human rights, then Castro’s human rights record has to account for those achievements. In other words, I don’t think the “Fidel Is Hell” crowd has the right idea.
And it would be nice, maybe, if Americans could use the occasion of Castro’s passing to try to figure out how his Cuba could manage to educate and care for its citizens better than the Greatest Nation Since God Created The Universe, or whatever, has been able to manage. In general, it would be nice if this were true:
It would be nice if, instead of or in addition to all the attention they give to the way Castro treated his own people, American commentators, mostly but not exclusively on the right, would also pay attention to the way our government has treated people all over the world–to how the wars and sanctions those commentators have largely cheerled have killed and immiserated millions of people, to how the “tough on crime” bullshit that most of them have also cheerled has put more Americans in prison, per capita, than any other country in the world, including Castro’s police state. It would be nice if we could have an honest conversation about what makes Castro so different from the many repressive dictators who have earned America’s support over the past 60 years. It would be nice if we could, as a nation, think critically about how American leaders criticize Castro’s Cuba for its human rights violations while our nation routinely perpetrates human rights violations on Cuban soil.
It would be particularly nice, and timely, if we could use Castro’s death as a pivot to talking about how American policy toward Latin America over the past several decades has affected that part of the world, mostly for the worse. The punitive policies we adopted to punish the Cuban people for…well, who really knows, they’re part of that, but it’s also worth noting that, despite America’s best efforts to ruin Cuba, Cuba wasn’t ruined, especially when compared to other countries in the region that the US actually tried to help. We could talk about the effects of “free trade” and of our support for violent dictators who happened to play for our side. But talking about all of those things would require introspection, a quality that America has never possessed in great abundance and that seems to be running shorter now than ever.