Reflections on the death of Castro

Few things separate us as much as our views of Castro.  To some, he is a great hero of socialism.  To others, he was a conqueror in his own country, a brutal dictator.

Few will acknowledge that he might have been both.  Castro’s emergence as a revolutionary figure in the late 1950s was embellished with all sorts of romantic notions as the placid 1950s were already giving way to the turbulent and idealistic ’60s.  Castro was an early symbol of an era that was about to explode and shatter what had preceded it.

Much is said of Castro’s tyranny, little of what let up to it.  This is reflection, not an excuse.  I have had a student who spent years in a Cuban prison for counterrevolutionary writing.  I have personally known people who climbed on unseaworthy vessels to risk all and escape his regime.

Castro was not transformed into a communist, as some apologists would like us to believe.  But his antipathy toward America was not totally of his own doing.  Few want to look at America’s relationship with Cuba before Castro to comprehend how the natural economic and cultural ties between the two countries were stretched to the breaking point.

If you are looking for a simple saga of heroes and villains, this is not one of them.

Before Castro, Cuba was ruled by a brutal dictator, Fulgencio Batista.  In the thinking of some modern conservatives, Batista was not a threat to our strategic interests.  He had no interest in projecting power, and he was totally susceptible to the economic domination and bribery of American interests.

American organized crime controlled the casinos and brothels of Havana.  American conglomerates controlled everything, from the telecommunications networks to the economic and agricultural systems.  Cuba was virtually an American colony in what might be called the 20th-century mercantile system.

American boardrooms within a few miles of each other in Manhattan made the decisions that controlled the Cuban economy.  Cuba was basically a one-crop country (sugarcane).  While Cuba could produce other crops, that decision was not Cuba’s to make.

There was an American monopoly on oil refining in exchange for free refining of oil for Cuban use.  Of course, the refined oil came from American producers, who still collected money for the raw product.

Property taxes on American industries were collected on subpar evaluations resulting from a system of corruption that resulted in American industries setting their own property values and paying bribes to do so.

The Cuban oligarchy enriched itself while the people suffered.

Castro and his guerrillas who took to the mountains were seen as heroes, fighting for the people against a corrupt oligarchy in bed with foreign exploiters.

In the history of guerrilla warfare, Castro represented the first of only two movements where guerrillas were victorious against an indigenous power.

Castro cleverly found that he could turn tables on the American conglomerates.  With the help of the Soviet Union, he brought in Soviet oil, which he demanded be refined free in accord with the monopoly agreement.  The American companies balked.  Castro found them in violation and seized their assets.

Similarly, Castro sought to buy out the American holdings of Cuban infrastructure at the sub-par evaluations the Americans had set with the Batista regime.  When the Americans claimed that everyone knew that these prices were phony, Castro said these were the prices the Americans themselves had set.

In 1959, in a meeting between Fidel Castro and Vice President Richard Nixon, Castro unveiled his plans for nationalizing the Cuban economy.  Nixon was appalled, and the CIA began planning for both the invasion of Cuba and the assassination of Castro (which became known as Operation Mongoose).

Although Castro was clearly in the Soviet camp, these operations followed by an American trade embargo further cemented Cuba into the Soviet sphere of influence.  Worse, it changed the strategic paradigm between the Soviets and America, as seen in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Castro showed no flexibility in moving away from a totalitarian-style dictatorship.  There was never an attempt by Castro to move toward a European-style socialism or to negotiate easing the yoke of oppression for American concessions.

As with all embargoes, the American embargo hurt Cuba’s poor.  Elites always have ways around embargoes and trade sanctions.  In 2014, the Vatican, whose own property had been confiscated by the revolution, had attempted to create an environment for negotiations to change the course of relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

American policy toward Cuba could hardly have been called enlightened, but Castro also never sought to create a more humane and liberal society.  He never fulfilled the aspirations of those who originally supported his revolution.

Perhaps his passing will usher in a new era for both America and Cuba, one that is long overdue.