In the end, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz died on his own terms: with his boots on, unrepentant, defiant, a thorn in the flesh of 11 American presidents, survivor of assassination attempts by the United States government (Cuban counterintelligence officials place the number at 638), revered by admirers, scorned and hated by critics and detractors, hailed as a savior, reviled as a dictator.
Castro, 90, held sway over the island nation of 11 million for more than 50 years, leaving Cuba, in a number of ways, facing an uncertain future.
Adding to the doubt is the chance that President-elect Donald Trump could scuttle President Barack Obama’s two-year push to normalize relations with the Caribbean island nation.
Trump exulted on Castro’s death through two tweets. The first declared, “Fidel Castro is Dead!” followed by a sharper denunciation: “Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades. Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.”
Yet, there are many differing views about whether Trump will opt for a foreign policy platform that favors politics or one that tips towards enhancing both countries’ business ties.
Castro died on Friday, November 25, beginning anew sometimes heated discussions, debates and arguments about the man, his life and his legacy. After nine days of official mourning, Cuban officials buried their fallen leader on December 4 in Santiago, Cuba. Meanwhile, ecstatic Cuban immigrants, danced set off fireworks and banged pots in the streets of Little Havana in Miami, Fla., upon hearing the news.
On the weekend of Castro’s passing, Trump and surrogates like soon-to-be Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus indicated Trump’s intention to force the Castro regime to renegotiate the terms of the deal that they previously held with the Obama Administration.
Pedro Freyre, who fled with his family from Cuba when he was 11 and advises companies on Cuban business relations, cautions Trump to heed the Hippocratic Oath.
“Doctors take the oath to ‘do no harm,’” said Freyre, chair of Akerman Law Firm’s International Practice and an authority on the United States embargo in Cuba during an interview with Soledad O’Brien on her show, “Matter of Fact.” “Cuba is a complicated place; there are about two million Cuban-born persons in Florida or their children; there’s traffic back and forth of over 300,000 people visiting Cuba annually; and there is $3 billion in remittances; and now U.S. businesses are getting traction.”
Freyre continued: “There are more deals being done, [U.S.-based] airlines are flying there, you can now use your smartphone on the streets of Havana, all of this is helpful to lead to organic change within Cuba, change within all of the systems, so you don’t make a crisis where there is none.”
Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and former writer with The Wall Street Journal, vehemently disagreed with Freyre during the discussion.
“We should go back to supporting dissidents. Go back to a moral stance,” Gonzalez asserted. “Ronald Reagan appealed to dissidents, give them moral support. [Trump] should support dissidents. They think they’ve been betrayed. He should speak as often as possible that the regime lacks legitimacy, speak about the illegitimate regime ruling by terror.
Trump should reverse the Executive Orders Obama put in place which have led only to the enrichment of the Castro family and the military. I’m not arguing for the status quo or benign neglect. I want a more active foreign policy, in which we take a moral high ground, rather than engage with the military-run, Castro family-linked, state-run enterprises. We try to do everything real people we can to empower real people. That is not happening right now.”
For Ena Frias, looking through the lens of her parents, family and first-hand experiences, Castro’s passing prompted her to ponder the lasting impact “El Comandante” has had on the island nation of her parents’ birth for the past five decades. Until he stepped down as president in 2008, and all but retired from public life, Castro dominated Cuba’s political and social landscape.
“On Facebook, I’ve been kind of silent on the ‘yays’ and ‘nays’ of his legacy,” said Frias. “I watched the White Cubans in Miami jumping up and down celebrating. It’s hard for me to see Cubans celebrating. That just doesn’t seem right. That is unseemly.”
Frias continued: “I know what he meant to people during the Revolution. He changed Cuba. A lot of people’s lives were changed, families were separated as some fled and others stayed. I grew up with parents who didn’t believe in him, thought he was the Devil.”
Frias was born in New York four years after her Cuban parents migrated to the U.S. in 1960. They were part of a wave of people who left the island after Castro and his band of rebel soldiers overthrew Fulgencio Batista in 1959, following years of fighting against the corrupt Batista regime. She has visited Cuba many times since her first trip home in 1984 and said she falls squarely in the middle in terms of how she views Castro.
“The stories of Cubans and the Revolution are harsh. Castro gained control, but it was at a cost; turmoil and oppressing the people. He jailed people and I heard of murders. Che Guevara was extreme. He was no joke. People are oppressed and hungry, can’t travel or go where they want.”
Frias did acknowledge life for Cubans, especially Afro-Cubans, before Castro came to power.
“As I got older, I got to see a lot of the pros and where Cuban was,” she recalled. “Cuba was America’s playground. Batista was definitely corrupt and a puppet of the U.S., then there was the Mafia. In the pre-Civil Rights era, Black people had basically nothing. It wasn’t even close to being balanced between Blacks and Whites. Even Batista had to get special permission to go into some clubs.”
Frias, a Los Angeles resident, who works for the production company New Regency, said Castro’s legacy is mixed.
“I don’t think he had a slam-dunk. The Dream would have been hard to realize,” she mused. “He was a hero. He was a dreamer and dreamed it to the end. It is not considered a success and unfortunately, some of the people suffered from this experience. Soviet backing was spotty and things were really not good during the “Special Period” in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was horrible, but things are on the mend.”
Frias added: “There’s no other country that has had this run for so long. I kind of admire him for that. He was a badass towards the US. He didn’t stand down.”
Retired Florida State University history professor Pete Ripley said context is critical, particularly considering the scores of attempts on Castro’s life, the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs and the more than 50-year economic embargo that devastated the island nation.
“Castro’s role certainly elevated the nation, if not saved it,” said Ripley, a Cuba enthusiast who’s visited the island several times, the last in 2002. “He flipped the illiteracy rate from 90 percent illiterate to 99 percent literacy, to say nothing of healthcare. Slavery had been abolished, but debt peonage was not uncommon. Afro-Cubans are indebted to the Revolution.
Ripley continued: “Fidel had an impact on Cuba in spite of the most dramatic terrorist campaign by the Americans in the form of ‘Operation Mongoose,’ which was the biggest CIA operation of the time to overthrow Castro. Most people I know are as saddened as I am. I’m saddened to see that most Americans are gleeful, but America doesn’t much care about Africa or revolution. If one wants to, one can consider that America built its economic sovereignty on slavery, ‘Manifest Destiny,’ and genocide. Castro oversaw the ending of oppression, colonialism and tyranny. He demonstrated that one person, with willful determination, can uplift a country.”
Cuban-born Graciela Cuervo, now living in South America, laments the arc of suffering her country’s revolution inflicted on its own people, including her family. As a young revolutionary, Cuervo said, she romanticized Cuba, but now has a more philosophical and realistic view.
“I don’t think there is any doubt about it that Fidel was a brilliant man. He was a strategist and a thinker,” said Cuervo. “Personally, I think his greatest achievement was that of ‘selling’ the Cuban revolution to the world as the hope of the future and the society that ended all the evils of inequality and oppression.”
Cuervo continued: “There are still people in Latin America and elsewhere who believe he did just that but one look at the island and you know that is simply not true. He was either self-deceiving or simply so narcissistic that he was unable to see the hole he was digging the Cuban people into. Fifty-six years after he came into power – and stayed – one does not see a society that has made many advancements in the very things the revolution was meant to remedy: poverty, racism, quality of life.”
Cuervo also questioned some of Castro’s methods in his pursuit to improve education and healthcare for the citizens’ of the island nation.
“Sure, there have been advancements in education and medicine but, really, is a Marxist-Leninist revolution necessary to offer free education and achieve some medical benefits? Is it necessary to execute, exile and oppress the opposition for those achievements?” said Cuervo. “When you walk the streets of Havana, when you talk to people and listen to their difficulties, one can’t come to the conclusion that Fidel’s revolution really achieved what it set out to achieve. For all his ranting about self-determination and dignity, his Cuba simply switched U.S. domination for the domination of the Soviets. Ask Cubans what it was like when Soviet aid was no longer dished out.”
Cuervo added: “Was he a great leader? Well, I think that to be a leader with no opposition, with a press that only prints the “glories” of the revolution and a country of people terrified to protest does not make a great leader. A great leader is one that in spite of opposition and a critical press is able to move a country forward. I am convinced that is not the case of Fidel or Cuba. He created a cult of the revolution, but it is, as all cults, more fallacy than truth.”
Castro has left behind a lasting legacy as it pertains to literacy, healthcare and education. According to TeleSur and other sources, Cubans receive free education from elementary school to university; 50 percent of those in parliament are women; in 2015, Cuba had a lower infant mortality rate than the US; Cuba is the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child HIV transmission; its Latin American Literacy Program has enabled more than 10 million students to learn to read and write; and since 1969, a total of 325,710 Cuban health workers have participated in missions in 158 countries.
“It’s hard for me to believe that the people with Donald Trump will remain neutral on this,” Ripley said of Obama’s push towards normalization. “Normalization means more Americans, which means more corporations. That will corrupt the spirit of the revolution.”
Ripley continued: “Many Cubans view the Revolution as live, real and organic. Cubans would say ‘the future is the future,’ that somehow, the Revolution will find a way.”