The life of a revolutionary need not be a hard one: having survived so long one wondered if he was immortal, former Cuban President Fidel Castro died yesterday at age 90. Unsurprisingly, the news was greeted with intense reactions; if nothing else, the man left few people indifferent.
By any reasonable standard, Castro was a disaster for his country. He leaves behind an impoverished land virtually devoid of freedom, where the most banal opening constitutes a major reform. His party won praise for Cuba’s education system, even as it imposed strict censorship, banned private libraries and cut its people off from the world. It won accolades for a healthcare system in which infant mortality is reduced by aborting “substandard” fetuses and doctors are rented to foreign governments like chattel. Castro’s recklessness came close to triggering global nuclear war. His destruction of Cuba’s economy left people on the brink of starvation when Soviet aid collapsed. Many Cubans preferred to float through shark-infested waters on precarious rafts rather than endure his socialist paradise. And not once did Castro give Cubans an opportunity to choose a path different from the one he imposed on them.
But while his plaudits were thoroughly undeserved, the intense hatred he received from some quarters was bizarre. Obviously, it’s normal that his victims and their families would despise him. But how did the ruler of a small country with only modest strategic importance become the great bogeyman of the conservative movement? By the undemanding standards of dictatorships, his was not an unusually harsh one. Never mind Hitler, Stalin or Mao; he was not even a Saddam or a Pol Pot. Why did his tyranny merit so much attention?
Part of the answer is that the US gave him far too much importance. Without the US embargo, Castro might never have captured the imagination of people worldwide; there is something irresistible about an underdog, no matter how ugly. Not to mention that the embargo gave Castro a ready-made excuse for all his economic failures.
But for a full explanation, we should look to the Castro regime’s mirror image: Pinochet’s Chile. Pinochet was a hero of the anti-Communism movement. It might be literally true that a person’s feelings about Castro are inversely proportional to their sentiments about Pinochet: if one was an angel, the other was the devil. And, yet, stripped of their inflated international reputations, was either a genuinely remarkable historical figure? Pinochet eventually adopted sensible economic policies, the fruits of which Chileans continue to reap, and to his credit he called a vote on his future and stepped down when he lost. But he, too, was just another brutal despot whose mythic status on the right is as appalling and maddening as Castro’s on the left.
Ultimately, the only relevant variable for many people seems to be an autocrat’s relationship with the United States. All that matters is whether Washington loves him or despises him. Of course, the correct orientation varies depending on the individual, but whether an oppressor is pro- or anti-American is the only data point needed to form a complete opinion about him. Castro picked the Soviets and Pinochet picked the US, but had it been otherwise those giving accolades would be hurling curses, and vice-versa.
Perhaps one day we’ll focus more on whether a ruler respects individual human rights than on his foreign policy views. Until then, we’ll continue to witness the hypocritical spectacle of angrily denouncing their side’s human rights abuses, while passionately dismissing our own’s.