Around the time of his 90th birthday in April of 2016, Cuba’s former dictator and world-renown revolutionary figure Fidel Castro told the world that he was nearing the end of his life, but reassured us that the “ideas of the Cuban communists will remain as proof on this planet that if they are worked at with fervor and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need”. This Friday night, Castro passed away peacefully in Cuba’s capital city of Havana at the ripe old age of 90.
Fidel Castro was perhaps one of the most polarizing figures in modern world history. In the wake of his death, he left a unique, ambivalent legacy in both Cuba and around the world. Many have seen him as a symbol of the revolution–a symbol representing the refusal of capitalist imperialism. Others would disagree and label him as a mad dictator that oppressed his people relentlessly and brutally quieted any dissent.
Fidel Castro had his roots as an ardent critic of American imperialism in Latin America, serving as a leader of student protests against government brutality and violence during his time as an undergraduate at the University of Havana. Castro believed that the plight faced by his fellow countrymen was not due to corrupt politicians, but rather an intrinsic failure capitalism–an idea he called the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”. A few years after getting his Doctor of Law degree in 1950, he launched a proletariat movement to depose Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista. After a long-fought guerrilla war against Batista’s forces and loyalists, Castro and the revolutionaries were finally successful in 1959. Castro assumed military and political power, becoming the de facto and de jure head of state.
The United States fiercely opposed Castro’s government. They tried desperately to stop him through assassination, economic blockades, and even counter-revolutions–the most famous of which happened during the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. Castro solidified Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union during this time, allowing them to park Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles in their country in 1962, arguably bringing humanity the closest it has been to nuclear annihilation. Though the Soviet Union would later pull their missiles out, the US persisted in its economic blockade of the Caribbean Island for over fifty years until it was partially lifted in October of this year.
After having outlasted 10 American presidents and surviving close to 700 assassination attempts–including eight confirmed attempts by the CIA–, Castro stepped down from power in 2008 and named his brother Raul as his successor. Castro’s declining health largely kept him out of the public eye following his step down from power, though he continued to make rare public appearances from time to time.
Throughout his life, Fidel Castro was known internationally for fiercely fighting against Western imperialism and neo-colonialism. Castro sent troops and aid to foreign anti-imperialist movements in countries around the world, including Chile, Nicaragua, Grenada, Angola, Somalia, and Egypt. At a time where most other Western leaders aligned themselves on the side of the pro-apartheid government in South Africa, Castro was one of the few supporters of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. He was also a champion of the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of countries that are not aligned with or against any major country, and supported fellow leftist governments in Latin America.
Domestically, Castro was seen as both as a hero and a villain. Under Castro, education in Cuba was nationalized and became a constitutional right for all. According to a survey conducted by the World Bank in 2014, Cuba spent a higher percentage of their GDP on education (13%) than any other country.
Literacy rates also skyrocketed under Castro’s rule. Cuba successfully accomplished this goal through its Literacy Campaign, which took literate urban youth and sent them to the rural areas to teach their fellow countrymen how to read and write. Prior to the revolution, less than a quarter of Cubans older than 15 were literate. This meant that a large portion of the population lived in abject poverty with little economic opportunities. By the year 2000, 97% of Cubans were literate.
Cuba treats healthcare as an inalienable human right, explicitly stating so in their constitution. Knowing that treating an illness is much more expensive than preventing one, they have placed a particular emphasis on preventive health services. Despite the fact that the United States spends a larger percentage of their GDP on healthcare than Cuba does (17% vs 12%), Cuba’s life expectancy is an impressive 78.55 years–only slightly less than America’s 79 years life expectancy. Cuba boasts an infant mortality rate that is half of what ours is, though their maternal mortality rate is still higher than most developed countries. Mortality rates for men, women, and children younger than 5 are also lower in Cuba than in the US.
Cuba also has the highest number of doctors per capita at 67 for every 10,000–this is compared to 23 per 10,000 in the United States. This allows Cuban doctors to make house calls to every patient at least once a year and maintain a closer doctor-patient relationship than most nations. Cuba has so many doctors, in fact, that they can afford to send them abroad to serve impoverished communities in other countries. There is roughly 37,000 Cuban nationals working abroad in 77 countries, earning the Cuban government $8 billion a year in remittances.
Cuba’s medical diplomacy spreads far beyond that. Following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union, Cuban hospitals gladly welcomed child patients that were unable to receive proper treatment in the USSR. When the Ebola epidemic ravaged West African countries, Castro spearheaded the campaign to contain and eradicate the disease by sending hundreds of medical professionals and health workers to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Cuba even allows foreign students to study at their highly prestigious medical schools for free–with one condition: they must apply the skills and knowledge gained in impoverished communities in their home countries.
The heavy trade embargoes imposed on Cuba has not held back its medical system–in fact, it seemingly emboldened it. Cuban doctors and medical researchers have approached issues they face with ingenuity by developing their own vaccines and medical treatments. Cuban researchers developed Nimotuzumab in 1999, a treatment for various different cancers of the head and neck that targets the growth of cancerous cells without the toxic side effects of other similar treatments. They also developed Heberprot-P, a drug meant to fight ulcers caused by diabetes, thereby negating the need for amputation that occurs due to excessive nerve damage. But perhaps the greatest Cuban medical innovation is the anti-lung cancer vaccine CimaVax, which inhibits the growth of cancer cells and prevents the disease from spreading. The Roswell Park Cancer Institute recently filed the paperwork needed to commence clinical trials of CimaVax in the United States.
Things aren’t all rosy with the Cuban healthcare system, however. Doctors are paid working-class salaries between $30 and $50 a month, causing many doctors and nurses to steal medicine or equipment from hospitals to sell on the black market to supplement their meager cash flow. Cuban hospitals often lack access to basic medical equipment like aspirin; more expensive procedures such as CT scans are simply out of the question. To guarantee that they get service and access to the scarce supplies, many patients come bearing gifts for their doctors. Some hospitals in Cuba even lack running water and suffer from regular power outages. Cuban specialists also worry–perhaps correctly–that due to their country’s isolationism, they are unable to keep up-to-date with the latest medical advances around the world.
Some critics of Castro would argue that the Cuban people have paid a heavy price for their free education and healthcare. They have little to no political freedoms, access to outside goods, or opportunity for socioeconomic advancement and also face massive unemployment, low wages, and high barriers for businesses. Their country is basically a hermit kingdom stuck in time as a relic from the 1960’s. In a 2015 report, the Human Rights Watch found that the Cuban government “continues to rely on arbitrary detentions to harass and intimidate people who exercise their fundamental rights,” reporting over 6,000 accounts of arbitrary detentions between last year alone. Close to a million Cuban immigrants fled their country and settled in the United States over a 38 year span after Castro’s ascent to power, many of them professionals and business people. To this day, people continue to brave the harrowing nautical journey between Cuba and Florida in order to escape the oppression and lack of opportunity they face at home.
Despite all the internal and external obstacles and challenges it has faced since the 1959 Revolution, Cuba has arguably done much better under Castro’s rule than anyone had expected. It is undeniable that many Cubans have suffered greatly under Castro’s communist rule and I would argue that criticisms of Castro being a despotic tyrant are legitimate. However, history is never black and white–rather than being a binary, history is a spectrum that is constantly being refined and redefined. As such, it would be incorrect to blame Cuba for all its failures. We must keep in mind that since it’s conception, Castro’s Cuba has been undermined politically, economically, and socially by Western powers–in particular, the United States. Cuba has shown what countries are capable of accomplishing without much–if any–aid by Western countries. Certain aspects of Cuba, such as their education and healthcare systems, improved dramatically under Castro and some people live arguably better lives under Castro then they would have under the US-backed Batista dictatorship.
If we want to talk about how Castro oppressed his own people, then why don’t we also talk about American hypocrisy when it comes to the treatment of both foreigners and their own people? The United States has–and many argue, still is–supported brutal, right-wing dictatorships that have collectively claimed millions of lives throughout the world. Some examples include Pinochet in Chile, right-wing death squads in El Salvador, the Triple A in Argentina, Contras in Nicaragua, Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, the South African apartheid regime of PW Botha, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and Cuba’s own Batista regime to name a few. Virtually in every corner of this world, the United States has in one way or another supported despotic, murderous regimes no different from the same ones they condemn.
Here at home, we have perpetrated the colonization and genocide of Indigenous Americans, the enslavement and subsequent denigration of African Americans to sub-human status, the appalling internment of Japanese people, the selfish exploitation of Latino and Asiatic labor to construct railways and maintain agriculture, and the imprisonment of millions of low-income people at the hands of the War on Drugs to, again, name a few transgressions the US is responsible for. Fidel Castro recognized this hypocrisy and made it a common theme in his political and philosophical works.
Fidel Castro’s death marks the end of an era. Though his brother Raul still maintains power on the island, many international observers are optimistic that Fidel’s death will bring about much-needed change for the Caribbean island. Cuba remains one of the few states left that are not integrated into the modern global society so this change should be welcomed with open arms. However, while becoming more open to the outer world, I believe it is important that the people and government of Cuba to remain wary of intrusions and bullying by multinational companies and foreign governments. The revolutionary, anti-imperialist spirit of Castro must and will live long after his death, serving as inspiration for millions of people marginalized by the insatiable capitalism of western nations for ages to come.