Fidel Castro was one of the political giants of the 20th century. Indeed, he was a ‘Great Man’ of politics. However, the greatness of politicians can be easily lost if we look at their careers from where they end rather than from where they began.
Cuba in 1959 had been a puppet state of the US for sixty years, relatively prosperous by Latin American standards, yet subject to much political corruption, economic exploitation and racial discrimination. US interest in Cuba dated to the mid-19th century as part of the same expansionist strategy that led to the annexation of Texas and California. In fact, the US offered to buy Cuba from Spain on five occasions, but it was only with Spain’s final imperial withdrawal from the Americas in 1898 that it fell into US hands. The US military base at Guantanamo Bay dates from this period.
My mother, who is Cuban by birth, is the same age as Castro. They share something else as well. Their parents were emigres from Europe (Castro’s from Spain, my mother’s from Spain and France) as part of the early 20th century policy of Blanqueamiento – or ‘whitening’. Inspired by eugenics, this policy aimed to attract relatively poor but aspirational Europeans to settle in various Latin American countries that were in ‘danger’ of being swamped by non-White peoples. (Incidentally, an interesting feature of the policy – given today’s resurgence of ‘epigenetic’ thinking — is that the reinforcement of European cultural habits and foods on the non-White natives was included as part of the ‘Whitening’ process.)
Whatever else one wishes to say about Castro, he broke with this history and replaced it with a radically egalitarian society which successfully overcame class and race barriers. Most of the million or so Cubans (about 10% of the island’s population) who migrated to Florida after Castro took over were themselves products of the Blanqueamiento process which had brought Castro’s and my mother’s family to Cuba. They are noticeably richer and Whiter than the people who remained in Cuba. My guess is that this is what these exiled Cubans find most galling about Castro: He was the ultimate class and race traitor – and more power to him for it!
(For what it’s worth, my mother left Cuba permanently in 1952, seven years before Castro’s revolution. She saw no future for herself in an increasingly volatile Cuba as it entered its final corrupt phase. She has always been a Castro sympathiser. My mother’s family left shortly after Castro took over and settled in Miami and were staunch supporters of Nixon and Reagan. We broke relations with them in the late 1980s.)
Castro had a very keen sense of Cuba’s strategic political and economic significance on the world stage, and he leveraged that awareness to finance the most enduring welfare state outside of the developed world. We need to realize that Cuba with its natural resources – most famously cane sugar – was positioned like some of the oil rich countries. (Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela comes to mind as an obvious Castro emulator). However, when Cuba was ‘liberated’ from Spain in 1898 only to become a US protectorate for sixty years, it was prevented from fully developing as an independent nation. Basically, it was forced to give the US highly discounted prices on its resources in exchange for military protection. (We might call that ‘extortion’.) While the US heavily invested in Cuba – with Havana becoming a combination of Miami and Las Vegas by the 1930s – it tended to support any regime that could keep the peace, which is to say, not disrupt the flow of trade between Cuba and the US.
In short, Cuba had been the sort of place that Iraq would have become had George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld got their way and the US had won the peace in Iraq. The temptation to ‘liberate’ countries from political oppression simply to place them in perpetual economic debt to the liberators has been very strong over the past hundred years. Castro’s Cuba remains a striking example of how that tendency need not turn into a necessity, which is why it continues to provide hope across the developing world.