While some hailed him for his ‘revolutionary’ life and mourned the loss of a ‘friend’, others were not very kind in their words.
“Fidel Castro was one of the most iconic personalities of the 20th century. India mourns the loss of a great friend,” wrote Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Russian President Vladimir Putin described the late Cuban leader as “a symbol of a whole era in modern history.” Left leaning leaders especially from Latin American countries like Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela, where Castro became an icon and inspiration for communist revolutions, expressed their grief over the loss of a ‘comrade’.
Quite expectedly, leaders of Cuba’s arch-rival countries were not so kind. Although the US-Cuba relations made great strides during his predecessor’s term, the new President elect of the US, Donald Trump was in no mood to praise the Cuban leader. He described Castro as a ‘brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades’ and said hoped his death gave Cuban Americans the hope of one day soon seeing a free Cuba.’
Castro’s death divided the world in death as it did during his lifetime. From leading a small guerilla group and staging a communist revolution to oust a US backed government to creating a communist state and being a central figure in the cold war period, there is no doubt that the late Cuban leader was an important political figure of the 20th century. But does he really deserve a hero’s obituary?
Under Castro, Cuba’s biggest accomplishment was ushering in what the late leader called “alternative form of development”. Perhaps the most popularly cited examples are the country’s achievements in education, healthcare and social care. The country's literacy rate stood at 96% in 1962, which was one of the highest in the world then. Even today, the country’s literacy rate stands equivalent to many Scandinavian countries. Similarly, life expectancy in Cuba is 81 years for women and 77 for men which is close to the figures of UK. Mortality rates in Cuba were lower in 2013 than those in the US for men, women, and children under five years old. The country’s medical schools are renowned and have produced doctors who have volunteered during international health crisis in African countries.
However, the achievements end there. With an aim of creating a perfect communist state, Castro destroyed the economic system and the existing political structure to lead the country to the path of poverty and despair. Before his rule, Cuba was one of the richest countries in the Americas. But by the 1980s, it was already among the poorest. The effects of his communist policies haunt Cubans even today – there is dire shortage of basic materials such as soap and bread. In lack of opportunities, thousands still leave Cuba in search of better opportunities.
Even the achievements seem futile if looked at in a larger picture. Despite the high literacy rate, once Cubans left school, the state restricted what they could do with their acquired skills. One could not even read freely; censure of libraries, bookstores, and media was total. The famous ‘doctors’ were forced to work in the same wage as labourers. Moreover, his iron fist rule meant that freedom was curbed and political dissent became a crime. In just a few years after the revolution, Cuba had between 40,000 and 60,000 political prisoners. Estimates of killings under his rule range from 6,000 to 17,000. By the time Castro stepped down, around 8-10 percent of Cuba’s population was in exile.
While many hail the Cuban leader for refusing to bow down to the American hegemony, to counter the American influence he became close to the Soviet Union, often appearing as their stooge. After the collapse of Soviet Union, he took the extreme measure of allowing some forms of self-employment and decriminalized foreign private investment to better the economy. In the end, it was too late. He ended up hurting the economy even more.
Speaking at his trial for rebel attack that launched Cuban Revolution, Castro had once said, “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”Looking at where he has taken Cuba, history is unlikely to absolve Castro.