In 1961, an anthology series, The Twilight Zone, aired an episode titled “The Mirror.” That particular story featured a Fidel Castro-esque figure named Ramos Clemente (down to the beard, the cap, and the military fatigues), who overthrew a dictator in an unnamed Latin-American nation that as might as well have been called Cuba. In addition to absolute power, Clemente received a magical mirror – a common object in fantasy fiction – that previously belonged to the dictator. However, this mirror did not reveal who the fairest of them all was, but rather the subject’s future assassin. As a result of paranoia wrought from the mirror, Clemente went from being a revolutionary hero to the very thing he hated – a ruthless and power mad dictator. The episode ended with him killing himself once the mirror revealed his greatest enemy – himself.
Unlike Ramos Clemente, Fidel Castro did not kill himself. He continued to rule for over 40 years before stepping down in 2008, when his brother Ramos replaced him. Like the character, he continued to imprison and execute dissidents both real and imagined as he consolidated his power. Along with their ally, the Soviet Union, Castro and his nation became the symbols of a repressive dictatorship throughout the West.
Now, over five decades since he took power and since the Twilight Zone episode aired, Castro is dead. Some are saddened. Others are jubilant.
Any person, with some degree of rationality, can understand and recognize that. Castro started off as a revolutionary who rid his country of a horrible tyrant, one Fulgencio Batista, whom the US supported among others. Then, he became a Batista in his own right, just wore different colors, had different allies, and repressed slightly different enemies. It is inexcusable to ignore the thousands of stories from refugees regarding the repression on the island. Tens of thousands of dissidents were jailed and murdered, many of whom simply spoke out against the tyrannies of the government. They aren’t valorized as freedom fighters in the same way that Patrick Henry might be, but their deaths are no less tragic in the context of human rights.
Understand, however, that Castro is not a unique dictator as far as authoritarians go. The only thing truly noteworthy about him is that he successfully resisted American imperialist dominance as long as he did despite never being a superpower. Cuba became a metaphorically David vs. Goliath amongst communists, albeit without God’s help (since the Soviets collapsed after the Cold War). He was also able to provide excellent healthcare and a quality education amongst his citizens despite being economically crippled by an embargo. This resiliency, as well as his support of other icons such as Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, made him a popular icon amongst leftists worldwide – many of whom have never stepped foot on the shores of Cuba, much less live a lifetime on the island.
While the United States may be smug when it comes to Cuba being anti-democratic, our government, by no means, is consistent in human rights violations or our disavowal of dictatorships. Folks love to forget how our democratically elected leaders imprisoned US citizens in camps, robbed natives of their land, and maintained slavery. It would behoove us to forget how we currently torture people in Cuba in a camp in Guantanamo Bay. And whether it was Papa Duvalier in Haiti, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, or the current Saudi royal family, we support repressive regimes all the time. Our relationships aren’t entirely transactional, but such exchanges are a part of the backbone of our foreign policy. If a country can provide us resources and military support, then we will back them regardless of their ideology.
Castro, on the other hand, was someone who didn’t want to tow the line for Kennedy or the nine successors since. He refused to benefit our government’s economic interests, the same corporate capitalist elites who helped plunder from his homeland since the end of the Spanish-American War. So, the White House did all that they could to make life miserable for him and his government. They attempted to invade Cuba (which was a disaster), they blockaded country, and they attempted to kill him hundreds of times. The blockade is all that remains from the Cold War and even that couldn’t force him out of power.
So yes, not everything is as black and white. Most leaders have shades of gray since they do both good and bad things. Some leaders are more monstrous than they are humane. Most end up having mixed legacies that will last until the sun finally sets.
Keeping all this in mind, one can only conclude that Castro is neither worthy of our valorization nor entirely deserving of our demonization. We don’t need to look into a magic mirror to figure out exactly why.