It’s a cliché, but in this case it’s true. The death of Fidel Castro marks the end of an era. That is obvious when it comes to Cuba, itself, and to U.S.-Cuban relations. But it is also true in a broader historical sense. Castro was the last of a very distinctive and (for a while) important type of national leader.
Two epochal developments shaped international affairs following World War II; the Cold War and the dissolution of (largely) European colonial empires in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The former preoccupied policymakers in the U.S., but the latter had a larger impact on more people. The process of decolonization began with India and quickly rolled across what we once called the Third World. Iconic independence leaders emerged – some of them colorful and controversial – men like Sukarno (Indonesia), Nasser (Egypt), and Nkrumah (Ghana). Americans see themselves as heirs to an anti-colonial, revolutionary tradition and instinctively saw the wave of decolonization as praiseworthy. U.S. pressure forced the Netherlands to give way to Sukarno’s demands and when U.S. allies, Britain and France along with Israel intervened in Egypt to roll back Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal, the Eisenhower Administration intervened diplomatically but forcefully to force London, Paris and Tel Aviv to back off. When John F. Kennedy assumed office there was a brief but vivid embrace of the new independence leadership in India. Nehru was much admired and the recently assassinated Gandhi had assumed the status of a secular saint for many Americans, including Martin Luther King. Relations with Sukarno, Nkrumah and other new Third World leaders were initially warm, if less effusive.
But this promising landscape soon changed. Other, different, revolutionary leaders had taken power in parts of Asia – notably Mao Tse-tung in China and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Most of the leaders of Third World revolutions embraced the idea of “nonalignment” toward the Cold War – a stance championed by such influential figures as Nehru and Tito. They did not want their newly gained independence to be compromised by subordination to one of the superpower blocs. But Mao and Ho were avowed communists and were overtly aligned with Moscow. With China in the fold, the international communist movement made a sustained effort to capture the banner of anti-colonialism/anti-imperialism for itself. And increasingly Third World leaders came to see communism as a kindred movement whereas the West represented the old world of imperial subjugation.
Fidel Castro, whose revolution came relatively late (1959), became the embodiment of this trend. When Castro led his rag-tag band of guerrillas out of the Sierra Madre and into the streets of Havana, he seemed the latest in a familiar phenomenon. His political skills were preternatural; he could hold a crowd of thousands for hours under a hot tropical sun with nothing but the power of his own voice. For the U.S., this colorful new personality 90 miles away was a news story but not a threat. When asked whether communism had penetrated his ranks, Castro dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand. But that soon changed – and by the end of the Eisenhower Administration Castro had decided that he was a communist and announced Cuba’s alignment with America’s mortal enemy, the Soviet Union. This set Washington and Havana on a 55-year trajectory of deep hostility. From the perspective of an independent observer there was nothing foreordained about this. The U.S. could have lived with a firebrand revolutionary in Cuba – even with the predictable anti-colonial, anti-American rhetoric. There were other leaders in Latin America at the time who sounded a lot like Castro. And there was plenty of anti-U.S. sentiment. When President Nixon conducted a state visit to Venezuela his motorcade was pelted with rotten eggs.
What made Castro so dangerously unique was his decision to align Cuba with Moscow and welcome the deployment of Soviet nuclear-armed ballistic missiles – aimed at the U.S. – on Cuban soil. Suddenly, Castro was not just a colorful irritant, he was an existential threat. In addition, Castro moved to replicate a communist system of totalitarian rule in Cuba complete with a secret police, political prisoners, executions and death squads. And, of course, he confiscated the property and destroyed the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Cubans – in the name of the communist revolution.
As everyone knows, these events had huge consequences – most notably the Cuban Missile Crisis when the planet teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Cuba, which had been the focus of Kennedy’s worst moment (the Bay of Pigs) ultimately became the source of his greatest triumph.
Castro, who survived the enmity of eleven U.S. presidents, emerges out of all this as a deeply flawed figure. He was hugely gifted politically and he was driven to use those gifts to uplift the poor in Cuba and give his nation a sense of pride it had never known. But he was obsessively convinced he could achieve those goals only by maintaining a vivid (and artificial) threat from the American “imperialists.” The result of this ingrained paranoia and his embrace of communist ideology has been a U.S. economic embargo and a Cuban economy that is – to put it kindly – dysfunctional. Politically, his ego required power – the unchallenged power of an absolute dictator. It’s called megalomania and it’s never pretty. Ultimately, Castro must be seen as a leader who could have empowered and trusted his own people to decide Cuba’s future, but he did not.