He was, by the time of his resignation, an anachronism, a relic of the Cold War who had improbably survived his Soviet patrons by nearly two decades. He led a brutal regime, and his final legacy may be his resistance to the democratic surge that swept his hemisphere during the past twenty years. Successive American presidents, alternately paranoid and pandering, had enhanced his stature on the world stage, but once his moment had passed, he appeared increasingly insignificant and, in some ways, almost pathetic.
After nearly fifty years in power, Fidel Castro had outlived his legend.
The triumphant American Cold War narrative is both incomplete and misleading. The Soviet empire, however, had few redeeming features. In its adolescence, under Stalin, it rivaled Hitler's Germany in its monstrosity. Even after Uncle Joe left the scene, the USSR remained a totalitarian state treating its dissidents to the horrors of the Gulag. After the Second World War, Russia acquired its European and Asian satellites and cracked down mercilessly on attempts at freedom and liberation in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Soviet money and troops helped to fund misery throughout the world, from Asia to Africa to Latin America.
Unfortunately, in cooking freedom's omelet, as it were, the United States unnecessarily broke a lot of eggs of its own. The all-consuming drive to defeat Communism, as well as a good measure of economic self-interest, caused the American government to prop up any number of merciless strongmen over the years who visited untold terror on generally innocent populations. The dogged pursuit of victory in Vietnam caused needless death and destruction, and helped to destabilize the Kingdom of Cambodia, with genocidal consequences. In 1973, the Nixon Administration conspired with Chilean generals to topple South America's most successful democracy and inaugurate Augusto Pinochet's nightmare dictatorship. And Ronald Reagan, hero of the Cold War, made common cause with Salvadoran death squads and Nicaraguan thugs even as the worldwide Soviet threat receded.
My point is not to argue moral equivalence between the United States and the Soviet Union, because there was none. History properly records that the good guys won the half century battle for world supremacy. Whether the USSR was, in fact, evil may be properly left to the theologians, but it represented a nearly uninterrupted force for repression and inhumanity. It was right to stop them, and it was obviously impossible to do so entirely by peaceful or even gentlemanly means. Still, it is important for the full historical record to be on review if we are to judge our fellow countrymen during an era that now seems impossibly distant.
You see, part of the conservative party line, even today, involves a slander against liberals and leftists in America, that they were once soft on Communism and, thus, even today remain too naïve to be entrusted with power. To be sure, some of the most extreme Marxist and revolutionary dilettantes found room in their hearts for Joe Stalin; indeed, some do today. But almost no American liberals labored under the impression that Soviet Russia was a worker's paradise or that totalitarianism was superior to freedom.
They simply recoiled against the excesses of the era and demanded that their own country observe the principles of liberty and self-determination in its foreign policy. They insisted that the cause of anti-Communism, however noble, could not be furthered by funneling money to men wearing jackboots. And no matter how many airports and schools are named after Ronald Reagan, that claim remains unrefuted.
Which brings us back to Fidel Castro. It is undeniable that Castro's early years generated something of an infatuation among many leftists. Some probably hoped in vain that he would eventually embrace democracy, but most simply judged him in the context of the 1960s and 1970s. Few democratic regimes flourished in the soil of Latin America in the initial years of the Cuban revolution. And once Nixon, Kissinger, and the CIA extinguished freedom's Chilean flame, it became hard to hope for anything better than, to borrow a modern coinage, a dictator with benefits.
In that sense, of course, Castro stood out in Latin America. Where other strongmen pocketed their countries' treasuries or sold their citizens' birthright to multinational corporations, Castro aspired to educate his people and to bring them a level of health care unrivaled in its region. That dissidents and other opponents of the regime paid a terrible price for this progress was often swept under the rug by Fidel's American apologists, and this was wrong. Further, the price of progress in Cuba was a dangerous and sometimes embarrassingly obsequious dance with the Soviet devil. Nevertheless, Castro appeared to many patriotic Americans to be the lesser of a couple dozen evils. Better repression with literacy than repression with yawning, soul-crushing poverty.
Fidel Castro was never as good as his supporters wanted to believe, nor as uniquely evil as he was painted by politicians trolling for electoral votes in Florida. But whatever appeal he might have had in the dark days of Somoza and Pinochet evaporated during the 1990s and early 21st Century as democracy finally took hold in Latin America. As elections and then civil liberties swept the region from Tijuana to Santiago, Castro refused to participate. Eventually, health care and education standards in many of the old Spanish-speaking dictatorships began to match and then surpass standards those Fidel had set back in the Cold War era.
In the end, he had failed his own people and his own revolution.