Fidel Castro’s legacy: how the revolutionary inspired and appalled the world
Castro continued to hold a place in people’s hearts and minds despite largely withdrawing from public life in the last decade of his life
No street bears his name and there is not a single statue in his honour but Fidel Castro did not want or need that type of recognition. From tip to tip, he made Cuba his living, breathing creation.
Children in red neckerchiefs scampering to free schools, families rationing toilet paper in dilapidated houses, pensioners enjoying free medical treatment, newspapers filled with monotonous state propaganda: all in some way bear the stamp of one man.
Watch: A look back on the life of Fidel Castro
Historians will debate Castro’s legacy for decades to come but his revolution’s accomplishments and failures are on open display in today’s Cuba, which – even with the reforms of recent years – still bears the stamp of half a century of “Fidelismo”.
The “maximum leader” was a workaholic micromanager who turned the Caribbean island into an economic, political and social laboratory that has simultaneously intrigued, appalled and inspired the world.
“When Fidel took power in 1959 few would have predicted that he would be able to so completely transform Cuban society, upend US priorities in Latin America and create a following of global proportions,” said Dan Erikson, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank and author of The Cuba Wars.
The most apparent downside of his legacy is material scarcity. For ordinary Cubans things tend to be either in short supply, such as transport, housing and food, or prohibitively expensive, such as soap, books and clothes.
These problems have persisted since Fidel handed the presidency to his brother Raul in 2008. Despite overtures to the US and encouragement of micro businesses since then, the state still controls the lion’s share of the economy and pays an average monthly wage of less than US$19. This has forced many to hustle extra income however they can, including prostitution and low-level corruption. The lucky ones earn hard currency through tourism jobs or receive dollars from relatives in Florida.
Cubans are canny improvisers and can live with dignity on a shoestring, but they yearn for conditions to ease.
“We want to buy good stuff, nice stuff, like you do in your countries,” said Miguel, 20, gazing wistfully at Adidas runners on a store on Neptuno street.
Castro blamed the hardship on the US embargo, a long standing, vindictive stranglehold which cost the economy billions. However, most analysts and many Cubans say botched central planning and stifling controls were even more ruinous.
“They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work,” goes the old joke.
Thanks to universal and free education and health care, however, Cuba boasts first-world levels of literacy and life expectancy. The comandante made sure the state reached the poorest, a commitment denied to many slum-dwellers across Latin America.
Idealism sparkles in places such as Havana’s institute for the blind where Lisbet, a young doctor, works marathon shifts.
“We see every single one of the patients,” Lisbet said. “It’s our job and how we contribute to the revolution and humankind.”
Castro continued to hold a place in people’s hearts and minds despite largely withdrawing from public life in the last decade of his life. Increasingly infirm, he mostly tended his garden in Zone Zero (the high-security district of Havana), rebutted frequent premature rumours of his death with photographs showing him holding the latest edition of the state-run newspaper Granma, and wrote the occasional column, including grumpy criticism of Cuba’s drift towards market economics and reconciliation with the US.
But his influence was clearly on the wane. Although he met Pope Francis in 2015, he spent a lot more time with his plants than with national and global power brokers. Even before his death, he had become more of a historical than a political figure.
“Fidel was the dominant figure for decades, but Raul has been calling the shots,” observed a European diplomat based in Havana, who predicted the death would have more symbolic than political significance. “Has his presence been a block to reforms? Possibly. There could be an impact on young Cubans, but we won’t see a huge shift of Cuban politics after Fidel’s death. More significant would be if Raul dies because he put his leadership on the line for reform.”
Cuba had already begun the move away from Fidel’s era in a similar series of gradual steps to that taken in China after the death of Mao Zedong or Vietnam after the demise of Ho Chi Minh.
Under the Economic Modernisation Plan of 2010, the state shed 1m jobs, and opened opportunities for small private business, such as paladares – family-run restaurants – and c asas particulares, or home hotels. Farmers have been given more autonomy and price incentives to produce more food.
The government has eased overseas travel restrictions, loosened pay ceilings, ended controls on car sales and tied up with overseas partners to build anew free-trade zone at the former submarine base in Mariel. The biggest changes have been in the diplomatic sphere, where Cuba strengthened ties with the Vatican and signed a historic accord with the US to ease half a century of cold war tension.
But this is still an island shaped more by Fidel Castro than any other man. Wander up the marble steps at the centre of Revolution Square and stand where Castro used to give his marathon orations to an audience of more than a million and you can still see just how much the revolution he led reshaped the country. On one side are the giant profiles – illuminated at night – of his two lieutenants: Che Guevara on the ministry of the interior and Camilo Cienfuegos across the facade of the communications ministry.
In the distance, you can see the tower blocks that were formerly the headquarters of major US corporations such as ITT and General Electric but were nationalised under Castro, and hotels such as the Havana Libre, which were once owned by US mobsters but later turned over to the state.
Part of Cuba’s charm for tourists – and the curse for many locals – is that it is all too easy to remember what life here was like in the early days of the revolution because the city has barely move on in the subsequent half century. Thanks to the economic embargo imposed by the US, Castro’s Cuba became a time capsule. Despite a partial facelift ahead of Pope Francis’s visit in 2015, many streets are still lined by crumbling colonial facades and potted by holes that look like they have been there for decades.
The former mafia hotels have had little more than a lick of paint since they were frequented by mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Charles “Lucky” Luciano. And, of course,classic cars from the 1950s – Buicks, Chryslers, Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets – still cruise the Malecón.
Close to Revolution Square is the run-down La Timba neighbourhood, where a young Fidel Castro cut his teeth as a lawyer defending the local community of shanty-home dwellers against eviction by developers. Juvelio Chinea, an elderly resident, said the changes brought by the revolution in his own life had been modest, but his sons and grandsons had been able to attend university – the first generations in their family to be able to do so.
Chinea recalled hearing the comandante’s speeches from inside his home. The 21-gun salute used to crack the walls and shake the cutlery. There would be singing and shouting from the crowd, then a hush as Castro started speaking.
“Some speeches were better than others,” he said. “I wish he could have stayed in power longer.”
Not everyone is so sure about that. At the law department in Havana University, where Castro studied from 1945, there is admiration for the country’s former leader, but many believe he held back development.
“The best thing Fidel did for Cuba was to give us free health care at the level of a first world nation,” said one student. “The worst thing is that economic change has been delayed. If Fidel and Raul had acted earlier, many of today’s problems would already have been solved.”
The student dreams of starting his own private law firm but that is not yet possible, he says, “because the government prefers to keep lawyers and courts under control” so he is thinking of joining his brother, who moved recently to the US. Nonetheless, he is proud of his country’s and his university’s history.
“It’s great that this school was where an icon like Fidel studied,” he said.
That many still feel affection for “El Jefe Máximo” despite his ruinous economic policies is because he is judged more for his nationalist triumphs than his communist failures. Castro’s main inspiration was not Karl Marx, but José Martí, the 19th-century Cuban independence hero. While the latter fought to eject Spanish colonisers, Castro ended US neo-imperialist rule by kicking out US corporations and gangsters. The former banana republic is now proudly sovereign.
Camilo Guevara, the son of Castro’s comrade-in-arms Ernesto “Che” Guevara, said these achievements were secure despite the recent overtures from Washington.
“The revolutionaries changed the status quo and established a base for this nation that is independent, sovereign, progressive and economically sustainable. That’s how we got where we are,” he said at the Che Guevara Institute, which is dedicated to maintaining the ideological legacy of his father’s generation.
The message is driven home at the Museum of the Revolution, where the trophies of the early Castro era are prominently displayed outside the building that was once the presidential palace. Here you find the Granma yacht, on which Castro and 81 fellow revolutionaries sailed from Mexico in 1956 to begin the war against the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Here too is the engine of the US U-2 spy plane that was shot down in 1962 during he Cuban missile crisis. Inside, the exhibits and photographs ram home how this small island, under Castro’s leadership, defied the Yankee superpower despite the threat of nuclear annihilation.
For many elderly Cubans, that was a terrifying, thrilling time to be alive and they remain grateful to Castro for guiding them through it. Frank López, a retired teacher, spoke fondly of that early era under the comandante.
“It was frightening,” he said. “The US jets would fly low and fast above the city, shattering the windows with their noise. We were all trained to use rifles and machine guns and would have to do drills every night. But in the end, nothing happened and we all went back to school. People should stand up to the US more often.”
But he was not dewy-eyed about Castro. Although he admired the early health care and education reforms, he also recalls the economic hardships and the intrusive, suspicious state security apparatus. At one point, he was placed under surveillance for six years because a friend had plotted against Castro. These days, a bigger problem is making ends meet in the face of shortages of basic foodstuffs.
“We must all do other work to get by. It’s been like that for more than 20 years,” he said. “So while we say thank you to the revolution for the education and health care, we also ask how much longer we have to keep saying thank you.”
While Castro became a figurehead for revolutionary armed struggle throughout and beyond Latin America, the former guerrilla was far from universally popular in his home country once he turned his hand to government. Property appropriations, restrictions on religion and crackdowns on suspected enemies left many, particularly in the old middle class, hating him – a sentiment that has spanned the generations.
As a child, Antonio Rodiles said he rebelled after learning his mother’s property had been confiscated and a cousin executed as a suspected CIA agent.
“They used to tell me ‘Fidel is your daddy’. I replied ‘No, he’s not’. I hated them for forcing me to do things. As I grew up I realised this kind of system is not natural,” he recalled.
Today, he heads the opposition group Citizen Demand for Another Cuba and is often arrested and beaten.
“Fidel has left a shadow over Cuba,” he said. “His legacy is terrible. He destroyed families, individuals and the structure of society.”
Similarly, Rosa María Payá grew up watching her father fight against and suffer from a system that tolerated little dissent. Oswaldo Payá was a leading campaigner for free elections who was imprisoned first for his religious beliefs and then for his political campaigns. He died in a car accident in 2014. Rosa María believes he was forced off the road by the government agents who were following him. She said the Castros have left a legacy of tyranny that is unchanged despite the cosmetic reforms and diplomatic deals of recent years.
“The Cuban people haven’t had a choice since the 1950s,” she said. “My father spent three years in a forced labour camp because he was Catholic. Others were imprisoned with him because they were homosexuals or dressed the ‘wrong’ way. The reality is that you can’t be alternative to the line of Fidel and Raul.”
From the 1960s onwards, the Intelligence Directorate intrusively monitored opponents, many of whom were beaten by police or spent years in jail. Despite the release of dozens of political prisoners in the wake of the 2014 Cuba-US agreement, many activists were detained or harassed ahead of visits by Barack Obama in 2016 and Pope Francis the previous year.
Yet, compared with the past, there is a little more scope for criticism, a lot more opportunity to travel, and slightly less of a sense of crisis. Cuba may still be more closely aligned to Venezuela than the US, but it is clearly hedging its bets more than it used to do under Fidel. Today the country is different from the one that confidently erected a now fading plaque on Avenida Salvador Allende with a quotation from Chile’s socialist leader: “To be young and not to be revolutionary is a contradiction, almost a biological one.”
Instead, on Avenida G, a bohemian hub of cafes and street corners for Havana’s teens, the talk is not of politics but iPods, fashion, films and Major League Baseball.
In a valedictory speech at the close of the 2016 Cuban Communist party congress, Castro urged his compatriots to stick to their socialist ideals despite the warming of ties with the US, but he recognised that his generation was passing.
“Soon I’ll be like all the others,” he said of his dead comrades. “The time will come for all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban communists will remain as proof on this planet that if they are worked at with fervour and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need, and we need to fight without truce to obtain them.”
Despite the trembling voice and mournful tone, it was a typically combative call to arms. The last of many. It may have been several years since Castro’s thunderous, marathon orations, but Cuba will still feel strangely quiet without him.