During my 32 years of teaching Latin American politics in Tacoma, Fidel Castro was always a source of fascination.
My students at the University of Puget Sound were often mesmerized by his ability to build and defend a communist revolution during the Cold War, his masterful rhetorical flourishes, his skillful piquing of the United States and his remarkable survival skills even after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I always viewed it as my job to expose students to the less glamorous and more complex realities of the Cuban Revolution.
During the 1960s and 1970s it was common for college students, and much of the left worldwide, to romanticize Castro and his close collaborator, Che Guevara. The leaders’ youthful rebelliousness and ideological zeal appealed to those in the U.S. who opposed the war in Vietnam and supported the civil rights movement.
During this period, it was all too easy to ignore the massive human rights abuses directed at Castro’s domestic political opponents, Cuban homosexuals and the religious. His fans in the U.S. would have been shocked to learn that Cuba was a repressive, puritanical society that banned Christmas celebrations and the Beatles.
During the Reagan era, my conservative students were equally blind to the complex and often contradictory realities of the Cuban Revolution. They failed to acknowledge that the U.S. government’s attempts to undermine Castro, and its embargo on trade with Cuba, only strengthened the dictatorship by stoking Cuban nationalism and by giving Castro an excuse to justify the island’s dismal economic performance.
They often ignored the fact that the small but immensely powerful Miami-based Cuban-American lobby had hijacked U.S. foreign policy on Cuba.
Conservative students were often blind to the fact that U.S. support for brutally repressive anti-Communist dictators in Latin America made Castro’s dictatorship seem relatively benign. In fact, the best thing that can be said about him was that he was not as corrupt and incompetent as most other dictators who ruled during the Cold War.
Castro built a socialist economy that was unsustainable, but he never sought personal enrichment, and he did redistribute wealth and provide jobs, education and health care to his population.
So, what are the lessons we can take from almost 50 years of Castro’s rule? First, there are no “good” dictatorships. By destroying Cuba’s civil society and banning all political opposition, Castro created a dictatorship that was as repressive as the Batista dictatorship he replaced.
Even today, after a period of economic reform, some easing of repression and the transition from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul, Cuba is a one-party dictatorship that tolerates no organized opposition.
Many Americans are rightly frustrated with our democratic political system, but authoritarian political systems are worse than flawed democracies.
Second, Castro created a Communist dictatorship with an entirely state-owned economy. That model failed everywhere it was attempted, and Cuba was no exception. Massive Soviet aid led to a period of relatively prosperity in the 1970s, but Cuba’s economic model was never sustainable.
Chinese and then Venezuelan support, in addition to some very limited reforms, allowed Cuba to survive the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the Cuban economy was and is dysfunctional.
Third, the United States’ policy of isolating the Castro dictatorship was a total failure. The attempt to overthrow Castro in 1961 allowed him to extinguish all domestic opponents. The embargo against Cuba, still in effect today, made Castro stronger at home and turned him into a global David fighting the U.S. Goliath.
Fidel Castro’s death will not alter the fact that Cuba is a repressive one-party dictatorship with an economy that doesn’t work. His passing doesn’t change the reality that U.S. policy toward the Castro regime was entirely counterproductive until the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba in 2014.
Cuba has always been a challenge for teachers of Latin American politics, and will remain so after Castro’s death Nov. 25. The Cuban Revolution is a complex and contradictory phenomenon that cannot be understood through the distorted ideological lenses that have so often been used by the left and right.
Don Share is professor emeritus of politics and government at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, from which he recently retired. He taught Latin American politics and comparative politics, and took classes to Cuba in 2015 and 2016. He lives in Seattle.