So Castro is finally dead. Some are dancing on his grave. Some are mourning him.
As usual, I agree with nobody.
Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator who preceded him was arguably worse. Knowing that matters.
Batista jailed and tortured his political opponents and was as brutal a dictator as Castro ever could have imagined. He plundered the Cuban economy for personal gain like any other petty little despot. After Castro overthrew him, his family lived a life of luxury on everything they stole. In fact, his family is still a prominent fixture in Florida politics.
Batista was awful and anyone who got rid of him deserves some credit. By tossing out Batista, Castro ended a period where American capitalists and criminals ran Cuba's economy. There was huge income inequality, and being an average Cuban simply sucked. There is a reason why millions of people cheered in the streets when Castro's revolution took power.
But, lets face it … that was like the jubilation you feel when someone screams "MORE SHOTS FOR EVERYBODY" at 3:30 AM. "WOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!"
After ousting Batista, Castro appeared to be the man to deliver a better life for Cubans. He restored the liberal 1940 constitution, which Batista had suspended. He nationalized land holdings larger than 1,000 acres, thus redistributing wealth. He immediately instituted programs to give Cubans greater access to healthcare, housing, and other basic needs.
His revolution received the adoring cheers of millions as it rolled into Havana on 8 January 1959.
But, then those shots hit. The puking began. What an astonishing hangover. Maybe having those shots wasn't such a great idea after all.
Castro did not take long to reveal his tyrannical soul.
By March of 1959, he was already in tyrant mode. A group of former Batista military personnel were prosecuted for war crimes against the revolutionary forces. The revolutionary tribunal acquitted them. Castro did not like the verdict, but the Constitution did not permit a second trial or a prosecutorial appeal. Castro simply decreed one. When challenged, he responded: "Revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts, but on moral conviction." (source) Forced labor camps, re-education, all the typical totalitarian what-have-yous, Castro had them all.
Castro had the best of intentions — just like most Communists. If Castro was magic, he probably would have created a Cuban utopia. But, he was not magic. A road to a better society passes many tollbooths. You can either pay the toll, go around the tollbooth, or you can pull the tollbooth operator out the window, torture him, rip out his guts, and then put his head on a stick as you approach the next tollbooth and see if that guy wants to risk the same fate, or just let you through. Unfortunately, the last option is often the most expedient — and that is the option that Castro chose. He became Batista without the thieving nature.
Brutal dictator who oppressed his own people? Yes. At the same time, we can't discount that he was way ahead of the curve in opposing apartheid and supporting anti-colonial revolutions. Say what you will about the tenets of Castroism, dude, it had some positive elements. Nevertheless, for every bit of support he gave to movements ostensibly organized for national liberation, his own people still found themselves in Pyongyang with palm trees. Of course, all of his socialist "accomplishments" are subject to serious criticism. (See The Myth of Cuban Health Care)
Anyone mourning his death might be confused. His tyrannical suppression of human rights didn't lead to utopia. It led, instead, to a country that was barely able to meet its own needs. It led not quite to North Korea, but only somewhat better. If I were forced into exile, Cuba would not be the absolute last place on my list, but it wouldn't be far from the bottom.
We can never accurately write alternative-history — but what if Batista had prevailed in 1959? What would Cuba be like today? Puerto Rico is a barely functioning shithole, and it has the advantage of being part of the United States. Haiti? I'd rather live in Castro's Cuba than Haiti. I would imagine that without the 1959 Revolution, Cuba would still be a disaster – albeit a different kind of disaster, with a few really rich families running the place. Perhaps a narco-state, or a Philippines-under-Marcos style kleptocracy.
While I can't see anyone outside of South Africa, Namibia, and his immediate family rationally mourning him, dancing in the streets to celebrate his death seems to be a bit stupid.
Right now, Miami is overwhelmed with joy.
And if we really dug through those crowds of celebrants, what would we find? Some are in Miami because they fled early on — members of the Batista regime and the small 1% of pre 1959 Cubans that benefitted from that regime. Others? Lets remember that during the Mariel boatlift, Castro not only set people free who wanted to leave, but he opened his jails and mental hospitals.
Of course, I'd presume that statistically speaking, the vast majority of those celebrating are what we would hope they are — descendants of those who fled Cuba simply because they were persecuted and yearning to be free. But more than anyone else, I have to ask them what in the hell they're celebrating.
Castro seized power in 1959. He saw 11 U.S. presidents come and go. He retired, and put his brother in power. He died at the age of 90, peacefully, in his bed, surrounded by loved ones. Sure beats the hell out of how any of his victims died.
If they were Vikings, I guess there would be something to celebrate. Instead of dying in battle, he died of old age. But, there are no Cuban Vikings. So, scratch that.
For better or worse, Castro won. I don't say that to honor him. Sometimes the bad guy wins. He did this time.
Marc Randazza is the national president of the First Amendment Lawyers Association
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