Andres Oppenheimer

Far from a courageous leader, Fidel Castro was a coward

Oppenheimer: Fidel a coward for not allowing political challenge

Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer comments on the death of the former Cuban president.
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Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer comments on the death of the former Cuban president.

It’s not nice to criticize somebody who has just died, but watching the eulogies from leaders around the world exalting the alleged bravery of just deceased Cuban ruler Fidel Castro, it has to be said loud and clear: Castro was anything but a courageous leader. On the contrary, he was a coward.

First, he was a coward because he didn’t allow a free election in 57 years, since he took power in 1959. Only somebody who fears losing his position doesn’t allow it to be challenged in free elections.

Second, Castro was a coward because he never allowed one single independent newspaper, radio or television station in Cuba. His critics were not even granted a few seconds a year on any radio or television show.

He only granted interviews to sympathetic reporters or sports figures or models-turned-journalists. And the few interviews he gave to serious journalists were monologues, in which he spoke all the time and reporters could only ask him a few questions.

I remember that in the late 1980s, when I asked Colombian Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel García Márquez — a good friend of Castro — to ask the Cuban leader to grant me an interview, García Márquez shrugged and told me with a smile: “Why would you want to interview Fidel? He has never said in an interview something he hasn’t said in his five-hour-long televised speeches.”

Castro’s fear of losing face was such that he prohibited his state-controlled media from talking about his private life. He had to be portrayed as larger than life. For decades, the name of his wife was a state secret.

In a trip to Cuba in the early 1990s, a senior journalist for the government-run Juventud Rebelde newspaper told me he had been reprimanded by his boss for trying to publish a picture of Castro eating at a dinner party. The comandante could never be shown eating, the journalist was told.

Even the circumstances of Castro’s death may have been a government-staged event. Cuba’s state-controlled media say he died on Nov. 25, which happens to be the same day in which Castro and his fellow guerrillas left from Mexico’s port of Veracruz aboard the Granma yacht in 1955 to start their armed insurrection in Cuba.

The Cuban regime is likely to depict Castro’s death as a heroic venture, in which he will be sailing into the sunset, much like when he started his revolutionary expedition six decades ago.

Third, Castro was a coward because he didn’t allow any political parties. Under the Castro-drafted Cuban constitution, only the Communist Party — over which he presided for decades — is allowed on the island. Any other party is illegal, and its leaders can face many years in prison.

Castro used the U.S. trade embargo on the island as an excuse for prohibiting independent political parties or freedom of assembly. Even after he handed over Cuba’s presidency to his brother Raúl, while remaining a powerful behind-the-scenes figure, the Cuban regime stepped up repression of dissidents — despite President Barack Obama’s 2014 normalization of ties with Cuba.

According to Cuba’s non-official Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, documented political arrests have soared from 6,424 in 2013 to 9,125 so far this year.

Fourth, Castro was a coward because he never allowed international financial institutions to monitor or verify Cuba’s optimistic official statistics.

Castro bragged about Cuba reducing poverty and improving health and education, and much of the international press took those claims at face value. But unlike most other countries, Castro never allowed the World Bank or other international monitoring groups to conduct independent studies on the island.

He bragged about Cuba’s educational advances, but never allowed Cuba to participate in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of 15-year-old students. In fact, many studies show that other countries such as Costa Rica made more social progress than Cuba without paying such a high price in executions, imprisonments and exile.

Fifth, Castro never allowed international human rights groups to conduct on-site investigations into human rights abuses. According to the Cuba Archive ( research group, Castro was responsible for 3,117 documented cases of executions and 1,162 cases of extrajudicial killings. In any other country, he would have been declared a mass murderer long ago.

Sorry, but I’m not impressed by the romantic narrative of Castro being a courageous revolutionary who defied 10 U.S. presidents and survived countless assassination attempts.

Brave leaders are those who have the courage to compete with others in free elections. Castro was an egocentric coward who never dared to allow his people the most basic rights, and who condemned his island to misery. There is no such thing as a good dictator — whether it’s a right-winger like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet or a left-winger like Castro — and he was no exception to the rule.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español.