How will Fidel Castro be remembered? Will history absolve him, as he defiantly proclaimed as a young revolutionary in the early 1950s? Or will he end up like so many other Latin American strongmen, who wielded immense power in their time but are now vilified in history books?
One of the few things that can be stated with some degree of certainty is that Castro will go down in history as the most powerful Latin American caudillo of the 20th Century.
There were other populist leaders in the region who drew massive crowds at home and commanded international attention — Juan Peron in Argentina, Getulio Vargas in Brazil, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela — but none played as large a role in world affairs as Castro.
Peron and Chavez, perhaps the Latin American leaders most comparable to Castro, nationalized foreign companies, organized massive street demonstrations in their support and embraced a fiery anti-imperialist rhetoric. But Peron never became a central player in the Cold War between the two superpowers that dominated world affairs for much of the second half of the 20th century, and Chavez's dreams to become the Third World's leader fizzled as soon as oil prices began to decline in the late 2000’s.
Castro, by comparison, not only brought the world to the brink of nuclear war during the 1962 missile crisis, but for several decades was a major backer of insurgent movements and leftist regimes in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.
Beyond that, whether history will be generous to the longest-ruling Latin American dictator is a major question mark. If Latin American history is any guideline, there are reasons to believe that Castro's image as a benevolent dictator who stood up against the United States — as he has long been seen in parts of Latin America — will be overshadowed by a cold analysis of the shattered country he left behind, and by his brutal repression of political and press freedoms.
In the short run, history's verdict is likely to depend on which group ultimately takes power after the departure of Castro and brother Raul. History, after all, is written by the winners.
If Cuban opposition forces rise to power in the coming years, as happened in most Eastern European countries after the fall of communism, Castro is likely to go down in history as a despot who left his country in ruins and suppressed virtually all civil rights.
If the Communist Party remains a powerful force in Cuban politics, as Argentina's Peronista Party did after Peron's death, Castro's followers will most likely rally around the memory of his achievements, real or imagined. Some aspects of his regime — such as his defying the United States, or his policies to guarantee free health and education services for all — may be supported by future Cuban politicians, even if they are likely to distance themselves from Castro's totalitarian ways.
A MAJOR ADVANTAGE
Castro's many political stands could support almost any cause.
From that point of view, Castro will have a major advantage: He has been in power for so long, and has espoused so many — and conflicting — political stands, that almost any cause has the potential of being used by future politicians as inspired by him. Future politicians may quote Castro the democrat, before his public conversion to communism in the early years of the revolution; Castro the communist in the 1960s; Castro the Third World nonaligned leader, as he presented himself in the 1970s; Castro the leader of a developing nation who warned against a unipolar world in the late 1980s; Castro the supporter of state-supervised capitalism in the 1990s; or Castro the humanist Christian, the image he sought to project during Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998.
Anthony Maingot, a longtime Castro watcher and professor emeritus of Florida International University, has stated that historians will be fighting for a long time over Castro's true ideology. Castro may end up like Karl Marx, who went through several political stages in his writings, which are respectively described as his true beliefs by his various biographers.
“Historians will be asking themselves, who was the real Fidel? The first one, the democrat who fought against a dictatorship? The second one, the revolutionary who took power to help the poor? Or the third one, Fidel the Stalinist?” Maingot said. “In the end, it will very much depend on how he is perceived to have behaved in his last moments in power. The last years are the crucial ones, because those are the ones historians look at the most.”
Most likely, Castro's image is likely to be shattered, as the influence of his closest allies wanes and long-suppressed horror stories from his political enemies and previously intimidated victims of his regime come to the surface. Once the floodgates of information are opened, there will be an avalanche of gruesome testimony from political prisoners and other victims of his regime, many of whose stories had been largely dismissed as anti-Castro propaganda.
As happened in the aftermath of other long dictatorships, many Cubans are likely to be shocked by these revelations, which they ignored — or chose to ignore — during the Castro era. In Cuba's case, the pent-up resentment against its longtime leader may be greater than in other countries that have endured extended periods of authoritarian rule.
Few regimes have been in power for so long, and kept such a tight lid on information. Unlike other Latin American de facto regimes, which often tolerated independent newspapers and between-the-lines criticism of their presidents, Cuba's censorship has not allowed the slightest criticism of the country's Maximum Leader for the past five decades.
During most of Castro's time in power, no newspapers outside the control of the Communist Party were allowed, and the Cuban leader's image was protected to the point that his private life was out of bounds for the media.
For decades, Cubans did not see any picture of their president in civilian clothes or in social gatherings. They were only allowed to see images of their comandante carrying out his official duties in his olive green uniform — talking in front of a microphone, greeting visiting dignitaries or taking part in patriotic activities like cutting sugar cane.
In the early 1990s, a senior journalist with the Communist Party Youth daily Juventud Rebelde privately complained to me that he had received a memo reminding editors that it was strictly forbidden to publish pictures of the comandante eating. The memo followed an incident in which one Juventud Rebelde editor had tried to run a picture showing Castro at a tourism hotel's dedication ceremony, holding a shrimp over his open mouth.
The editor said the picture was censored by higher-ups and never made it to the newspaper.
“We can't show him eating, we can't show him resting, we can't show his family.... He has to be larger than life,” the editor said after the incident.
If what happened in Russia and Eastern Europe is any indication, Cubans are likely to be deluged with revelations about Castro's private life and political blunders once they are allowed to read about them.
Screaming headlines are likely to give new details of the hundreds of mansions at Castro's disposal in Cuba, the foreign bank accounts with government funds that he used as he pleased and the privileges enjoyed by his children from various marriages and liaisons. Five decades of press censorship are likely to come back with a vengeance against the once larger-than-life maximum leader.
There will also be an avalanche of criticism of Castro's quixotic scientific experiments, such as his orders to Cuban scientists to genetically produce mini-cows that would be given by the state to each household to produce free milk, or his multimillion-dollar programs to produce miraculous cures for everything from AIDS to impotence.
Programs that were once sold to the Cuban people as definitive solutions to their country's misery will be seen as the crazy ideas of a hallucinating tyrant.
Of course, some Cubans may come to remember the Castro days with mixed feelings, and even some nostalgia. Much like Chile after Pinochet, or Paraguay following the fall of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, or Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, Cuba's political opening — whether it is sudden or gradual — may be traumatic.
As street crime rises and a growing economy creates a newly affluent middle class, there may be nostalgia for the times when law and order prevailed, and when the little the government had to give was shared more or less evenly among all members of society.
But, barring a historical world shift away from democracy, these partial vindications of Castro's rule are likely to be eclipsed by his totalitarian ways in the eyes of future generations.
Future history books may talk at length about Castro's efforts to create an egalitarian society, and may even grant him some temporary successes in improving Cuba's health and education standards, but the first lines of his biographies will not be able to avoid referring to him as a dictator. Much like happened with Chile's military ruler Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who was called “president” by the international media while he was in power, and “dictator” as soon as he left office, Castro is not likely to escape the D word.
No Latin American president in the 20th Century kept a tighter grip on power than Castro, nor remained in power for so long. Paraguay's Stroessner spent 35 years in office, Chile's Pinochet ruled for 17 years and Haiti's Francois Duvalier for 14 years.
Nicaragua's Somoza family ruled either from the presidency or behind the scenes for 43 years. The Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo held the presidency twice — 1930-38 and 1942-52 — and controlled the country for 31 years. But neither the Somozas nor Trujillo held absolute power as long as Castro. Not even Latin America's absolute rulers of the 19th Century matched Castro's stretch in office. Argentina's Juan Manuel de Rosas ruled ruthlessly for 23 years and Paraguay's Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, who held the title of El Supremo, governed for 26 years. Most of them are now seen as men who led their nations into dark periods of backwardness.
Even Peron, whose image in Argentina's history books was cleaned and embellished following the victory of a Peronist party government in the ’80s, has not escaped the years of criticism that preceded his public rehabilitation.
“Today, in Argentina, the defense of Peron is not as passionate as it used to be,” said late Argentine Peron biographer Tomas Eloy Martinez. “Even his supporters concede that Peron's authoritarian traits created the seeds for the military regimes that followed.”
If the world continues on its globalization course, and the recent U.S.-Cuba agreement to normalize relations continues to bring together the two countries, Castro's anti-U.S. rhetoric — the political weapon that made his so popular among many Latin Americans — will become a liability.
Many Cubans may remember Castro as a narcissist leader who carried out a deranged venture to challenge the United States for personal political gain, instead of taking advantage of Cuba's proximity to the world's largest market in order to improve the island's standard of living.
As Cubans look to the United States for help to rebuild their country, many may shrug off the question of whether Castro will be absolved by history.
They may conclude that, as Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner once said, history may absolve Castro, but geography will condemn him.