Fidel Castro, the longtime leader of Cuba, died last week at the age of 94. Cuban citizens flocked to revolutionary landmarks across the island to mourn the loss of the leader whose name is as or more synonymous with the island nation than cigars, la rueda, sandwiches, all-star baseball players or the missile crisis that almost led to nuclear war. As the country began a mandatory nine-day period or mourning, many Cubans around the world expressed varying reactions to Fidel’s death. For some, it is the loss of a great leader who put this Caribbean nation of 11 million on the global geopolitical map while fighting for equality for the Cuban people and against imperialism and U.S. Hemispheric dominance. For others, Fidel’s death is an opportunity for closure, an end to the legacy of one of the most brutal dictatorships in history that was characterized by imprisonments and murder of political opponents, the exportation of radical leftist terror, and virtual enslavement of the entire island.
Perhaps the most interesting of the reflections on Fidel’s life came on November 29th, as a cocktail of ambassadors, Latin American presidents, leftist revolutionaries, African dictators, and other envoys gathered in Havana to remember the life of “El Maximo Lider”. The lawyer turned revolutionary turned caudillo was elegantly eulogized by leftist chums like Rafael Correa, Nicholas Maduro, and Daniel Ortega while plausibly like-minded dictator Robert Mugabe had nice things to say about the former Cuban leader. Notably absent were U.S. President Barack Obama and a number of other liberal democracies. The motley crew of Fidel aficionados memorializing the Cuban leader prompts a reflection on his legacy and influence in Latin America.
In the decades after ousting Batista, Fidel became the beacon of leftist guerrilla movements in Latin America. Marxist peasant groups in Nicaragua, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela and Ecuador aimed to recreate the Castro’s revolution with the help of Cuban training. His warm ties with military governments in Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru ensured that Fidelismo’s idealism would have a place at the table throughout the region. Salvador Allende’s election in Chile and subsequent ousting by Pinochet’s forces ushered in a decade where right-wing governments in the southern cone of Latin America expended vast resources to curb leftist movements that modeled their struggle after Fidel’s revolutionary march through Cuba. The Marxist insurgencies in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980’s were directly supported by Fidel.
Fidel was also a player on the global stage. His alliance with the Soviet Union made Cuba an important geopolitical entity and a thorn in the side of U.S. presidents and policy makers for over 30 years. Many Cubans were sent to universities in Eastern Europe, returning to the island to institute one of the world’s top education systems. Fidel even deployed thousands of Cuban soldiers to Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia in support of Communist insurgents. The U.S. established agencies, enacted legislation, and spent millions of dollars to combat Fidelismo.
Fidel’s influence is still being felt. Hugo Chavez openly admired Fidel and set in motion his own style of socialism in Venezuela. Cuba served as a safe haven for Colombia’s FARC rebels and as mediator for their negotiated truce with the Colombian government. In 2010, Cuba’s anti-American stance led to the formation of CELAC, a regional cooperation organization that is the direct rival to the Organization of American States.
History will probably be unkind to Fidel’s totalitarian and tropical style of communism. Yet the brutality of his regime, enslavement of the Cuban people, exportation of leftist terror, and promotion of an invalidated economic model is somehow overshadowed by the romanticism of his Cuban revolution and fight against imperialism. The colorful collection of figures at his memorial service prove that the world lost an influential and controversial figure, no matter where on the socioeconomic political spectrum one lies.