Image courtesy of Reuters

Fidel Castro Dead at Age 90

| published November 26, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Fidel Castro, arguably the most dedicated and tenacious defender of Marxist-Leninist political thought and communist philosophy of the latter half of the 20th Century, has died at the age of 90 after several years of faltering health.

Castro took control of the levers of power in Cuba after a long civil war and a dramatic coup, soon thereafter establishing himself as an unchallenged dictator with a foothold only 90 miles from Florida. Castro became a staunch adherent of communist doctrine in the late 1950s, when he successfully toppled the pro-American government of Fulgencio Bastista, quashing political opposition and establishing the island nation as a prominent readout of pro-Moscow socialism. The rise of Castro as Cuba’s intractable leader spawned an adversarial relationship with the United States which lasted for decades.

Fidel Castro’s younger brother Raul Castro, who took the principal reins of power when Fidel Castro fell ill several years ago, went on Cuban television to announce to the world the death of the ailing dictator. Raul Castro said that his brother passed away quietly at 10:29 p.m. late Friday night, but gave no specific cause of death.

In Havana late Friday night and early Saturday morning there was mourning and sadness at the loss of an iconic leader who maintained absolute control of the country for nearly half a century. In Miami, where thousands of anti-communist Cuban exiles still live, there were celebrations in the streets, and joy that their nemesis—a dictator who ruled by imprisoning tens of thousands of political opponents and who maintained strict control over state-run media—was finally gone from the world scene.

U.S. President Barack Obama issued a statement early on Saturday, offering what he termed “the hand of friendship” to Cuba and its people, and stressing that the tentative new relationship between the two old adversaries could now move on to its next logical chapter. Obama offered condolences to Castro’s extended family, and said that Fidel Castro’s looming legacy would leave a deep imprint on history, for better or for worse. Referring to the thaw in relations between the two countries, Obama stressed that now was the time to “put the past behind us.”

Working with the U.S. State Department, Obama had made it one of his central foreign policy goals in recent years to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba after decades of Cold War distrust. Obama became the first American president in many decades to visit Cuba since it became a bastion of communism in 1959.

Castro became the very embodiment of communist leadership, acting as a constant foil to U.S. interests in the Caribbean region and in Central America, and establishing himself as a permanent adversary to every American president since Eisenhower. Castro challenged U.S. foreign policy at every turn, especially in Central America but also overseas—Cuba provided troops in several proxy wars in Africa where Soviet-backed interests clashed with right wing groups or anti-communist insurgents.

The familiarly bearded leader became a thorn in the side of U.S. foreign policy interests for decades, even as the island nation of Cuba was effectively cut off from aid or support from the United States and scores of its European and South American allies. Cuba suffered under severe economic sanctions, trade embargoes, and strict travel restrictions which lasted for decades, some of which were only lifted in December 2014 and early 2015 by U.S. President Barack Obama. For some 30 years, Cuba maintained much of its internal economic stability only through heavy direct support and aid from Moscow, which provided food, agricultural supplies, machine parts, medicine, and other materials.

Castro also remained staunchly committed to the Marxist-Leninist ideology long after the collapse of the communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union, and he largely refused to allow his country to easily adapt to the economic and social changes which swept much of the globe throughout the 1990s and early Aught years.

Among his historical legacies: Castro was at the center of the storm during the period known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 13-day standoff which began in October 1962 when U.S. intelligence analysts, examining high altitude surveillance photos, discovered that Russian missiles—some tipped with nuclear warheads—were being delivered to Cuba and emplaced in launch facilities in several locations on the island. Not long after the start of the crisis, American intelligence officials determined that some of those medium and long range rockets would be able to strike at cities across much of the United States. The crisis precipitated the most dangerous confrontation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. of the Cold War period, and triggered widespread fears of a nuclear war between the super powers.

Over the decades, Castro also survived several assassination and coup attempts, some of which were organized by the CIA. Most famously, he easily rebounded from the so-called Bay of Pigs operation in 1961, when U.S. and CIA-backed anti-Castro military and paramilitary forces were inserted onto Cuban beaches, only to have their invasion attempt fail within hours. Castro emerged more strengthened than ever from the Bay of Pigs incident, and then-President John F. Kennedy was forced to make a very public acknowledgement of the fiasco, which he privately blamed on a combination of faulty intelligence, poor planning, and overly-optimistic estimates by those officials at the CIA and the Pentagon who had pushed for the operation.

After the Bay of Pigs, the dictator became politically even stronger at home, and became known worldwide for his iconic cigars, his impressive beard, his drab workingman uniform still neatly pressed, and his impassioned, thundering speeches which often including vociferous rants against the United States, its allies and its military and economic interests.

By the late 1980s, most foreign policy analysts regarded his decades-old regime as alternately economically antiquated, politically calcified, and wholly dependent upon the Soviet Union for day-to-day survival. With the collapse of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall in the early 1990s, some expected Castro to follow suit, using the moment as a pragmatic opening to modernize and reform Cuba. Castro instead dug in his heels, chiding the new leaders in Moscow and Eastern Europe for their abandonment of the socialist causes, and renouncing the new personal and economic freedoms then flowing so easily toward those who had lived in the long shadow of the Soviet Union and Marxist philosophy. By the end of the 1990s, Castro was by most definitions a holdout in a world rapidly shifting toward a more complex global economy, and he and his brother Raul were sometimes compared to the Kim dynasty in North Korea, another state which remained both isolated and dogmatically committed to Communism.

Castro’s health had been failing in recent years as he advanced into his late 80s. He was known to suffer from emphysema and arthritis, but his condition had become increasingly frail during the last one year. Condolences came from several current left-wing world leaders, including Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, who declared that Fidel Castro set the standard for socialist leadership, and that Castro had been a decisive force for Marxist-Leninist philosophy in the region.

Sadness and grief in Havana—where many restaurants and shops closed early Saturday—was matched by exultations and happiness in Old School Cuban communities across the United States, especially in South Florida, where large remnants of anti-Castro Cuban ex-patriots have lived for decades, many of them vehemently anti-communist. As one of the enduring examples of communist dictatorship, Castro was widely despised by those who were forced to flee Cuba with the fall of Batista in 1959, and by successive generations of conservative Cuban Americans who hoped for a return to democracy and capitalism in Cuba.

In Miami and Tampa, some anti-Castro Cubans took to the streets to celebrate the death of someone they widely considered antithetical to their beliefs and philosophies. Among anti-communist Americans, Castro was reviled for his implementation of half a century of dictatorship—a tightly controlled press, suppression of religious freedoms, jails and prisons crowded with political opponents, a single-party state, stringent Marxist-Leninist market controls, suppression of artistic and literary expressions, and a near-total moratorium on travel abroad. Freedom to assemble was allowed only if Fidel Castro or one of his closest supporters were making a public appearance.

Some foreign policy analysts and U.S. lawmakers now sense that relations between the U.S. and Cuba may now stand at an important hinge. With the death of Fidel Castro, the central question now becomes whether the old deep antagonisms that once dominated relations between the two countries will now dissipate organically as brother Raul seeks to reform and modernize, or will the vitriol continue between two adversaries still locked in a very old Cold War battle of wills and words.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The United States, Cuba, Democracy and Dissent; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; April 12, 2016.

Cuba Relations & Baseball: Just Let 'Em Play; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; January 28, 2015.