WASHINGTON, November 27, 20176 – Fidel Castro’s death at the age of 90 marks the end of a long life spent brutally inflicting a tyrannical regime upon the people of Cuba. People with AIDS were confined to sanitariums. Artists and writers were forced to join an official Union and told that their work must support the Castro regime.
In 1965, Castro admitted to holding 20,000 political prisoners. Foreign observers said the number was twice as high. The Castro regime carried out thousands of political executions.
Fidel Castro eliminated the celebration of Christmas. There were no elections and only a state-controlled press. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans simply left, most of them for the United States, until Castro imposed restrictions, making it almost impossible to leave the country.
In April 1980, he opened the port of Mariel to any Cuban wishing to leave. More than 125,000 people, branded as “worms” and “scum” by Castro, took advantage of the “boatlift” before it ended in October of that year.
By 1994, economic conditions were so bad that riots in Havana were followed by another exodus. Thousands fled from the country’s beaches on makeshift rafts.
Once one of the richest countries in Latin America, under Castro, Cuba sank into decay and poverty and the diet of Cubans is now rich on black beans and rice. Castro himself lived in luxury. His former bodyguard, Juan Sanchez, reports the Castro lived on a private island, Cayo Pledra, and liked to travel aboard a large yacht the Asuarama II, complete with Soviet-built engines, .
After taking power, Castro turned on former comrades who naively thought his “revolution” would bring democracy, not tyranny. One of them, Huber Matos, a long time democratic opponent of the dictator Fulgencio Batista, protested against Castro’s increasing closeness with Moscow. After a show-trial, including a 7-hour tirade of denunciation by Castro. Matos was jailed for 20 years, 16 in solitary confinement, during which he was repeatedly tortured.
Another victim was the poet Armando Valladeres, originally a supporter of the revolution who, as Castro’s anti-democratic policies emerged refused to put a “I’m With Fidel” sign on his office desk.
He was charged with “terrorism” and sentenced to 30 years. He served 8,000 days, 20 years, often confined to cells so small he could not lie down, first sent to the huge complex on Isla de Pinos, where 100 lbs. of foodstuffs each day were allotted to feed 6,000 prisoners.
Ironically, during the Batista regime, Fidel Castro had been held in the same prison. But Valladeres points out, in his book “Against All Hope,”
“he had been allowed visitors, national and international news, uncensored books, unlimited correspondence, a conjugal pavilion, and any food he wanted. He had never been mistreated.”
In his book Valladeres quotes from a letter written by Castro on April 4, 1955:
“I get sun several hours every afternoon…I’m taking two baths a day now…I’m going to have dinner…spaghetti and squid, Italian chocolates for dessert, then fresh-brewed coffee…Don’t you envy me?…What would Karl Marx say about such revolutionaries?”
Under Castro, prison was quite different. Valladares and his fellow inmates suffered repeated beatings at the hands of the guards and were isolated for long stretches of time. Often, they were taken to punishment cells where they were held naked, unwashed and unable to escape the stench and disease produced by their own accumulating wastes.
The food was the equivalent of a near-starvation diet. Less than a pound was allotted for every fifty prisoners each day, and this included almost no protein or vitamins.
The level of medical care in the prisons was reminiscent of the Nazi death camps. After repeated beatings, Valladeres was suffering excruciating pain in his leg. He writes that,
“The military doctor was a Communist who tried to look like Lenin, wearing the same kind of goatee…He wore the uniform of a doctor but was a sadist. When I asked for medical care, he looked through the peephole, stared at my leg, and told me he hoped it turned into a good case of gangrene, ‘so I can come in myself and cut it off.'”
While Fidel Castro imposed a totalitarian regime upon the people of Cuba he was, somehow, viewed in heroic terms by many Americans and Western intellectuals. Author Norman Mailer, the pillar of many radical causes, declared:
“So Fidel Castro, I announce to the City of New York that you gave all of us who are alone in this country…some sense that there were heroes in the world…It was as if the ghost of Cortez had appeared in our century riding Zapata’s white horse. You were the first and greatest hero to appear in the world since the Second World War.”
Elizabeth Sutherland, book and arts editor of The Nation, wrote,
“He (Castro) seems, first of all, utterly devoted to the welfare of his people—and his people are the poor, not the rich.”
Author Jonathan Kozol declared,
“Each of my two visits to Cuba was a pilgrimage and an adventure.” The writer Susan Sontag wrote that, “…it seems sometimes as if the whole country (Cuba) is high on some beneficial kind of speed, and has been for years.”
Frank Mankiewicz, once an aide to Sen. George McGovern and later head of National Public Radio, visited Cuba with Kirby Jones and wrote a book lauding the revolution. He and Jones found Castro “one of the most charming and entertaining men either of us had ever met.”
Author France’s Fitzgerald, originally a sympathizer with the Cuban revolution, observed that,
“Many North American radicals who visited Cuba or live there have performed a kind of surgery on their critical faculties and reduced their conversation to a form of baby talk, in which everything is wonderful including the elevator that does not work and the rows of Soviet tanks on military parade that are in ‘the hands of the people.”
When Castro visited New York in 1995 to address the U.N., Mort Zuckerman, owner of The New York Daily News, hosted a reception for him at his penthouse on Fifth Avenue. Time Magazine declared, “Fidel,Takes Manhattan!” Newsweek called Castro “The Hottest Ticket in Manhattan.”
The adoration of Castro by Western intellectuals was hardly unique. They also embraced Stalin. In 1954, the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre returned from a visit to the Soviet Union and declared that Soviets did not travel, not because they were prevented from doing so, but because they had no desire to leave their wonderful country. “The Soviet citizens,” he declared, “criticize their government much more, and more effectively, than we do. There is total freedom of criticism in the Soviet Union.”
Even during Stalin’s purge trials, many Western intellectuals warmly embraced the brutal dictator. Playwright Lillian Hellman, for example, visited Moscow in October 1937, at the height of the trials, and returned to sign an ad in the Communist publication New Masses which approved of them.
She even supported the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland. Discussing Stalin’s powers, the British writers Beatrice and Sidney Webb wrote:
“He (Stalin) has not even the extensive power which the Congress of the U.S. has temporarily conferred on President Roosevelt or that which the American Constitution entrusts for four years to every successive President…Stalin is not a dictator…he is the duly elected representative of one of the Moscow constituencies of the Supreme Soviet…” (“The Truth About Soviet Russia,” 1942).
The world’s reaction to Fidel Castro’s death gives little indication that a brutal dictator has died. Vladimir Putin called Castro “a wise and strong leader…an inspiring example for all the world’s people’s.”
Naredim Modi, president of India, called Castro “one of the most iconic personalities of the 20th century.” Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, himself a brutal dictator, called Castro “a great leader.” Even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau referred to him as “a remarkable leader.”
It is important that the world recognize Fidel Castro’s real legacy.
Yale historian Carlos Eire portrays that legacy in these terms:
“He turned Cuba into a colony of the Soviet Union and nearly caused a nuclear holocaust. He sponsored terrorism wherever he could and allied himself with many of the worst dictators on Earth. He was responsible for so many thousands of executions and disappearances in Cuba that a precise number is hard to reckon. He brooked no dissent and built concentration camps and prisons at an unprecedented rate, filling them to capacity, incarcerating a higher percentage of his own people than most other modern dictators, including Stalin. ..He persecuted gay people and tried to eradicate religion. He censored all means of expression and communication…He created a two-tier health-care system, with inferior medical care for the majority of Cubans and superior care for himself and his oligarchy…”
Why Fidel Castro attracted admirers in our own society is part of the larger question of why Stalin and Communism itself had appeal to men and women who seemed indifferent to Communism’s rejection of free speech, free elections, a free press, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and had contempt for the rights of minorities, racial, religious, ethnic and sexual choice.
Now that Fidel Castro is dead, perhaps those who admired him will take a closer look at his legacy, one which the suffering Cuban people will, hopefully, overcome and move beyond to a better, freer, and more prosperous future.