Only the Good Die Young
Certainly, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was neither young (died at 90), let alone good.
To the amazement of many Americans, he manipulated leftist opinion for over 50 years, creating ultimately a benign image that was totally gainsaid by the historical reality. It was as if historians rewrote Adolf Hitler’s biography by creating an avuncular image based on his affection for small children and dogs.
For Fidel Castro was the paradigm of the totalitarian dictator. His rise to power has been almost lost in the mist of guerrilla mythology that says a small band of communists overthrew a right-wing dictator. It was a time when guerrilla movements were the flavor of the era, standing nobly against repressive rightists. And Castro convinced the type of leftist that believed Mao Tse-tung was an “agrarian reformer” that he was a centrist democrat.
Soon after he seized power in 1959, he visited the United States and was lionized at every stop. Castro gave the impression that democracy and human rights were going to bloom in Cuba—and that he wanted nothing to do with communism. But, in short order, he demonstrated the maxim “look at what I do, not what I say,” and Castro and his guerrilla group instituted a hardline communist regime.
Discerning media have noted horrifying elements of his rule:
- He drove almost 20 percent of his population, including many of the best and brightest, into an exile that has lasted 50 years. Thousands died in makeshift watercraft that made the boats now carrying African refugees to Europe look like ocean liners.
- He sponsored terrorism globally, both in Central and South America and even as far afield as Angola. We had some success in thwarting these efforts, hunting down and killing Guevara, Castro’s close companion, in 1967, when Guevara attempted to incite revolution in Bolivia.
- He relentlessly persecuted human rights activists, gays, and religious practitioners, jailing political dissenters on trumped up charges. The State Department’s Human Rights Report regularly identified Cuba as a major human rights abuser.
- He definitively damaged Cuba’s economy, deflating it to Third World status with state-controlled enterprises, leading to economic disaster after economic disaster.
But Castro was able to find allies in selected areas. Following the feckless, ill-conceived 1961 “invasion” by anti-Castro rebels, the United States, by failing to effectively support the invasion, was instrumental in its failure—and Castro survived. Then by ceding substantial control over areas of the country to Moscow, he abetted what was probably the most dangerous moment in the Cold War—the 1962 Cuba missile crisis. But the agreement to end the crisis (although it removed Soviet missiles) resulted in the United States agreeing not to try invading the island.
The frozen frustration persisted; Washington could find no mechanism to shake Castro’s iron-fisted rule (and reportedly, repeated assassination attempts failed), and other countries moved steadily to recognize and normalize diplomatic and economic relations with Havana.
These countries practiced what one observer labeled “tyranny tourism,” with Canadians in the forefront enjoying a cheap, warm winter excursion, giving never a thought to repression just beneath the placid surface. Perhaps most egregious was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s 1967 visit to Cuba, when he all but paid sycophantic homage to Castro while his wife, Margaret, sat at Castro’s feet in adoration. Although Trudeau may have been doing a “one in your eye” to Washington with this visit, it only exacerbated bad bilateral relations.
This “bromance” continued to the extent that Castro was the major international figure present at Trudeau’s funeral in 2000 where, apparently, he exercised the same charm over current PM Justin Trudeau, who himself visited Cuba in November. Trudeau issued a fawning tribute to Castro upon his death (neglecting to mention human rights violations) but, following violent criticism, issued a correction implying that he had overlooked human rights—and belatedly said he would not attend the funeral.
Eventually yielding to global pressure and his own desire to modernize U.S. foreign policy, President Barack Obama moved to normalize relations. In March 2016, Obama visited Havana and reopened our embassy. Unfortunately, we have gotten virtually nothing from this concession: brutal repression continues; there is no opening for democracy; and free enterprise hasn’t evolved.
President-elect Trump, however, has a different attitude. Commenting on Castro’s demise, he had made clear the United States demands quid pro quos for our normalization. And the implication is clear that if they are not forthcoming, we will reverse our soft approach.
There is a new “sheriff” in town.
David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Epoch Times.