For Cuban expatriates around the world, especially here in South Florida, the news of Fidel Castro’s death on Nov. 25 was met with a wide array of emotions, mostly loud cheers of jubilation to sighs of long-awaited relief. It was already a holiday weekend, but now even more so for a community that has been awaiting liberation of their homeland for six decades.
Alas, there has been no liberation, as Castro’s brother Raul remains firmly in command of the island nation just 90 miles off Florida’s coast. Yet the heyday of the brutal Castro dictatorship is long gone.
The 90-year-old Castro, ruled Cuba for 49 long, torturous years (he took power in a 1959 revolution), creating a one-party state and becoming a central figure in the Cold War. For five decades, the bearded dictator defied U.S. efforts to topple him. Under his heavy-handed rule, most Cubans lived in poverty, while he and his close associates lived in extreme luxury.
When the word “dictator” is uttered, we usually think of individuals like Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin, of Idi Amin or Castro. All of these, and sadly plenty more through recent history, have used the same playbook when it comes to ruling with an iron fist.
Under Castro, “undesirables” were rounded up and sent to work camps. Those could be political dissents or rivals, as well as minority groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and gays. Castro was a tyrant who imposed communism on Cuba for more than 60 years, while torturing and killing tens of thousands more who disagreed with him. The total of the Castro regime death toll may never be known. Additionally, there was no religious liberty under Castro. Dissidents were tortured, imprisoned or killed. So extreme was Castro’s control, he banned Christmas from being celebrated for 30 years.
There are those who say Castro was misunderstood, that he wasn’t all bad. He built free schools and hospitals, dramatically improving healthcare and the literacy rate. True enough, but at what cost? The ends do not justify the means. As a wise philosopher once said, “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” The facts: Castro ruled with repression and hypocrisy. Government-sponsored censorship prevented people from reading whatever they want. Castro executed thousands by firing squad and sentenced thousands more to jail and hard labor. Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and block leaders kept people in fear of being spied upon, or called out for being anti-Castro.
Two years ago, President Barack Obama began to thaw the decades-long icy relationship between the United States and Cuba. While a trade embargo remains in place, travel restrictions have been lifted, diplomatic relations restored and, as of just recently, direct flights run between South Florida and Havana. Many criticized the move, questioning how the U.S. could work with such a regime, still led by Fidel Castro’s brother. Others offered praise, opining that the previous policy had never worked, so maybe a new tactic was needed. Some have blamed the U.S. trade embargo as the reason life remains so hard for Cubans in Cuba. We disagree. The true reason is not the trade embargo, but an oppressive government that decries capitalist enterprise and controls every aspect of financial betterment.
Raul Castro has taken small steps toward opening the Cuban economy toward limited capitalism. His human rights record, while still dismal, seems to be better than his now-deceased brother. Like two years ago, we continue to support improved relations between the United States and Cuba. Then, as now, it is not about rewarding the terrible Castro regime. It is about pointing the next generation of Cuba’s leaders away from the darkness and into the light.
Fidel Castro is dead, but the damage will last generations. Nevertheless, Cuba must be rebuilt, and the United States should help.