Fidel, a hero nobody wants to imitate

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 2, 2016


The death of Fidel Castro has triggered a wave of tributes to the political legacy of a larger-than-life figure. Those mourning his passing have expressed solidarity, admiration and respect for his legacy, but they have refrained from expressing a desire to imitate the road Fidel chose to rise to power or the political and economic model he offered Cuba.


Fidel Castro is indisputably the most important 20th-century political leader from Latin America. The 1958 Cuban revolution redefined the United States’ relations with the region. A small island that had been treated by the US as its own backyard successfully revolted against the most powerful nation on earth. The idealism of the revolutionaries captured the imagination of a generation of young leaders from Latin America who aspired to deliver social justice, dignity, development and to reduce poverty in the region. In 1959 — and for a good part of the 1960s and 1970s, when several Latin American countries were ruled by right-wing dictatorships — the Cuban Revolution stood as a beacon of hope for many who believed that the underdevelopment in the region had been caused by US imperialism and that capitalism ought to be replaced with socialism.


By siding with the Soviet Union, Castro also mounted a direct challenge to the Monroe Doctrine. After more than a century of Washington’s political hegemony in the region, the Cuban Revolution delivered a heavy blow to the United States at a time when the Soviet Union was well on its way toward increasing its influence around the world. In forging an alliance with the Soviets, Cuba brought the Cold War to Latin America. Several guerrilla organizations formed in different Latin American countries were directly inspired by Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.


The US reacted violently, helping to undermine democracies that were perceived as unfriendly to the US. Washington preferred to support friendly dictatorships in the region more than risk tolerating unfriendly democracies and losing more countries to the revolutionary wave initiated by Castro.


In redefining US-Latin American relations, Fidel also consolidates his position as a regional leader. For the second half of the 20th century, he was the most important and controversial leader in Latin America. Though others attempted to emerge as alternative leaders, they did not last as long as Fidel did. Costa Rican president Óscar Arias might have won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his efforts to bring peace to Central America and Brazil president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva attempted to redefine the left when he came to power in Brazil in 2002. But nobody had Fidel’s influence. The only other leader in the region who was able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Fidel, in terms of influence and leadership, was Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader who passed away in 2013. Just like Fidel, Chávez was fiercely anti-US American.


Never a democrat

It is true that Fidel was never a democrat, but considering the region was overwhelmingly governed by authoritarians from the 1960s to the 1980s, Fidel showed positive results in terms of access to education and health and they serve as arguments in favour of his brand of non-democratic governments.


But when democracy become the only game in town in the early 1990s in Latin America, Fidel became a headache for Latin American leaders who promoted democracy yet valued the efforts the Cuban revolution had made to resist and the firm stance it took against US imperialism. Fidel turned into a dearly beloved uncle whom nobody wants around because he just does not fit into the new reality.


His passing is a momentous political event. Even opponents have recognised Castro’s role in the political events that marked the 20th century. Unsurprisingly, leaders who felt inspired by Castro have made public their admiration for the iconic figure. In praising his legacy, some have even decided to ignore the fact that Fidel was a dictator. In recognising his contribution to the dignity of Latin America and to social justice, they have forgotten to mention that human rights are violated in Cuba and that the 58-year old revolution has never held competitive elections. Because those leaders are honouring the memory of Fidel, their decision to overlook some of the evident downsides of his legacy can be understood in context (though that double standard by democratic leaders who choose to ignore some human rights violations should never be justified).


The real insight that the condolences and grieving messages issued by many Latin American leaders, is that they are associated with the contradiction that exists in calling Fidel Castro a leader, fighter, example and inspiration while, at the same time, refrain from referring to him as an inspiration to imitate. Latin American leaders are happy to call Fidel a hero and a towering figure — but they seem uninterested in following along on the same path that Fidel took to reach power and gain influence around the world. In that sense, Fidel is truly a leader of the past.


His legacy is undeniable and his life inspired many people in the past, but in the eulogies that have abounded since he died, the notion of Castro as a model for the future and inspiration has been conspicuously absent.