“When I was 23 years old I refused to do something that at the time seemed very small. I refused to say a few words, ‘I’m with Fidel.’ First, I refused to sign on my desk at the postal office that said that, and after years of torture and watching many fellow fighters die, either in body or in spirit, I still refused to say those words.
“If I just said those three words, I would have been release from prison.
“My story is proof that a small act of defiance can mean everything for the friends of liberty. They did not keep me in jail for 22 years because my refusal to say three words meant nothing. In reality those three words meant everything.
“For me to say those words would have constituted a type of spiritual suicide. Even though my body was in prison and being tortured, my soul was free and it flourished. My jailers took everything away from me, but they could not take away my conscience or my faith.”
– Armando Valladares, The Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2016, p. A 19
“Fidel Castro jailed political prisoners at a higher rate than Stalin during the Great Terror. He murdered more Cubans in his first three years in power than Hitler murdered Germans during his first six. Alone among world leaders, Castro came to within inches of igniting a global nuclear holocaust.”
– Humberto Fontova The Longest Romance: The Mainstream Media and Fidel Castro
Castro took power on New Year’s Day in 1959 serenaded by the Western media for toppling dictator Fulgencio Batista and promising democracy. He soon revealed that his goal was to impose Communist rule. He exiled clergy, took over Catholic schools and expropriated businesses. Firing squads and dungeons eliminated rivals and dissenters.
The terror produced a mass exodus. An April 1961 attempt by the CIA and a small force of expatriate Cubans to overthrow Castro was crushed at the Bay of Pigs in a fiasco for the Kennedy Administration. Castro aligned himself with the Soviet Union, and their 1962 attempt to establish a Soviet missile base on Cuba nearly led to nuclear war. The crisis was averted after President Kennedy sent warships to intercept the missiles, but the Soviets extracted a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba again.
The Cuba that Castro inherited was developing but relatively prosperous. It ranked third in Latin America in doctors and dentists and daily calorie consumption per capita. Its infant-mortality rate was the lowest in the region and the 13th lowest in the world. Cubans were among the most literate Latins and had a vibrant civic life with private professional, commercial, religious and charitable organizations.
Castro destroyed all that. He ruined agriculture by imposing collective farms, making Cuba dependent first on the Soviets and later on oil from Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. In the past half century Cuba’s export growth has been less than Haiti’s, and now even doctors are scarce because so many are sent abroad to earn foreign currency. Hospitals lack sheets and aspirin. The average monthly income is $20 and government food rations are inadequate.
All the while Fidel and his brother Raúl sought to spread their Communist revolution throughout the world, especially in Latin America. They backed the FARC in Colombia, the Shining Path in Peru and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Their propaganda about peasant egalitarian movements beguiled thousands of Westerners, from celebrities like Sean Penn and Danny Glover to Secretary of State John Kerry, who on a visit to Havana called the U.S. and Cuba “prisoners of history.” The prisoners are in Cuban jails.
On this score, President Obama’s morally antiseptic statement Saturday on Castro is an insult to his victims. “We know that this moment fills Cubans—in Cuba and in the United States—with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation,” Mr. Obama said. “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.” Donald Trump, by contrast, called Castro a “dictator” and expressed hope for a “free Cuba.”
Mr. Obama’s 2014 decision to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations has provided new business opportunities for the regime but has yielded nothing in additional freedom. Americans can now travel and make limited investment in Cuba but hard-currency wages for workers are confiscated by the government in return for nearly worthless pesos. In 2006 Forbes estimated Fidel’s net worth, based on his control of “a web of state-owned companies,” at $900 million.
The hope of millions of Cubans, exiled and still on the island, has been that Fidel’s death might finally lead to change, but unwinding nearly six decades of Castro rule will be difficult. The illusions of Communism have given way to a military state that still arrests and beats women on their way to church. China and Russia both allow more economic freedom. The regime fears that easing up on dissent, entrepreneurship or even access to the internet would lead to its inevitable demise.
Castro’s Cuba exists today as a reminder of the worst of the 20th century when dictators invoked socialist ideals to hammer human beings into nails for the state. Too many Western fellow-travelers indulged its fantasies as long as they didn’t have to live there. Perhaps the influence of Cuba’s exiles will be able, over time, to reseed the message of liberty on the island. But freedom starts by seeing clearly the human suffering that Fidel Castro wrought.