He was from youth a strong-willed and charismatic man, certain of the correctness of his ideas and the importance of his mission. It is probably true that in the beginning he genuinely wanted the best for his country, and he was possessed of a burning desire to right the wrongs he saw all around him. Cuba under his predecessors was little more than a huge plantation, exploited at will by corrupt elites and foreign powers. His certitude gave him a charisma which the credulity of the commons mistook for leadership.
He concealed his true intentions long enough to implant himself in the minds of the masses. Once the protective coloration was no longer necessary after 1959, he was able to indulge his passions and proclivities unimpeded by fear. He would pursue those ideas single-mindedly for decades, even after all available evidence suggested that changing course might produce better results. But results were not what was important to him: what mattered was control.
In this he resembled the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse (432-367 B.C.), another despot of a small island (Sicily). Dionysius was famous in antiquity for his arbitrary cruelty and unfortunate longevity. Like Dionysius, Castro’s “success” and survival owed more to the ineptitude of his enemies than it did to the soundness of his ideas, or the brilliance of his plans. Communism was never embraced by more than a small minority of intellectuals, and if the Cuban people knew what he had in store for them, they would have lynched him the moment he rolled into Havana in 1959.
But if he was a dour fanatic, he was not alone. His enemies to the north played right into his hands by refusing to leave him alone; they imposed one pointless embargo on him after another, turning his island into little more than a hermetically-sealed hacienda for the use of himself and his cronies. In that respect, one can look at the Castro era with a nod to the old proverb: “Evil against evil.” In other words, he and his enemies deserved each other.
As time went on and isolation took its toll, he retreated more and more into dictatorial fantasies and self-aggrandizing delusion. Like Dionysius of Syracuse, he found validation in his own longevity, thinking that it conferred on him legitimacy. It did not. His foreign policy was little more than defiance and venom, but even venom loses its toxicity after a time; and when this was gone, nothing remained but empty rhetoric.
His appearance on the world scene and freakish survival owe more to accident than to the strength of his abilities. Islands and peninsulas are notoriously easy to dominate for long periods. His existence served a purpose in Washington, and the United States served a purpose in Castro’s liturgy. Each actor fed off the worst impulses and proclivities of the other. In the end, his record was a middling one. Cuba’s economic “development” (what little there was) under his rule would almost certainly have occurred even without communism–look at Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia today compared to what they were in 1950–once we consider the incredible work ethic of the Cuban people and the trends in the region since the 1960s.
Against this damning indictment, we can possibly say a few positive words, although these do not begin to balance the scales from the weight of the negatives already described above. He did provide some sense of national “pride” in the form of cubanismo; his social system did, it must be admitted, manage to raise the health and educational standards of the average person, when one looks at the median. But we cannot say that these limp positives outweigh the accumulated negatives. Every inmate has health care and a plate of food; but a man needs more than that to survive.
He must ultimately be accounted a failure because he never rose to mastery of his passions. His learning was superficial and cherry-picked to service his own delusions; greater travel and contact with outsiders might have mitigated the worst of his impulses, but he would not permit dissenting ideas to contradict his dogmas. His career demonstrates the dangers of elevating emotion and intellect over character and morals; perhaps a humanistic education in the classical mold might have forged and tamed his energetic and proud character. We will never know.
He left the peasantry nearly as bad as he found it, and drove off men of intelligence and ability with his refusal to be contradicted on any point of substance. His adherence to communism represents nothing but pious cruelty in the service of a bankrupt ideal. Perhaps the final verdict on Castro must wait for another decade, in order to see how quickly the country climbs out of the stagnation his rule has left it in.
But for now, we can say with some assurance that it would have been better for Cuba if he had never been born.