In January of 2007 I boarded a Cubana Air flight from Nassau to Havana with 12 classmates from my university for a semester-long study abroad program. As our Soviet aircraft sputtered over the Caribbean, three middle-aged Poles seated next to me—in plain view of an indifferent flight crew—opened a bottle of vodka, poured shots and dispersed them throughout the cabin, toasting Fidel Castro. “We are here for the funeral,” they told me. In late 2006, after a considerable time out of the public spotlight, Fidel relinquished control over the state to his younger brother, Raul. Many interpreted the move as an attempt to ensure a smooth transition of power as rumors swirled around the failing health of the then 80-year-old Castro.
That semester in Cuba was chock full of life lessons, some of them superficial (don’t inhale when smoking a cigar—you will throw up) and others, such as the value and importance of perspective, much more meaningful. In Cuba, an island only 90 miles from Key West, Florida, I discovered a counter-narrative that went against most of everything I’d been taught in U.S. history class, and that challenged my understanding of the United States and its place in the world.
Fidel Castro, for all his faults (and he had plenty), defied and often outwitted the United States for over 50 years. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the U.S. Congress’ subsequent passage of the Helms-Burton Act (1996), an act designed to demoralize the Cuban people and foment internal opposition, Fidel’s Cuba survived. It survived by forging alliances with countries like China and Venezuela to help minimize the island’s economic vulnerability. While Cuba’s economy never fully recovered from the Soviet collapse, its resilience and mere survival earned the respect of the developing world, which had long looked to Cuba as an alternative model to post-colonial dignity.
For the next week or so we will all be exposed to articles and obituaries that emphasize Castro’s faults: how he clung on to power for too long, his regime’s often brutal suppression of political opposition, or how he came to embody the same tyranny that in 1959 he fought to overthrow. While this may—to varying extents—be true, they only tell part of the story. The other side, in which he successfully overthrew an oppressive, U.S. –supported military dictatorship, and under his leadership brought literacy and infant mortality rates to levels usually reserved for the most developed nations, don’t receive equal attention. Instead of subscribing to one narrative over the other, I hope both will be taken into account, perhaps not in deciding whether or not to absolve him, but in order to better understand him.