Former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro passed away on Friday at the age of 90. The revolutionary figure towered over Cuba for decades, fiercely rebelling against the United States under a communist ideology that promised equality and happiness but produced very little of it, instead leading millions to flee the state he took over.
While the suffering of the Cuban people under the Castro regime may be clear, many Cubans today still honor the individual who dedicated his life to the Cuban people. Over the weekend, thousands of Cubans have mourned the loss of the charismatic leader who changed the face of a country. But some in Cuba and many more in the United States are celebrating that the man who caused their families so much pain and heartbreak is finally dead, cheering vibrantly the way Cubans welcomed him into Havana 56 years ago.
The difference in the reactions to Castro’s death are astonishing, but the magnitude of Castro’s presence over Cuba cannot be denied. Castro’s legacy matters, as Raul Castro will continue to rule in the spirit of his brother. As we look back at his life, we owe it to ourselves to set the record straight. Is Castro, as former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein says, a “symbol of the struggle for justice,” or is he the evil and monstrous dictator Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio says he is?
Many Cuban Americans, whose families were forced to escape the country under Castro’s reign, would more than likely side with Senator Rubio. In fact, when the news broke late on Friday, millions of people in Miami took to the streets to celebrate Castro’s death into the early hours of Saturday. Those in Florida celebrated the same way millions of East Germans and Eastern Europeans celebrated as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. They were celebrating their freedom.
Castro’s death may very well deal another blow to communism and provide another victory for democracy and liberty. Then again, if nothing changes, his ideology of oppression will still live on alive and well in Cuba. Over the past year, thousands of politically-motivated arrests have been made on the island, while hundreds of churches have been shut down as part of a crackdown on religious liberty. All of this has been under the watch of Raúl Castro.
Yet, President Obama insists that an improved US-Cuban relationship under the deal struck this past summer can change things. In response to Fidel’s death, Obama agreed that Castro impacted individuals in “countless ways” but mentioned none of the victims of the dictator’s ruthless policies. President-Elect Donald Trump, on the other hand, condemned Castro as a “brutal dictator” and claimed that if the Cuban government doesn’t make progress in improving the lives of its people, Obama’s deal will be terminated.
Castro’s legacy cannot be romanticized. Doing so would falsify who Castro really was and allow us to forget the plight of the Cuban people under Fidel and his brother. While Castro may very well have had grand visions for social justice in Cuba, his communist policies achieved none of that. Rather than improving the lives of Cubans, Castro’s thirst for power and iron grip over the country pushed millions to seek a safe haven in the United States, the country that, as the New York Times put it, Castro dared to defy.
While Fidel may be dead, his ideology is not, and that is something the United States must bear in mind as we move forward in our relations with Cuba. Rather than enshrining Castro, we must move on and learn from his legacy – one of greed, persecution, and violence – so that future generations of Cubans can enjoy the freedom that Cubans under Castro never had.