Death, in general, is complicated to talk about and emotionally charged, but the death of controversial political figures can stir up even stronger feelings. In the wake of Fidel Castro’s death, we are faced with the same question we had when Antonin Scalia and Nancy Reagan died earlier this year: how do we talk about and remember highly politicized people after their passing? The recent election has magnified already heightened feelings of polarization and division, making finding a balanced analysis of a politician's life nearly impossible. This is especially true for a person as polemic as Castro. In order to truly understand figures like the late Cuban leader, it is important to step back and contextualize his rule, taking a holistic approach to examining his life.
Since the ‘50s, Castro’s portrait has been defined by political struggle, socialism and violent controversy. He rose to power in a tumultuous time in Cuba. The US-backed dictator-come-President of the country, Fulgencio Batista had suspended the constitution, was gutting popular institutions and was suppressing dissidents through torture and public executions. Castro, staunchly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, spearheaded an insurgency against him, overthrowing a government that an American analyst called, “a corrupt… open invitation to revolution.” While it is easy to cast Castro’s revolution as nothing but a power thirsty guerilla’s coup, it is intellectually dishonest to do so.
Legacies are complicated and greatly determined by positionality. Castro will be remembered differently by poor farmers in Cuba who saw him drastically improve the literacy rate than he will by rich Cubans whose property he seized or by the political minority whom he in turn repressed. It would be silly to allow any one of those groups to completely define his legacy. Just like everyone else, political leaders are complex, multifaceted humans with both flaws and merits. The idea that some people are infallible and others are irredeemable monsters reinforces a false binary and constricts our ability to understand the place leaders have in history. For example, while President Obama will be remembered by Democrats in the U.S. for being the first African-American commander-in-chief as well as for his liberal domestic policies, he might be remembered by families in Pakistan or Yemen as the face of a country that sent drone strikes to their villages. Even a character like Mother Teresa, who is colloquially used as a synonym for someone perfect and selfless, is criticized by some for her colonialist image and her philosophy of suffering. The views of white Cubans in the US who left the island in the 80s are vastly different than those of South Africans who saw Castro work with Nelson Mandela to end apartheid or the LGBT Cubans who were imprisoned at the beginning of the Cuban Revolution but saw a gradual shift towards equality over the next two decades. Where you come from and who you are have such a large impact in the ways you see the world; that’s crucial to keep in mind during discussions of figures like Castro.
It is of course dishonest to speak of Castro and brush over the thousands or tens of thousands of innocent people whom he had murdered and imprisoned. The same Fidel Castro who was a revolutionary hero to many was a brutal executioner to others. Both must be remembered. While it is easy to reduce historical figures down to one facet of their character, it is harmful to honest discussion.
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