Fidel Castro RIP
Whatever one thinks of Fidel (demon or superhero, not much in between) his impact on Cuba, Latin America, and the United States places him on the highest rung of globally influential leaders in the latter half of the twentieth century. On the Left, only Mao can rival the profundity of social and political transformations he brought about within his own society. In Latin America various leaders, inspired by his example and assisted by Fidel himself, tried, but fell pathetically short of his achievements: the Sandinista's, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales. In Africa no leader rivals Fidel's stature. In the rest of the developing world no name is as starkly embedded in our minds as that of the simple name Fidel.
Pope John XXIII qualifies as a rival to Fidel in ambition as a global force, but his leadership ignited a reactionary movement within Christianity, largely successful, to suppress his followers, especially in Latin America, where he had his strongest influence. So his legacy was not as lasting as Fidel's. Similarly, Lyndon Johnson, who tried to expand the New Deal and passed the Civil Rights Act in the United States, was crippled by failure in Viet Nam, enabling a strong counter-movement on the Right that lasted for many decades. Lech Walesa in Poland, who led the labor union-driven Solidarity movement toward democracy and greater autonomy from the Soviet jackboot in the late 1970s, must be counted high in the rankings, but once elected president of Poland, his popularity waned and he failed to be re-elected in 1995. Except for Mao, one is hard-pressed to think of a leader with as powerful and long-lasting influence.
Inside Cuba: in 1960 Cuba ranked 43rd among nations in life expectancy, at 64.2 years. The US ranked 16th that year at 69.8. In 1980, after two decades of Fidel's rule, Cuba ranked above the U.S., at 15th (73.8 years), three places above the US (73.7years). And in 2015 Cuba ranked 32 in the world in life expectancy, just behind the U.S., which ranked 31. How did Cuba do this, without the world class medical infrastructure available to more developed countries? By taking the best and brightest, putting them into medical schools, and emphasizing bread-and-butter no-cost preventive health care for everyone. In 2016 infant mortality in Cuba placed it eleven places better than the US in global rankings (44 compared to 55). In literacy, Cuba ranks 15th in the world, the US ranks 50th. New Mexico, if a country, would rank 94th, lower than the global average among countries (yes, New Mexico ranks below the world average in literacy rate for adults!). How did Cuba achieve high literacy? In 1961 Fidel initiated a literacy campaign that reduced illiteracy dramatically, in an extremely short period of time, down from 25-40% to just 4% by sending a cadre of some 300,000 throughout the country to teach people to read. Cuba has ranked among the most literate countries in the world ever since. And while some might not like to live in a country in which there are only minimal salary differences between people, (top salaries are less than double the lowest), despite the economic embargo that has thwarted Cuban economic development, Cuba manages to rank 67th in the UN Human Development Index, well above Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and all Latin American countries except for Uruguay and Panama. (The US ranks 5th on this index).
Outside Cuba: Fidel's example inspired thousands of young persons to seek change through revolution. In nearly every country in Latin America guerrilla movements modeled after Fidel's sprung up during the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s. Books analyzing the Fidelista movement sold millions of copies worldwide. Fidel's willingness to fall within the orbit of Soviet influence broke tacit rules of the game among dependent countries, causing the U.S. to adopt strategies specifically aimed at preventing "another Cuba," including beefed up counterinsurgency strategies, heightened intelligence activity, and patterns of foreign assistance to small countries. Fidel's successful defiance of the U.S., in the face of punitive economic policies, served as a constant source of encouragement and inspiration for nationalists in dozens of countries who were worried about the impact of U.S. global hegemony on their home countries as the U.S. expanded its global reach.
On the down side, the Cuban state under Fidel was not tolerant of dissent, and few people would like to have lived under his authoritarian rule. Fidel did not hesitate to punish and, when expedient, to kill. This is as much a part of his legacy as his most positive achievements. And in a moment in which people in many developed countries seem to be turning toward authoritarian, intolerant, solutions, and when many leaders help themselves in the name of state security, with little dissent, to more and more arbitrary and unchecked executive power, it might be wise to take a sober look at the underbelly of Fidel's security apparatus, which has been well documented, and take heed.
Perhaps the most attractive and inspiring thing about Fidel is that he became a symbol, for millions of persons around the world, of what a single person can accomplish. You don't have to wait for more favorable political conditions to arise or for huge financial support to come your way to compete for power. Dramatic improvements in literacy can be made in a year or two; health care for an entire society can be elevated to world-class levels on a minimal budget. You can, if you have the guts to do so and are willing to pay the price, maintain a nation's dignity, today, in the face of hostility from the most powerful country in the world. And here in New Mexico, where daily we are reminded of worsening levels of educational attainment, increasing rates of poverty, and growing public corruption, we should not be so proud as to think that nothing Cuba accomplished under Fidel is worthy of our attention. No soy fidelista, pero adios, Fidel: you kicked up a world class storm!