Fidel. Throughout most of my adult life, Cuba's dictator/president went by a single moniker, his first name. He earned his notoriety on the global stage through a mixture of an unwavering devotion to socialism and communism, a fanatical Cuban nationalism coupled with a furious anti-Americanism and a blusterous egocentrism that knew few boundaries.
Few, perhaps none, of the 20th century's other mono-moniker world leaders engendered the disparate passions that separated, and still separate, his detractors and supporters. Stalin and Hitler were universally reviled, the butchers of millions and destroyers of nations. But FDR and Reagan were beloved by their supporters, and derided by their detractors, but with a begrudging admiration on both sides for their accomplishments, whether it was navigating the Great Depression and victory in World War II, or overseeing the end of the Cold War. JFK's and Churchill's flaws and foibles were well-documented, but both have been beatified in the retelling of their personal and public histories. History judges these great men through filters that revise the facts into versions of their stories that leave room for some agreement and dispute.
Fidel remains, even in death, as divisive a figure as when he lived.
Those who hate him, know him as a despot, a systematic violator of human rights, a killer of his opposition, the architect of a society so repressive that most felt they had to censor their inner musings to avoid detection, and a destroyer of the country's economy. There is no middle ground for many people. Many of his most virulent critics suffered firsthand through executions of family members, the stealing of their private properties or businesses or the forced exodus from their homeland to find a place to live without the fear of repression.
Those who love Fidel see him as a defender of the poor, a stalwart antagonist to America and capitalism, and a public believer in the Marxian notion that the collective is always better than the individual. His support of the developing world's struggles against colonial domination earned him admiration, and many simply found solace in his steadfast belief that homegrown revolution was the essence of the human struggle. These people and their movements were the beneficiaries of not only moral support from Fidel, but tangibles like soldiers, military equipment, and then doctors and teachers who arrived in the aftermath of wars and conflicts to help reconstitute their countries.
However, in my career as a journalist, I have tried to carve out territory in a middle ground about the best way to deal with Fidel and his Cuban autocracy. I have been attacked as an apologist for Cuban communism, ignoring the human rights violations and the self-serving plutocracy of the Cuban leadership. I also have been challenged for my belief that the socialist model failed in Cuba, like elsewhere, and that I ignored the real gains of the revolution in areas like health care and education.
In a very fundamental way, my position was not about Fidel, but about the best way to achieve a different outcome in Cuba than what was transpiring there year after year after year.
In 1980, I conducted interviews with the first wave of Mariel boatlift refugees, who ended up briefly in Costa Rica. In the space of four days, I spoke with somewhere between 100 and 200 people. The common thread was that they had risked their lives based on the knowledge gleaned from relatives and friends who had arrived two years earlier during "family visits," authorized by the Carter administration. They said they saw first-hand the fine clothes and the new boom boxes, and heard the stories of a life in America that clashed with the propaganda they had heard for the previous 20 years. America wasn't the devil in their new perspective, and life was not terrible for the Cubans who had fled the island after the revolution.
From those stories, I formed an idea that remains intact today. America's greatest influence, not just in Cuba, but worldwide, is our freedom, our wealth and our tolerance of diversity, in short, the very foundations of American democracy. By closing off the flow of information and goods between the two countries, we have denied the power of our greatest strengths, and gave Fidel a clear enemy to blame for whatever internal problems existed. My Cuban-American friends chide me, saying that I'm naïve to believe that any opening of the doors would do anything but fortify Fidel's hold on power. Their unwavering hostility and their collective instigation in the U.S. political arena over the last 55 years forced more than one president to tighten the screws, to impose greater pain on the Cuban people in hopes the government would come around. Without success.
We are at another critical moment in Cuba-U.S. relations. Now that Fidel is dead, the impulse is to crack down again—no one will be able to generate the anti-American fervor like him and a new hard line might break the back of the government. Like every similar move in the last 55 years, I believe such a hardline crackdown will have exactly the opposite effect.
For the first time in my 20 years of visits, I see the impact of the American tourists, and the money that family members send to their relatives inside Cuba. New private businesses. A greater sense of economic vitality. Hope in the faces of people, a belief that their lives are about to get better. Those changes are generating internal pressures that will be hard to reverse, unless the U.S government reverses course, too. A step backward will simply be seen as a vindication of Fidel's most profoundly held belief: You can't trust the Americans. And, even without Fidel, the regime will batten down the hatches, regardless of the price they and their people will pay.
Fidel's legacy will be debated throughout history. His crimes will never be whitewashed or forgotten. The Cuban revolution's gains will never go away. Because the passions on both sides of those realities are so strong, neither side may be able to reach a common understanding. But let the debate going forward be held in the context of two sovereign nations, two peoples, trying to find that common ground, for the common good. If, as it seems is about to happen, that debate just rehashes the archaic, and ultimately irrelevant, conflict between two political ideologies, nothing good will come from the new chapter in Cuba's history, a chapter without the presence of Fidel. But if that debate can take place with the goal of benefiting both nations, the people of both countries will have scored the final victory over Fidel's legacy.