By Taylor Marvin
On Twitter, Sarah Alaoui wonders how the world will view the death of another aged revolutionary:
I wonder what people’s reactions will be when Castro dies.
— Sarah Alaoui (@musingsdiffused) December 6, 2013
To be sure, there are enormous differenced between Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela. Aside from a few mixed views of his legacy in the American press and elsewhere, Mandela was a globally respected democratic icon; Castro is an autocrat under whose repressive rule Cuba stagnated. However, Mandela’s death does suggest the question of how Fidel Castro’s will be received, especially given Obama’s handshake with Raúl Castro at the funeral (which was promptly decried by American conservatives).
Castro’s legacy is both boosted and diminished by his longevity. After the dissolution of the USSR it became apparent that both it and Castro’s brands of communism were dead ends, and enormously damaging ones. During the Cold War Castro’s dictatorship compared favorably to many of Latin America’s rightest regimes, like the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, Stroessner regime in Paraguay, or Argentine National Reorganization Process. Similarly, Castro benefitted from the legitimizing enmity of the United States; while the region’s rightist regimes overstated the domestic left-wing opposition they defined themselves by combating, Castro faced a very powerful foe across the Florida Straits. Had Castro died in the 1980s, it is likely that these factors would have softened memories of his regime. This is no longer true.
However, Castro’s memory could also gain from his long life. More than twenty years after the end of the Cold War the popular association of Castro with the USSR and global communism has lessened, and his connection with a new wave of far more positively-received South American leftists like Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa has arguably improved his image. While Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro most closely associated themselves with the Castros’ Cuba, other countries with center-left governments pursued friendly relations with Cuba, with Dilma Rousseff’s Brazil recently accepting a mission of Cuban doctors. While Hugo Chávez’s talk of a resurgent and unified Latin American left was always overblown, Castro’s stature has benefitted from his position as the venerable and symbolic vanguard of the so-called movement — even if Castro’s figurehead position was as much due to his practical irrelevance than anything else.
Fidel Castro will be mourned in Latin America and elsewhere, both by those who admire his tenacious opposition to the United States and role as a symbol of left-wing resistance and by center-left governments seeking to co-opt the more popular aspects of his legacy. But Castro is unlikely to be widely rememberd as an icon. While the punishing US trade embargo allows for (somewhat justified) blame-shifting, under the Castro regime Cuba’s economy has stagnated while many of its neighbors’ have grown. Not only orphaned by the dissolution of the USSR, Cuba was also left behind by the wave of democratization that swept through the region in the 1980s. While Castro framed himself in opposition to the United States and its rightest clients throughout Latin America, former right-wing dictatorships like Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil have democratized while Cuba has not. It is difficult to spin Castro as an icon of revolution and resistance when even the regional countries that associate themselves with his regime are now, unlike Cuba, democracies. Mandela’s life and death is associated with a beginning, while Castro’s will mark and end of an era.