On November 25, 2016, former Cuban President Fidel Castro died at age 90 in Havana. He rose to power in the late 1950s, leading the revolution against authoritarian President Fulgencio Batista and the corruption and inequality associated with the regime. Serving as President for over three decades, he only stepped down in 2008 when faced with declining health. A polarizing figure, Castro has been both hailed as a revolutionary leader and condemned for human rights abuses. The SFS community takes a look at the lasting legacy that Fidel Castro will have on Cuba, Latin America, and the world.
Reflections from Matthew Carnes, S.J., Director, Center for Latin American Studies
“Fidel Castro’s death is a decisive punctuation mark in Cuba’s history. Though he had begun to step away from governing in 2006, and fully ceded power to his brother Raul in 2008, he remained a symbolic presence of huge significance. To supporters, he represented the ideals of the Revolution he launched, and to his detractors, he symbolized an ongoing impediment to change and modernization. His death marks the potential beginning of a new era, in which President Raul Castro will govern fully on his own, and in which a new generation of leadership can emerge. The process is still very opaque, but for the first time an opening seems to be at hand.
Since much of the opening of the relations between the United States and Cuba was overseen by President Raul Castro, it is likely that Cuba will seek to stay on the cautious path begun in 2014, opening up slowly to an increasing amount of trade, travel, and tourism. What remains to be seen is how the incoming U.S. administration will approach Cuba, whether seeking to pursue deeper economic connections or choosing to step back from the rapprochement begun under President Obama.
Both the press and social media brought into sharp relief just what a polarizing Fidel Castro was. The response from around the globe both lionized and vilified him, alternately extolling his Revolution’s efforts at education and healthcare or decrying its human rights abuses and limitations on civil rights. The celebrations, both of relief and of mourning, marked how his persona had taken on a larger-than-life quality, and how he was seen as a symbol of the political and economic struggles of the last 60 years, as well as their legacy today.”
-Matthew Carnes, S.J., Director, Center for Latin American Studies, Associate Professor, Department of Government and Walsh School of Foreign Service
“Cuba Survives Fidel Castro” by Yoani Sánchez
“[Castro] leaves behind the great lesson of contemporary Cuban History: tying the national destiny to the will of one man ends up passing on to a country the imperfect traits of his personality and inflates one human being with the arrogance of speaking for everyone. His olive green cap and his Greek profile, for decades, have encouraged the nightmares of some and the poetic residues of others, along with the populists promises of many leaders on the planet.
His “anti-imperialism,” as he stubbornly called it, was his most constant attitude, the only slogan that he managed to take to the ultimate consequences. No wonder the United States was the second great protagonist of the documentaries national television began to broadcast as soon as the news was announced. Castro’s obsession with our neighbor to the north ran through every moment of his political life.
The eternal question that so many foreign journalists asked, now has an answer. “What will happen when Fidel Castro dies?” Today we know that he will be cremated, his ashes will be carried across the island and placed in the Santa Ifigenia Cemeterey, a few yards from the tomb of José Martí. There will be tears and nostalgia, but his legacy will fade.
The Council of State has decreed nine days of national mourning, but the official elegy will last for months, time enough to cover with so much hullabaloo the flat reality of post-Fidelism. A system that the current president is trying to keep afloat, adding patches of market economy and calls for the foreign capital that his brother abominated.
A representation of the “good cop, bad cop” that both brothers unfurled before our eyes, is now missing one of its parts. It will be difficult for the defenders of Raul Castro’s regime to argue that the reforms are not faster or deeper because, in a mansion at Point Zero on the outskirts of Havana, a nonagenarian has applied the brakes.
Raul Castro has been orphaned. He knows no life without his brother, no political action without asking what his brother will think about his decisions. He has never taken a step without this gaze over his shoulder, judging him, pushing him and underestimating him.
Fidel Castro has died. He is survived by a nation that has lived through too much mourning to dress in the color of widowhood.”
-Yoani Sánchez is an internationally renowned blogger and publisher of the independent Cuban newspaper 14ymedio where this piece was published. Sánchez served as a Yahoo! Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy in 2014-2015. To read more, click here.
SFS Students’ Reflections
“‘Fidel Castro, Dead’ is a headline that news sources worldwide have been storing for years, and now the words have finally hit the press. Along with this highly anticipated message have come the not-so-surprising responses from the Cuban people, both on and off the island. The images of mourning have made their way across the Florida Straits while the celebrations of vocal Cuban exiles have echoed even as far as the Halls of Congress.
The common theme among most news pieces about Fidel’s passing, from both camps of reaction, have suggested that Castro’s death will have little effect on Cuba’s immediate future. Indeed, the facts that the Castro name remains at the head of state and that a high-ranking member of the Communist Party is lined up to replace Raúl in 2018 offer scarce evidence that Cuba will undergo significant change anytime soon.
Regardless of the immediate impact that Fidel’s death may have for the island’s political and economic development, it is useful to imagine how this news may affect the Latin American region. Despite the risk of making such a bold comparison, we should look briefly to the death of the equally prominent leader Hugo Chávez. Like his Cuban neighbor to the north, Chávez was as much an idol as he was an enemy to the world. His Bolivarian Revolution made its mark on the pink tide of the 2000s in Latin America and inspired other leaders in nearby countries. After Chávez’s death in 2013, the Bolivarian Revolution has received deepening doubts. Chávez’s less charismatic Vice President, who has sought to continue his predecessor’s daring mission, took the reins and has watched the government’s opposition grow in political strength. Could we see a similar drama unfold in the years after November 25, 2016?
Again, to make any definitive prediction is pointless, especially after considering the vast structural and political differences between Venezuela and Cuba. What we should recognize, however, is that Fidel’s death may empower the Cuban government’s opposition on the island. Additionally, the loss of both Chávez and Castro may add to the regional shift away from the left that we are observing in Latin America today. The media’s common prediction that Fidel’s passing will generate no sweeping changes in the immediate future are reasonable, but we must acknowledge that his death will certainly have its place in the political developments that continue to evolve in Latin America.”
– Patrick Denenea (COL’17) is a student in the College studying Government and Spanish with a Latin American studies certificate focusing on Cuba. He worked as a summer intern at the think-tank Council on Hemispheric Affairs where he wrote current event articles about Cuba, which is also the focus of his senior thesis.
“Fidel Castro’s death was inevitable, but historic nonetheless and comes at a time of relative uncertainty for the future of U.S. foreign policy. It marks the end of an era for the revolution but not the end of the revolution itself. It is naive to assume his death will inherently usher in the end of Cuban communism, but it certainly presents opportunities and challenges. So far, the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States has been a great lesson in how effective diplomacy can build national security in the 21st Century. The progress since December 2014 is larger than one person, even if that person is Fidel Castro. It is in our shared interest to continue down the path towards normalization. Those interests are stronger than any short-term uncertainty and we must focus on what comes next. After all, nothing is written until we write it.”
-Maggie Feldmen-Piltch (SSP’18) is a part-time student in the Security Studies Program and works full-time as the Chief of Staff at American Security Project, a non-partisan national security research organization founded in 2005 by then Senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel.
“Regardless of your feelings about him, there is no doubt that Fidel Castro has done a lot in shaping the history of Cuba and all of Latin America. I studied abroad in Cuba last spring and based on conversations and social media posts from my Cuban friends, the death of Fidel is very upsetting for many people on the island. Many people see Castro as the second father of their country (right after José Martí) and his death has evoked feelings of sadness as well as national pride in Cuba.
For much of Cuban history, foreign powers controlled the destiny of Cuba. Even when Cuba was technically an independent nation, it was essentially a U.S. territory cloaked as a republic under the Platt Amendment. Thus, when assessing the legacy of Fidel, it is important to keep this historical perspective in mind. When you read Cuban history, it understandable why Fidel and the revolution he lead made such a lasting impact and empowered so many people.
I think the American press and media coverage of Castro’s death has been somewhat skewed toward hardliners. This is not surprising and it is important to represent the opinions of those who are happy about Castro’s death, especially the Cuban-American population. But, I think it is also important to try to understand the way many Cubans on the island feel right now, even if you do not agree with them. Looking at the many facets of Castro’s legacy is not only important for understanding Cuba, but much of Latin America and parts of Africa. Castro had a great impact on the ideology and history of many countries throughout the world. Overall, Fidel Castro’s legacy is very complicated and cannot be summed up succinctly.
As far as the impact Fidel’s death may have on U.S.-Cuba relations, I don’t think it will be that significant in the short-term. I believe Raul Castro will continue leading the way he was before, as a pragmatist who recognizes that Cuba needs change. However, it is difficult to discern whether Fidel’s death will revitalize ideals of the Revolution or lead the way to more liberal policies in Cuba.”
–Nicolette Moore (SFS’17) is an international politics major with a focus on Latin American studies. She is a research fellow with the Georgetown Latin America Initiative and the Center for Latin American Studies where she support faculty with their research – specifically on a project regarding Rule of Law in the Americas. Moore studied abroad in Cuba at Universidad de la Habana in 2016.