Mark Falcoff: Castro’s demise

I invited our occasional contributor Mark Falcoff to comment on the death of Fidel Castro. Mark writes:

The demise of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro had been predicted for so long (and so wrongly) that it is difficult to believe that he is finally gone at last. What can one say about this man and his country?

Castro always saw himself as a world-historical figure, defying the United States and converting his island (known principally for rum, beaches and the rhumba) into “a small country with a big country’s foreign policy,” to quote my college Jorge Dominguez. In retrospect what Castro did was to play two cards skillfully–the card of the Soviets and the card of hate-America. Let me take each of this points in turn.

The Soviet card. Cuba under Castro was virtually unique among the nations of the world in that it alone voluntarily entered what might be called the Russian Commonwealth of Nations. No other self-respecting country would be caught dead with these losers–the Poles always wanted out, the Baltics wanted out, the Georgians and the Ukranians wanted out. Hell, even the Kazakhs wanted out.

And here was this little island just off the coast of Florida, practically a state of the United States, that opted to stake its all on Moscow’s game. What a delicious irony that the Soviet empire collapsed first! Nonetheless, during all the years of the alliance with the Soviets, the Cuban state benefited not just from a financial subsidy (ten Marshall plans in constant dollars) but all of the political, diplomatic and military benefits associated with such membership.

The hate-America card. But that was nothing compared to the cultural dimension of the Cuban revolution. It was the first and most dramatic revolt against the American Century, and America-haters (not necessarily people on the Left or revolutionary in any way, many of whom by the way were actually Americans) could find in Cuba cheap inspiration. It was the Cubans who went hungry, not the denizens of the Left Bank in Paris or in the smarter precincts of Upper West Side New York, or professors at the University of Dry Gulch (or Harvard) who thrilled to Castro’s speeches and always called him affectionately by his first name.

Indeed, as time went on even people on the Left in Europe and the United States ceased to talk about the revolution’s “achievements in health and education” at all, preferring rather to admit the regime’s failures but assign them entirely to the trade embargo (which they and the Cuban government always called “the blockade”) and regard its very survival as a ratification of its historicity.

The inconvenient truth of Cuban history now stands revealed. A tropical island, it can only survive through dependence on an outside power. During the colonial period and up to 1898 it was Spain. Between 1898 and 1959 it was the United States. From 1959 to 1991 it was the Soviet Union. Since then the Cubans have had to depend on the generosity of the squalid regime in Caracas, a regime which, like the Soviet regime, seems destined to disappear before the Castro family’s rule in Cuba. Thanks to a combination of emigration, low birthrate (and legalized and subsidized abortion), and a high suicide index, in another dozen years Cuba will have one of the oldest populations in the world. An impoverished country disproportionately old, without friends or patrons, with few possibilities of recovery or rebirth–this is the achievement of Fidel Castro, this and none other.

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute. His books include Cuba the Morning After: Confronting Castro’s Legacy and Small Countries, Large Issues.