Judging by much of the social-media reaction to the death of Fidel Castro, you could be forgiven for thinking he was a malevolent monster who bears ultimate responsibility for all the terrible experiences that afflicted his native Cuba, and for many of the problems across Latin America.
It is easy to overlook an inconvenient fact: that Castro the monster also inspired millions of people across the world and is still held in high esteem by a substantial minority of Cuban people. To understand the Castro phenomenon, it is not enough to brand him evil, and more importantly we should not confuse the outcome of his revolution with its starting point and original ideals.
The Cuban Revolution of 1959 that brought Castro to power had little to do with Marxism, communism, socialism or the Soviet Union. Castro’s main inspiration was José Martí, the 19th-century leader of the struggle for Cuban independence from Spain. Castro’s revolution was dominated by an outlook of radical nationalism, not communism, and its aim was to end Cuba’s status as a typical banana republic — a neo-colony dominated by American political and economic interests.
Anyone who bothers to look back at the ideas that motivated the Cuban revolutionaries of the late 1950s will see that their worldview was a synthesis of radical nationalism, anti-colonialism and democratic ideals.
Unlike other radical politicians in Latin America, Castro took his ideals very seriously. And for American foreign-policy makers, this was a big problem, since it implicitly challenged Washington’s hegemony over the region. For a while, American diplomats hoped that Castro would fall into line and, like other regional leaders, passively accept their dictates once he assumed power. But it turned out that Castro was unwilling to betray the ideals of the revolution and refused to trade Cuba’s independence for Washington’s endorsement.