Reactions to Fidel Castro’s death at age 90 strike a depressingly familiar tone. Some celebrate while others mourn. These two responses may not be evenly divided in the U.S., but they certainly would be if we polled the hemisphere.
Castro’s passing dramatizes what we have known for some time: Cuba stands at the brink of change, now apt to accelerate and, with a Donald Trump administration to the north, will quite likely be disastrous. The tsunami of predatory capitalism poised to hit the island will be impossible to stop and difficult for the state to control or redirect. Although these changes will enrich some — and already have disproportionately benefited those with close ties to the ruling party — they are sure to keep the majority impoverished, producing the same patterns of stubborn economic inequality that afflict Cuba’s neighbors, both north and south.
In a visit to Cuba last December, I did see evidence of resiliency in areas for which supporters of the Cuban Revolution are justifiably proud: population health statistics that are similar to those of the U.S.; ingenious strategies for economic self-sufficiency (such as agro-ecology); an astounding reach of free, public education, with rich and diverse communities of expert knowledge that put wealthier nations to shame; and stalwart national pride in the face of great adversity.
Yet all these achievements are vulnerable, and the tsunami of predatory capitalism promises further erosion.
The Cuban model, at least as it has played out in dialectic with outright hostility from one U.S. administration after another, neither merits vigorous defense nor inspires unqualified admiration. Despite claims to have achieved racial equality, and despite substantive improvements during the first two decades of the revolution, today Afro-Cubans still face deep structural racism that has worsened with economic woes. Exciting ideals of participatory democracy, meant to go beyond electoral politics to democratize all realms of society, have given way to authoritarian practices and newly created hierarchies. Rigid political control makes for a poor fit with market-oriented reforms, yielding irrationalities and dysfunctionalities that are both frustrating and unjust. Even supporters of the government with whom I spoke last December seemed fed up and ready for change.
But although it is hard to defend the “Cuban model” as such, the deeper legacy of the revolution does merit our affirmation. Castro and those of the movement he led were driven by the revolutionary idea that poverty, racism, political repression and abject dependency on the U.S. could be defeated, opening the way to build a society grounded in the values of equality, social welfare and self-determination.
We can and should criticize the many shortcomings and contradictions in the results of these efforts, but I for one heartily affirm Castro’s legacy of audacious hope and willingness to fight for a noble cause. In the face of our own society’s descent into polarization, racial hatred, environmental destruction and deepened fears about the future, this image keeps me from despair: a new generation of young leaders similar to Castro who will forge their own utopian convictions that a different and better society is possible and who will act against all odds to realize their ideals.
Charles Hale holds a joint appointment as a professor in the departments of African and African Diaspora Studies and Anthropology at the University of Texas.