Castro's legacy will be less romantic than that of Robin Hood

Like his boyhood idol, Benito Mussolini, Fidel Castro dragged his country off into an abyss in his pursuit of glory. His red terror and ill-conceived economic policies reduced the once thriving Cuba into a shell of its former self.

Contrary to popular belief, Castro played only a secondary role in toppling Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Batista’s days became numbered not when Castro organized his band of rebels in the Sierra Maestra but rather when Cuba’s upper and middle classes grew weary of Batista’s corrupt ways, precipitating a number of urban revolts. These insurgents, composed primarily of liberal democrats, managed to deal a demoralizing blow to Batista’s regime, though not without suffering crippling loses, including the demise of most of their leaders. Their destruction, coupled with the disintegration of the Batista government, left Castro as the only political force still standing, making possible his seizure of power.

Upon entering Havana, Fidel went about laying the groundwork for Cuba’s rapid degeneration. Craving absolute authority, Castro immediately started condemning perceived opponents to the firing squads. This orgy of violence left thousands dead, including many of Fidel’s old comrades. At the time of this writing, Castro’s terror has claimed the lives of over 25,000 Cubans. An additional 500,000 hapless individuals found themselves forced into “re-education” camps for extended periods of time, often subjected to torture.

Not content with this carnage, Castro began to dabble in social engineering. Determined to rid Cuba of homosexuals, whom he regarded as deviants practicing a degenerate bourgeoisie lifestyle, Castro had hundreds of gays rounded up and imprisoned. While in jail, many of them were subjected to agonizing sessions of electro-shock, with the goal of transforming them into heterosexuals. Needless to say this sadistic experiment, like almost all of Castro’s policies, failed miserably.

Castro apologists lamely excuse their hero for these gross human rights violations by arguing that he has done much to correct social injustices and greatly improve the lives of the masses. These assertions are utterly wrong; those who make them either willfully distort facts or, more likely, lack any knowledge of Cuban history. Castro almost single-handedly turned one of the most prosperous countries in the Western Hemisphere into a pauper state.

To fully appreciate the extent of Castro’s ineptitude, one has to understand the true nature of pre-revolution Cuba. The image of a state run by cruel oligarchs and populated by wretched peasants flies in the face of history. Far from being a tropical hell, Cuba in the 1950s enjoyed a high degree of prosperity. Between 1945 and 1959, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Europe poured into the country. Beautiful beaches aside, this mass of humanity came with the aspiration to improve their lives. For starters, the wages found in the Caribbean nation surpassed those in much of the world. Cuba’s “exploited” agricultural workers actually earned more than their counterparts in either France or West Germany. The per capita income was the highest in Latin America and the third highest in the entire Western Hemisphere. Throughout the island, light industries emerged and flourished, while the degree of American influence in the economy, once overwhelming, declined considerably during the ’50s.

Cuba boasted one of the finest health care and educational systems in the world. The Caribbean state enjoyed a higher literacy rate than any other Hispanic country, including Spain, and had more physicians per capita than the United Kingdom or Finland. This abundance of doctors benefited all Cubans; their country had the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America while ranking ahead of France, Belgium, West Germany, Israel, Japan and Austria.

So what has happened since Castro decided to transform Cuba into a “workers’ paradise”? Well, let’s just say things have not turned out as planned. The tyrant’s collectivization schemes, aimed at dramatically increasing sugar production, succeeded to cut yields by half. Cuba became dependent on Soviet financial aid, the total amount of which greatly surpassed the assistance given to all of Western Europe by the United States during the Marshall Plan. The island state’s worldwide rankings in literacy, infant mortality and life expectancy have all declined since 1959 while the per capita income has plummeted. The disintegration of the USSR forced Castro to search for other sources of wealth; these days sex tourism represents a major source of income for the Cuban state.

But, if you had to use just one statistic to illustrate the change in fortune for Cuba’s people, it would have to be this: in 1842, Queen Isabella II of Spain decreed that Cuban slaves receive at least eight ounces of meat a day. Today, under Castro, the daily ration of meat amounts to no more than two ounces. Quite the Utopia.

This appalling level of poverty, coupled with the red terror, has forced hundreds of thousands of Cubans to vote with their feet and flee to the United States. Often, this requires braving the Straits of Florida on rickety rafts. Nearly 83,000 have perished at sea, and yet, they keep on coming, with 2005 marking a 10-year high.

So, how will the world remember Fidel Castro? Undoubtedly, the dictator’s death will lead to an outpouring of obituaries depicting him as a Latin American Robin Hood who stood up to American imperialism. Yet, their words cannot erase the crumbling infrastructure, barren fields, broken bodies, mass graves or the 11-year-old girls forced to sell themselves to sweaty pedophiles. This is Castro’s true legacy.

Baca can be reached at [email protected]