Sola mors tyrannicida est, wrote Thomas More: death is the only way to get rid of tyrants. And so it has proved for Fidel Castro. Twenty-six years ago, he looked finished. The USSR had collapsed, and the Soviet subsidies that had propped up the Cuban economy for 30 years had been abruptly terminated. Around the world, statues of Lenin were being melted down or sold off to collectors of kitsch. But Castro never wavered in his revolutionary fervour. Unlike the nomenclatura of Eastern Europe, he had not inherited the communist system, nor seen it imposed by a foreign army. The Cuban revolution was his revolution, and he was damned if he was going to give it up.
By sheer force of personality, Castro kept the red flag flying over his muggy Caribbean island. His eyes grew rheumier, and his beard sparser, but his domination of the political machine remained total. The Americans were in no doubt that if they removed the dictator, they would remove the dictatorship. The CIA, acting on Thomas More’s dictum, is supposed to have tried to kill Castro 638 times, sometimes in ways that were pure Inspector Clouseau. On one occasion, agents are said to have persuaded Castro’s former lover to assassinate him with poisoned cold cream; on another, they tried to plant an infected wetsuit on him; on yet another, an exploding cigar. In the event, it has fallen to the Almighty to achieve what the boys from Langley could not.
It will fall to the Almighty, too, to hold Castro to account for his misdeeds — he has escaped any reckoning in this world. Not for him the international court orders that were served on Slobodan Milosevic, Ariel Sharon and Donald Rumsfeld. Not for him the obloquy heaped on his old foe, Augusto Pinochet, whom he delighted in having outlived. ‘Why is it that dictators of the Left are not scorned in the same way as those of the Right?’ asks the Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa. ‘Was General Pinochet, in his 17 years in power, crueller or bloodier than Fidel Castro has been in his decades ruling Cuba?’
Good question. Both men crushed their opponents, closed down hostile media, suspended parliamentary democracy and filled the administration with their friends and family. The main difference is that, unlike Castro, Pinochet eventually submitted himself to the ballot box, offering Chileans a referendum in 1988 on whether they wanted to keep him. By 57 to 43 per cent, they voted ‘No’, and Pinochet grumpily stomped off the stage. Not that his resignation won him any credit with Lefties. As a Marxist friend told me accusingly at the time, ‘He’s just trying to make Fidel look bad.’
Look at the Twitter reactions of Leftist politicians, many of them former ‘sandalistas’ who spent their gap years on Nicaragua’s coffee collectives, to the old monster’s death. Here, to pluck an example more or less at random, is the former Labour Cabinet Minister Peter Hain: ‘Castro overthrew fascist dictator; excellent health education in economy strangled US sanctions; human rights & gay abuses; fought apartheid.’
Seriously, Peter? This is the man who enthusiastically supported the crushing of the Prague Spring, calling the Czech dissidents ‘fascists’. This is the regime that backed the IRA and the FARC. Over 40 years, Castro reduced his country to a pauperism unknown in the rest of the Western hemisphere. Not only did he forbid his people to travel abroad, he also barred them from the segregated tourist resorts on the island.
Even reliable party members are rarely trusted to visit capitalist countries. I once tried to chat up a pretty Cuban student on a long bus journey in Syria. She was a loyal Fidelista, and became quite testy when I asked her whether it was easy for Cubans to travel abroad. ‘Of course we can,’ she snapped. ‘We can go virtually anywhere in the world: Iran, Angola, North Korea….’
There are few sights so degrading as Western Lefties arguing that all this is somehow compensated by the fact that Cuba is good at producing ballerinas and doctors. Even in socialist terms, Castro ought to be a disappointment. One of the first things to strike a visitor to the island is the visible ethnic disparity: whites and mestizos run the place, while blacks are in as wretched a condition as anywhere in the Caribbean. Indeed, for a long time, Castro deliberately tried to displace the racial problem by encouraging black Cubans to volunteer for the war in Angola. As a good Leninist, he knew all about countries exporting their internal contradictions.
One thing, and one thing alone, allowed the priapic old autocrat to get away with it: Washington’s economic blockade. All countries rally round their leaders when they are at war, and Castro’s Cuba was semi-officially at war from the moment he seized power. The US sanctions allowed him to escape blame for his mismanagement. It’s not communism that has reduced Cuba to this squalor, he could assure his people — it’s the yanqui embargo. The same excuse served to justify his totalitarianism. As he put it in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs debacle, ‘The revolution has no time for elections.’
In his memoirs, José María Aznar, the former prime minister of Spain, recalls meeting Castro in 1998. He told the comandante that if it were up to him, the blockade would be lifted the next day and the regime would fall within three months. Castro ruefully agreed. The siege didn’t just give Castro a domestic alibi; it gave him international sympathy. A surprising number of people are prepared to ally themselves with any regime, however vile, provided it is sufficiently anti-American. Which is why, ultimately, President Obama’s decision to end the blockade will do for the Cuban communism.
Not right away, of course. In the immediate term, power will be exercised by the clique of apparatchiks around Fidel’s brother Raúl, but they won’t be here for long either. Few autocracies outlive their strongman. Sometimes the regime staggers on for a while under a nominated relative, while generals and ministers manoeuvre in the background, but they always collapse in the end. This was true even of our own brief flirtation with military dictatorship: Oliver Cromwell was notionally succeeded by his son Richard, but the truth, as one historian put it, was that ‘Oliver ruled England from the urn’.
Something similar will happen in Cuba. The ruling caste will huddle around Raúl for a while, as senior Communists seek to guarantee that their privileges are retained after the transition. Like their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe, they will doubtless sell themselves party property at knock-down prices, so as to emerge as the first millionaires of their newly capitalist country. But Cuba cannot escape its geography or its history. Soon enough, the Holiday Inns and Pizza Huts will arrive.
How quickly this happens depends on whether Donald Trump has the gumption to build on his predecessor’s policy. Many US foreign policy strategists privately concede that the blockade was a cock-up. But, as long as Florida remains a swing state, neither party wants to offend the Cuban exiles clustered there by seeming to go soft.
The old brute’s demise gives the Donald his opening. He doesn’t need to worry about his anti-communist credentials. Come to think of it, he doesn’t seem to worry about his image at all. Here, in short, is a splendid opportunity to open his presidency with an unequivocal foreign policy success. Never mind what they say in Little Havana, Donald. To quote Castro himself, history will absolve you.