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An Old Soldier Fades Away

Fidel Castro is fading away as nature achieves what 50 years of American policy did not. The FT reports:

Mr Castro of late had become a mere shadow in the background who had been neither seen nor heard from for months, leading to the latest spate of death rumours and his retort: get used to it.

“I like to write and write; I like to study and study; there is much to do in the area of knowledge. Never, for example, have the sciences advanced at such a stunning speed,” he said in an article on Monday dedicated mainly to ridiculing rumours he was dying.

“I’ve stopped publishing reflections because it clearly is not my place to occupy the pages of our press, dedicated as it is to other tasks the country requires,” he said.

A series of photos, showing a stooped Mr Castro examining vegetation on a farm with the aid of a walking stick, were published with the article.

The great tragedy of Fidel’s life is his failure to build a prosperous and dignified future for the Cuban people and nation—the goal for which he fought, killed, risked global nuclear war, repressed dissidents and drove more than a million of his fellow Cubans into exile.

His half century in power—for almost half the time Cuba has been an independent country, it has been under his personal rule—was not without its achievements, but the central goal he sought always eluded him, largely because of economic and policy incompetence. Fidel Castro wanted to leave Cuba strong enough economically, culturally and politically to resist the embrace of the Colossus of the North. But thanks in large part to his misrule and poor decisions, Cuba today is if anything less capable of standing on its own than it was in 1959 and it lags well behind Latin America generally in preparations for the future. It’s not just that Cuba’s economic future will see it returning to orbit around the United States; it’s that when and as Cuba and the United States move toward normalization of relations, Cuban American exiles will be major investors and a powerful force shaping the island’s future. The people Fidel hoped to exclude from Cuba’s future will be back with a vengeance, and now that many have become United States citizens, Uncle Sam will be more engaged in Cuban legal and property issues in the future than ever before.

The twentieth century saw two kinds of dictators: some, despite and perhaps to some degree because of their crimes, modernized their countries and put them on a path of greater development and influence. Successful authoritarians include people like Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, Taiwan’s Chiang Kaishek, China’s Deng Xiaopeng, Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Vietnam’s postwar collective leaders and Chile’s Pinochet. Some were thuggish in the extreme and others were more restrained, but all of them were able to translate great personal power into policies that transformed the development and political horizons of the nations they ruled. Their methods were questionable, but their successes were real.

Fidel, however, belongs in another group. He stands in the company of people like Pakistan’s Zia-ul-Haq, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Congo’s Mobutu, Palestine’s Arafat, the military colonels in Greece, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Argentina’s Peron. These rulers were often extremely good at gaining power, but were unable to turn that power to good account. As a result, their rule became their country’s misfortune, illegitimate in origin, despotic in nature, futile in practice.

Such rulers leave their mark on history, but their legacy is one their subjects must overcome before real progress can commence.

A Cuban bishop once told me that John Paul II had called Fidel “A man of destiny, but a man of tragic destiny,” and I think that is right. Fidel was, is, a great man in some sense, with almost superhuman political abilities and will. His destiny was tragic, however, both because the island of Cuba was ultimately much too small a place to give him the historical role he deeply wanted, and because his shortcomings as a policy maker cursed the country he sought to remake. Had Fidel done for Cuba what Lee Kwan Yew did for Singapore, a united and prosperous island under his chosen successors could face the future securely.

It is the autumn of the patriarch now; Fidel still seems as committed to his utopian quest for a socialist future as Captain Ahab was to the pursuit of Moby Dick. Without in any way overlooking his crimes and the suffering which flowed from his misguided ideas, his poor policy skills and his grim determination to hold power no matter who needed to suffer, one must step back to acknowledge one of the most remarkable tragedies of our time: a great man whose flaws wrecked the hopes that guided him though life and trapped the country he hoped to make great in a time warp.

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