Fidel Castro led rebel guerrillas that, allied with political movements, ejected the U.S.- supported dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. The revolutionaries held that democracy meant economic and social rights, and they turned to distribution of wealth. That brought on a storm of trouble, especially from the United States.
Castro’s death has provoked a flood of remembrances and condolences from throughout the world — particularly from the global South. But the U.S. media — the New York Times on Nov. 27 in particular — responded to his death with abuse, half-truths and oversimplifications. President-elect Donald Trump joined them.
But the animosity may be misplaced. The United States seems to have had a lot to do with creating Castro’s historical role.
From Thomas Jefferson on, U.S. politicians throughout the 19th Century schemed for Cuba to be annexed to the United States. After three years of war, Cuban rebels in 1898 defeated Spain’s military and Cuba was on the verge of independence. But that year the U.S. Army invaded and soon Cubans supporting the independence movement — former slaves, small farmers and the urban poor — were barred from entering the nation’s political life.
Between 1902 and 1959, the United States controlled Cuba’s economic and political life. U.S. landowners held most of Cuba’s fertile land. The situation gave rise to stark inequalities, political and racial oppression, corruption and suffering. Generations of children grew up illiterate, hungry and often sick.
The revolution led by Castro and others upset the U.S. apple cart. Cuba, a big fish, had gotten away. Previously marginalized Cubans were in charge. Maybe if, prior to 1959, the United States had treated Cubans the way it does Canadians, for instance, no revolution and no Fidel Castro would have emerged.
Worse was to come. The United States sought to set things right. In 1959, State Department official and Maine native Lester Mallory set the stage. In order to undermine a Cuban government supported by the people, he recommended policies that would cause hunger, fear and desperation.
The United States government engineered a military invasion, CIA-sponsored guerrilla incursions, bacteriologic warfare, assassination attempts against Cuban leaders and financial and diplomatic isolation. A U.S. economic blockade limiting Cuba’s trade with the world remains in force. U.S. leaders tolerated or promoted deadly terror attacks and sabotage carried out by Cuban exiles. Terrorists with CIA associations brought down a fully loaded Cuban airliner in 1976 and bombed Havana hotels in 1997.
By virtue of leading Cuba’s revolution and its defense, Castro became the object of U.S. wrath; he symbolized the enemy. However, if U.S. leaders had, instead, respected Cuban sovereignty, stayed legal and not bullied, maybe they wouldn’t have needed Castro as ogre. He would have been objectionable, but no more.
Meanwhile, multitudes of people all over have idolized him because he and Cuba stood up to what they regard as a U.S. empire. He and Cuba get extra points for the Cuban doctors and teachers working throughout the world. And the message of a poor country striving to ensure health, dignity and culture for everyone is not lost on them.
Cuba is no paradise. There are shortages (thanks in part to the U.S. blockade). And authorities don’t welcome an alternative media, or anti-government political organizing. But Cubans have a way of passing off objections from the United States: Critics there, they say, “complain of the way we breathe with their hands around our neck.”
William Whitney Jr. is a member of Let Cuba Live of Maine. He lives in South Paris.