Don't romanticize the death of Fidel Castro, or the tales of his revolution, or the political asylum granted to Assata Shakur. Castro was a tyrannical dictator who kept the people of Cuba under his heel or at the end of his gun. From the time he took office in 1959 until his death Nov. 25, Castro's Cuba wasn't a testament to the collective unity of communism; it was a testament to the perseverance of the collective spirit of Cuban people. In short, the people of Cuba didn't thrive because of Castro; they thrived in spite of him.
For decades Cuba has boasted some of the highest literacy rates and has produced some of the best doctors the world has seen, and health care is free for all citizens—all stellar accomplishments, given that the entire country under the regime of Fidel and, since 2008, his brother Raúl has been in abject poverty. The history of Cuba boils down to one stat: Although the Cuban youth literacy rate stands at 100 percent, most Cubans can't afford the high cost of books. This is the Cuba that Castro created, one that boasts of its highest accomplishments while pulling its revolutionary beret over the eyes of what Cuba has actually become. In the last decade, Cuba has become one of the largest destination spots for sexual deviants looking to indulge in their perverted fantasies with underage teens for as little as $30 a night.
While speaking out against Castro's Cuba is grounds for incarceration, sexual tourism, arguably Cuba's largest import, is encouraged.
Castro's Cuba has always been prostituted—perfumed and dressed up nicely with stats about education and health care while masking the stench of poverty.
"Health and education are the revolution’s pillars of legitimacy, so the government has to make them work," a senior Western diplomat told The Guardian in 2007. "If they don’t, it loses all its moral authority."
Currently, a doctor in Cuba makes about $67 a month. Most doctors have to work second jobs just to make a livable wage. But Castro's government reportedly makes $8 billion a year pimping those doctors out to other countries.
But let's not get stuck there. To fully understand Castro's legacy, look no further than Castro's killings. Much like a mafia boss wiping out a competing family or hustler taking over a corner, there was blood; lots of it. Castro's killings started shortly after he overthrew the U.S.-approved dictator Fulgencio Batista. Batista's remaining Cabinet would die under Castro's infamous firing squad. While there are no current numbers as to how many died under Castro's reign (partly because he ran the government and as such didn't keep records of those who were killed under his order), conservative figures claim that Castro was responsible for 3,000 deaths. Nonconservative figures put this number anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000.
Many of those killed were not killed in the name of revolution; most of those killed were for spectacle, a brutal show of force to remind citizens that one misstep and this firing squad could be aimed at you. Castro even murdered members of his own government who helped him overthrow Batista.
Those who were not killed faced a kangaroo court and punishments, which included incarceration for such atrocities as speaking ill of Cuba or being homosexual.
"The decade of the sixties … was precisely when all the new laws against homosexuals came into being, when the persecution started and concentration camps were opened, when the sexual act became taboo while the 'new man' was being proclaimed and masculinity exalted," gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas wrote.
Castro was a big cigar-smoking, tracksuit-wearing, screw-you-America figure of maleness who insisted that Cuban men embody that persona. Like a preacher at some backwoods Southern Bible camp, Castro's Cuba forced effeminate gay men to undergo aversion therapy. It also forced gay men into labor camps.
Castro's legacy will not be difficult to dissect; just follow the killings, follow the imprisonments, follow the stranglehold he placed on his people. Follow the milk rations placed on families trying to feed their children. Follow the time he held the world dry-mouthed, and sour-stomached, while he kept his finger on the trigger of nuclear weapons. Follow that massive release of Cuba's prisoners who washed ashore in Miami like algae.
But that poverty, that enforced poverty of Castro's Cuba, bred a different kind of perseverance that can only be created when you have nothing. As black culture did with chitlins, Cubans have learned how to thrive despite their master. Cubans are hustlers because they have no choice. The reason cabdrivers make more in a day than doctors make in a month is that they've learned how to work the system. Those big nostalgic cars are reminders of the constraints Castro's Cuba placed on its people. The fact that Cubans have taught themselves how to fix them—including how to make parts they need—is a testament to the Cuban spirit.
Castro's legacy will end much like the idea of communism: good in theory but horrible in practice. And in Castro's case it was a bloody, tyrannical practice that left his country poor and many Cubans afraid to this day to voice their own opinions.
If Castro's legacy is at all confusing, it's because those who wanted to speak out against him, those who lived in constant fear of their lives and their safety for merely voicing dissent against a dictator, still can't bring themselves to speak ill of his name even when he's gone. Castro's true legacy will always be a stiff hand of justice ruled by fear and terror.
In fact, Cuban artist Danilo Maldonado sits in prison for expressing jubilation after learning that Castro died.
What perplexes me most about Castro was his insistent, ego-driven need to appear loved. Castro didn't care if his people truly loved him, but he demanded that they appear to love him, and as such, Castro's Cuba always felt like an agreed-upon lie between the citizens and the government.
Inside the lie is the fraying truth of an abusive relationship between Castro's Cuba and Cubans. Like an abusive husband who commands that his wife look happy, Cubans will mourn his passing because they must—and that, if anything, is the most confusing part about Castro's legacy.
If the mourners’ tears aren't real, then what is?
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Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is a senior editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.