The death of a dictator, not his final memorial, is — and should be — a happy occasion for the people who have suffered his rule. It’s why no one should celebrate the life of Fidel Castro when he is finally laid to rest Sunday.
Instead, we should mark the day reminding ourselves how Castro got the better of us, freedom-loving Cubans, and understanding that his death didn’t end his reign of terror.
Because we shouldn’t kid ourselves: Castro’s departure — long awaited by those of us in the Cuban diaspora, as well as those who still live in our island homeland, even if they’re not free to express it — won’t immediately bring the liberty, democracy and respect for basic human rights that all Cubans long for. Castro’s long convalescence, along with the political indifference of several key nations to his years of brutal tyranny, have, in part, allowed his despotic regime to exist for decades. Long before his death, Castro was afforded the resources he needed to assemble a form of institutionalized self-preservation, his family dynasty, which has existed by exercising its malevolent grip over Cubans in a way that rivals the power of any autocracy known throughout history.
Castro got the better of Cubans and, even in death, is a painful reminder to us that we haven’t found a way to break free of his rule. He knew how to cunningly enlist countrymen against each other as a way of holding on to power. And he never could have succeeded without the complicity of thousands of Cubans who spied on, accused, imprisoned, tortured and killed other Cubans. To wit, as the Miami Herald reported this week, Danielo “El Sexto” Maldonado, a “detained Cuban artist who mocked Castro’s death, ‘was badly beaten’ ” by Cuban government agents, according to his family. That kind of terror is Castro’s real legacy.
Throughout his cruel reign, Castro benefited from the tacit approval of democracies: He consistently enjoyed a parade of world leaders willing to visit Havana, including three papal visits. Starting in 1991, his regime was welcomed at the Ibero-American Summit. All reminders that the world community has not learned how to defend — with firmness and effectiveness — the values it espouses and represents.
All this, despite the fact that Castro backed numerous insurgencies designed to subvert governments that he deemed representative of spurious bourgeois interests. The democrats who went only as far as timidly suggesting a free market, a multiparty approach to governance, and a free press for Cuba? Castro simply saw them as weak.
And never having been effectively held accountable for his innumerable crimes, Castro’s long tenure sent a dangerous message to other aspiring dictators, particularly within our hemisphere. He had no shortage of disciples in Latin America, among them Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whose design on clinging to power was cut short only by his own death. Others imitated Castro, with different degrees of fealty to his model: Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa were who they were, at least in part, because of Castro’s influence. Each sliver of recognition he got from legitimate democratic and religious leaders was a symbolic slap in the face of oppressed Cubans, further encouraging imitators and propagating Castro-style oppression throughout the Caribbean and South and Central America.
If Fidel Castro’s death does not soon lead to a global campaign in favor of liberty and democracy for Cuba, the old tyrant will have scored his first posthumous victory. The United States should lead this effort, even during the last days of Barack Obama’s presidency. Western leaders, including Obama, can and should use their leverage to demand specific concessions — freeing all political prisoners, legalizing opposition parties, allowing freedom of the press — from Castro’s brother, President Raúl Castro, in return for the benefits Cuba’s regime now reaps from diplomatic engagement.
The moment is appropriate and critical because it is the only way to open a door for free expression, and to demand meaningful changes on the island that improve the lives of all Cubans, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or ideology. In other words, Fidel Castro’s death is not an occasion to mourn. It’s an occasion to free Cuba.