Fidel Castro is dead.
Thousands of Cubans, many of whom lived under Castro’s regime, gathered in the streets of Miami to celebrate his death. For them, his passing marked the symbolic end of a reign of terror, a nightmare that destroyed thousands of lives and forced a million Cubans to leave their homes and seek a new beginning in America.
But in Cuba, nothing has changed. As the celebrations ended, Castro’s regime was still there. The people of Cuba are still not free. For all practical purposes, his death was almost insignificant. What matters is what Castro has left in his wake. The mixed reactions that followed the news of his death are indeed part of this legacy. The fact that segments of our country, including many of our political leaders, are reluctant to unequivocally denounce the murderous conduct of such a ruthless dictator casts doubt on their capacity to discern the ideas that sustain our free society. They could be gone in the blink of an eye. At the end of the day, ideas about our liberties, about the role of government, and about our individual and inalienable rights are what protect our way of life. Nothing else.
Cuban Americans know it. That these ideas matter is something every Cuban parent teaches their children from birth. It’s in their blood. If you know a Cuban, you know they are constantly reminded of this truth at every family gathering, at every celebration, during every meal with their grandparents. Their culture, traditions, and even their food speaks of it. That’s because their family stories are so often intertwined with a larger tale, one that is repeated in a thousand different flavors but carries the same message: our freedom is fragile and in the blink of an eye it can be easily stolen from us in the name of an idea. Cuban Americans are the living proof of this truth.
But while celebrations were underway in Miami, other Americans mourned Castro and hailed him as a symbol of social justice. It would be easy to dismiss these people as simply uninformed tourists, blissfully unaware of the immense human suffering caused by that totalitarian regime, but the reality is more complex. For years, the narrative that socialism is “good” and capitalism is “evil” has been seeping into the fabric of our society, effectively rewriting history and creating new villains and new idols. This narrative is often advanced by prominent intellectuals, political figures, and even presidential candidates. Now, it seems to have finally borne fruit, as many young people use social media to praise Castro and his legacy. But they are hardly alone in their appreciation for the Cuban dictator. After the news of Castro’s death broke out, Canada’s prime minister elevated the Cuban dictator to the ranks of a “larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century,” despite the fact that that his way of being “larger than life” included routinely imprisoning, torturing and executing thousands of his political opponents.
At first glance, it appears that people who did not experience life under Castro do not fully appreciate just how unjust and brutal the Cuban regime has been towards its own people. And this is normal. Cuba’s ruling elite controls most forms communication on the island—including internet—and makes it difficult for regular people to piece together the type of miseries Cubans have to endure on a daily basis. What is not normal, borderline criminal, is that people that probably know better—especially highly educated politicians and heads of state—try to romanticize decades of people’s suffering to advance their own political agenda. As evidence of Castro’s able and “compassionate” leadership they offer stories about the greatness of the Cuban healthcare and education systems, while conveniently failing to mention that the landmark achievements of the island’s centrally-planned economy are a constant violation of human rights that has afflicted regular Cubans for decades. Fortunately, many Cuban Americans who were lucky enough to survive torture, imprisonment, and firing squads know that Cuba’s grandiose healthcare system is only available to wealthy tourists and to those with close ties to the island’s political class. Most importantly, they also know that romanticizing the conduct of a brutal regime only enables it to tighten the rope of oppression around the neck of those who yearn for freedom on the island.
But some people don’t care about the truth, especially if it does not fit their narrative or their political aspirations. In fact, the truth is their enemy when it comes to Cuba. Let’s consider the very fact that many Cubans immigrants, despite having all of their possessions stolen by a criminal regime, were able to be quickly rebuild prosperous lives thanks to their hard work and the capitalist system. And the Cubans that stayed on the island, far from enjoying in the “socialist utopia” often described by so many on the left, are still willing to take their chances on makeshift rafts through shark infested waters to set foot in the U.S. Why? Because ideas matter. Castro was a ruthless tyrant, and socialism is just a bad idea that constantly needs to be sold through myths, propaganda and denial. Otherwise nobody would buy it. Legitimizing the legacy of a brutal dictator by praising him or even by refusing to condemn his atrocities is just another attempt to sell a very bad idea. But Cubans don’t buy it anymore. We shouldn’t either.