Fidel Castro, who died on Friday at the age of 90, was the longest-ruling dictator of the 20th century. He officially led Cuba for 49 years, from 1959 until 2008 (and for three more years if you count his stint as chief of the country’s Communist Party until 2011). This longevity is impressive. In Latin America, a land of many dictators, only Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner came anywhere close.
Castro’s long rule meant that he had plenty of time and opportunity to bring prosperity to his country — to get development right, so to speak. But instead, he left Cuba worse than when he first took over, at least relatively speaking. Before his rule, Cuba was one of the richest countries in the Americas. But by the 1980s, it was already among the poorest. Whereas the region’s per capita GDP essentially doubled between 1958 and the late 2000s, in Cuba it grew by a paltry 5 percent over that period. Only Haiti, and perhaps Honduras, have done worse.
Castro’s underperformance is all the more inexcusable considering not just how well off Cuba was when he took over, but also how much help he got from abroad. The Soviet Union provided massive subsidies from the late 1960s all the way to 1990, with the total largesse estimated at $62 billion. And in the 2000s, Venezuela, China, Spain, and Cuban Americans essentially picked up the tab — the latter providing record-level remittances. It takes real ineptitude to turn such a good starting point, and such a large amount of help, into nothing.
Castro would tell you that his biggest accomplishment was ushering in an “alternative form of development,” one that could not be measured in income and consumer goods. Perhaps his favorite example was his country’s achievements in education. There’s no doubt that Cuba has achieved high levels of schooling and student performance in reading and math tests. But there is much that these statistics fail to reveal.
In schools, Cuban students did learn to read, write, and do math — but most importantly, they became indoctrinated. After all, they needed to learn to love Fidel no less than Marx. In universities, the social sciences were never encouraged, and their study included only Marxist-friendly ideas. As a result, most good students chose other careers, especially medicine.
Once Cubans left school, the state restricted what they could do with their acquired skills. There was no freedom to choose one’s place of employment and no right to join independent unions or to go on strike. Under Fidel, there were no places of employment at all other than the state; even Cubans working with foreign firms were still paid by the state. One could not even read freely; censure of libraries, bookstores, and media was total. So keep these features of Cuba’s educational system in mind when they’re touted as Castro’s crowning achievement.
His real imprint was to end his country’s endemic political disorder. Before Castro, the average Cuban ruler, either elected or not, held power for less than two-and-a-half years. Even Cuba’s two most important strongmen prior to Fidel, Gerardo Machado and Fulgencio Batista, had relatively short stays in office. Batista’s last dictatorship, often described as the most despotic Cuba ever experienced, lasted a mere six years. After the Escambray rebellion, a lengthy anti-Castro uprising that was finally put down in 1965, Cuba became the most stable place in Latin America.
One would think that pacification would have been an economic blessing. From Max Weber to Charles Tilly to Mancur Olson to Douglass North, political economists agree that order is a prerequisite to prosperity. But Cuba’s political order yielded no economic spring. This is because of how Castro pacified his island: through incarceration, coercion, and exile. Castro was not the man who first imposed these practices — but he took them to unprecedented levels.
His penchant for imprisonment had no rival in the Americas. By the early 1960s, Cuba had between 40,000 and 60,000 political prisoners. To put this number in perspective, Batista held no more than 1,600 inmates when he was overthrown.
The imprisonment was supplemented by relentless coercion. Under Castro, the Cuban state used all the repressive tactics associated with 20th-century totalitarianism. Estimates of killings under his rule range from 6,000 to 17,000. He allowed no private employers, private schools, private institutions, private journalism, or independent NGOs of any kind. Cubans could never escape the eye of the state or make a living through any other employer. They were always being watched through spies. To end up on the wrong side of the revolution meant being ostracized from society entirely. Even if you didn’t land in prison, you were still left with no job, and thus no future. No other regime in Latin America could corner its own citizens like Fidel’s.
But the coercion went further than just state-directed brutality. One of Castro’s key legacies was to invent a remarkable mechanism to get Cubans themselves to collaborate with the state’s Orwellian institutions — the so-called Committees for the Defense of the Revolutions (CDRs).
On paper, CDRs are volunteer-run neighborhood associations designed to address local problems. Indeed, the government touted them as an achievement in democratic governance. In reality, they became mechanisms of total surveillance. The CDRs were staffed by neighborhood volunteers whose job was to monitor everything that happened in every street under their watch. Any sign of disloyalty to the regime was supposed to immediately be reported to the authorities.
These CDRs expanded at a striking rate since they were first established in 1961. By 1964, there were 110,000 all over Cuba. By the time Fidel stepped down, there were probably 133,000. These organizations expanded so rapidly because the incentives to participate were impossible to resist. Volunteering at a CRD and catching someone doing something wrong (like, say, buying products in informal markets) came with plenty of payoffs. If you reported the infraction to the state, you got brownie points from the Communist Party, such as consumer goods, promotions, or even exemptions from volunteer work. And if you chose not to immediately report these violations to the state, you could use this information to extort your neighbors. Either way, spies always won — so spying proliferated.
The third mechanism through which Castro pacified his island was exile. As is typical of countries that don’t produce wealth, the state established a strict system of exit visas intended to block brain drain. But this visa system was more flexible than in communist Europe. Whereas the Soviets did all they could to prevent people from leaving, including building a wall around Berlin, Fidel used his exit license program as a sort of escape valve, to be adjusted as needed. When discontent was high and pressure growing, he let more people go. There were at least five such waves under Castro’s rule. By the time Castro stepped down, around 8-10 percent of Cuba’s population was in exile.
This system served Castro well. The most disaffected citizens spent their time figuring out how to flee rather than trying to change the system. The result was that Cuba’s most important export — other than technical advice for guerrillas abroad — has been its domestic opposition.
This exit system operated mostly as a one-way street. Seldom was the state hospitable to returnees, and most exiles had little interest in returning anyway. This, too, served Castro well. If the émigré community, estimated at 1 million in the mid 2000s, had remained in Cuba, they could have formed a political party larger than the Communist Party.
It’s inaccurate to think that Castro’s rule over Cuba was static. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, and thus the end of Soviet subsidies, devastated Cuba’s economy. To survive this “special period,” Castro realized that some things needed to change.
Starting in the early 1990s, he made peace with the Catholic Church, which he had once essentially destroyed. He discontinued the persecution of LGBT people, who he once sent to concentration camps or expelled during the Mariel Boatlift. He allowed for some forms of self-employment, and for a while even liberalized the use of dollars, even though he despised material incentives. He started to promote tourism, including sex tourism, despite having once nationalized Cuba’s world-class hotels, arguing that they were epicenters of depravation. He decriminalized foreign private investment, even though, unlike Marx, he never had a word of praise on behalf of capitalists.
But in the end, Castro’s thaw was too limited and too short-lived. Compared to the transformations that shook the cobwebs off post-Soviet Eastern Europe and Asia’s communist states, Cuba never changed its command economy or its non-liberal politics. In fact, by the time Fidel stepped down from the presidency in 2008, he had started to show signs of returning to his most extreme forms of repression.
The state was once again curtailing self-employment, reducing private foreign investments, and cracking down on the opposition. The Varela Project, a campaign calling for constitutional reforms that would allow free elections, was summarily repressed in 2003. Seventy-five people involved in this remarkable pro-democratic movement were sentenced to an average of 20 years in prison following one-day trials. The “Ladies in White,” a group of wives of the imprisoned, started holding public demonstrations. To this day, they remain Cuba’s most visible protest group. An Amnesty International report that covered Castro’s last year as president noted at least 62 prisoners of conscience. Almost 50 people were detained that year, and around 40 were on death row.
In short, Fidel Castro did not deliver the social revolution he promised as much as Hobbesian revolution. He transformed Cuba instead into a place of rigid, restrictive political order. His most enduring legacy was his ability to anesthetize what had been, until he came along, an uppity island.
The problem with this “Pax Fidelia” was how it came about. Some leaders bring order to their countries by meeting their citizens’ demands and giving them the freedoms to fulfill their ambitions. For Castro, pacification meant restricting his people’s freedom.
Naturally, this political arrangement had no chance of liberating Cuba from poverty. In that sense, it was not very transformative. But in another sense, Castro’s rule was historic because it was so polarizing. His stifling peace infuriated a large number of Cubans — probably the vast majority. For these Cubans, Fidel was hell. But for others, his rule was a triumph. These Cubans, many of whom are in power, remain wary of losing their country’s historic peace. They fear that any transition to competitive politics would be too risky, that it could plunge Cuba back into disorder.
Castro thus made most Cubans desperate or dissatisfied, but it also made a few others eminently conservative and content. Their conservatism remains one of the most serious obstacles to a democratic transition in Cuba. And it is a sad irony that conservatism came to Cuba thanks to the world leader who spent the longest time in office professing the most radical ideologies of his time.
The author is grateful to Lorenzo Villegas and Joshua Thompson for their research assistance.
Photo credit: ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images