Opinion | Fidel Castro, megalomaniac with a heart

Marcelo Montecino
Fidel Castro speaking in Havana, 1978

Consensus today after Castro’s death will be predictably whittled down to soundbites. Some on the left see him as a saint who could do no wrong and a hero against the forces of capitalist imperialism. Those on the right see him as an ‘evil dictator’. Neither views give us any real insights into either his personality or the Cuban regime.

I can only speak from personal experience after traveling the length of the country in 2005. But the place was not a paradise for Cubans. Locals were often arrested for talking to westerners. They were forbidden to use the internet while westerners were free to do so; there was massive poverty everywhere, and a sense that people were merely existing; there was massive censorship, and, like Lenin’s Soviet Union, a sense that the leader knew what was best for his people.

On the upside, there was little violence or crime, everybody had a roof over their heads, and I doubt anybody starved; there was a health care system that was better than most western countries. Education was free, but since there was such a totalitarian mentality, I cant see what most people could have done with their ideas, since there was only one game in town: state socialism. Pluralism, diversity and debate was not allowed.

I met a lot of western marxists on my travels there who spoke patronisingly about how great Cuba was. They only saw what they wanted to see, and they seemed to have contempt for the Cuban population. As if the ideals of socialism in theory were more important than the reality on the ground. Many of the Cubans spoke badly of the regime; hey felt like they were in a permanent prison.

Having lived in the United States for a year of my life too, I came to the conclusion that capitalism for all its faults, brings more freedom and ability to express oneself than the model of Castro’s state socialism.

But nothing is black and white. For western freedom, others pay, children die, bloody wars happen, and deplorable crimes are committed to keep the west in power. All that said, a state where people are treated like small children and walk around in constant fear is not the answer either.

I read a few of Castro’s books on economics at the time. It seemed to me, he was a visionary with a lot of heart. But he was a megalomaniac who was often delusional and drunk on power. Give any man or woman the power he had for six decades, and the original idea just gets lost in the cult of personality.

JP O’Malley is a writer who lives in London.