For a man who had been reported dead so many times before, and whose vision of the world had shrunk long ago to the size of a T-shirt, Fidel Castro triggered a remarkable commotion when he died this weekend at age 90. Nowhere were the paeans more heartfelt than in Latin America. “A great one has died,” wrote Ecuador’s President and fast Cuban ally Rafael Correa. Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro declared three days of public mourning. “Dreamers and militant and progressives, all who dreamed of a less unequal world, we all woke up saddened on Saturday,” wrote former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.
Perhaps this was only to be expected. Revolutionary Cuba’s success—in thwarting Washington, inspiring generations of political rebels, raising literacy and public health—won the island nation a lasting aura of strength and respect in latitudes accustomed to neither. I felt the allure in college when the coolest classmates spent their spring break not in Cancun or in Aspen, but in Cuba, cutting sugar cane for the Venceremos Brigade. Confined to chilly New England, and later as a reporter based in Brazil, I contented myself with tales about Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara and their Davidic efforts to face down the hemispheric hegemon. No matter that the Cuban economy was already perilously dependent on another world superpower or that Castro’s supremacy was built on stifling dissent, free assembly and speech and other “bourgeois” luxuries. Back then you chose your side—“everyone in the world has to be communist or anti-communist.”
What’s harder to explain is how the reverence has endured. From Chile to Costa Rica, Latin Americans have made their choice. With some flagrant exceptions—autocratic Venezuela, Nicaragua—never has the region been so democratic. The vast majority of people in the 34 nations of Central and South America and the Caribbean choose their leaders in open elections, say what’s on their minds, and buy and sell things in market economies. While national institutions are frail and corruption flourishes, the Americas have not followed Castro’s example.
It’s not that Latin leaders were blind to the excesses of Castro’s Cuba. In his memoir The Accidental President Of Brazil, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso tells writer Brian Winter of the pasting Castro received in a closed-door meeting of Iberian and Latin American leaders in 1999. “Damn it, Fidel! What are you going to do about this lousy, piece-of-shit island of yours?” one summit leader demanded.
And yet such reproach hardly ever was made public, as if Castro was a damaged but cherished uncle. “Even today it’s difficult—at least in Latin America—for someone who identifies with the left to publicly condemn Cuba’s political regime,” writes Argentine political scientist Claudia Hilb in Silence, Cuba, her book on how Latin American politicians, and the left in particular, clammed up on Cuba’s dysfunctions. “I too, when choosing my words, struggle to soften my affirmations,” she writes.
Hilb attributed that diffidence to a political blind spot: the conceit that Castro’s excesses were just unfortunate byproducts of an otherwise beneficent model of government when in fact tyranny was the foundation of the Cuban revolution.
If Castro got a pass from the left, he had help. From attempted assassination by exploding cigar to the half-century economic embargo, Washington’s permanent offensive against the Cuban leader only played to Castro’s hand, camouflaging the disasters of the command economy and ennobling the dictator’s every move against dissidents.
The Cuba conceit thrives. It’s telling that the most expansive tributes to Castro came from the region’s struggling left, whose leaders—Rousseff in Brazil, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner—either have been replaced by market-friendly conservatives or cling to office against rising dissent, failing economies, or political improbity. Honours to Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who extolled Castro as “the greatest of all Latin Americans,” and is set to stand trial on multiple corruption charges.
One of Castro’s neatest tricks was to have helped Cuba veer before it crashed. He stepped aside when he was ailing, and let his brother Raúl Castro change course. Even as allies in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia railed against Yanqui meddlers, the younger Castro warmly welcomed a visit by Barack Obama and helped nudge the guerrillas it once urged into battle to make peace with the Colombian government.
Cuba’s rebranding may have begun, but Latin America’s Cuba distraction lingers. I can still hear the admonishments of those who counselled me not to move to Brazil. After all, the story in Latin America back then was not an accident-prone and chronically underachieving capitalist democracy, but the Central American Cold War, which thanks to Fidel Castro’s outsize presence was enjoying a robust afterlife.
It didn’t matter that Cuba was an island autocracy with the same population as Sao Paulo and less than half the Brazilian metropolis’s gross domestic product. “Cuba is the black hole in the Americas,” Eric Farnsworth, of the Council of the Americas, once told me. “It sucks up all the attention in the hemisphere.” One of the opportunities in Fidel Castro’s passing could be to help restore a much needed sense of proportion to hemispheric affairs. That’s a resizing I welcome.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg View columnist.