Fidel Castro, the man behind the Cuban Revolution who remained in power as Cuba’s ‘Comandante’ (commander) for nearly 60 years, died on November 25, 2016, at the age of 90. What followed was a confusing mix of eulogies and denunciations. Historically, Western textbooks have depicted Castro as a cruel dictator, while in the developing world, he is often viewed as a figure who took a stance for the colonized world by never giving in to American imperialism.

Many jump to criticize Castro’s authoritarian regime in Cuba, with good reason. Yet, in doing so we must remember to consider the ways in which criticisms of the regime are communicated to us, and the bias that may shape them. As students living in Canada, in close proximity to the US, we are undoubtedly swayed by its influence over which stories are told.

Let’s consider the fact that Castro’s life and legacy helps shed light on an untold version of American history – one that calls into question whether the US is truly the Cold War hero, and defender of democracy and liberal values that it purports to be. It is easy to dismiss and bury the past when your actions have few enduring consequences within your borders.

Consider the example of Fulgencio Batista, the elected president of Cuba from 1940 to 1944, and its dictator from 1952 to 1959. By his second term, Batista had abolished constitutional rights, such as the right to strike, in addition to imprisoning, torturing, and executing those who opposed him.

But while thousands of Cubans were dying at Batista’s hand, Cuba was turning into America’s playground — a detail conveniently left out of many US-dominated narratives. As John F. Kennedy said in a 1960 speech, by 1959 “US companies owned about 40 per cent of the Cuban sugar lands, almost all the cattle ranches, 90 per cent of the mines and mineral concession, 80 per cent of the utilities, and practically all the oil industry.” Americans were becoming rich at the expense of the welfare and freedoms of the Cuban people.

In the same speech, Kennedy also criticized the Eisenhower administration’s relationship with Batista, claiming that it created Cuban distrust towards America and brought communism to the US’ front steps. Cuba had become a police state, but it is important that it was letting private American companies profit from it. The neglect of the needs of Cubans consequently fed Castro’s call for change.

Arguably, the Cold War was never really about communism and democracy. The US continues to maintain friendly relations with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries despite their undemocratic regimes. In fact, the US has overthrown a number of democratic governments, and Latin America has arguably suffered from American actions the most. In 1954, the US overthrew Guatemala’s democratically-elected president, Jacobo Árbenz, because the United Fruit Company was losing its hold on the Guatemalan banana market. To preserve American interests, Árbenz was replaced with a string of US-backed dictators, who plunged the country into decades of violence and a civil war that lasted 36 years.

In 1973, the US backed Pinochet’s coup d’état in Chile, and the democratically-elected Chilean president Salvador Allende was killed — assassinated according to many sources. Allende was a socialist, but labelling him a communist was just a red herring. Before Allende, the Chilean government was increasingly dependent on the United States, and the Chilean market was flooded with American products. Allende’s promise of a reversal of policies leads me to believe that it didn’t matter how democratic or undemocratic a regime was; it came down to how cooperative it would be with the US.

Indeed, throughout the rest of the twentieth century, the US was a collaborator in Operation Condor, a plan of mutual cooperation among the authoritarian regimes of Latin America. From Argentina to El Salvador, nearly every South American country had its share of unwanted US intervention.

The spread of anti-American sentiments in Latin America is understandable. Castro’s Cuba conveyed a message of national self-determination and sovereignty — a message that resonated beyond the shores of the island.

Castro was also supportive of anti-colonial movements in Africa, notably the Algerian struggle against the French in 1962, and the Angolan struggle for independence. Castro believed in internationalist solidarity, and nothing demonstrates that more than Cuba’s aid to the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, which led to its independence from Portugal in 1975.

Castro deployed 36,000 troops to Angola, who also participated in Namibia’s independence from South Africa and fought against apartheid — a government supported by the Reagan administration. In fact, one of the first things that Nelson Mandela did a year after being released from jail in 1991 was to travel to Havana and thank Castro personally.

Although conventional understanding dictates that colonialism ended in 1960 with the United Nations’ Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, exploitation — or what some may call economic colonialism — persisted. Castro fought against that, which is why he is pictured alongside icons of freedom like Mandela, Yasser Arafat, and Che Guevara.

Castro’s regime was an authoritarian one: he restricted individual freedoms, and jailed and executed thousands without trial. In some respects, Castro’s Cuba may not have been so different from Batista’s Cuba. After all, there is a reason why hundreds of Cuban Americans took to the streets in Miami to celebrate his death. Yet many typical perspectives on the Castro regime neglect to acknowledge the positive contributions that Castro made amidst the atrocities.

When evaluating history, we ought to look past US narratives. This is a valuable exercise for all students, not just for those who study political science. Looking at the world from a cross-cultural perspective, and outside the American lens, means approaching the degree of complexity necessary for more robust understanding.

Cassandra Yanez-Leyton is a second-year student at Innis College studying International Relations. 

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