Elisa Coll is an activist, a traveler, and the founder of Revolution on the Road.
Fidel Castro is one of the most divisive icons of the 20th century. Regardless of your view, it’s best to stay informed with these historical facts:
The life expectancy in Cuba is higher than in the United States.
Castro made major changes and improvements to the country’s sanitary system, which the World Health Organization has defined as “an example to the world”. He reformed healthcare by providing free and universal access. He also invested in prevention, resulting in a drastic reduction of infant mortality — the lowest rate on the continent. Since 1963, Cuba has been sending doctors and other medical personnel to Third World countries to help in humanitarian missions — the latest example being the Ebola epidemic in Western Africa.
Under his command, people were arrested and sent to working camps for homosexual behavior. Years later, he retracted it.
Before the revolution, there was in Cuba a certain tolerance towards LGTB+ folks. However, after Castro’s victory in 1959, this tolerance vanished and many people within these communities fled to Miami. Gay bars were seen as a meeting point for counter-revolutionary activities and Castro himself would refer to gay men as “deviated”. As it often happens regarding women, LGTB+ people, or POC, revolution is not always a revolution for everyone. However, in a 2010 interview, Castro admitted that this prosecution had been “a great injustice”. He declared: “If someone was responsible for it, that was me… We had so many life or death problems that we barely paid any attention to it“. Ironically, his own niece, sexologist and activist Mariela Castro, has been one of the greatest advocators of LGTB+ rights and visibility of the last years in Cuba.
Both his reforms on education and land were two of the greatest achievements of the revolution.
Castro managed to take the Cuban’s illiteracy from 20% in 1958 to 3.9% in 1961. Today, it is almost at 0%. Education (including college) became free after he took the power and private education disappeared. This system became an example for other Latin American countries such as Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, and also European nations including Spain.
As for the land reform, Castro defended its redistribution to the peasants, the state, and the cooperatives, since 80% of it was owned at the time by U.S. companies. Through expropriation and the illegalization of the ownership of Cuban land for foreign companies and individuals, he succeeded on giving the land back to those who worked it.
Political detractors were prosecuted and executed. Nowadays, Cuba holds one of the highest prisoner rates in the world.
One of the most extended and shared criticism against Castro is his one-party system and his reiterated violations of basic human rights. Amnesty International has repeatedly reported these violations that affect liberties such as freedom of speech or freedom of association. He also kept death penalty, which could be applied to people as young as 20 years old. Nowadays, some of these problems still persist (death penalty is still enforced) and some have been translated to the new times — for instance, a recent A.I. publication shows that only 25% of the Cuban population has access to the Internet.
“History will absolve me.”
After his first attempt to attack two Cuban military headquarters in 1953, Castro managed to escape, but was finally arrested and condemned to 15 years in prison (although he was released before he reached the second year). As he had graduated in Civil Law in university, he defended himself and delivered a speech that ended with this powerful quote. This speech wasn’t recorded in any way, but later on Castro himself reconstructed it as the manifesto of the 26th of July Movement.
These days we are seeing that many people, Cuban or not, want to, indeed, absolve him; many others want to condemn him, and many want to glorify him. But maybe his passing away offers now an opportunity to do something else: to learn, to read about what he did. Because, at the end of the day, History shouldn’t be a judge — but a teacher.