As hundreds of thousands of citizens of the United States of America, stuffed with warm and tasty vittles, arguing with their family about tryptophan and football and that rude thing their cousin said, lined up outside big box stores and malls and places filled with technological achievements that would have shocked and amazed any denizen of the prior 20 millennia – from phones more powerful than supercomputers to drones capable of flying at 10,000 feet to Bluetooth enabled sous vides – Fidel Castro, a 90 year old dictator whose dream of violent socialist revolution had left him beloved by the media, his island isolated, and his people impoverished, died.
He died a failure. His failure is not due to his cruel despotism – which the media would like very much to sweep under the rug. It was due to a poor decision on which horse was the wiser bet. Castro believed that the Cuban elite had adopted a Colonialist-style attitude toward the United States, toward our capitalists and our trade and our tourist dollars. He rejected this, in a bet on the USSR as the ultimate champion of the Cold War and that the ultimate triumph of Soviet culture and economic prowess would turn Cuba into the bright red star of the Atlantic. As a leader, he was an economic disaster. The media fell in love with Castro the revolutionary – but as a central planner, there was nothing to love. As Walter Russell Mead writes:
Lee Kwan Yew, Augusto Pinochet, Francisco Franco, Chiang Kai Shek, Park Chung-he: all of these dictators and authoritarians can mock Fidel Castro. They left their countries better off than they found them, and while many of them committed terrible crimes, they can also point to great accomplishments. Fidel has only the crimes.
But while the people starved, Castro prospered. His estimated wealth at the time of his death was close to a billion dollars. His son Antonio last year spent the summer cruising the Aegean in his 160 foot yacht. The man who took power on the promise he would be for the people turned out to be very much for himself.
Nonetheless, the press applauded him. Here is the opening paragraph of his obituary from The Nation:
Fidel Castro is dead at 90. He took power in 1959, at the head of the joyful, raucous, and brash Cuban Revolution, which was immediately placed under siege by Washington. Castro almost outlasted 11 US presidents—Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and passing in the waning days of Obama’s last term. Perhaps he just couldn’t bear the thought of President Donald Trump. Having been sanctimoniously lectured by all 11 US presidents on what constitutes proper democratic procedure, he might have thought Trump, about to take office with a minority of the vote and with significant voter suppression, a vindication.
The aspect of Castro’s rise that has always struck me as emblematic of his failure is the story of the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte – the art schools that Fidel and Che Guevera dreamed up over cigars and drinks after a game of golf at the deserted Havana Country Club. It was a common enough dream for one bent toward socialism: tuition-free schools for the arts, built by the best revolutionary architects and designers, designed to help the Third World’s creative scene flourish and grow under the beneficent rule of socialism.
Ricardo Porro and his fellow architects, influenced by Antoni Gaudi’s naturalism, gathered in the site of the deserted country club – a legacy of their now defunct relationship with the United States – and decided on their plan. They could not import rebar or cement – the Soviets did not have enough, and trade barriers prevented them from asking the capitalists. So they would use terracotta and brick, and to transform these pedestrian materials into something amazing, they would rely on the organic forms of undulating Catalan vaults. There would be schools of dance, drama, music, and more. And they would build them to be beautiful – Castro promised the “most beautiful academy of the arts in the world.”
You can see what they built here. The buildings are not masterpieces, but ghosts. They are haunted by what came after. The Soviets did not approve of the creativity displayed here. The architects were criticizes as cultural elitists at odds with the revolutionary ideal. They were backward capitalist aristocrats, influenced by their cultural origins as opposed to the culture-eradicating promise of the revolution and the new man. The Soviet love for prefabricated functionalism would not tolerate such creativity. The schools fell into disuse. Porro and another of his lead architects, who knew the danger of being out of favor, had to flee the country. Just as the law of the jungle engulfed Castro’s revolution, the Havana jungle crept in and engulfed the places where Cuba’s most creative children were supposed to learn and build and make the art that would shame the capitalists in its beauty.
Now the academy buildings are viewed as a cultural landmark of what might have been – a potential world heritage site for the United Nations, its architecture is now admired and praised. The revolution that spawned it is dead and gone. But there are those who would not learn the lesson of these old abandoned buildings and what they tell us about the lure of the lie at the core of Castro’s appeal. Remember the words of Armando Valladares:
Just as there is a very short distance between the U.S. and Cuba, there is a very short distance between a democracy and a dictatorship where the government gets to decide what to do, how to think, and how to live. And sometimes your freedom is not taken away at gunpoint, but instead it is done one piece of paper at a time, one seemingly meaningless rule at a time, one small silencing at a time. Never allow the government – or anyone else – to tell you what you can or cannot believe or what you can and cannot say or what your conscience tells you to have to do or not do.
This is how socialist revolutions end. The poor young man who promises the world; the rich old man who dies enfeebled; and in between the people, who come and go and die for his dream.