Fidel Castro died last week at the ripe old age of 90, and the world reacted in very different ways. Many people condemned Castro and his regime, while others, like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, had kinder words for the former world leader. Specifically, Mr. Trudeau said:
Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.
This obviously upset a great deal of people who saw Castro as a cruel tyrant. Indeed, it seems like the country of Cuba itself was divided by the death of their former leader. Many people celebrated his death, while it seems many also mourned it. And that brings me to a very interesting area I’d like to discuss today.
Human beings in general have a capacity for good and for bad. When it comes to morality, most of us live somewhere on a spectrum. That is to say, not all of us are 100% good, and conversely not all of us are 100% bad. In fact, I’d be willing to say that in my opinion, there have been very few people in history who have lived exclusively on one side of the spectrum or the other.
World leaders are even more heavily scrutinized because of their positions, and as such tend to be demonized or lionized to a much higher degree. Let’s look at Castro to begin with.
Castro did indeed do some truly horrible things, like killing and jailing his political opponents, interning gay people for “re-education,” forced labor camps, and censoring freedom of speech.
I’m not going to try to argue that Castro was some misunderstood saint.
But even so, he did do some good things for Cuba. Healthcare is free for the Cuban people, and the Cuban medical system even produced a vaccine for lung cancer. Education at all levels is also free. In fact, Cuba has a higher literacy rate than the United States (99% to 86%). In the US, women hold ~20% of the seats in congress; in Cuba, 48% of the seats in parliament are held by women. The caveat here is that this came at a high price for many people.
This begs an interesting question, though, and it’s the central one I would like to pose with this post:
Was Fidel Castro a bad man who did good things, or a good man who did bad things?
Many people are quick to write off Casto as “an evil and immoral communist,” but it seems to me like such black and white thinking completely whitewashes a lot of history here. Indeed, world leaders often get remembered in polarizing ways, written into the annals of history as being either exclusively evil or exclusively good.
But there seems to be a tinge of hypocrisy to this. People in the US tend to generally think of communists as evil people, and Castro certainly fits that mold. Again, I’m not trying to argue that Castro didn’t do horrible things to many people.
But I’d be willing to bet that the same people in America who hold Castro in such disdain probably hold Thomas Jefferson in great esteem, being a founding father and former president…despite the fact that the man owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson participated in and promoted a system wherein human beings could actually become property based on their skin color.
The US has a pretty checkered history when it comes to human rights, beyond even slavery, which seems to be the most egregious.
We’re the only country that’s ever dropped a nuclear bomb on another country. That decision killed upward of 250,000 civilians.
Then there was the time we spent 40 YEARS studying the effects of untreated syphilis in black soldiers. We didn’t tell them they were infected and we withheld treatment just to see what would happen. Because again, America has a little problem with racism.
Oh, and that reminds me of that time we tried to infect Native Americans with smallpox. Our treatment of Native Americans has been appalling from the start. We invaded their land, butchered them, and then forced them onto reservations. Oh, and speaking of, forcing people onto reservations…
The Japanese internment during WWII. That was also a pretty horrible thing to do to American citizens.
I think one could argue that the United States has committed its fair share of war crimes and violations of human rights. But the same people who refuse to acknowledge that Castro may have actually done some measure of good for his people also tend to conveniently forget all of the awful things that “the greatest nation on earth” has done.
Which brings me back around to trying to separate people from their actions. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, but he also helped write our constitution, which now affords many freedoms to people. So was he a good guy who happened to own slaves, or was a he bad guy who helped frame the constitution?
Was Castro a man who did bad things to ensure what he thought was a greater good? That is, after all, the logic that Truman used when he dropped the atomic bombs: sure, it would hurt innocent people, but it would also save innocent people as well.
Right now, we still hold people without due process in Gitmo, and we tortured suspected terrorists after 9/11. We did so under the pretense that it would keep millions of people safe, but a lot of people at home and abroad think that Bush and Cheney are war criminals.
I don’t really know if anyone is truly good, or if doing bad things to protect a greater good is acceptable. It’s the same old question we’ve been wrestling with for ages: do the ends justify the means? Whatever the answer to that question is, I think it means the legacies of all heroes and villains deserve closer scrutiny.