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26 November 2016

Fidel Castro, hero or villain? The world reacts to his death

To some, he was the revolutionary icon. To others, an oppressor. 

By Julia Rampen

Fidel Castro has died aged 90, in his bed, after surviving countless assassination attempts during his life. World leaders are offering Cuba their condolences; Cuban exiles in Miami are celebrating in the streets. So where exactly does the legacy of this revolutionary communist icon lie?

Western politicians have to walk a fine line between acknowledging his significance and avoiding seeming to condone human rights abuses. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, praised Castro’s commitment to social justice but acknowledged he had flaws. Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, whose father, also a prime minister, was friends with Castro, described him as “legendary” – but caused outrage on the other side of the border. 

For leaders of former colonies, whatever his human rights abuses, Castro represented the anti-colonial struggle, both in his willingness to support other countries and his own determination to stand up to the United States.

Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa, praised him as a supporter of the struggle against apartheid. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, described him as a “great friend” of India, while the Pakistani politician Imran Khan tweeted that he “liberated his country from all vestiges of imperialism”.

He has also gained the support of those who resent US dominance. Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, said Castro was a “true and loyal friend of Russia”. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, tweeted that he talked “extensively” with Castro.

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Those on the left who never embraced the move towards economic liberalism see him as upholding what Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet Union leader, called a “path of independent development”.  Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, has defended him as a man who made sure the country had “good education, good healthcare and wealth was evenly distributed”.

For economic liberals, however, Castro kept Cuba in a time warp, and his refusal to open up the economy at a time when other communist regimes like China were reforming made little sense.

But the most common criticism, shared by Cuban dissidents, liberals and religious groups alike, is that he trampled on human rights.

The US Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who represents many Cuban exiles, tweeted: “Tyrant Fidel Castro is dead; a new day must dawn.”

Nevertheless, there is no doubt Castro retained a base of support in Cuba – since his death, huge rallies have been planned to mourn him. 

In many ways, though, Castro was a product of his time. In a series of tweets, Alex Tunzelmann, the author of the book Red Heat, about the history of the US and the Caribbean, argued that when he came to power, neighbouring countries were in the grip of US-backed dictatorships, and he at least managed to deliver on healthcare and making Cuba a major player in the world.

As the French President Francois Hollande put it, Castro represented the Cuban revolution in both its “hopes” and later “disappointments”.