About the only thing that is not in contention regarding Fidel Castro is his political longevity. In forcing him to step down after nearly 50 years as Cuba’s President, Mr Castro’s failing health accomplished what Washington could not despite repeated invasions, assassination attempts and economic sanctions. This is hardly regime change. But his successor, brother Raul, will find it hard to manage the combination of charisma and isolation, repression and revolution, that allowed ‘El Comandante’ to rule for so long. Mr Castro is revered among the Left for his ability to sustain socialist rule just 80 kilometres away from the United States and promote revolution in Latin America throughout the 60s and 70s. As an export, Castroism proved an utter failure. As an example, it retained a cache that has only now begun to fade. In recent years, Mr Castro became an elder statesman for anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism in the Western hemisphere.
He retains another image — the father of a socio-economic paradise. Over the years he built a public healthcare and educational system that gave Cuba one of the best human development indices in the world. Mr Castro’s accomplishments in this area are undeniable. However, they were also built on the bedrock of billions of dollars in subsidies provided by the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba fell into an economic stagnation that it is unlikely to ever emerge from as long as one Castro or another rules. If anything, Mr Castro’s greatest source of support in the past 20 years has been the US’s counterproductive sanctions. These have provided both legitimacy and a sense of isolation that has allowed Mr Castro and his regime to survive well beyond his moment in history.
Mr Castro remains an icon, even if it is increasingly mainly one of revolutionary nostalgia. He no longer represents a political or economic alternative to the developing world. Other countries now match Cuba in developmental terms and have done so in a liberal democratic setting. Hugo Chavez and his ilk now wield the anti-American megaphone. But one can be certain Mr Chavez will never last even a tenth the time of ‘El Jefe Maximo’, whether in office or in historical memory.