Retire the Revolutionary Myth

Article excerpt

While strangling Cuba's economy, the United States lost its grip on the imagination of much of Latin America's youth.

It was from Mexico that Fidel Castro launched the Cuban revolution half a century ago. It was there that he met Che Guevara, and there where he trained his comrades in arms. For years after, Mexican politicians treated "El Comandante" with respect, fear or just plain awe. And for good reason. When they haven't, they've paid for it: after President Vicente Fox tried to limit Castro's role in the Summit for Development in Monterrey, Mexico in 2002, Castro responded by releasing the tape of their supposedly private conversation to the press, humiliating Fox. "He knows nothing about politics," Castro would later say.

So Mexico is the perfect place to gauge how Latin Americans at large now feel about the recently retired strongman. A few hours after Fidel released his grip on Cuban politics last Tuesday, I ran a survey of Mexican public opinion via a nightly radio show that I do from a studio in Mexico City. The question was simple: has Castro been good or bad for Cuba? The show received dozens of calls almost immediately, with callers reflecting Latin America's deeply ambiguous relationship with Castro and his legacy.

Younger callers, especially those who had been to Cuba, denounced Castro's regime. Javier Castillo called to say he had visited Havana in 2007 and found "a miserable country, where people offer their daughters to tourists and everything is falling apart." A 23-year-old student declared Castro to be "an anachronism." But a majority of callers concluded that the dictator had been good for Cuba. "He was a hero," said Teresa de Jesos Garcia, from the northern state of Durango. A vehement Mario Vallarta called from Guadalajara: "Fidel Castro has given dignity to the Cuban people, and that you just don't buy at the supermarket!" Guillermo Lopez added that "Fidel has given education and free health services to all Cubans. We only wish we had something like that here."

What explains this enduring affection? First, there is the original freedom and romanticism that the Cuban revolution, at its very beginning, represented for those who remember 1959 or lived through the transition. Eliseo Alberto, among the best of the many exiled Cuban writers, resents Castro almost instinctively. But when asked about the first stages of the revolution, he instantly describes them as "a beautiful thing." The Cuban revolution has become, in Latin American mythology, a unique act of successful liberation from the powers that be. Castro's accomplishments were not insubstantial: his initial defeat of Fulgencio Batista and his half-century battle against the U. …