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Russell Shaw Headshot

For Fidel, A Mixed Legacy Awaits

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During a week such as this, when the ailing, 81 year-old Fidel Castro formally resigned any remaining trappings of official power, I don't think it would be inappropriate to assess his legacy to Cuba and to the world.

For me, the issue of Castro's impact has to be assessed in human, rather than geopolitical terms.

In that light, let me first introduce you to two people. Roberto Oliva and a nameless boy who has just received medicine at a free clinic in a small Cuban village.

While living in South Florida many decades ago, I had a department warehouse summer job. It was there that I met a 50-something Cuban refugee named Roberto Oliva.

Roberto -- who had been in the States about five years when I knew him -- was an accountant back in his native land. Yet when Castro came and everything was collectivized, there was no need for Roberto's profession. Even if that had still been the case, the Castro regime took his modest home and some of his other assets.

There are hundreds of thousands of other cases where the Castro government took the assets and dignity of its citizens. Many of these citizens came to our shores, and have built their lives anew.

Fidel justified these confiscations as "ill-gotten gains." With the exception of a few Treasury-raiders in and close to the Batista regime, these takings were completely unjustifiable. I just do not understand how a small shopkeeper who lost his store could even have been indirectly blamed for the widespread poverty in Havana and in the hinterlands.

Which brings to mind another way of looking at the Castro regime. At the same time where our own president vetoes health care funding measures for the uninsured, and we are afflicted with educational red tape and crippling student loans, there is free education, universal health care and near-universal literacy in the land where Fidel ruled.

Nevertheless, and with some initial validity, some Castro detractors will point to the lack of free elections, and to scarcity of food and other life supplies. In service of the Castro evaluation we are undertaking here, let us look at each.

Optimally, true democracy is a core value. There are nations in this world with universal literacy, health care and democratic values. The lack of a free ballot in Cuba is disturbing. Yet if one had to ask a parent of a child who had just been treated at a free clinic if the right to vote would have been preferable to the smile that just returned to their child's healing face, I think I know what the answer would be.

Now, to the food scarcity and general supplies issues that some hang around the Castro regime's neck.

In large measure, this is a circumstance tied in to Electoral College politics in the U.S. The current geopolitical map presents Florida as a swing state.

With two million Florida voters of Cuban ancestry, presidents and presidential candidates are reflexively anti-Castro. They have perpetuated trade embargoes against Cuba while at the same time enthusiastically backing trade with dictatorial nations where, unlike in Castro's Cuba, the social welfare concerns of the poor go unheeded.

The sensitivities of the Cuban-Americans in Florida are sometimes overlooked by some of us on the left. While some still yell about Diebold (2004) and the Supreme Court (2000) as a reason why we are afflicted by a Bush Presidency, they tend to forget 2000's Electoral College math where the Democratic vote for Gore among Cuban-Americans in Florida was around 20 percent, compared to 40 percent for Clinton just four years earlier.

A key reason for this dip: the Elian Gonzales controversy, an issue precipitated by the forced return of the boy to his father in Castro-ruled Cuba. Remember the photo of that jackbooted soldier pointing a gun at a petrified Elian? Not only was it seen around the world, but by every family in Florida with Cuban roots. While I think it was right to return Elian to his dad, the action of a Democratic president in doing this had to renew the bitter feelings of many toward presidents from a party that failed them at the Bay of Pigs.

The two incidents -- Bay of Pigs and the Elian raid -- were more than 35 years apart. Each took place during Castro's hold on power. The time span is not only a testament to Fidel's durability, but to the influential ability of his regime to impact events in different eras.

So how should we judge Fidel? If you think I sound ambivalent, you are right.

Sure, I was impressed by the scenes of free medical clinics in Michael Moore's "Sicko." Yet neither have I seen documentation or even heard of a casual relationship between the property confiscations Castro inflicted on Cuba's hard-working middle class and the subsequent social welfare gains his regime was able to provide for his people.

For me, the main question is, why did Fidel have to steal from some Cubans to provide for even a greater number of them? Wouldn't it have been possible to perpetuate a hard-working middle class while at the same time instituting free education, medical care and universal literacy?

And in a more philosophical construct, does the good of the many outweigh the good of the few? Is there a moral equation that can be applied to the hurtful economic expulsion of many hundreds of thousands of Cubans while a new system emerged that introduced tangible social benefits for several million?

Recalling people such as Roberto Oliva, I personally think not.

Nevertheless, it is questions such as these that inform my evaluation of the Fidel Castro regime as one with a mixed legacy.