Reactions to the death of Fidel Castro Ruz have highlighted some of the differences in the way the Cuban revolutionary and long-time head of state is perceived throughout the world. Most of the world admires Castro and Cuba as having accomplished something heroic by standing up to a bullying empire of immense power, defending the country’s national sovereignty, and living to tell about it. Not to mention the millions of people aided by Cuban doctors and health care workers and other acts of international solidarity that are perhaps unrivaled in modern history, especially for a nation of Cuba’s size and income level.
In the belly of the bully, things look different. And we are not just talking about Donald Trump’s impolite rant upon Castro’s death, true to form and pandering to the waning but still influential Republican base of right-wing Florida Cuban-Americans. From the New York Times subhead of its obituary for Fidel:
“Mr. Castro brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere, bedeviled 11 American presidents and briefly pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war.”
Let’s look for a moment at one piece of this unintentional humor: just who brought the Cold War to this hemisphere? A few years before the Cuban revolution, Washington overthrew the democratically elected government of Guatemala under the false pretextthat it was a beachhead of Soviet Communism in the hemisphere. This ushered in nearly four decades of dictatorship and horrific state violence, which the UN later determined was genocide. In 1999, President Bill Clinton would apologize for the US role in this genocide.
But what vindicates Castro’s view ― and most of the world’s interpretation ― of the US-Cuban conflict, even more than the first four decades of the US embargo and other interventions against Cuba, is what has happened in Latin America in the 21st century. In this era, left governments came to power through democratic elections on a scale that had never happened before. First Venezuela, then Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Honduras, Chile, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Paraguay, and El Salvador elected, and in some countries re-elected, left governments. A number of the new presidents had been persecuted, jailed, or tortured under US-supported dictatorships. And all of them had the same view as Fidel Castro of the United States’ role in Latin America.
Although the Soviet Union was more than a decade in the past, the “Cold War” that Cuba confronted turned out to be alive and thriving in the 21st century. Washington was hostile to most of these governments and seemed to be looking for opportunities to get rid of them by any means necessary. Of course this was not 1960; they couldn’t declare embargoes and organize an invasion force as in Cuba. But they were involved in the 2002 military coup in Venezuela and supported other extralegal attempts to get rid of the government there. Washington also did everything it could to help consolidate the 2009 military coup in Honduras, and Hillary Clinton admitted in her 2014 book that she worked successfully to prevent the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, from returning to office. The US government also helped consolidate the parliamentary coup in Paraguay in 2012.
The US has also aided the recent right-wing resurgence in Latin America. When Mauricio Macri assumed office as president of Argentina last December, the Obama administration lifted its block on loans from the Inter-American Development Bank and other multilateral lenders that it had implemented against the prior left government. The New York judge who had taken more than 90 percent of Argentina’s creditors hostage on behalf of US vulture funds also quickly lifted his injunction, in what clearly seemed a political act. And the Obama administration also demonstrated its support for the recent parliamentary coup in Brazil.
Fidel Castro, it turns out, was right all along about US policy in Latin America. The continuity of this policy, from the height of the Cold War right up to the present moment is amazing, given how much the world has changed. It should make anyone question how much the former Soviet Union or any of the other pretexts that we have been given for US intervention in the hemisphere over the past six decades ― e.g., “human rights” ― had to do with anything.
This shameful reality could possibly get some more attention now that we have a president-elect who talks and acts like the bully that the US has been for so long in Latin America. Optics matter. The Obama administration was at least as bad as the George W. Bush administration in this hemisphere. (The opening of relations with Cuba was a historic change, and a recognition that 55 years of embargo had failed to bring about regime change. But it was not so much a change in policy as a shift to what was seen as a potentially more effective way to accomplish the same goal.) But George W. Bush got much worse press than President Obama did, and that made a difference.
For the first time in years, the US now has important allies in South America that see Washington’s regional interests as their own: in the new right-wing governments of Brazil, Argentina, and Peru. This had already set Washington on the offensive under the current administration. Trump has made noises about being more belligerent against Cuba, although it is not clear that he would want to get in the way of US business interests that have wanted to open up Cuba for many years. But he is going to be a much less publicly palatable ally for the new right-wing governments of the region.
This article originally appeared in the Hill.