With the death of Fidel Castro, the world has lost a statesman and a political icon of the 20th Century. Whether his 47 years of rule in Cuba – in particular, a memorable fortnight in October 1962 – are remembered fondly depends entirely on political persuasions: to his Marxist-Leninist followers, he will always be the instigator of the Cuban Revolution, the overthower of dictator Fulgencio Batista and constructor of a people’s paradise of high literacy and low mortality; to those less fond of Comrade Fidel, he is likely to be memorialized as the dogmatic tyrant at the head of a politically-fossilized state little better than the one it replaced.
Either way, Fidel Castro is beyond mortal judgement. Only history can deliver a verdict now, and on this count, Mr Castro had always been bullish. At his trial after a failed coup attempt in Cuba in 1953, he gained international notoriety for goading the court: “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.” Only in 2016 will we begin to see whether the reality matches up to the rhetoric.
Much of that depends on what the future brings. For all its momentousness and symbolism, Mr Castro’s death does not change very much in Havana. Dogged by periods of ill-health, he had handed over the reins of power to younger brother Raúl in 2008, removing himself from the formal business of government whilst retaining considerable influence, especially in the realm of foreign affairs. The blessing of the elder Castro leant legitimacy to the younger and established Raúl as the ideal continuity candidate, a position that was confirmed as recently as the Communist Party Congress in April. Raúl has operated independently as First Secretary of the party for almost a decade and there is no reason to expect this – or his politics, a facsimile of his brother’s but with a little more diplomacy and pragmatism – to change on account of his older sibling’s death.
Of greater immediate significance are events on the other side of the Straits of Florida. Whilst it would be too much to say that the Revolutionary of the 20th Century has now given way to the Revolutionary of the 21st, the relationship between Cuba and President-Elect Trump is shaping up to be an unpredictable one.
Things have started inauspiciously. There was more than an air of celebration in Mr Trump’s four-word Twitter reaction to the news of Mr Castro’s death. And whereas this time last year Mr Trump called the emerging Obama deal with Cuba “fine”, more recently on the campaign trail he branded it a “very weak agreement”, stressing that it was largely achieved by executive order and could therefore be reversed. More concretely, the appointment of Mauricio Claver-Carone – a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s approach to Cuba – to his transition team signals the possible taking of a tougher stance on relations with Havana.
So with one Castro deceased, another very much in his twilight years and a US President-Elect who is an enigma on foreign policy, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over Cuba’s future and, for all his bluster 63 years ago, Fidel Castro’s final legacy.