Fidel Castro’s death over the weekend produced cries of lamentation in Havana and jubilation in Miami. He had been declining for years; long gone was the legendary stamina that carried him through four-hour public speeches, all-night bull sessions, and endless provocations. On the few occasions he was wheeled out for public appearances in recent years, he seemed crotchety and frail.
For example, last March, as millions of Cubans met U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba with curiosity, Fidel took to the state newspaper, Granma, to complain. Rather than considering Obama’s overtures as a new opportunity, he replayed an ancient litany of Cuban grievances, from Spain’s practice of slavery and the Americans’ Bay of Pigs invasion to vague accusations of Obama being racist. “We do not need the empire to give us anything,” he concluded.
But Castro was wrong: Cuba has relied on empires throughout its history, and today it is needier than ever. For more than four centuries, the island was a colony of Spain, the birthplace of Ángel Castro, Fidel’s father. In the years of U.S. domination, Ángel profited from the American empire by growing sugar for the U.S. market. And even Fidel made Cuba a client state of the Soviet Union, but with the Soviet collapse in 1989, Cuba lost its economic patron and 50 percent of its economy. Since then, the island has existed in survival mode, subjecting its people to chronic shortages of food, medicine, and basic goods. The U.S. embargo has exacerbated conditions—but not as much as the broken state-run economy. Cuba has rich agricultural terrain but must import 80 percent of its food. Markets and stores are showcases of inefficiency, requiring shoppers to stand in line for hours in hopes of acquiring low-quality basic foodstuffs. Consumer goods are largely distributed as charity from relatives living abroad.
Cuba has had great success in developing its human capital, as shown by its prowess in the visual and performing