Fidel Castro is dead. In practical terms, it’s doubtful this will change much — either for Cubans domestically or for Cuba’s place in the world. Castro handed the reins over to his younger brother Raúl a decade ago, and while it’s possible that his brother’s passing will free up Raúl to make changes, so far the brothers have pursued broadly similar policies. If anything, the election of Donald Trump, who has criticized the recent US-Cuba deal to normalize relations, could prove more consequential to the lives of ordinary Cubans than Castro’s death.
But the death of Castro is nonetheless an epochal event not just within but outside of Cuba, and indeed everywhere in the developed world. It’s not just that he’s a neighbor to the US; Jamaica is too, and the death of Michael Manley wasn’t a major event in the US. And it’s not just the large Cuban diaspora; there’s a substantial Haitian population in the US, and Baby Doc Duvalier’s death in 2014 didn’t get this kind of news coverage.
Castro matters because he was the last living symbol of the Cold War at its peak. His death puts an exclamation point on the end of Cold War style of ideological conflict between capitalism and communism. In some ways, it’s the most 2016 thing imaginable.
Castro was a living anachronism
By the mid-’90s, only five formally communist nations remained: Cuba, China, Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea. But by then, China had already enacted sweeping market reforms; Vietnam and, more tentatively, Laos have effected a similar move to capitalism. North Korea remains a Stalinist-fascist horror show, one that bears little resemblance to anything that has ever existed outside of its borders.
But Cuba still retains the hallmarks of a revolutionary communist country.
Cuba has not gone down the road of privatization and heavy foreign investment that’s characterized China and Vietnam (and hasn’t seen the kind of dramatic growth in living standards that those countries have enjoyed either). It retains a genuinely impressive social safety net, with universal health coverage of a kind that’s remarkable in a middle-income Latin American country. And it retains classic Eastern Bloc–style surveillance, jailing of dissidents, and vicious suppression of dissent.
Then there’s Castro's longevity. China’s Mao Zedong and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh are long dead. But because Castro was shockingly young at the time he took power, he was able to lead Cuba’s revolution, stay at the helm for more than 40 years, and retain a role as an elder statesman in retirement.
Unlike final Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the other most famous Cold War communist who remains among the living, Castro had no interest in compromise with the United States during his time in power. He famously encouraged Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to consider launching nuclear weapons if the US invaded Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“The Soviet Union should not ever allow circumstance to arise in which the imperialists could unleash a first-strike nuclear attack,” Castro wrote. “If they decide to carry out something so brutally in violation of law and universal morality as to invade Cuba, that would be the moment to eliminate such a danger forever by the most legitimate defense no matter how severe and terrible the solution.”
For many Americans, then, his death is an opportunity to rehash old Cold War debates. Conservatives point to Castro’s murder of thousands of dissidents as evidence of communism’s essential evil. Leftists point to American hypocrisy in supporting friendly authoritarian states, like Saudi Arabia, while condemning Castro’s human rights abuses.
Both side are right in important ways: The Castro regime was vicious, and the US embargo on trade with Cuba while embracing Saudi Arabia was tremendously hypocritical.
But in 2016, these debates feel exceptionally irrelevant. Cuba is no longer an avatar of communist “resistance” to the United States; its ideological message has lasted beyond its time, leaving Raúl’s regime as just one of many familial dictatorships on the planet. America’s economic embargo under Cuba has relaxed under Obama, leading the two countries to establish formal diplomatic relations (though Trump has threatened to reverse Obama’s reforms).
Fidel himself appears to have recognized his own anachronism. When the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg asked him, in 2010, if there was still a “Cuban model” worth exporting to other countries, Castro replied that “the Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore.” When Goldberg asked him about his nuclear hawkishness during the missile crisis, Castro displayed remorse: “After I’ve seen what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn’t worth it all.”
The world has now moved on from Castro’s world. Today, the majority of countries on Earth are capitalist democracies. Even the world’s most powerful authoritarian states, Russia and China, feel the need to pay occasional lip service to democratic ideals. Authoritarian communism, of the sort Castro dedicated his life to, is no longer a vital force.
The most potent ideological divides in 2016 are inside Western democracies: whether to embrace multi-ethnic democracy and global integration, an option exemplified by Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, or whether to resist demographic change and wall off one’s nation from the world, an option exemplified by Donald Trump and the European far right.
On these questions, Castro had nothing of note to say. He was simply irrelevant. His death in 2016, the year of Brexit and Trump, shows just how much the old world has given way to the new.