Cuba, an island country in the Caribbean Sea a mere 90 miles away from the southern coast of Florida, is the 78th most populous country in the world, with some 11.4 million people.
A place like that is typically an afterthought in global politics.
I mean, a country like Uzbekistan has nearly triple the amount of people in it. And when do we ever talk about them? How many people before reading this sentence even knew that Uzbekistan was a country?
But we all know Cuba. Its imprint on not just Latin America, not just North America, but the world, has been significant for the last half century.
And that’s all because of one man: Fidel Castro.
The average American would probably hear Fidel Castro’s name and automatically think: “bad man.” They’d associate with him a long line of other known dictators like Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin or Saddam Hussein.
And it’s true that Fidel Castro was a dictator. It’s true that he’s exiled, jailed, even killed dissidents, and that he’s suppressed free speech and the rights of the LGBT community within his nation. And that makes him a bad man.
But I think it’s also important to understand why we all know who Fidel Castro is. And why the entire world knows who he is.
A revolutionist and a rebel to his core, Fidel Castro has survived civil war, imprisonment, exile, assassination attempts from within his own nation and abroad. He’s bedeviled 11 American presidents, which began with Dwight Eisenhower’s embargo on the nation in 1960 and was solidified with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion under John F. Kennedy in 1961.
And it was in 1962 when Castro allowed the Soviet Union to place nuclear warheads in Cuba, pointing directly at the United States, putting the world on the brink of nuclear war.
The animosity between the two nations has not subsided. It wasn’t until 2015 when Barack Obama, after nearly two years of secret negotiations, re-opened the possibility of relations with Cuba– nine years after Fidel shifted power to his brother because of illness.
All that is significant for historic purposes. But there is much more to be fascinated with in regards to how Fidel Castro actually ran his country.
For one, it’s the only Communist nation that has not failed. Ever. The Soviet Union collapsed, along with its satellite states. China drastically altered its economy to adapt capitalist policies. North Korea is a hot mess.
Cuba’s healthcare and medical industries are widely praised. Education is public and free, and 99.8 percent of Cubans are literate. 90 percent of Cubans own their own homes. And poverty is almost nonexistent.
And for 50 years, the man leading a small island country managed to stymie another country roughly 30 times the size of it.
Again, there’s a reason why it’s such big news that Fidel Castro died. And it explains why there was such polarizing responses to his death, exemplified by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s warm remembrance of him; and Donald Trump’s single celebratory tweet.
But I encourage you all to learn a little bit more about what made him such a mythical and larger than life figure. Because even though he did indeed do many bad things, he’s also implemented things of significance that nobody had ever done before. And there will probably never be any one else like him.
I wouldn’t quite call him The Most Interesting Man in the World, but from a recent history perspective, he’s pretty up there.
And oddly enough, I’ve been craving a Cubano sandwich ever since I heard he died.
I know what I’m having for lunch tomorrow.