TOPICS > World

How Fidel Castro maintained a communist stronghold

November 26, 2016 at 5:22 PM EDT
Fidel Castro was the father of a revolution that delivered healthcare and education, but repressed dissidents and political freedoms over the course of nearly 50 years of rule. Adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations Carla Robbins and William LeoGrande, professor of government focusing on Latin American politics at American University, join Lisa Desjardins.

Read the full transcript below.

LISA DESJARDINS, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: For More on Fidel Castro’s foothold in history and what it means now, I’m joined here in the studio by Carla Robbins, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She’s also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly with the “New York Times,” “The Wall Street Journal” and “U.S. News & World Report.”

And in Washington, William LeoGrande is a professor of government and a specialist in Latin American politics at American University. He’s the author of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of negotiations between Washington and Havana.”

A very strong panel. Thank you both for joining us on a holiday weekend.

Let me start with you, Carla. Fidel Castro was divisive in life, and now even in death. We’ve seen reactions around the world vary, not just in the western world and the developing world but we’ve seen even the prime minister of Canada have some words of praise for Fidel Castro and his death, very different from what we’ve seen from most American leaders.

What do you think Fidel Castro, in the end, represented in his life?

CARLA ROBBINS, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Well, you know, if you thought about it, Cuba is a very small country, and it doesn’t produce any strategic materials that anyone would really care about it, but it was 90 miles away from the United States with Fidel Castro, and it was in the midst of the Cold War that he came to power. So, his ability to sort of manipulate that relationship, and he was such a sort of rock star in the way that he did it, so it was always this sort of symbolism of challenging American imperialism and being in the face of the United States. And he was that way until the very end. So, it was sort of the rock star Fidel, even though at home he was pretty much a thug.

The rock star.

Bill LeoGrande, Fidel Castro himself talked a lot about the value of propaganda. It was an important part of how he came and stayed in power. But what do we know about the facts?

Well, when he took power in 1959, he had two objectives — one was to totally reform Cuba’s corrupt and unequal social order, and the other was to gain independence from the United States. And in the early years, he made a lot of progress on both of these. He kicked the Americans out and he abolished capitalism in Cuba, replacing it with Soviet-style communism.

But the reality is over time, those goals began to actually erode. We see now that his brother, Raul Castro, is moving towards more of a market socialism on the order of China or Vietnam. So, the old-style Soviet model just didn’t work.

And since December 2014, Cuba and the United States have been re-engaging with one another. U.S. visitors are going down there by the thousands and U.S. businesses are just chomping at the bit to get into Cuba.

DESJARDINS: How did Fidel Castro do this? It’s been many decades since the Cuban people have suffered from economic distress and political repression?

ROBBINS: Well, you know, it’s fascinating. When you think that the wall fell in ’89, that the Soviet Union unraveled 25 years ago, and the Cubans went through a very tough time, that special period when they didn’t have that financial support that kept Castro in power for such a very long period of time.

How did he do it? It’s an island. You know, they could control an enormous amount because it was an island. I think for that.

I think the power of his personality was a big part of it. But as Bill said, also, that he did — you know, they did make some pretty significant changes socially, so there were a lot of true believers there for a long time. I will tell you the last time I was there, which was the last time they let me in, which was the mid-‘90s, there was an awful lot of people who had been believers in the revolution who finally said, “Enough is enough.”

And so, would I have predicted 20 years hence that they would still be in power? That is pretty surprising.

DESJARDINS: Bill, what about that. What do we know what the Cuban people think right now about the Castro regime?

LEOGRANDE: The older generation, people over 60, who remember the old regime and who grew up in the 1960s and even in the ‘70s, when there was a lot of enthusiasm for the revolution and when the economy was doing better, they tend to have a lot of affection still for Fidel Castro and Raul Castro. And in the few public opinion polls that have been done on the island by outsiders, that generation is still supportive.

But the younger generation is badly disaffected. These are people who grew up in the special period when the economy was a disaster. And for them, the revolution means privation. And a lot of them don’t see a lot of future for themselves in Cuba, and that’s why so many of them are leaving.

DESJARDINS: Carla, you know, it’s remarkable to me, this was a man who was the longest in power of any 20th century ruler, except for monarchs.

ROBBINS: It’s remarkable what repression can do for you.

DESJARDINS: And I think my question to you is then, what do you think his legacy may be now, beyond his ability to stay in power? He said in April in his farewell address that he says, “Cuban communism’s legacy will live on.”

What does that mean, and is there such a thing?

ROBBINS: I think that’s sort of delusional. Eventually, it will unravel. I mean, in the world of the Internet, even being an island, you cannot be that separated. And as Bill said, this generation, they want out. They want it to be over with. They don’t want that level of privation. And they certainly don’t want to be cut off from the rest of the world there.

You know, there were changes that took place — educational changes, health care changes — you know, it’s a different country, certainly, than it was under Batista. But, you know, the joke went on for too long. So, will Cuban communism live forever? I certainly hope not.

DESJARDINS: My question to you, Bill, is now how do you think this will change things? Does the death of Fidel Castro hasten reforms? Do anything for the next rung of leadership? Raul Castro said he will step down in 2018. But obviously, the communists would like to remain in power. What does this all mean for Cuba?

LEOGRANDE: Well, Fidel Castro was such a symbol, a symbol of revolution itself being its founding father, as symbol of the animosity between Cuba and the United States. I think his passing will, on the U.S.-Cuba relations side, take some of the heat out of the animosity, particularly among some of the hard liners in Miami for whom Fidel personally was just an object of abject hatred.

On the island itself, I think his enduring legacy is that he made Cuba a fully independent country from the United States. The last country in Latin America really to gain its full independence.

DESJARDINS: Carla, talking about symbolism, Fidel Castro passed away just as we see most of the symbol of capitalism itself, or certainly aristocracy, Donald Trump, rising to power. Does this — do you think this is an opening now in terms of the United States’ stance towards Cuba to lead to a more hard line from President-elect trump?

ROBBINS: Right now, he’s taking the very hard line. He carried the Cuban-American community in Florida there by 52 percent, according to the exit polls. So, maybe he’ll take the hard line itself.

You know, if I had to bet, I think the train’s already departed. I think that basically American businesses are interested in going there and, you know, Americans are interested in going there. I don’t expect there’s going to be a massive roll-back.

DESJARDINS: OK. And, Bill, do you think in the next, let’s say even six months, we’ll see any changing of the pace in Cuba?

LEOGRANDE: Well, we’re going to have to wait and see which Donald Trump takes the White House. Is it the politician who promised Cuban-Americans that he would roll back everything Barack Obama did in Cuba? Or is it the businessman who in the 1990s wanted to get into Cuba and do business himself and just as recently as September said he thought an opening to Cuba was fine, as long as we negotiated a good deal?

DESJARDINS: Bill LeoGrande with American University, and Carla Robbins of the Council of Foreign Relations — thank you both for joining us.

ROBBINS: Thanks very much.

LEOGRANDE: Glad to be with you.