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Cuba after Fidel Castro: What happens now?

Political science expert Dr. Timothy MacNeill offers an evidence-based assessment


The November 25 passing of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro has generated substantial debate about his political legacy and sparked discussion on the country’s future direction.

Dr. Tim MacNeill of the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities’ Political Science program researches alternative social and political models of development and progress around the world. He answers questions and shares some observations on Cuba’s past and what the future may hold.

Q: Was Fidel Castro incorrectly portrayed during his life? Was he a murderous devil or a selfless saviour?
A: It is difficult for many people or media to have a clear sense of the Cuban reality because depictions of Cuba are steeped in propaganda. As a result, you tend to see descriptions of Castro, for example, as either a vicious dictator, or as a benevolent saviour of the poor and emancipator of his people. This good-or-evil binary is misleading.

Q: Why is the actual situation in Cuba much more complex than what people hear in the media or through the claims of interest groups?
A: To gain a clearer picture, you need to understand the history of successes and failures of Cuban administration under Fidel Castro. Castro’s January 1959 revolution deposed Fulgencio Batista, a U.S.-backed dictator responsible for the murder of 10,000 to 20,000 Cubans. Batista was complicit in a system that had the island run largely by the U.S. mafia. The Batista regime maintained power for a small group of land-owning elites. The majority of Cubans lived in poverty and repression.

The land held by the elites was nationalized after the revolution and this class largely fled to the U.S., primarily Miami, Florida. However, many of the elites were executed. They, and the U.S. government, have never let go of that loss and they have since maintained an immensely powerful propaganda machine to discredit the Cuban government.

These interests have also financed nearly constant attempts to overthrow the Cuban government. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency famously tried more than 600 times to assassinate Fidel Castro. The U.S. has maintained an economic blockade of the island–causing much suffering for the Cuban people.

Q: In which ways has Cuba achieved success?
A: In spite of the trade embargo by the U.S., Cuba now has an excellent universal health-care system (something the U.S. has not achieved). Cubans have the same life expectancy as Americans, or greater according to the Pan-American Health Organization. Cuba has lower child mortality rates than the U.S. Cuba has less malnutrition and poverty than the U.S. There is less crime in Cuba than the U.S. Cubans tend to be more educated than Americans. This is remarkable when you consider the adverse impact of the American blockade and the fact that U.S. per-capita income is nearly 10 times that of Cuba.

Cuban success is actually more striking when you compare the nation with similar-sized Latin American countries that did not have similar revolutions. Approximately 65 per cent of the population of nearby Honduras and Guatemala lives in poverty, for example. In those two countries, about three per cent of children die before the age of five. In Cuba that number is 0.48 per cent (in the U.S., it’s about 0.7 per cent).

Q: But has a price been paid for Cuba’s social successes?
A: Cuba’s achieved its success under dictatorship in the highest level of Cuban politics (although lower levels are very democratic). Freedom of expression and press are curtailed. The government holds political prisoners and has been responsible for political-related murders and probably torture.

We must be careful with reports of human rights abuses in Cuba, however, since most accounts are only speculative and generated with support from the exiled Cuban-elite community who are living in U.S. The Wall Street Journal, for example, published a story estimating political deaths in Cuba to be nearing 100,000. That number includes all Cubans killed by the rebels in the revolutionary war, Cubans dying while fleeing the country, and all Cubans who died fighting voluntarily overseas to protect Cuban allies.

We must be cautious with these figures: this would be the same as labelling all U.S. citizens who died in their Revolutionary War, Civil War, and military activities abroad as murders perpetuated by the U.S. government, a number that would be counted in the hundreds of millions. A more responsible count of victims of the Cuban dictatorship–one that requires verification in place of speculation–has put the number at 9,240. This includes deaths of all anti-revolution forces and militant Batista supporters during and immediately after the dictatorship was overthrown. The bulk of these, in other words, were the killing of enemies during the revolutionary war or the purging of the old dictatorship and landowning elite immediately afterward. It is likely most accurate to say that political executions would number in the hundreds after the time the revolutionary government was established.

Claims of political prisoners are also dubious. During the 1960s and 1970s there were a large number of dissidents imprisoned, but they have been released since the end of the 1970s. The Cuban government claims there are currently no political prisoners in Cuba. Amnesty International confirms this–although it notes there were seven as recently as 2015.

One should be keep in mind that this very small country has constantly been under covert attack by the world’s largest superpower for more than 50 years. Some political prisoners should be expected. The Cuban government claims the only prisoners have been those who have taken money from the U.S. government in order to attempt to undermine the Cuban government. This, of course, has not been verified externally.

Q: Has there been misinformation about Cuba over the years?
A: Freedom of the press is certainly limited in Cuba. Cuba’s government claims this stance is to guard against well-financed propaganda coming from former Cuban elites and their allies in the U.S. Freedom of expression in Cuba is also curtailed.

Reports originating from Forbes magazine recently accused Fidel Castro of using Cuba as his own cash cow and amassing $900 million of wealth stored in Swiss accounts. There is absolutely no evidence of this. This speculation by the magazine was based on what was possible for Castro to have done, not on evidence of things actually done. There is no evidence of bank accounts and by all accounts Fidel Castro led a surprisingly frugal life in Cuba until his death. Had he actually amassed wealth at the expense of the Cuban people, we would expect a spending spree of some kind to have occurred at the end of his life. No such spree occurred.

On public health matters, the Cuban government did quarantine those infected by HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. This did not, however, involve the unitary targeting of gay men, as Western news often reported. HIV/AIDS was a larger heterosexual problem than a homosexual one. Nonetheless, sex workers, drug users and gay men were targeted for testing, but gay men were the fewest tested. The quarantine of HIV/AIDS patients ended in the 1980s and Cuba now has the lowest infection rates in Latin America.      

Q: Was Castro a dictator who infringed on human rights?
A: Yes, absolutely. But for perspective, Cuba’s human rights record is much better than many American- and Canadian-supported regimes around the world: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have much worse records, for example.

If we examine nearby Latin American countries, nearly 200,000 Guatemalans were murdered by the U.S.-supported dictatorship in that country in the second half of the 20th century. Both the U.S. and Canada were supportive of a 2008 coup in Honduras. Canada in particular has increased massively its business dealings with Honduras since the coup. Hundreds of poor Hondurans have been killed just in the past few years, and more than 60 journalists and human rights advocates have been assassinated. So again, perspective is needed in assessing the severity of human rights abuses in Cuba.

Q: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was criticized by some for his depiction of Fidel Castro. Was his description of Castro accurate?
A: Yes, for the most part. Trudeau has noted Cuba’s human rights issues, its need for democratization, but also the country’s successes. It would be inaccurate to do otherwise; one cannot gloss over the successes or the human rights issues. In this sense, Trudeau is being more responsible to the facts than are most other leaders.

Leaders like Barack Obama and even federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair have emphasized the negative aspects of Castro’s rule without contextualizing it by noting strides made in education, economic security and health care. Some, like Donald Trump and members of Canada’s Conservative party, have exaggerated the repressiveness of Castro’s government–creating a very simplistic and misrepresentative depiction. This is a bit irresponsible and inaccurate. Prime Minister Trudeau admitted that Castro was a dictator, but also noted his importance as a historical figure and successes in health and education.

Q: What does the future have in store for Cuba?
A: Cuba’s future actually depends more on what happens in the U.S. than what happens in Cuba. Raul Castro (brother of Fidel Castro) has led Cuba since 2008, but will not seek re-election in 2018, although he will still retain much power as the head of the military.

Raul Castro gets much credit for pro-market and pro-democracy reforms recently in the country, but this trajectory had been initiated by Fidel before him. Importantly, more economic openness, and a reduction of political prisoners has occurred while there was an administration in the U.S. that was less hawkish toward Cuba. Under U.S. President Barack Obama, Cuba was given a bit of room to breathe, and hope for sanctions to be further lifted in the future.

A return to isolationist and adversarial policy under Donald Trump would likely increase political detentions and press limitations in Cuba, as protection against aggressive U.S. policy. But if the U.S. continues to engage with Cuba more openly–following Obama’s foreign-policy trajectory–we will likely see the expansion of democratic and economic activity in Cuba.  

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