"Charismatic" Castro Won "Universal Health Care" and "Free Education"

"His record has been a mix of great social achievements, but a dismal economic performance that has mired most Cubans in poverty. He succeeded in establishing universal health care, providing free education through college and largely rooting out racism."

The "charismatic" Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's shock retirement for health reasons is covered on the Times web site Tuesday morning by James McKinley Jr. writing from Mexico City, "Fidel Castro Resigns as Cuba's President."

President Castro? Was there nothing stronger in the NYT thesaurus this morning?

By contrast, when right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet died in December 2006, the headline that greeted him was (emphasis added): "Augusto Pinochet, Dictator Who Ruled by Terror in Chile, Dies at 91."

After running through the details of Fidel's handover of power to brother Raul Castro, McKinley did an obituary-style review of Castro's dictatorship. Good of the Times to actually use the word "totalitarian" to describe Castro's regime, but is there a such thing as a "non-totalitarian brand of communism"? And how many times do we have to hear that Castro is "charismatic"? (In this story, twice. The Times has used the same word before).

The charismatic Cuban leader seized power in January 1959 after waging a guerrilla war against the then-dictator Fulgencio Batista, promising to restore the Cuban constitution and hold elections.

But he soon turned his back on those democratic ideals, embraced a totalitarian brand of communism and allied the island with the Soviet Union. He brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in the fall of 1962, when he allowed Russia to build missile launching sites just 90 miles off the American shores. He weathered an American-backed invasion and used Cuban troops to stir up revolutions in Africa and Latin America.

Those actions earned him the permanent enmity of Washington and led the United States to impose decades of economic sanctions that Mr. Castro and his followers maintain have crippled Cuba's economy and have kept their socialist experiment from succeeding completely.

The sanctions also proved handy to Mr. Castro politically. He cast every problem Cuba faced as part of a larger struggle against the United States and blamed the abject poverty of the island on the "imperialists" to the north.

For good or ill, Mr. Castro is without a doubt the most important leader to emerge from Latin America since the wars of independence of the early 19th century, not only reshaping Cuban society but providing inspiration for leftists across Latin America and in other parts of the world.

His record has been a mix of great social achievements, but a dismal economic performance that has mired most Cubans in poverty. He succeeded in establishing universal health care, providing free education through college and largely rooting out racism."

Would that be education or indoctrination?

Castro's policies toward homosexuals should nullify any claims of him being a civil rights hero among liberals.

As for Cuba's vaunted "universal health care" (typically the last stand of defense of the regime among hard-core American leftists, along with the country's fictional high literacy rate), this report punctures some myths about the system. Reporter Anthony DePalma, on the trail of pro-Cuban claims made in leftist Michael Moore's documentary "Sicko," addressed the myths of Cuban health care in a story from May 2007, quoting a doctor who had practiced medicine in Cuba.

But for the 11 million ordinary Cubans, hospitals are often ill equipped and patients "have to bring their own food, soap, sheets - they have to bring everything."

McKinley went on to say on Tuesday morning:

But [Castro] never broke the island's dependence on commodities like sugar, tobacco and nickel, nor did he succeed in industrializing the nation so that Cuba could compete in the world market with durable goods. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of its aid to the island, Cuba has limped along economically, relying mostly on tourism and money sent home from exiles to get hard currency.

Yet Mr. Castro's willingness to stand up to the United States and break free of American influence, even if it meant allying Cuba with another superpower, has been an inspiration to many Latin Americans, among them the new crop of left-leaning heads of state like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil..

Though he never restored democracy and has ruled with absolute power, in the minds of many Latin Americans, he stood in stark contrast to right-wing dictators like the one he overthrew, who often put the interests of business leaders and the foreign policy goals of Washington above the interests of their poorest constituents.

Whether Mr. Castro's remaking of Cuban society will survive the current transition remains to be seen. Some experts note Raúl Castro is more pragmatic and willing to admit mistakes than his brother. He has given signals he might try to follow the Chinese example of state-sponsored capitalism.

Others predict that, without Fidel Castro's charismatic leadership, the government will have to make fundamental changes to the economy or face a rising tide of unrest among rank-and-file Cubans.