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Fidel Castro’s unusual gift to history

Progress in thought

His personal rule over decades was the longest in modern times, which has become an oddity in a time when more people embrace liberty and accountability.

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    Fidel Castro, left, raises his brother's hand, President Raúl Castro, during the 6th Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba, in 2011.
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After Fidel Castro’s passing last week, reactions were decidedly mixed about his legacy for the Cuban people. Are they better off now than, say, the people of Costa Rica? In his later years, Mr. Castro admitted his model of governance “doesn’t even work for us any more.” Yet most reactions did not miss this undeniable fact: No other person in modern history had so dominated a country for so long.

Starting in 1959, when Castro overthrew a dictator and then imposed strict communism, the self-styled revolutionary relied on a kind of personal rule that today is widely resisted around the world. The era when a strongman can reign for decades may be over. Today’s authoritarian rulers, as seen in Russia, China, Iran, and elsewhere, are more anxious than ever about the flow of ideas and the power of individual conscience to unmask their claim to rule. Their tactics to suppress dissent are becoming more desperate, reflected in their attempts to control the internet.

Much of humanity has come to embrace open communications, equality under rule of law, and the ability to hold rulers to account in free elections. These practices rely not on a personal superiority over others but on immutable values common to all.

Castro’s autocracy – which he handed over to his brother, Raúl – has steadily become an anomaly. The notion that one person can lead brilliantly for decades, without correction by the people, began to erode during the 20th century with the defeat of fascist dictatorships in 1945 and later the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even the 2011 Arab Spring, while it mostly failed, helped shatter the myth of eternal rule by family dynasties in the Middle East.

The spread of democracy is not always smooth. Yet its roots are stronger than ever. Democratic rule has lately broken down in some places, such as Thailand, Turkey, and Nicaragua. But new models are rising in Myanmar, Tunisia, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria. Elected leaders are handing the baton of power over to an elected opponents, not a coup leader. And anti-corruption protests in India, Brazil, and Malaysia have shaken or felled parties that once believed they could reign forever.

The Castro brothers were able to govern for so long in part because the United States often took actions against their rule that allowed them to rally the people against a common enemy. By opening ties with Cuba in 2015, President Obama hoped to end that dynamic. And in a visit to the island, he called on the Cuban people “to choose their government in free elections.” When that happens, the most likely historical fact worth noting about the Castro era may simply be its longevity.

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