This past week marked the anniversary of the death of Fidel Castro, our hemisphere’s worst dictator for a half century. When we remember Castro’s death, we should remember him for just that: death.
Expressing the depths of Fidel’s destruction is impossible in a short article. But among the corpses under his despotism were the thousands who perished while trying to escape his island-prison by swimming nearly 100 miles to American shores.
A testimony to that desperation was recently provided to my students at Grove City College by a Cuban citizen, who I must leave nameless. In describing her citizens’ surreal lives under totalitarian communism, she noted that only recently have Cubans been allowed to visit their beautiful beaches, and even then only under strict surveillance. That’s a stunning thought for a country literally surrounded by beaches. And yet, Cubans are banned from their beaches because their government fears they’ll dash into the deep water and start paddling profusely for freedom—swimming all the way for Florida.
Imagine that. Try to conceive the utter despair. Try to wrap your mind around the cruelty of a government not even letting its suffering citizens escape—a regime so repressive that it will not dare avert its gaze for a moment lest its people attempt the physically unimaginable in the agonizing hopes of dashing from this Marxist police state.
We already know that Cuba is a bizarre island without boats. Look at satellite images of Cuba. No boats! There’s also no fishing industry, and people don’t have the luxury of eating fish. (They largely eat chicken, pork, rice, beans.) Why no boats? Who no fishermen? Because fishermen bolt the first chance they get—just like swimmers.
For the record, how many people have attempted the swim since Castro took over in 1959? It’s difficult to say. In 1999, the Harvard University Press classic, The Black Book of Communism, estimated that some 100,000 Cubans had risked the treacherous journey. Of those, perhaps as many as 30,000 to 40,000 died from drowning. As those in the sea bob for breath, the government on occasion has employed the resources of the state to sink them, dropping large bags of sand at them from helicopters hovering above.
Yes, actually dropping sandbags.
As we consider the tens of thousands who’ve drowned, compare it to another glaring number: zero. That’s the total number of Americans who have attempted the swim to Cuba, including all those merry liberals raving about the wondrous “free” education and healthcare awaiting humanity in the Castro collectivist utopia.
Bill Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education, speaks of “the gates test.” To wit: when a nation opens its gates, in which direction does humanity flow? Well, when the United States leaves its borders unchecked, the refugees stream in. In the communist world, the apparatchiks had to build a wall in Berlin to keep the captives contained. In Cuba, they can’t even visit their beaches. I imagine the communists in Cuba would earnestly have followed the example of their old comrades in East Germany and built a wall around the beaches—if they could afford it.
Aside from those who drowned, how many others died under Fidel Castro?
Those numbers likewise run into the thousands. There were the more traditional Marxist methods: bullet to the head, deprivation, succumbing to inhumane prison conditions. The numbers vary, but the range of dead from those means is typically between 10,000 and 20,000, whether victims of long-term imprisonment or outright execution by bullets.
Fidel’s onetime executioner-in-chief, Che Guevara, today an icon to profoundly ignorant college students who sport the cruel psychopath on their t-shirts, is estimated to have overseen as many as 2,000 executions (some of which he personally performed) during the brief period he ran Fidel’s execution pit at the La Cabana concentration camp. Beyond Che’s “bloodthirsty” (he charmingly used that word to describe himself in a letter to his wife) achievement, many more Cubans were liquidated by other state assassins. In all, most credible estimates place the total dead somewhere between 15,000 to 18,000. That’s a lot of people for a tiny island. And again, it doesn’t include those who drowned while attempting an incredible swim.
The late professor R. J. Rummel, an expert on the sordid subject of death by government, estimates that from 1959-87 alone, the grand total of cadavers produced by Fidel ranged from 35,000 to as high as 141,000. How’s that for a resume? Actually, for a communist leader, it’s pretty typical.
—Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book (April 2017) is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century. He is also the author of 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.