If Cuba was not located where it is, Fidel Castro would be remembered as just another tin pot dictator. However, Cuba is located in one of the most strategically important places in the world view of the United States.
Castro oversaw a brutal one party state. Torture was routine, ‘disappearances’ were commonplace. There were thousands of political prisoners, free speech was stamped on, gay rights suppressed, political freedoms nonexistent.
Supporters of Castro’s dictatorship are prepared to overlook all this, or whitewash it with talk of ‘mistakes’ while concentrating on the positive side of the regime – health care and education.
Why? The why is partially to do with Cuba’s location.
If Cuba had been located elsewhere, for example where East Timor is, then the dictator who came before Castro (Batista) may not have been an American puppet, and thus not automatically hated by those who hate America. Nor would the USA then have been so concerned with the new dictatorship. Therefore, those who loathe what they see as American imperialism would not have concerned themselves so much with Cuba, nor lionized its achievements while ignoring its human rights abuses.
Cuba is not East Timor and Cuba’s location, guarding the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, is in the premier league of American foreign and domestic policy concerns.
The fertile plains of the Mississippi basin grew the crops which were transported down the rivers to the port of New Orleans. These crops, shipped to Europe, allowed European workers to leave the fields and enter the urban industries thus making possible the industrial revolution – beginning in Britain. But the Florida and Yucatan straits, leading past Cuba and into the Atlantic are narrow, and America had to guarantee this flow of trade.
Spain controlled Cuba. It was by the late 1800s such a weak power it was not considered much of a threat, and probably incapable of blocking the straits, but the British, Germans, even the French might.
British sea power, with its bases in the Caribbean, was of particular concern. The building of the Panama Canal only heightened the tensions. As the USA was now a two-ocean power, its navy could transit from one to the other via the Canal, but only if it also controlled the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico
The Spanish-American War of 1898-1900, and the seizure of Cuba by the U.S. put those concerns to rest.
But in 1959 an anti-American, pro-Russian dictatorship came to power in Cuba. It then hosted Russian missiles, capable of being armed with nuclear weapons, and capable of reaching most of the United States. There was also the less apocalyptic, but also existential threat of a naval blockade of the Gulf, and the deployment of shore to ship missiles. Hence the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Thankfully, war was avoided. But the problem of Cuba’s dictatorship and geographic location remained.
Castro spent the next few decades irritating Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush Jnr, and Obama. But his 6 hour long monologues were not an existential threat for the Americans and could easily be tolerated, as could the fact that he became an idol for anti-Americans who could sate their loathing for the U.S.A through a blind worship of a serial human rights abuser.
They waited him out. He’s gone. Cuba is still where it was. And is still important, not because of Batista, or his successor dictator, but because of where it is. If Cuba was not off the coast of Florida, most people currently weeping for Fidel would not care.