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Questions I never got to ask Fidel Castro

A woman holding a picture of Castro and Chavez waits to pay homage to Castro in Havana on Nov. 28, 2016. AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan

Dear Comandante en Jefe:

I write now after your death to raise some of the questions that have often concerned me, but that I never had the opportunity to ask you in life.

My family and I lived in your country for three years. I was British ambassador to your country from 2001 to 2004. I met you and several members of your and your brother’s family on several occasions, but a diplomat isn’t encouraged to ask questions like these. My family traveled throughout the beautiful island of Cuba and got to know many of your fellow citizens. We even have Cuban family ourselves. The husband of one of our daughters has a Cuban grandmother, and our Cuban-born cat Rolando lived with us in the United States for 13 years.

When news of your death reached me, these were the questions I realized I had left unasked:

1) You came to power in 1959 as a successful revolutionary guerrilla fighter and as a wildly popular leader. You projected youth and openness. You ousted the corrupt and brutal Fulgencio Batista, who had ruled Cuba unconstitutionally, and you welcomed contact with the foreign media. In your first months in power, you launched a moderate program of land reform, literacy and popular participation. You even appointed some officials who were not direct followers of your movement.

But, almost immediately, you also punished a loyal follower, Huber Matos, by sending him to prison for over 20 years. Matos did not like your movement toward communism, but he never threatened you. Another contributor to your victory was Cleveland native William Alexander Morgan, the “Yanqui comandante.” You liked him, but about a year after you took power, he was executed. Was this purely vindictive?

William Alexander Morgan in Jan. 5, 1959. File/AP

2) You sent teachers and students to teach the illiterate to read and write. You used Soviet resources to train doctors and take clinics to rural Cuba.

But why did you close the church schools when you and Raul had been educated by Jesuits? I understand you wanted equality, but many children and their parents lost their rights to school choice when you made this decision.

3) You strove to build a government of the poor, for the poor, by the poor.

But why did you also remove for many years the influence of the Catholic Church? Priests who had helped the poor were persecuted and forced to leave Cuba.

4) You skillfully built an enduring alliance with the Soviet Union and received subsidies and military and industrial equipment. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev supported Cuba’s interests by getting a promise from the United States that it would not invade Cuba.

But why did you suggest during the crisis that you didn’t care if Cuba become embroiled in a nuclear war? Would you really have been ready to lose everything?

5) While taking Soviet support, you promoted Cuba as a major international player and became a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. Many in the decolonizing world saw you as a model. You gave confidence to many small countries that they could survive and develop during the Cold War. You intervened to reinforce left-wing independence movements in Africa. But you spoiled your credentials by failing to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and China’s crackdown at Tiananmen Square.

Why, as a confident world leader, didn’t you have enough stature to reject an overseas occupation and side with other revolutionaries looking for change?

6) After the collapse of the Soviet Union, you had no Plan B until the arrival on the scene of Hugo Chavez’s oil-rich Venezuela. Encouraged by Chavez, you relaxed your attitude to the church and accepted the growth of tourism, foreign investment and even some private businesses. You even allowed former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 2002 to address Cubans on television mentioning the reformist Varela petition.

Why then, only a few months after the Carter visit did you arrest and jail approximately 75 peaceful members of the opposition who were no threat to you and had used a provision in your own constitution to present the petition? This negated the narrative that you were mellowing and would write a final chapter of greater openness.

7) You sent Cuban doctors and other medical staff to dozens of countries and invited foreign students to medical school in Cuba. No one begrudged you charging for these services.

But why did you never pay the doctors themselves more than a small fraction of what your government earned?

8) For years in Cuba, including when I served there, it was prohibited for Cubans to even enter tourist hotels or restaurants. Our 15-year-old son was very proud to have been ejected from a tourist hotel because the guards thought he was Cuban.

How did this policy differ from the apartheid you criticized and fought against in South Africa?

9) You gave millions of Cubans free education and health care and created specialist biotech institutes and even a computer science university in Cuba.

Why did you not provide salaries for the graduates which would enable them to live in dignity while working for your government? Did you not trust them to spend the money wisely? No one can live in contemporary Cuba on US$25 a month.

10) You talked many times of wanting to promote a battle of ideas in Cuba.

So why did you insist on what even your brother has called a “false unanimity” in the media and your own party?

11) You said often that you were never an enemy in the American people, but rejected the hand of friendship offered by President Obama after over 50 years.

So was it really true – as I expect it is – that you never really wanted the embargo lifted after all?

Here are the questions that will never be answered. If you had acted differently on even some of these issues, the world might be more tolerant in considering your legacy.

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