The economic break with the United States, and the switch from the USA to the USSR as his major trading partner caused enormous dislocation in the Cuban economy in the 1960s, but for Fidel the chance to develop an economy that didn’t revolve around trade and tourism with the U.S. was heaven-sent. By taking the path of socialist development in solidarity with the Soviet Union, Fidel believed he saw the chance to create a strong Cuban economy and industrial base that would make the island truly independent.
It didn’t work, and socialism’s failure in Cuba was even more spectacular and damaging than its failure in other parts of the world. In the USSR itself, and in parts of eastern Europe, socialist economic construction may have taken a harsh human toll and ultimately led to stagnation, but along the way at least it created an industrial base. Nothing of the kind happened in Cuba. As an economic planner, Fidel was one of the great failures of the 20th century. Even by socialist standards, he was a flop. Under Fidel’s dead hand, sugar failed, alternative crops failed, manufacturing failed. The handful of successes, mostly in health care and pharmaceuticals, were real, but fell well short of providing the economic platform Cuba needed. As Fidel lay on his deathbed he had to know that two generations of struggle and sacrifice had failed to build a new Cuban economy.
Lee Kwan Yew, Augusto Pinochet, Francisco Franco, Chiang Kai Shek, Park Chung-he: all of these dictators and authoritarians can mock Fidel Castro. They left their countries better off than they found them, and while many of them committed terrible crimes, they can also point to great accomplishments. Fidel has only the crimes.