Soledad O'Brien Discusses Fidel Castro's 'Complicated Legacy' In A Heated Interview

Even in death, Castro remains a contentious figure in history.

After decades of spurning America's will and surviving hundreds of assassination attempts, as well as a lifetime of stark contradictions that saw him both revered and reviled, Fidel Castro, 90, died on Nov. 26

His death, long-awaited by many Cubans and Cuban-Americans, was widely celebrated on the streets of Miami, Florida, and in other pockets of Cuban-American communities that dot the country. Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both politicians of Cuban ethnicity, slammed President Obama's statement following Castro's death for its lack of acknowledgment of his gross human rights violations. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a glowing statement about "Cuba's longest serving president," for which he received plenty of flak. 

The outrage at how some people have chosen to respond to Castro's death speaks to the contentiousness about his stranglehold on Cuba's politics, economy and society. A man whose deeply-held belief in communist values led him to exert ferocious control over the population, Castro provided for Cubans in some aspects while oppressing them in others. His concept of human rights — the right to universal education, healthcare and shelter — clashed with America's belief in freedom of expression, assembly and the press. Castro was known across the world for his brutal suppression of free speech and self-expression that saw him jail political dissenters for decades and put "undesirable" elements of society, including LGBT people, in labor camps. His unbending vision for Cuba tore families apart and mired its people in hardship and poverty.

Yet Castro's leadership yielded fruits for Cuba, too. His prioritization of education saw literacy among Cubans soar through the roof; today, about 99.8 percent of Cubans can read and write, one of the highest literacy rates in the world. His belief in the right to healthcare transformed Cuba into a medical capital of sorts in the region. (Though that, too, came with its paradoxes: Cuba has one of the most sought-after — and free — universities for international medical students, and it frequently deploys highly skilled doctors to other countries. But ironically, Cuba oftentimes lacked the medicine to actually treat patients.) The promise for a better Cuba from a wildly charismatic leader won over the hearts of many disaffected, poor Cubans from whom Castro had plenty of support, at least initially.

The contrast between those who idolize Castro as a larger-than-life leader who defied the U.S. government and those who vilify him as a ruthless dictator underscored the dichotomy of this man's life. In an interview on MSNBC's Morning Joe, journalist and filmmaker Soledad O'Brien, whose family fled Cuba when Castro came to power, attempted to explain Castro's complicated legacy in a discussion with Cuban-Americans Alex Castellanos, a GOP political consultant, and conservative author Humberto Fontova.

O'Brien pointed out that the context was largely missing in the "binary" discussions about Castro.

"It's actually very complicated and it very much depends on where you sit and what your circumstances were under [former president Fulgencio] Batista," O'Brien said. "My mom's Afro-Cuban and under Batista her family did horribly. My mom used to always say, 'Under Batista, Batista would only kill you. Castro would kill you and then he'd make sure your parents never had a job again, and your children never had housing.' So both terrible, but terrible in different ways. I think a lot of the nuance in Fidel Castro is really lost because he's evil or — oh my goodness, literacy and healthcare. And it's a much more complicated discussion than that."

Fontova countered with a list of atrocities that Castro and his government carried out: the imprisonment, murder, and torture of political dissenters, as well as the millions of Cubans who Fontova said died trying to flee. "And we're hearing about 'complicated emotions?'" he exclaimed, apparently referring to Obama's statement about Castro's death. "Give me a break."

O'Brien responded:

If you're trying to understand why there are Cubans who do like Fidel Castro — they like that he gave the finger to the United States. There are Cubans inside Cuba, many of them my family members, who actually like Fidel Castro. They look at the things that he brought — Cuba today is more Afro-Cuban than before a lot of the wealthier, educated Cubans fled. So there are complicated emotions. I don't think that is completely unfair. 

O'Brien reiterated that Castro was "absolutely a brutal dictator," but asserted that there is no removing from history "the things that made Cubans like him in the first place." 

While there was no glossing over Castro's vicious authoritarianism, O'Brien's attempt at putting his legacy in context sought to shed light on the complexities and hypocrisies of a deeply contentious historical figure. But the heated debate on Morning Joe proved that history, for now at least, has yet to absolve Castro. 

Watch the full interview here: