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Reagan and Castro: a capitalist and a socialist.  An imperialist versus a communist.  A staunch Republican versus a guerilla-style revolutionary.  How do they face off?

Ronald Reagan and Fidel Castro: as world leaders, they couldn’t possibly be more different.  Their policies, initiatives, and domestic and international politics reside on polar opposite ends of the spectrum.  The one thing they have in common, though, is the paradox of their popularity; people either love ‘em or they hate ‘em.

Ronald Reagan first gained his popularity in Hollywood.  As an actor, he rocketed to fame with the 1937 movie Love is on the Air, and went on to star in 19 other films within the next three years, including The Santa Fe Trail, Knute Rockne: All American, and King’s Row.  He later went on to become president of the Screen Actor’s Guild, and also continued his acting career in television.  He served in the military during a time in which it was customary for popular entertainers to do so, but never saw any real combat.  By the time he entered the world of politics, he had already won the hearts of Americans as a popular entertainer.  Castro, on the other hand, gained his popularity through speaking out against imperialism.  His initial following rallied behind him due to his criticism of Batista and the US’s political and corporate influence in Cuba.  He gained nation-wide notoriety after leading the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953.  After his release from prison, he fled to Mexico to train and to organize, travelling back to Cuba for the welcomed guerilla invasion of 1956. 

As possibly the world’s most famous communist leader, Castro spoke to the importance of socialism, not only in Cuba, but around the world.  He advocated for universal education and healthcare and adamantly fought against imperialism throughout his nearly half-century in power.  Conversely, Reagan, a Republican and capitalist, was strongly opposed to communism.  As SAG president at the dawn of the McCarthy trials, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, declaring his commitment to democratic principles and denouncing communism.  While Castro addressed Cuba’s economic crisis by attempting to create universal and equal wages for all citizens, Reagan addressed the US’s economic issues by approving tax breaks for the wealthiest of the country’s citizens.  In fact, in the race for governor of California in 1967, one of his primary campaign points was the importance of “getting the Welfare bums back to work.” 

Both leaders have been accused of attempting to silence opposition to their initiatives.  Castro allegedly authorized the arrest and detention of thousands of political prisoners, particularly, opponents to the Revolution in its initial phases.  While running for governor of California, Reagan vowed “to clean up the mess at Berkeley” in response to a series of anti-war and anti-Establishment student protests on the campus. 

As leader of Cuba, Castro succeeded in developing the best medical care system in the world, providing quality free health care to every Cuban citizen.  He also established a quality free education system, making higher education free and accessible to every Cuban.  Additionally, he succeeded in leading his country, albeit struggling, through Cuba’s economic crisis in spite of the US trade embargo around the Island.  Internationally, he spoke out against imperialism and aided several so-called Third World Countries by building schools and contributing to healthcare systems in place.  As US president, Reagan focused on improving the economy through a system of laissez-faire supply-side economics and tax breaks through a philosophy which is today known as “Reaganomics.”  While the American people cried out for health insurance, Reagan spent millions on the “War on Drugs,” increased military spending and decreased domestic spending, raising the national debt from $700 billion to $3 trillion.  Internationally, Reagan ordered the 1983 Invasion of Grenada, as well as the US military presence in Lebanon, which later led to the Beirut barracks bombing.  Reagan also escalated the Cold War and, in 1986, was found guilty by the International Court of Justice of selling arms to Iran Contra insurgents, aiding their brutal attacks on Nicaragua.  While Fidel Castro welcomed foreign nationals, even offering free health care to any non-Cuban visiting the Island, Reagan signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act in an attempt to crack down on illegal immigration to the United States.

Castro has been accused of harboring personal wealth.  Forbes magazine listed him as one of the world’s richest people in 2005, estimating that he owned a net worth of $900 million in personal property, investments, and Swiss bank accounts.  Castro called the accusations “lies and slander,” and a part of a US campaign to discredit him, stating: “If they can prove that I have a bank account abroad, with $900m, with $1m, $500,000, $100,000 or $1 in it, I will resign.”  Reagan, however, retired with, not only his moneys earned during his time in office as US President, but also with his immense amount of money from his time as a Hollywood actor.  No one has ever publicly denounced him for his wealth.

Both leaders experienced an intensely-followed public display of their health issues.  Ronald Reagan’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease garnered national attention from both sympathizers and cynics; in fact, Reagan’s condition became the brunt of jokes in several popular entertainment comedy skits, including Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher; Maher’s comments, along with those of others, received harsh criticism from supporters of the former president.  The American public closely followed the development of Reagan’s condition until his death.  Castro’s health issues, too, have garnered international attention, primarily because he continued to serve as the country’s leader in spite of his increased age and failing health.  His supporters watched with sympathy and hope, while his critics wishfully pondered whether Castro’s death would bring an end to communism in Cuba.  Through all the speculations and official and unofficial reports, the world has watched with baited breath, not only the progress of the Cuban president, but moreover, the race to determine Castro’s successor.  Reagan passed away on June 5, 2004 at his Bel-Air mansion.  Castro officially retired on February 24, 2008 wearing his customary combat fatigues.

Doubtless, any world leader will always have supporters and opponents alike.  Few have garnered so many and on such opposite ends of the spectrum as Fidel Castro; and fewer have earned their fame through such a wide variety of mediums as Ronald Reagan.   What can be learned from a comparison of the two is the affect a leader’s service to his people has on his public approval rating, and moreover, how that service is presented by the international media, and how that presentation effects the public’s perception.  Doubtless both Reagan and Castro will go down in the pages of history as world-changing figures; but only time will tell how favorable each man’s light will be.

1st March 2008
FACE OFF: Ronald Reagan vs. Fidel Castro
By Zackary Irwin