BUENOS AIRESFidel Castro was the last of the Hispanic rulers in the absolutist tradition of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille. He lived a lot, and talked even more. He did not just live his life, but related it, trying to fix his history and thoughts in interminable speeches, gatherings, books and interviews.

He was repetitive and obsessive, and by no means averse to manipulation. Familiar with the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels' idea that a lie must be asserted, shouted out and repeated until people believed it, he insisted there was no torture in Cuba, that his government had eliminated racism and did not train guerrillas. These were all false, but Castro's devotees believed them as they still do. Belief, faith and the sort were apt concepts for one of the most charismatic leaders of the 20th century, the epoch of transition between the religious and secular worlds.

Castro founded a secular religion and imposed it as a state religion, and he was its "Caesaropapist" head. He propounded his dogmatic ethics, and his every word exuded a sense of judgment between good and evil.

Vice patrol

War and struggle: these were dominant words in his discourse. In contrast with other contemporary pontiffs, Castro managed at least to carve out a society in his own image. It was the Jerusalem where his chosen people had found salvation from the ills he was fighting: individualism, selfishness, consumerism, indiscipline, gambling, sex and drugs. His litanies against "vice" were positively pastoral in tone.

His popularity is due precisely to this ability to play out, with a greater dose of histrionics than anyone, the role of a modern-day Savonarola, that 15th-century Florentine lambaster of sins. Castro the moralizer denounced Western civilization, liberal democracy and the market economy, fueling a personal myth and swelling an army of devotees who loved him more for what he represented than what he was.

And Cubans paid the price. His Jerusalem was a failure — an autarchic, Spartan redoubt and setting of poverty, privileges and arbitrary rule.

The capital of revolutionary values has another facet: suppressing dissent and free spirit, and everything that evokes originality, creativity, beauty and social mobility. Few of Castro's devotees living in Western societies would tolerate the life of the average Cuban.

To understand Castro, instead of delving into Marxist texts, it would be better to look to the very rural and Catholic homeland of his father, Galicia, home to another dictator, Spain's Francisco Franco. Castro's worldview was formed from there, amid the recurring masses and vigils of his Jesuit schools and a world imbued with the doctrines of Saint Thomas Aquinas and fascism. Two things remained alien to Castro as he studied through school and university. One was work, as his father was wealthy and paid his schooling. The second, the traditions of the European enlightenment and the liberal views it propounded.

This vision instead became his lifelong enemy, as it was for the most conservative Catholic traditions. There was nothing strange then in his discovering Marxism and embracing it with religious fervor. At the time, a generation of Latin American Catholics were abandoning the fascist utopia for communism. It seemed to be nothing more than a Christian heresy and a coherent-enough development of Christian precepts. The Argentine writer Leopoldo Marechal described Cuba in the 1960s as the society closest to the Christian ideal.

History's laws

Yet such humble origins would hardly do for Castro. Communism was not the past, but the future. History had its laws and these were pushing it toward the Marxist society. His mission was thus providential, and he ... a messiah. That was the spirit he conveyed to the Cubans in the 1960s, when everything seemed possible and he promised them material prosperity. And while he was being hailed by many as a liberator, he began jailing gays and anyone playing the Rolling Stones.

Cuba was soon not so much rising toward the heavens as sinking into misery. The famous 10-million-ton sugar harvest target of 1970 was a dramatic, and enormously costly failure. A normal government would have given up — but not a Catholic monarch.

A Nicaraguan priest visiting the island was at one point "illuminated" to see all Cubans living in "Christ-like" poverty! As the dream of prosperity gave way to the more humdrum task of managing poverty, Castro turned his energy to another project, a global crusade against the West. The United States's doggedly hostile policies provided him with a perfect opportunity. In the 1970s, while Soviet subsidies kept the Cuban economy afloat, Castro traveled the world and sent troops to Africa. He would be the Third World's champion.

In the 1980s, as democracy began to return to Latin America and Mikhail Gorbachev shook the foundations of the communist world, Fidel returned to his roots. The Catholic doctrine, he told his friend the priest Frei Betto, is 90% identical to the principles of the revolution. There he found another matrix to subordinate the individual to a collective whole that also sees pluralism as a threat, detests liberal democracy and the market, and which seemed to hold the soul of the Cuban revolution.

The end of the Soviet Union ushered in the "special period," which uncovered the system's every vice and problem, from corruption to nepotism, shortages and hunger. People risked their lives to reach Florida.

Castro, who did not know how to lose, returned to the old arguments. Sacrifice will yield redemption, and suffering, glory. He began speaking about other things, like the past or the revolution's triumphs. He had no choice but to start letting tourists and investors in, in spite of the contagion he dreaded for his purified people. Opening the country brought back some of the vices he said he had extirpated from Cuba, but also a little prosperity, not to mention inequality as only some Cubans would end up holding the dollars. An irredeemable rift was opening between doctrine and reality.

Such has been Cuba's track in recent years, and while it may sound cynical, France's Libération daily was perfectly on track with its headline on Castro's death: that he died too late. In Castro's lifetime, so many countries that had worse economic indices than Cuba 60 years ago, have left it behind, whether his father's Spain, or Latin America's Chile and Costa Rica, with no zealous followers for being mere, liberal democracies!

Castro's ideal was in the end something like a Christian society, and he pursued it come hell or high water, with zeal, authoritarian methods and inefficiency. Only when failure became blatant did he allow small poisonous pockets of deviation and liberalization to infect his people: those same people in whose name Fidel always spoke without knowing them much at all. Just like Ferdinand and Isabella.

*Loris Zanatta is a professor of Latin American history at the University of Bologna.