Many on the left have a soft spot for Cuba and Castro. He was the best known survivor of communism's heroic period, of an underdog ragtag movement that took on the full might of the US-backed Batista dictatorship and won. For the peoples of Latin America during the Cold War, Castro's regime was a fuck you to the greatest military power the world has ever known - and just 90 miles off its coast. He was and is a potent symbol of revolutionary resistance and tenacity. The victory of the July 26th Movement and the survival of the Cuban state over nearly 60 years goes to show there are alternatives to the Western consensus - and that points stands without having to prettify the regime's repressive character and big it up with the education and health stats.
As James notes, there will be those who try and portray Castro's authoritarianism as entirely reactive, that the original sin lies with the United States and its repeated attempts at undermining and overthrowing the J26 Movement almost from the get go. While true, these material circumstances cannot be waved away either. For one, five years prior to the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship the United States instigated a coup in Guatemala. This was then a liberal democracy that had between 1944 and 1954 returned two presidents you would class as Christian Democrats. They presided over governments that were largely middle-of-the-road, politically speaking. Except in 1952 Jacobo Árbenz undertook land reform, which confiscated uncultivated land and handed it to the peasantry. For Eisenhower, this constituted communism and initiated a terrorist campaign that ended in Árbenz's resignation. Thereafter followed a period of instability, characterised by coups and civil wars. Later again in 1973, the US used the democratic freedoms in Chile to undermine and destroy a liberal democracy that had produced the wrong outcome. With a history of interference behind the United States relationship with the countries to its south, which included the Bay of Pigs invasion, assassination attempts, coastal raids on militia outposts, sabotage and not forgetting the economic blockade, authoritarianism appeared to have much to commend it.
Cuban authoritarianism does have a dynamic of its own though, and these were embedded in the characteristics of the struggle led by Castro. His was not a popular uprising in the conventional sense but a guerilla struggle. Che Guevara's Guerilla Warfare distilled the essence of the J26 Movement as a hyper vanguard of committed communist fighters. The group was the nucleus and repository of the lessons of history, and it would be the active agent that would draw the peasantry behind it. Not dissimilar to Mao's approach to revolution. Here, in Cuba, the masses were conceived of as having a spectator role. The opposition to Batista in the cities, the workers' organisations and the Communist Party (which, bizarrely, supported the dictatorship) were marginal to the revolution rolling in off the countryside. The overthrow was accomplished by military struggle, and the command and control model appropriate to that remained. The absorption of the city-dwelling communists, the transformation of the unions into apparatuses of the state, the clamping down on the media were certainly conditioned by the exigencies of a revolutionary changes, but not determined by them. Effectively, a military movement became a military government, and the trappings of a Stalinist state acquired while consolidating the hold on power was an extension of these governing principles to all aspects of society. One cannot distinguish between the command economy and the state that sat atop it, they were and remain mutually interdependent.
Castro has officially been out of power since 2008. Since then, what you might call the Chinese turn has gathered speed. Rapprochement with the US has got underway, though there's every chance progress could be rolled back under Donald Trump. But necessity demands that the regime continues to open up Cuba's economy and, from its point of view, the more difficult task of relaxing authoritarian rule without the whole thing collapsing a la Eastern Europe. There's also the tricky job of ensuring present elites avoiding having to account for the crimes committed since 1959 too. Regardless of what happens, Castro's position in history is secure. He was a revolutionary hero who inspired millions. Cuba threw off American domination and forged its own path, creating health care and education systems among the best in the world. Castro was also a ruthless autocrat whose achievements cannot be separated from the violence and brutality that underpinned his rule.