A few words on Fidel Castro (1926-2016), a figure of world-historical importance (does his death mark the ‘end of communism’ for instance?) and without whom the teaching of courses on US-Latin American relations would be difficult to imagine.
I don’t want to say much here about the achievements of the Cuban revolution – in education, in health, in global anti-imperialism and anti-apartheid struggles, in disaster relief and medical solidarity, and very recently in helping to broker the probable peace between the FARC and the Colombian government. Others have covered these positives in great detail, along with Castro’s varying personal role. Instead I want to concentrate on some of the negatives, as a caution against what I see as a frequently hypocritical and in-bad-faith dismissal of Cuba tout court.
Some of Castro’s fiercest critics seem to be judging him by imagined contemporary standards rather than the standards of the Cold War (by which the Cuban regime emerges as unusually progressive). The period and region were characterised by violence, dictatorship, militarism and censorship and while Castro’s repressive government certainly demonstrated each of these traits, the Cuban regime’s crimes pale next to those of authoritarianisms almost everywhere else in the region. And perhaps Castro invited closer scrutiny by so publically judging the actions of other rulers and regimes, and acting upon those judgements with force of arms. But using overt or covert methods to export ideology to other parts of the world? That was Cold War 101 for all serious practitioners, whether US, USSR, China or lesser lights. It seems to me that a particular problem for the Cuban government was that it represented a small nation, was somewhat autonomous, and very vocal – a combination which greatly riled its enemies.
Others seem happy to write Cuba off as a ‘prison state’ or as part of the extended ‘axis of evil’ without acknowledging extrajudicial arrest and imprisonment, clampdowns on dissent, electoral irregularities, and foreign policy adventurism in its supposedly more palatable neighbours – and even closer to home. As I said above, while Cuba’s revolutionary government was undoubtedly (though not consistently) repressive, and made some significant missteps in economic and foreign policy, I think history will, on balance, be kind to Castro – at least kinder than political scientists and journalists seem to be. The impact of the revolution in inspiring Latin Americans and others to assert political and economic independence was huge, while the role Cuba played in opposing and defeating white supremacist regimes in southern Africa is also important.
We should condemn aspects of Castro’s rule and legacy, no doubt: the jailing and even killing of one’s political enemies, censorship, the disdain for multi-party democracy, the enforced isolation of HIV-positive Cubans in the 1980s (and ongoing temporary ‘quarantining’), the wholesale backing of Ethiopia against Somalia in the late 1970s. But we cannot pretend these things (or equivalents) are unusual in regimes we would perhaps prefer to think of as liberal democracies (and certainly not in their less ‘liberal’ allies) the world over.
Take imprisonment, for instance. The US is a carceral state, with around one per cent of the population in jail – that’s well over two million people, of whom (as is well publicised), most are people of colour, a form of political jailing in and of itself. Cuba’s rate of incarceration is high, of course, but it is well below that of the US – in fact only around two thirds of it.
And during Castro’s period of rule there were political prisoners in British, US, French and German jails, even if we rarely think about it that way. Nearly two thousand people were interned, that is to say imprisoned without trial for political reasons, in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, and many were tortured. The United States has a prison camp on the island of Cuba itself – Guantanamo Bay, probably the most notorious site of detention without trial in the contemporary world. It’s not only a reaction to 9/11, though – at least a hundred people were already being held for primarily political reasons as a result of the COINTELPRO programme set up by Hoover in 1956, the same year Castro’s expedition landed in Cuba.
Was Castro’s regime brutal? It was deadly of course, especially to begin with, when several thousand people were executed in the first ten or fifteen years of the revolution – mostly functionaries of the Batista dictatorship, though not all. Yet note that the death penalty was last exercised in Cuba in 2003 – and that wasn’t for anything explicitly political, it was for hijacking – since that time almost five hundred US prisoners have been executed. China, whose leaders successive British Prime Ministers have praised for being pragmatic modernisers, executes thousands of people each year. That doesn’t stop talk of a ‘golden era’.
As for elections, Cuba was and remains a one-party state. Castro didn’t exactly invent this state of affairs, nor did he show any inclination to remedy it. But ‘undemocracy’ creeps into even the most self-confident republic. Only three weeks ago the new US president was chosen in an election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act and where it increasingly looks like voter suppression may have played a decisive role. We in the UK are allowed to vote, and that’s an important and valuable right, but we don’t have an elected head of state or even an elected prime minister right now. Was the EU referendum a ‘free and fair election’?
I am not suggesting equivalence here, just that ‘democracy’, ‘voting’ and ‘elections’ in and of themselves are rather unhelpful and elusive terms. Venezuela was nominally democratic throughout the Cold War, but with little evidence of meaningful popular sovereignty. Democratic Britain spent the 1950s conniving to overthrow governments from Iran to Guyana, imprisoning and torturing Cypriots, and massacring political opponents in Kenya. And where conservative critics of Cuba have cited undemocratic tyranny as an irredeemable fault of the regime, they often fall silent on Turkey, Saudi Arabia or other strategic allies. Furthermore, a democratic mandate did not save Arbenz from a US-supported coup and dictatorship, nor would it save Allende.*
We should also remember that Castro did not rule alone (though there were some signs of a crisis of succession seen in progressive movements under siege since the English Revolution), that while political culture was limited it was nevertheless effervescent, that the government maintained a significant degree of public support (talk of ‘totalitarianism’ seems particularly off, even if dictatorship is arguable), and was buoyed by a patriotic and anti-imperialist popular spirit which was only increased by US foreign policy. I don’t think it is possible to unpick restraints on domestic Cuban freedoms from the greater constraint imposed on the Cuban island, society and economy as a whole by the United States and its allies. President Obama came very close to acknowledging this when he began the current rapprochement, talking of ‘cutting loose the anchor of the failed policies of the past’.
Anti-imperialist, anti-apartheid, egalitarian – all to be applauded. But authoritarian, militaristic, censorious? Yes, it was those too. And the question that many – critics and supporters – have come back to, is ‘was it worth it?’ I wouldn’t ask anybody to hold back in their criticism of Castro, and I am not at all advocating ‘whataboutery’. But I would ask that the same standards are applied elsewhere – to the eleven presidents of the United States who have stood in opposition to Cuba’s revolutionary path, to our own past and contemporary liberal-democratic governments, to our allies doing our dirty work elsewhere – otherwise it just looks like good old-fashioned red-baiting.
*An aside: Ben Smith has shown, one-party states can be lively sites of contestation at the sub-national level.