With Cuba’s former President Fidel Castro dead and buried, I think it’s time to review the regime he led for 50 years. Although many people have now come up with very firm opinions on what Fidel Castro did in Cuba, the one thing that all these views have in common is that despite their often violently different conclusions, all are devoid of all nuance. People on Left have started to talk about how he guaranteed healthcare and education to all Cuban citizens as well as Castro’s commitment to internationalism, and people on the Right have decried the Cuban regime’s use of torture and arbitrary detention. There are two things that need to be examined: Castro’s record in isolation; and the hypocrisy of some right-wing critics.
If the Castro regime was taken in isolation that we can look at the accomplishments and problems soberly. The Cuban government provides universal healthcare to all its citizens and there is no cost for students wishing to become medical professionals. Every year Cuba sends thousands of doctors around the world to help developing nations and trains a number of foreign students at no cost, including some from the United States. The Cuban government also provides all citizens with universal education and as a result of this Cuban was one of the highest literacy rates of any country in the world.
One cannot discuss Cuba without reference to its approach to foreign affairs. Cuba provided military support to guerilla fighters seeking to overthrow colonial governments and provided humanitarian aid to countries seeking to be self-governing. This manifest itself in Vietnam, Algeria, Angola, and countless other countries across the world. Castro was also a proponent of pan-Americanism, a philosophy that sought to promote co-operation between countries in the Americas. Rather than join the Soviet bloc, Castro’s Cuba was one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement. Castro was also one of the early critics of Apartheid South Africa and was a personal friend of the secular saint Nelson Mandela.
However there are points to be made about the downsides of Castro’s regime. His government systematically crushed dissent through arbitrary imprisonment of political opponents and torture and severely restricted other civil liberties. There were other political parties under Castro but the President was appointed by the legislature which was dominated by Communist Party approved candidates. Although Cuba was certainly more democratic than the Soviet Union, it would be foolish to argue that the country was the direct democracy that Castro claimed it to be in 1970. The Cuban economy stagnated for large parts of his time in office and this resulted in the economy becoming geared towards exporting sugar and cigars to other socialist states; this became problematic after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
As an LGBT activist I would be remiss to mention the Castro regime’s persecution of perceived ‘deviants’ which included homosexuals. However something that is often omitted is that Castro recanted his previous views in 2010 and declared his own governments actions towards gay people as “a great injustice”. One could argue that feeling bad after the fact doesn’t matter because people still suffered, but my point here is that a small positive is that he wasn’t a homophobe until his dying days.
My assessment of the Castro Regime is that it was, on balance, negative. Given that I am a Communist this may be a strange conclusion but this is because I am not a Marxist-Leninist. People who have come out in support of the Castro government because of his social programmes are tacitly saying that torture and oppression are in some cases necessary to improve a society, which is clearly untrue. In the aftermath of WWII the Attlee government of Britain instituted universal healthcare along with other social security programmes and many countries have universal education. The restriction of political rights is not necessary to have a socialist society where people’s needs are provided through general taxation.
Furthermore as a firm believer in democracy I cannot in good conscience say that the Cuban government should be defended on this area. In order to have a functioning democracy you need to have a media that is able to critique government policy and an energised civil society. In Castro’s defence half of the National Assembly is composed of candidates nominated by civil society groups, but if political opponents are imprisoned without a trial there risks the creation of a political culture where disagreement is treated as treason. I would argue that a lot of Castro’s actual ideas are good because he had more of a council communist bent than the Soviet Union, which would enable more direct democracy, but too much power was vested in the Office of the President.
My nuanced rejection of Castro is essentially based on a view that he didn’t go far enough to achieve full communism and some of his actions were detrimental this end goal. What I cannot abide are right-wingers, often coming from the United States, straw-manning Castro as up there with Hitler and Stalin. I’m not going to address these people because if you genuinely think that Castro was the third worst human to have ever lived then you’re beyond help. I would, however, like to look at the hypocrisy of these people because when looking Castro’s regime I think it is important to compare it with what the US and other Western countries were doing.
The first thing to say is that when right-wingers refer to human rights abuses they do so without a sense of irony. The US currently has an extra-judicial prison in Cuba where they have admitted to carrying out torture. Further, President Obama with the support of most American politicians has persecuted whistle-blowers and journalists who exposed the crimes of the US government. President Obama also has the largest spying apparatus ever created and has spied on its own citizens and foreign heads of state.
Conservatives have also feigned concern for the LGBT community in Cuba whilst seeking to deny the same people right back home. In Cuba homosexual acts were decriminalised in 1979 and due to the influence of Mariela Castro, Raúl’s daughter, in recent years the country has become increasingly liberal. In the US homosexuality was officially decriminalised in 2003, and LGBT protection laws are largely not in place. In Britain in 1988, 9 years after LGBT rights began improving in Cuba, the Thatcher government passed the notorious Section 28 which would remain law until 2003. If you are opposed to the persecution of LGBT in all circumstances then feel free to criticise the Castro government’s actions in the 1960s and 1970s, but if you are seeking to undermine LGBT people’s rights in your own country then shut the fuck up.
In terms of foreign policy the United States and their Western allies have waged offensive wars across the world, including neo-colonialist wars like the Vietnam War and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Unless you think I’m picking on the US, European empires also did some terrible shit including the British response to the Suez Crisis and the French response to calls for Algerian independence. In terms of funding shady groups the West’s rap sheet includes the Contras in Nicaragua and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Speaking of covert operations the United States overthrew leaders, often democratically elected. These include the former Chilean President Salvador Allende and former President of Iran Mohammad Mosaddegh. Not only did the West overthrow governments but it propped up horrific regimes including Apartheid South Africa, Pinochet’s Chile, and Cuba’s former leader Fulgencio Batista. Speaking of Batista, his government committed the same human rights abuses as Castro’s regime only without the social programmes.
The point of this article is to illustrate that Castro is a complex character and to demonise or lionise him misses out the other side of the argument. As a communist who is wary of the centralisation of state power I will always have a more critical view of Castro than my Marxist-Leninist comrades. The right-wing critics of Castro from the United States need to understand their own doublethink and buy a metaphorical mirror. At the end of the day what we all think is essentially irrelevant. Castro’s legacy will be determined by the Cuban people and what has become overly true is that a huge number of people in Cuba and across the developing world have a lot of admiration for their fallen leader. I sincerely hope that the gains of the Cuban revolution are safeguarded and Cuba doesn’t become another liberal capitalist country, but there are also important structural reforms that need to taken place to get the country back on the path to communism.