Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Castro: Savior or Sadist?

Fidel Castro died on November 25 at the age of 90, or, as our President-elect Donald J. Trump ignominiously put it, "Fidel Castro is dead!" Predictably, we have been treated to the unproductive debate that usually happens when a controversial figure dies, with both defenders and attackers rushing to put out their thoughts, many of which, from one side or another, will inevitably be oversimplified and of little use. So here I am, to take a strong stance on Fidel Castro and his legacy, and that stance is: ...eh. I can't say I'm really on either bandwagon in this case. The good and the bad that Castro did both seem obvious, and abundant--and, for me, Che Guevara is easily the more sympathetic and interesting of the figures in the Cuban Revolution. I have seen Castro praised as a hero, a champion of the oppressed, and a devoted friend of the poor on the one hand, and attacked as a cruel despot and heartless murderer on the other hand. And I guess this is one case where I kind of feel like both have fair points.
Castro in 1974 (Image from Politico)

As Pat Buchanan once said in a very different context, "Great men are rarely good men." The general principle is an important one: for instance, Napoleon may have been a war-hungry dictator, but you can thank him for many important advances in human history, such as his eponymous legal code, which offered codified law (then a fairly new idea), the end of hereditary nobility, legal equality, and separation of church and state, and influenced civil codes around the world in the 19th century. Similarly, Castro played a major role in reshaping Cuba in many positive ways, while still being, on the other hand, an authoritarian ruler who routinely violated human rights.

Castro's revolution overthrew Fulgencio Batista, a brutal (US-backed) dictator who, according to then-senator John F. Kennedy, "murdered 20,000 Cubans in 7 years - a greater proportion of the Cuban population than the proportion of Americans who died in both World Wars, and...turned democratic Cuba into a complete police state - destroying every individual liberty." Arthur Schlesinger wrote that "the corruption of the government, the brutality of the police, the regime's indifference to the needs of the people for education, medical care, housing, for social justice and economic opportunity-all these, in Cuba as elsewhere, constituted an open invitation to revolution." Batista had aligned himself with the wealthy elite in Cuba, as well as the American mafia, while economic inequality exploded. So no one can say that Castro et al. weren't justified in throwing out the old regime and wanting something new.

Nor can we say that Castro wasn't any better than Batista; Cuba can now boast of a lower infant mortality rate than the much-richer United States. Today, 99.8% of Cubans aged fifteen or older can read and write; the literacy rate was 76% under Batista, before being increased to approximately 96% by a highly successful literacy campaign under Castro in 1961. Then-Secretary-General of the UN Kofi Annan stated in 2000 that "Cuba should be the envy of many other nations, ostensibly far richer. [Cuba] demonstrates how much nations can do with the resources they have if they focus on the right priorities - health, education, and literacy." That's a far cry from Batista's style of governing.

And, given his role in opposing Apartheid, Castro earned the respect of Nelson Mandela, who we were all gushing over when he died a few years ago. And, of course, Malcolm X also met with him, as Colin Kaepernick recently reminded us. So it's not exactly like Castro's admirers are limited to leftist college students looking for some way to piss off conservatives. Those screaming at anyone who's said a word of praise about Castro should stop and think for a second about that.

Of course, we know why Castro got on the US establishment's bad side: he nationalized the property of American companies, seizing banks and oil refineries that were owned by big names like Shell and Chase Manhattan. And he became pals with our number one enemy at the time, the Soviet Union. Those, of course, are the real reasons that we've heard so much criticism of Castro from the intelligentsia, as opposed to the "reformer" King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was at the head of one of the most repressive regimes on Earth--one which happens to be our ally (for petroleum-related reasons).

Many of Castro's critics like to minimize the legitimate good he did, while exaggerating the bad with casual Hitler comparisons, often dousing the whole deal with an unhealthy dose of hypocrisy. Take the insufferable Ted Cruz, who has attacked Castro as a "totalitarian tyrant," while just last year he praised Egypt's Sisi, who overthrew a democratically elected president and presided over a Tiananmen Square-style massacre of protestors. Significant historical events, shocking as they rightfully are, are deprived of useful context. For example, there's Khrushchev's account of how Castro asked him to launch a preemptive strike on the US during the Cuban missile crisis. Often left out, of course, is how we had tried to invade Cuba only a few years before, and for the years after that had engaged in a vicious terrorist war against it. If we had suffered the same things we had inflicted on Cuba, a "preemptive" strike against our aggressors would be a given.

But the fact that many critics of Castro exaggerate or decontextualize his misdeeds certainly doesn't mean he wasn't guilty of any. For instance, while not as extreme as some rightists have painted it (in an attempt to exploit leftists' sympathy for LGBT+ rights), there was grave mistreatment of gays under Castro's regime. After a military draft was instituted, forced-labor camps were set up where those "unfit" for service were sent, forced to work long days and subjected to cruel mistreatment. Gays were one of the groups sent to these camps, along with many others, including Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholics, and other "delinquents" suspected of being insufficiently loyal to the cause of the Revolution. The thoroughly leftist Jean-Paul Sartre said that in Cuba, there were "no Jews, but there are homosexuals"--a harsh critique from an intellectual sympathetic to the cause of the Cuban Revolution. To his credit, Castro would later call this treatment of gays "a great injustice," but that acknowledgement certainly doesn't erase what happened.

And there should be no question that Castro was dictator, who engaged in the typical behaviors one can expect from that unfortunate type. Amnesty International reports that "[o]ver more than five decades documenting the state of human rights in Cuba, [we have] recorded a relentless campaign against those who dare to speak out against the Cuban government’s policies and practices." Castro promised free elections in 1959, and, of course, inexcusably reneged on that promise. Leftists and socialists who want to view Castro as a saint are far more marginal than the legions of intellectuals and commentators who want to demonize him, but as someone who is pretty well immersed in Left Twitter, I can say I have seen plenty of them there. At best, one has to think they are badly misguided; at worst, they are unconcerned with, or even hostile to, the rights and liberties that are crucial for a truly free society.

Castro continued the Leninist/Stalinist bastardization of Marxism that disregarded Marx's support for a truly democratic society and instead concentrated power in the hands of a party elite who claim to represent the will of the people. Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, and Karl Kautsky had all criticized this deviation from early on, when it got its start in Lenin's Soviet Union, but unfortunately, it was that strain of Marxism that took hold in numerous countries around the world. Castro did little, if anything, to correct its authoritarianism and fundamentally undemocratic nature, and his regime in Cuba is certainly not what Karl Marx had hoped for.

So I view Castro's death only with a sort of ambivalence, content to leave the celebrating to those he unfairly victimized and the mourning to his family and the people whose lives he improved. Like many others, he leaves behind a complex legacy, badly oversimplified by both his defenders and detractors. As with most things, Castro's life, and his time in power, was not black or white, but some shade of gray. Just how dark or light that shade of gray is up for interpretation.

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