If you want to know how to judge the former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who died at the age of 90 this weekend, do not listen to armchair revolutionaries or official propaganda. Listen to the people who fled his regime, including his very own daughter.
Politicians and major media outlets have been beating about the bush, conceding that Castro was a “controversial figure”, while hailing the departed Cuban commandante as a “remarkable leader”, a “hero to many”, and a “champion of social justice”.
His own daughter, however, spent years trying to flee the supposed socialist utopia Castro had built in Cuba, before escaping in 1993 with a false passport to receive asylum in the US. When it comes to her father, she does not mince words: “When people tell me he’s a dictator, I tell them that’s not the right word,” she told the Miami Herald. “Strictly speaking, Fidel is a tyrant. I have looked up the two words in the dictionary. A dictator is ‘a person who is granted absolute powers to face a national emergency on a temporary basis’. A tyrant is an ‘absolute ruler unrestrained by law, who usurps people’s rights’.”
It is true that the Cuban Revolution of 1959 overthrew a corrupt dictator, Fulgencio Batista, who once had enjoyed the support of the US government. During his second stint as Cuba’s head of state, after a bloodless coup in 1952, his pro-business policies turned Havana into the third-richest city in the world. He was initially tolerated by Cubans tired of political violence, labour unrest and corruption. As his own brand of corruption took hold, however, the Batista regime became ever more repressive, and he had lost the support of both the Cuban people and the US by 1956.
Many Castro apologists justify the Cuban Revolution on the grounds that Batista was a corrupt military dictator, but that is hardly a high standard to hold him to. It isn’t as if Castro ever doffed his trademark military fatigues himself.
Others point to the strong US opposition to Castro’s programme of nationalisation, which they say drove him into the arms of the Soviet Union. While the US could hardly be expected to go along with the expropriation of its citizens’ business interests in Cuba, its hawkish policy was certainly ineffective, and arguably counterproductive. Even so, this does not mean that Castro was the good guy, simply defending himself against imperialist bullying. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
In fact, Castro actively agitated for nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. He sent a telegram to Nikita Kruschev in 1962 in which he anticipated a potential US invasion of Cuba within days. This, he told the Soviet leader, would justify nuclear annihiliation of the US. In Kruschev’s reply, he tells Castro not to “yield to your emotions”, and to “show patience, restraint, and more restraint”.
Castro also had a predilection for warmongering in foreign countries with the intent to export revolution. He might have been on the right side of the struggle against apartheid when he sent troops to Angola in the 1970s, albeit at a tremendous cost to Cuba in lives and treasure, but he was on the wrong side of the struggle against communist expansionism. Again, two wrongs do not make a right.
Apologists for Castro point to Cuba’s record on education and healthcare, which is allegedly stellar. They point out that both education levels and key public health statistics improved under Castro. However, one should note that for most of his 49-year reign, Cuba sucked on the Soviet teat. While the subsidies lasted, the dream of a socialist utopia, while never quite realised, remained intact. But as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba’s vaunted system also folded, catastrophically.
It is in any case hard to put much faith in the official statistics of an opaque regime which harshly punishes dissent and does not tolerate free speech, free association, free assembly, or an independent press. While there are “useful idiots” in the West who enjoy guided tours of the island in which government minders show them the glories of socialism, other more credible sources strongly dispute this rose-tinted view.
Lucia Newman, the Latin America editor for Al Jazeera, moved to Cuba in 1997, after the Soviet subsidies on which the nation’s fabled healthcare system was founded had ended. She reports shortages of even basic drugs such as aspirin, and a thriving black market in medicine. Doctors, who are paid a meagre R400 to R700 per month, are routinely bribed with food, money or gifts to obtain “free” service. Although wealthy government and Communist Party officials would get the best treatment, healthcare services are very poor for ordinary people, she writes.
A web page run by Cuban dissidents has a gallery of shocking photographs that claim to show what healthcare looks like in “the real Cuba”. Of course, such claims are equally hard to verify in a repressive communist state, and no doubt are cherry-picked to show the worst possible cases. However, in the absence of independent journalism, which is illegal in Cuba, there is no more reason to believe government propaganda, which invariably attempts to paint a glorious picture of revolution instead.
The record of repression under Castro is undeniable. Very soon after taking power – which he wouldn’t relinquish for 49 years – he explicitly denied the rule of law: “Revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts but on moral conviction.”
Moral conviction, of course, is subjective and arbitary, and political executions soon became commonplace. Estimates vary widely, but many thousands of people died at the hands of the government during the Castro regime, and many times more were subjected to maltreatment, slave labour and torture as political prisoners.
Freedom House, an independent watchdog group that for 75 years has been dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, has long rated Cuba as unfree. As recently as 2012 – four years after Fidel Castro handed over the reins to his marginally less geriatric but equally repressive brother Rául – Freedom House listed it among 16 countries in a “worst of the worst” list of repressive societies.
Until Castro’s official funeral, on December 4, Cubans throughout the island will be required to mourn. The actions of people in a totalitarian state, however, do not often reflect reality. If Castro really was a hero, why did more than 2-million people, almost 20% of the country’s present (and declining) population, flee the country since he came to power?
“There is no RIP for Fidel Castro in Miami. Just good riddance, “ wrote Fabiola Santiago for the Miami Herald. “The tyrant is dead. … With his death, it feels as if an evil curse – the heaviest of weights – has been lifted on a nation whose children are scattered all over the world.”
Against the mealy-mouthed tributes of politicians and the romantic revisionism of armchair revolutionaries, the raw emotion of those who actually fled Fidel Castro speaks volumes. Fidel Castro will take his place in history among the tyrants of communism, driven by fiery ideals to murder and repression, and leaving only poverty and despair in his wake. He will be mourned, but not by me. DM
Riding a Black Unicorn Down the Side of an Erupting Volcano While Drinking from a Chalice Filled with the Laughter of Small Children is the title of a dark cabaret album by 'Voltaire'