Fidel Castro: the Left’s blindspot for a despot on their side

Ideological alignment has made some accept in Castro what they would reject in other autocrats.

 

While interviewing Duane Clarridge, a long-term CIA operative and former head of the Agency’s Latin American division, journalist John Pilger brought up the subject of Chile.

 

“Chile, the only reason it exists is because of Pinochet,” says Clarridge.

 

“At a huge human price,” responds an incredulous Pilger.

 

After a few moments of haggling over the numbers of those killed/disappeared (Says Clarridge, “Thousands? You count ‘em. What thousands? And don’t talk to me about truth commissions…”), Pilger asks if he is denying that Pinochet caused “huge suffering” in Chile?

 

Clarridge: I don’t – ‘huge’ I don’t buy. That he committed crimes, I agree

 

Pilger: – But it’s worth it?

 

Clarridge: Huh?

 

Pilger: Is that what you’re saying? Those crimes are worth it?

 

Clarridge: Yeah. Yeah. Sometimes, unfortunately, things have to be changed in a rather –uh- ugly way.

 

 

Not often in recent decades has amorality been on such open display and in so despicable a manifestation by a former government agent.

 

Despite his tepid admission that Pinochet’s government had “committed crimes”, his message was clear: the violence with which Pinochet ruled was vindicated by the “good” his policies, particularly economic (the so–called Miracle of Chile), had brought about. Chile’s economy was suffering from significant problems – among them runaway inflation – under the democratically-elected Salvador Allende, a Marxist who Pinochet removed in a bloody coup.

 

With Pinochet in power, the United States (who played an important role in the coup) could once again count on Chile for cheap mineral exports, could pat itself on the back for preventing another communist foothold in Latin America, and with the help of Milton Friedman and the “Chicago boys”, saw explosive economic growth. Evidently this “turnaround” (despite the massive inequality it came with), at least to Mr. Clarridge, was well worth the subversion of liberal democracy, as well as the abject degradation of human dignity which became Pinochet’s signature.

 

“Yeah, Castro was bad, but…” seems to be a common sentiment among some sectors of the left following the Havanan caudillo’s demise. The “but” is followed by deservedly fawning statements about Cuban healthcare, education, and anti-imperialist struggle in the face of a reliable stream of subversion and assassination attempts from the greatest empire ever known, but betrays the moral convolutions of those employing it. In truth, the statement should be made inversely, with “Castro was bad” – already a euphemism – following the “but”, not preceding it.

 

This is not to say that the defence of Castro is the same as a defence of Pinochet. Salvador Allende was, of course, elected by a plurality in a multi-party democracy, arguably the most vibrant democracy in South America pre-Pinochet, whereas Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista was installed as a U.S puppet. Unlike Batista (whose removal was a necessity), Allende was not a despot, he genuinely cared for his people and his death in the 1973 coup d’état was a grave historical crime brought about because, as Henry Kissinger put it, the United States should not have to “stand by and watch while a country goes communist due to the irresponsibility of its people”. The common thread exists, however, in the propensity across the political spectrum to overlook and euphemize vicious repression in the service of ideological goals.

 

The attacks led by a young Fidel on the Moncada military barracks in 1953, on a date which then lent its name to the revolutionary movement, July 26, was a failure which nonetheless marked the beginning of the end, which eventually came in 1959, of Batista’s hideous regime. It would be an understatement to say that murder, torture and repression of dissent were, as in any despotic system, tools used frequently and gleefully by Batista.

 

Under Batista, Cuba was a literal gangster’s paradiseOn full display was the ugliness of capitalism at its most uninhibited; society rusted through with corruption, cronyism and inequality. The economic conditions made the island a favorite for American industry, becoming a playground and piggy bank for American corporations and organized crime. There was no question that Batista – as they say – “had to go” and non-violent means of change were not available.

 

Fulgencio Batista, Castro's US-backed predecessor, had an abysmal human rights record.
Fulgencio Batista, Castro’s US-backed predecessor, had an abysmal human rights record.

 

Castro’s revolution was, rightly, a beacon of hope around the world to subjugated populations under the heel of imperial puppet regimes. This is what made the United States government hate its Cuban counterpart in the first place. How dare some bearded communist take over a country in their own backyard? This could not stand. But stand it did, for over half a century, hundreds of assassination attempts and ten times as many American heads of state, the Cuban revolution endures.

 

Its persistence was, however, was marked from the very beginning with the persecution of political opponents and dissidents, and accompanied with all the hallmarks of authoritarianism. The glory of 1959 morphed into a perpetually stagnant revolution; a self-fulfilling prophecy with only itself as its end goal, and at its heart a man who believed that he and he alone could marshal his island of 11 million to an ideological Valhalla.

 

Castro was a man in love with the idea of a free Cuba, but utterly contemptuous of what a free Cuba would actually look like; a country with diversity of opinion and ambition, with a citizenry that had access to information, whose perception of the revolution might not always align with his, and who -crucially – can choose their own leader.

 

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There is no question that the gains achieved by Cuba in health and education are impressive, certainly by Latin American/Caribbean standards, and even more so given the limitation on resources and the senseless American embargo. When an economy is centrally controlled, however, with a small group of people deciding where resources are allocated, then it’s no surprise the sectors chosen for state investment would flourish whilst other sectors are neglected and stagnate in the absence of conditions for entrepreneurship and investment.

 

However this doesn’t diminish the gains that were made, so the question is then whether there was no conceivable way a democratically elected successor could have achieved similar results? If the answer to this is no, then the follow up question is even more important: Are the gains made in a few sectors of society worth the iron-fisted rule and human rights atrocities which prevented most other sectors of society from flourishing? The answer, to anyone with both a regard for human rights and moral consistency, could only be no.

 

Castro was a man in love with the idea of a free Cuba, but utterly contemptuous of what a free Cuba would actually look like

 

No discussion of Castro’s legacy is complete without mention of American efforts to impede his progress at every turn. Indeed, whenever bad news comes out of Cuba, the U.S. is the first perpetrator people point the finger at, but it is only through strained moral contortion and non-sequitur that Castro’s treatment of the Cuban citizenry may be excused by the United States’ treatment of him. The fact that Cuban policy towards certain demographics, notably homosexuals, has vastly improved since its darkest days of “Operation P”, when they were rounded up by military units and funneled into UMAP (Military Units for Help of Production) hard labour camps, does not absolve Castro of having done it in the first place. Implicit in the invocation of the regime’s attitude changes over the decades is the recognition that it has been the same regime over all those years, clinging to power through various avenues of oppression.

 

To put these and other crimes at the doorstep of the United States, as many on the left have done, is to absolve the perpetrators of their responsibility, as has been a long-standing trend regarding Cuba. It also commits the bigotry of low expectations by removing agency from Latin American countries, implying that we can only treat each other properly if a regional power provides us with the conditions to do so. In point of fact, U.S. behaviour towards Cuba was precisely what gave Fidel his power. It was his lifeblood, his rallying cry, and coupled with his suppression of information it was the source of support and the crutch by which he held on to power.

 

Castro’s ostensible concern for self-determination seemed to limit itself to the macro level, to nations freeing themselves from empires, not individuals from nations.

 

Fidel’s defenders rightly point to his support, both in rhetoric and practice, to fights for independence around the world, particularly in Africa, but his ostensible concern for self-determination seemed to limit itself to the macro level, to nations freeing themselves from empires, not individuals from nations. Where it has extended into the internal struggles in countries, such as apartheid South Africa, his help was substantial towards the achievement of an important goal, but only further highlighted the hypocrisy of his repressing his own subjects, even if the grounds were ideological rather than racial. Pictures circulating of Castro standing arm in arm with Nelson Mandela, while symbolic of the fight for emancipation, are spread almost as if to imply that the two men shared much by way of governing style. Lost is the irony that they were taken almost four decades after Castro took power.

 

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Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela – to many, their friendship has clouded the judgment of leftist critics.

 

And that, ultimately, was Castro’s biggest and all-encompassing failure; his failures to relinquish power until illness forced him to, or to even acknowledge that he was an impeding force in the economic and cultural growth of his society. Those who view his accomplishments as outweighing the harm he has done are still faced with the question of whether or not he was the only one who could have brought them about, and whether the hypothetical successor could have done it without tyranny.

 

I’m not the biggest fan of Winston Churchill, but I do agree with his assessment that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Fidel loved his people, but not enough to let them choose their own destiny, or indeed enough to even give them the means by which they could discuss or even inform themselves on different roads to choose, and that is not something history will forgive him for.

 

There is never any accomplishment that should not be learned from because of who accomplished it. This applies to Castro as well. The good he has done is important and should undoubtedly be replicated, but does not exist in a vacuum and must be weighed against the harm he has done. The moral scale will not tip in his favour in history’s rearview.

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