It’s impossible to let his death pass without comment. Lest I be derided for Skibereen Eagle–type comment, back in the day, at the end of the Sixties, a decade when Castro was an important bit player, my Master’s Degree was on the Cold War, my dissertation on the Cuba Crisis.
Fidel Castro was a survivor. The revolution he led in 1959 has lasted against all the odds, including half-a-century of US hostility and a crippling trade embargo. Today, a decade after Castro relinquished power to his brother Raol, despite modest reforms and a beginning of détente with the USA, Cuba remains a single party Communist dictatorship with severe restrictions on personal liberty, which over fifty years has imprisoned and killed thousands of people.
For several decades Castro was the darling of the Left throughout the West, his fiery anti-Americanism and dogged adherence to undiluted Socialism matching the mood of that Sixties generation which demonstrated against US involvement in Vietnam and its support for reactionary or dictatorial rulers throughout Latin America and the Middle East. That generation was meanwhile quietly dismayed and progressively disillusioned at the mendacious and repressive Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, particularly after the crushing of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Cuba was seen as somehow different – pure, inspired by ideals other Communist regimes had abandoned. That purity was personified in the enduring images of the revolution, of a bearded cigar chomping Castro, and of the Lost Leader, Che Guevara, summarily executed in Bolivia in 1967 while attempting to foment revolution there. Indeed for most people then, and today, the image of the Cuban revolution that comes first to mind is Jim Fitzpatrick’s iconic rendering of the 1960 Korda photo of Che. It conferred a type of romantic immortality on Guevara – another hardened Marxist revolutionary and murderer – and for the Cuban revolution where he cut his teeth. As the years passed it was possible to ignore the spectacle of the fading and aging Castro while cherishing that preserved sanitised image of Che.
The Left might be uneasy at the political murders, the denial of democracy, the repression and the frugal living standards imposed on the Cuban population by Castro’s regime but could point to what was happening elsewhere in the hemisphere, where there was, and continues to be, an ongoing battle between the haves and the have-nots. In a continent rich in natural resources, the gap between the minority wealthy ruling elite, who control the security forces, and the poorer majority, is huge. Corruption, poverty and disease are endemic, politics and society polarised in what is seen as a zero-sum game. Reforming governments have been routinely resisted and overthrown, often with overt or covert US support. The conflict often generated armed resistance movements, such as Castro’s, provoking military coups and savage repression in response.
As Latin American dictators and murderers go, apart from longevity, Castro was scarcely the heaviest hitter. The regional roll call of murder and misery is depressing. Since Castro seized power, there have been periods of military or authoritarian rule or violent political unrest in every Central and South American country except Costa Rica. Generally the body count elsewhere has greatly exceeded Castro’s tally.
Take the main examples. In Argentina, seventeen years of military dictatorship and murder; the thousands of “Disappeared”. In Chile the brutal fifteen year Pinochet dictatorship (I witnessed the murder of the ousted Chilean Foreign Minister Letelier outside the Irish Embassy in Washington D.C. in September 1975). In Columbia the only very recently concluded treaty between the government and the FARC, after an estimated 200,000 deaths. In Nicaragua the Somoza dictatorship until 1979, followed by the Sandinistas and the Contras. In El Salvador the Death Squads and a twelve year civil war. Bolivia, Brazil,Venezuela,Uruguay,Peru, the Dominican Republic and Panama (where U.S. military invasions toppled the incumbent regimes); the list goes on. And in many countries, additionally, the murderous ghouls of the drug cartels, compounding the misery of the general population. None of which excuses Castro’s human rights record but goes some way to explaining and contextualising it.
Castro was unique. Casting a cold eye, ideology apart, he succeeded in toppling the incumbent ruling elite, replacing it with a different elite –his own and that of his henchmen – and then hanging on, unlike other regional leftist regimes. Crucial to his survival was that Cuba is an island, and therefore easier to control its population, easier to defend, and harder to attack, that its fragile economy was kept on life support by the Soviet Union for over a generation and, later by support from Chavez’ Venezuela, and that the USA stayed its hand at military invasion after the 1962 Cuba Crisis. Cocooned by this island security Castro was free to experiment.
And experiment he did. Apologists point to the impressive advances in health and education, and contrast these with the situation for the general population elsewhere in Latin America. Valid achievements certainly, as are the efficiencies of the Cuban intelligence services and its armed forces, hired out with an impressive record, particularly in Angola in the seventies. The attendant police state, economic hardships, food rationing, severe restrictions on travel and communications and on political dissent and free speech have all been justified as necessary for the regime’s survival, with the US a convenient, albeit real, bete noire and scapegoat.
Western supporters even assured us that the Cuban people are/were behind Castro. Perhaps they are, but in the face of an able and media-savvy repressive regime it is impossible to know. Whether the regime has any more legitimacy than the grudging acceptance given to the East European police states by their intimidated populations before 1989 is unclear. Those with loaded guns tend to stifle dissent. There is also the reality of national pride to be factored in (particularly facing the USA), something which totalitarian regimes of whatever hue are adept at milking. At times outside support for the Castro regime has bordered on the unreal. I have heard apologists defend the lengthy queues for basics and occasional luxuries, explained away as social occasions and that “Cubans like queuing.” Still, Castro’s Cuba is hardly the “North Korea with Rum” as characterised by some critics.
Some of the glister began to rub off in 2014 with allegations/revelations that Castro had amassed a personal fortune. If he did he would not be unique. It’s what dictators do. Now that he’s gone – in reality for a decade – will the regime survive? Raol Castro should beware the axiom that overthrows tend to happen not when repression is at its worst but when authoritarian rule has been relaxed and reforms introduced. Check back in a decade.
A footnote on the Cuba Crisis. Information which came to light after the USSR collapsed reveals how close the world’s brush with Armageddon was. The Soviet military build-up was larger, more rapid and lethal than the USA knew and included the deployment of 100 battlefield nukes to resist any ground invasion. And only a cool head on a Soviet submarine prevented the launch of a nuclear missile. Meanwhile Castro was urging Kruschev to launch a nuclear attack while afterwards Guevara deplored the Soviet back down. With allies like these……….