Saturday, November 26, 2016

A big beast breathes his last. Fidel Castro's legacy isn't as black or white as is being painted...

The news that Fidel Castro has died shouldn't really have come as a huge surprise, even if you did begin to wonder if he was ever going. He had retreated from public life for the most part, and I suspect that the obituary writers had edited their drafts more often than for most people. But he is gone, and the opinion makers are off and running.

For the left, Fidel is a hero of the anti-imperialist movement, for the right, an authoritarian who impoverished his people, repressed dissidents and was a threat to world peace. And it's easy for those whose experience is limited to foreign reporting filtered through their own cultural bias.

For me, it's a bit more complex. One should bear in mind that Cuba in the 1950's was a corrupt dictatorship, where freedom only really extended to the Mob and to the wealthy, and where the influence of a foreign power acted to cement that dictatorship in place. Most of us, had we had much knowledge of what was going on, would have sided with the freedom fighters, rather than the regime. 

After all, Fidel and his freedom fighters won, against an entrenched military dictatorship, which could only have been possible with the support of much of the population at large. The fact that the Americans immediately tried to overthrow his government and replace it with something far more amenable to their interests, could only act to reinforce him in power. You could almost excuse the missile crisis that then followed, given that a superpower was threatening them. Under those circumstances, pairing up with the other superpower becomes an attractive option, and it did deter the Americans from making another serious attempt.

The problem was that he adopted a political creed that was doomed to failure, handcuffed to a superpower that was purely a military one rather than an economic one. And, whilst he created a society that was far more equal than the one it had replaced, that equality wasn't terribly good at delivering for the people of Cuba.

He also orchestrated the repression of those who had other opinions on the future of the country, arresting and detaining the likes of Armando Valladares, and kept an authoritarian eye on his people. And interfering in the internal affairs of other countries merely demonstrated a sense of hypocrisy that his nation couldn't really afford, acting as a surrogate for the Soviet Union in exchange for a market for their sugar.

Ironically, it is his brother, Raul, who has gradually loosened the apron strings, introducing rights and freedoms that are bottom-up rather than top-down, allowing ordinary Cubans to enter the market economy whilst the big international corporations are held at arms length. And, having been to Cuba recently, there are all the signs of an entrepreneurial culture that has lain latent for a long time.

Fidel Castro was an imperfect man, a hero in some way, a villain in others. As a liberal, I tend to the view that, in the round, he probably did more harm to the people of Cuba than good, but that they might not all necessarily see it that way. After all, I'm not a Cuban, nor did I live through the events of the fifties and sixties. My view is a theoretical one, rather than lived experience.

In short, he was a creature of his time who, given a choice between giving his people freedom or controlling them, he chose the latter. He wasn't alone, nor was it a choice taken solely by the left, but it was still the wrong one from the perspective of a liberal.

What happens next is a bit of a mystery. Raul is, of course, no spring chicken, and the senior ranks of the Cuban Communist Party are little known. Would new leadership try to reverse the faltering steps towards a market economy? Is that even possible following President Obama's moves towards liberalising relations between the two countries?

Life is going to be interesting in the Caribbean's largest nation over the next few years...


Matt (bristol) said...

Possibly the only intelligent thing I've read on this subject so far.

But how a Trump White House acts towards a post-Castro Cuba is going to be highly intriguing...

Mark Valladares said...


Indeed, will a Trump White House attempt to turn back the clock in terms of US-Cuba relations, and to what end? Americans will go to Cuba and discover that there really isn't much to be scared of.

And why mess around in a country that isn't a threat and doesn't have oil?