Fidel Castro’s life and death represents many things to many people. The Canadian and U.S. press, however, has proven mostly incapable of presenting more than the usual one-sided demonization. When it comes to assessing the improbably long life of this 20th-century giant, neither ahistorical liberal and conservative condemnation nor leftist deification suffices.
On Saturday, Canadian politics was abuzz with mockery of the prime minister, after Justin Trudeau issued a laudatory statement in response to the news of the death of the Cuban revolutionary leader.
A few treacly, awkward turns of phrase aside, Trudeau’s missive was pretty much in line with the content of most world leaders’ statements. Although the North American media hardly reported it, the praise for Castro’s legacy was particularly fulsome from leaders of the formerly colonized countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The Cuban leader was a friend to anti-imperialist liberation movements worldwide. Although it won't make the corporate media obituaries, Castro’s legacy includes providing military support to independence forces in Angola that proved vital to the defeat of the racist South African apartheid regime.
Trudeau’s statement should not have come as a big surprise, really, especially given that Castro was a good friend of Pierre Trudeau, whose first official visit to Cuba in 1976 came in the midst of a media firestorm over the socialist island’s initial deployment of thousands of troops to Angola.
Media failure and hypocrisy
Then, as now, the Canadian PM’s friendly words for Castro were seen as a great affront to the United States. Then, as now, it was actually the North American media and politicians, especially the crazed Republican ideologues, who were out of step with global public opinion.
The mockery of Trudeau fils quickly went viral, with #TrudeauEulogies taking over Canadian political Twitter for the weekend.
No such mockery greeted Stephen Harper’s far more ridiculous statement in January 2015 upon the death of Saudi King Abdullah, the absolute monarch and totalitarian ruler of arguably the world’s most repressive, openly fundamentalist, and misogynist state. Harper laughably called the head of the Saudi regime, whose toxic extremism and proxy mercenaries have spread bloodshed and hate across the Middle East and beyond, “a man of peace.” This statement came less than a year after the Canadian government had first announced a massive arms deal with Saudi Arabia, and yet no mockery of Harper ensued.
In the mainstream Canadian press nobody batted an eye at Harper’s 2015 statement, whereas Trudeau’s words became the big story of the day, with countless pundits and commentators weighing in about the political cost to the PM.
The contrasting response to these two statements from Canadian prime ministers illustrates the hold of the dominant worldview and ideology of our times. Praise for a dead Saudi tyrant is seen as completely normal and uncontroversial, while praise for the fallen leader of Cuba is seen as unfathomable and absurd. Thus the pundits of the status quo present their ignorance as sophistication and their myopic refusal to see things from the perspective of the historically oppressed and colonized as a courageous stand for universal freedoms.
The U.S. and Canadian media, it seems, can only discuss Castro’s life and death through the lens of the underlying assumptions of the dominant ideology: capitalism is good and inevitable, and the U.S. empire is benevolent if sometimes prone to overreach and mistakes.
For the most part, the coverage is predictable and boring. (How much will the monster’s death accelerate the spread of capitalism in Cuba? And so on and so on.) Most outlets seem unwilling or unable to even acknowledge — let alone explain — Castro’s status as a symbol of liberation and resistance for so much of the world.
Castro and his legacy should be criticized, but our criticisms should not echo the simplistic, one-sided ones that dominate in the corporate media and the pundit class.
The view from Africa and Latin America
African leaders, both heads of state and grassroots activists, have been among the most effusive in their praise of Castro’s life.
From its earliest years, the Cuban Revolution reached out to African revolutionaries and progressive governments, from Ben Bella’s Algeria to Thomas Sankara’s Burkina Faso to the armed liberation movements fighting colonialism and apartheid throughout the continent in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. (Cuban troops were also involved in the Horn of Africa, where their intervention was more divisive and viewed by many as a proxy operation for the Soviets.)
Cuba’s massive military intervention in Angola, reportedly initiated without Soviet permission, was heralded by none other than Nelson Mandela as a turning point against the South African apartheid regime. Just months after his release from prison, Mandela visited Cuba to thank its people and Castro for their singular contribution.
In recent decades, Cuba’s overseas deployments have consisted mostly of medical personnel, with legions of doctors and other specialists sent to volunteer in many of the poorest countries in the world. The scope of Cuba’s medical internationalism is hard to fathom. Its doctors have been on the front lines of the response to everything from Hurricane Mitch in Central America, to the devastating 2005 earthquake in Pakistan and the catastrophic 2010 quake in Haiti, to last year’s frightening Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Cuba has also taken in and educated tens of thousands of doctors from underdeveloped countries. The World Health Organization and the Unites Nations have heaped praise on Cuba, but the contributions of their doctors worldwide ranks among the great underreported stories of our time.
For many Latin Americans, Cuba was a beacon of hope and a refuge for exiles and rebels fleeing and fighting the vicious, U.S.-backed right-wing dictatorships throughout the continent. That is to say Castro, as a regional leader, was most often on the side of democracy, supporting those fighting against some of the most ruthless dictatorships in recent history.
Mainstream critics omit context
Those who criticize Castro’s authoritarianism at home often fail to note how more open and democratic attempts at socialism in Latin America were savagely crushed. (Many of these people still unashamedly hang out with and boast of their affection for Henry Kissinger, who played a major role in enabling the massacre and torture of tens of thousands in Chile and Argentina alone.)
Many of these commentators also elide the Cuban historical context entirely. It's worth remembering that Castro was set to run for election to Cuba’s House of Representatives for the Ortodoxo Party before a military coup installed Fulgencio Batista in 1952. If the United States and the mob (see The Godfather, Part II) hadn't squashed Cuban democracy and backed Batista, Castro might have lived out his days as a left-wing congressman, unknown to the world.
After the revolution in 1959, Castro's government enjoyed overwhelming popular support for its agenda of wiping out illiteracy, carrying out agrarian reform, and ending the subordination of Cuba's sovereignty and development to U.S. corporate interests. Once the U.S. state realized that he planned to actually carry out his promises of radical, nationalist reforms, they did everything they could to destroy the new government, including sabotage, terrorism, assassination attempts, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and a punitive economic embargo. The unending U.S. aggression contributed to closing off possibilities for a more open and democratic society. The revolution came to power with an essentially military leadership structure, and after more than a half-century it has never really demobilized.
To explain all this is not to excuse the lack of democratic institutions and the restrictions on basic civil liberties in Cuba today. Castro and his leadership team may have been constrained and under siege, but they made conscious political decisions, adopting and maintaining many of the worst features of the Soviet bloc regimes: a one-party system with no critical media and no freedom to organize political dissent. Nor is U.S. imperialism an excuse for many of the past crimes of his government and the ruling Communist Party. Over the decades this has included the repression of writers and cultural workers, either through outright censorship or the more insidious practise of imposing parámetros on freedom of expression, as well as shameful discrimination against LGBTQ Cubans which Castro himself has acknowledged as a "great injustice."
The great survivor
Fidel Castro had no business making it to 90 years old. If a cat has nine lives, the Cuban leader had nine hundred. Waging a quixotic guerrilla war against a brutal military dictatorship and then carrying out a socialist revolution under the nose of U.S. imperialism is a recipe for martyrdom, an early grave. Castro was the great survivor, famously managing to elude hundreds of assassination plots hatched by the CIA and terrorist exiles harboured in Florida. He outlived his contemporaries, friend and foe alike (except for Kissinger), as well as many of his disciples.
Written off as an anachronistic holdout of a failed ideology, Castro lived to see the glorious defeat of the U.S. effort to quarantine socialist ideas and traditions to the island of Cuba, serving as a father figure or sorts to the democratically elected leftist leaders of the “pink tide” that swept Latin America beginning in the late 1990s. His final years and months, though, saw that tide seeming to recede ever more rapidly given this year’s coup in Brazil, the return of the right to power in Argentina, and, most devastating, the death of Hugo Chavez and now the apparent unraveling of the Venezuelan economy and of the Bolivarian Revolution’s grip on power.
The world is a much better place because of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and its international solidarity, whether through the soldiers in Angola who helped smash the apartheid army of South Africa, or the doctors in Haiti after the earthquake and West Africa after the Ebola outbreak and countless other places around the world doing the work nobody else will.
For all this Castro will rightfully join the pantheon with the likes of Louverture, Bolívar, Sucre, San Martin, and Cuba's beloved Jose Martí. But he will also be remembered among the authoritarian leaders of the 20th century, and the price paid for his long, singular dominance of Cuban political life is that he has bequeathed a vulnerable legacy. A lack of full democracy does not just lessen the justice of a socialist project, it negates it and opens the door to restoration of the worst historic inequalities. No country has yet managed to transition from a one-party, nominally socialist system to a flourishing socialist democracy.
As we stand with the Cuban people in defence of everything they have gained, we should also fight for their right to freedom of expression and political association, the right for artists to openly dissent, and the right to a media that isn’t stultifying and dull. A proud, cultured and educated people, who have contributed so much to the universal project of equality and social justice, Cubans deserve no less.
“A revolution is a fight to the death between the future and the past,” Castro himself once said. Nobody should want Cuba to return to its unjust, pre-revolutionary past, nor should we treat it as a mausoleum for revolutionary tourism. Fortunately, Cuba has for the most part avoided the extremes of the cult of personality seen under some past communist regimes, like Albania or China. Castro’s body has been cremated — with thankfully no talk of embalming — and this week his remains will travel in a days-long caravan from Revolution Square in Havana to rest in Santiago de Cuba, a reverse journey across the country along the road his revolutionaries of the Sierra Maestra took to power.
As an inspiration, a legend, a symbol of unyielding resistance to empire, and also as a cautionary tale, Fidel Castro has many lives yet to live.