There’s a Japanese adage that claims “the opposite of a great truth is another truth.” It seems appropriate as I watch the social media flood of opinion pieces on the life and legacy of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
To many Castro was a ruthless dictator; to others a liberator. Most people have been too busy arguing to recognize that in humans, as in life, there are no absolutes. To seek only to glorify Castro or only to vilify him is to not see him at all. The narrow scope of one’s own experiences, upbringing, and priorities ultimately clouds everything in personal bias. Historical context is needed.
I don’t wish to offer up any excuses for Castro’s horrendous human rights record. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press rank too high on my list of things that matter to condone or justify any of those violations.
However, it’s conveniently hypocritical and agenda-driven to choose to focus on those issues alone — particularly when most of the criticism is coming from a country currently dropping drones on innocent civilians, a country that has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, employs violence against Indigenous peoples protesting peacefully in Standing Rock, and has a health care system where declaring bankruptcy is often the only resort for its users.
Castro was a polarizing figure, but to fairly criticize his regime, one has to understand the conditions that necessitated a revolution in the first place. Cuba’s history is one of colonization: from Spanish exploitation, to the slave plantation system, to U.S. intervention and outright aggression. The country has never been left to its own devices. Even after Spain lost the war, the Platt Amendment granted the U.S. government the right to militarily intervene in Cuba.
With that in mind, writer Eduardo Galeano was absolutely right when he said that Castro was instrumental in "transforming a colony into a country."
It is unfair and inaccurate to discuss Castro’s legacy without acknowledging the political, economic, and cultural asphyxiation Cuba experienced throughout its history. During Batista’s U.S.-backed dictatorship, corruption was at an all-time high, and 75 per cent of Cuba’s best agricultural land was owned by foreign individuals or foreign (mostly U.S.) companies at the time of the revolution.
U.S. president John F. Kennedy acknowledged this historical context during a 1963 interview. "I believe that there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country's policies during the Batista regime.”
An impartial conversation
Castro’s treatment of the LGBTQ community shouldn’t be discussed without acknowledging that most of those persecutions took place in the 1960s and ’70s, when much the same was taking place across North America.
In fact, Cuba has a well-deserved reputation as a “beacon of international humanitarianism," as one writer put it. Do I also need to remind Americans who are appalled by Castro’s treatment of gays in the ’70s that their current VP-elect in 2016 is a man who only recently wanted to jail same-sex couples for applying to get married?
Castro’s failings shouldn’t be discussed without his successes. His agrarian reforms ensured that Cubans previously living in poverty had access to land, free health care, and free education. The proceeds remaining from pre-revolutionary gambling immediately went into a savings fund dedicated to housing. A massive literacy campaign had spectacular results. Before the revolution, less than half of Cuban children had access to school, while today the country has the highest literacy rate in Latin America and one of the highest in the world.
Cuba’s stifling socialism shouldn’t be discussed without mentioning that the country’s Human Development Index still ranks much higher than the vast majority of Latin American nations, with a poverty level that is one of the lowest in the developing world. In terms of converting economic output into social well-being Cuba is a success story. It’s also one of the safest places in the world.
Cuba’s national literacy, mortality and infant mortality rates are also as good as any first world country (better than the United States’), despite a very long embargo, and the government has worked hard to provide equal rights for Black Cubans and women. Many of these improvements have been shared with others. Cuban-educated doctors and Cuban-developed vaccines have been dispatched worldwide, and military aid has been offered on numerous occasions. Ask why Nelson Mandela loved Castro so much and why so many African nations view him as an important ally against U.S. imperialism.
A great expense for an inimitable feat
Yes, Castro was a relentless oppressor of those who challenged him, but he was also an unfortunate creation of his surroundings. One has to wonder what kind of version of Cuba would have emerged over time, if not for the Soviet Union’s collapse and the United States’ relentless and often petty trade embargo.
Ultimately, Castro was a hard-core revolutionary, and later a full-blown dictator, who believed that political repression was a price worth paying for a fairer distribution of wealth.
In the past two decades I’ve been travelling to Cuba, I’ve fallen in love with the country and the people. I’ve seen major changes unfold, and I expect more will soon come. With a more experienced and even-tempered leader in the White House, I could hope that positive changes would be on their way for the average Cuban. But with Trump I’m not so sure.
What Castro managed — often at great expense to basic human rights — was to fend off U.S. interference and exploitation for almost 60 years, a feat most of Latin and Central America was not able to pull off. He created a country with a strong national identity and pride that’s based on common values of anti-capitalist collectivism and social welfare.
You don’t see murals or sculptures of Fidel Castro when you travel around Cuba. What you do see, however, are sculptures of poet, writer, and national hero José Marti in every schoolyard. Castro was a revolutionary fighter dressed in army fatigues, but he lauded a poet and teacher who died fighting for his country’s freedom.
“Once the United States is in Cuba, who will get it out?” José Marti asked in 1889. Fidel Castro answered that question in 1959 when he became prime minister, but another type of U.S. invasion might soon be on its way. It was perhaps Castro’s ultimate goal to ensure that he left behind a country with a strong enough national identity that it wouldn’t be swallowed up by what’s to come.
With the disturbing rise of the far right in Europe and in the U.S., history may indeed end up absolving Castro for the long-term results of Cuba’s revolution without necessarily absolving him for the crimes committed along the way.