Castro meets with Malcolm X in Harlem, 1960.
Fox News remembers him as “the bearded, cigar-smoking Communist revolutionary who infuriated the United States”. Al Jazeera remembers him as “a titan of the Cold War”. Jacobin remembers him as a “towering champion of the oppressed”.
Cuba now finds itself in nine days of mourning. Fidel Castro is dead.
Over the coming days and weeks, much will be said about Castro. His supporters will make appeals to Cuba’s shining welfare system. His detractors will appeal to the political prisoners and dissidents who were silenced by the regime. The focal point of our conversation will no doubt be on Castro himself, rather than the people of Cuba and her future as a socialist nation. We should resist the call of media pundits to see Castro’s legacy through their eyes, as should we resist the charm of those who indulge in hero worship.
Castro was human, which means he was flawed. As was his revolution. Though we cannot ignore the victims of his actions, neither can we ignore the massive gains that he was able to bring about, despite living in the shadow of a genocidal empire. Those who condemn Cuba’s human rights record whilst lavishing praise on the Obama Administration do not get to join this conversation. Those who would once more prise Cuba open for the benefit of corporations do not get to join either. Hypocrites are in abundance whenever a revolutionary dies, so let us stop them from assaulting this conversation, focus on defending Cuba from those who wish her harm, and set the revolution on a better trajectory. Anything else is an indulgent distraction.
Before the Revolution, Cuba was experiencing its darkest days since its time as a Spanish colony. Under the iron grip of Fulgencio Batista, the island was forcibly resigned to a hedonistic playground for gamblers, mob bosses, and predatory American companies. The spirit of the Cuban people was totally imprisoned. The island had thrown off its Spanish overloads only to be subjected to more aggressive American ones, who protected their financial interests in the island by supplying its dictator with napalm and guns.
Before he was elected President, John F. Kennedy denounced his predecessor’s policy on Cuba and accused Batista of “murdering thousands, destroying the last vestiges of freedom, and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the Cuban people” (all the while calling Castro a thug and a menace). Though Kennedy would go on to inflict a terror campaign on Cuba so vicious that even Batista may have winced, even he would remember Batista’s rule as “one of the most bloody and repressive dictatorships in the long history of Latin American repression”.
The early years of the Cuban revolution saw a totally transformed Cuba, one unrecognizable from its Batista days. The Mafia were banished, casinos outlawed, and sex work reformed. The national lottery fund was converted into a social housing program. Though Cuba eventually adopted the Soviet revolutionary model – to its great detriment – the early years of the revolution produced things that Cuba still enjoys: A 100% literacy rate, an infant mortality rate that capitalist nations may only dream of, extensive free healthcare and education, and an army of highly-trained physicians. Only the country’s attitude towards LGBT rights remains a societal sore point, and that will be covered later.
First, the good.
Cuba’s foreign policy, apart from its perhaps justified emergency alignment with the Soviet Union, is something we should all model. Cuba does not intervene in the affairs of other states in order to steal resources. Cuba has not killed one million Iraqi civilians since 2003. Cuba does not operate a targeted drone strike programme which gives the head of state the power to execute anybody in the Middle East without approval or oversight. In fact, Cuba’s best-known military operation was, according to Nelson Mandela, fundamental in “destroying the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor”. The Americans have never done such a thing.
This was the famed intervention in Angola throughout the 70’s and 80’s.. At this time, Angola’s people were fighting off the combined white supremacist might of Zaire, the United States, and Angolan apartheidist factions, all of whom were plotting to destroy Angola’s hopes of lasting independence and freedom.
Cuba’s intervention in the fighting culminated in the largest African land battle since the Second Word War, the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, which forced the United States to hold trilateral talks that eventually led to the aggressors’ withdrawal from Angola and Namibia. According to Mandela, Castro’s help at Cuito Cuanavale made Africans realize that apartheid could be defeated:
We have come here today recognizing our great debt to the Cuban people. What other country has such a history of selfless behavior as Cuba has shown for the people of Africa? How many countries benefit from Cuban health care professionals and educators? How many of these volunteers are now in Africa? What country has ever needed help from Cuba and has not received it? How many countries threatened by imperialism or fighting for their freedom have been able to count on the support of Cuba? – Nelson Mandela, 1991
Throughout his rule, Castro also successfully navigated the murky waters between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. He protected Jews, and criticized Israel. Cuba consistently condemned the illegal occupation of Palestine during the early days of the occupation, and voted in favour of United Nations Resolution 3379, which equated Zionism with racism. In tandem with this (and not “despite” this), Castro took serious steps to address Cuba’s hostile attitude towards Jews, and never turned his back on the small Jewish community in Havana. For this, Castro can be thanked: He was living proof that one need not pledge allegiance to Israel to defend Jews from anti-Semitism, and need not descend into anti-Semitism to be a friend of Palestine.
Closer to home, the economic trajectory of the revolution seems to be a positive one. Cuba has begun experimenting with cooperatives (albeit sluggishly) in order to meet agricultural needs. Cooperatives are independent and voluntary member-owned, member-run enterprises which are largely seen as in line with immediate socialist goals because they do away with traditional employment hierarchies and insidious profit motives.
The problem that other communist adventures in other parts of the world experienced – especially the Soviet adventure – is that they never found the time to turn over the means of production to the workers, despite this being an absolutely core tenet of Marxism. Lenin never did it, Stalin never wanted to. If Cuba continues to hand over control of agriculture and other sectors to workers who can form cooperatives on the basis of need, not greed, then the revolution will have met one of its central goals.
Now, the bad.
The stated reason for the glacial pace of implementing cooperatives in Cuba is that the Communist Party cannot agree on what they are for, how the government should work with them, how many of them should be allowed, and how much independence they should have. But since they involve workers moving out of the state employment sphere, one can easily guess that some party members are worried that cooperatives signal a breakaway from the state’s watchful eye over its citizens’ lives, which in turn opens up the possibility of renewed American influence. Like other states moving towards communism, Cuba jealously protects its citizens, sometimes to their detriment.
Cuba has reacted with paranoid fervour to those it sees as foreign agents in the past. There may be some merit to this – after seeing the insidious interventions in many former Soviet satellites, one highly doubts that the Cuban revolution would have lasted until now if Cuba held free and fair elections and allowed American diplomats and aid workers to poke around – but that doesn’t justify the repression Cubans now face; it simply explains the cause.
The Cuban government still maintains a stranglehold on free information and the freedom of assembly, and for the most part, ordinary Cubans share no more decision-making power in their political lives than Americans or the British. The pretense of free elections is simply done away with in Cuba, whereas we in the rest of the world console ourselves with the lie that they bring change. A better Cuba is one that grants the people total control over their political lives, replete with freedom of assembly and movement, not to mention direct and decentralized democratic practices in each community. Cooperatives signal an important but slow move in this direction. Time will tell if Castro’s death changes the pace of this.
The revolution has yet to atone for its political sins, and bring its human rights record up to the ideals that all communists should hold dear. Again, I defer for a moment to warn those self-appointed judiciaries of leftism that their criticism is not welcome here. If you ignore the atrocities committed by the Obamas of the world, but fiercely condemn those of the Castros, you will find no quarter here. Human freedom either applies to all, or none.
A bone of contention many leftists have had with Castro is his treatment of LGBT people during and after the revolution. That treatment, in short, was abhorrent, and though Castro apologized for it years later, he did little to directly undo the damage he caused. Cuba did legalize homosexuality 24 years before the U.S., does have a national anti-discrimination ordinance, and does offer free sex change operations to its transgender citizens. But the revolution treated LGBT people like animals.
Castro once remarked that a gay men are a “deviation” that “cannot enable us to consider him a true Revolutionary”. Many LGBT people were thrown into forced labour camps with the intention of “rehabilitating” them through hard work. Conditions in these camps were dire – cramped sleeping areas, food scarcity, and intense manual labour were common. Castro visited these camps igcognito during the 60’s and demanded that they be shut down, but they continued to operate for years regardless. Harassment and persecution of LGBT people would go on well into the 1990’s. Both pre- and post-revolutionary Cuba were merciless and hostile to LGBT people at some times, and totally indifferent at others.
Now, hope lies in Castro’s niece, Mariela Castro, a stalwart ally who has spearheaded much of the legislation that LGBT communities in Cuba still enjoy. She led the fight for free gender reassignment surgery in 2005, a law that stands to this day. She even voted against an anti-discrimination employment ordinance in 2014 because it did not sufficiently protect gender identity, making her the first Cuban lawmaker ever to vote “no” on a political resolution.
The Cuban political class seems to be mildly indifferent towards gay rights, despite a few key votes in recent years, but with the likes of Mariela around, one hopes that the situation will continue to get better, and that Cuban revolutionaries will do more to undo their heinous anti-LGBT past. Above all, Cuba’s anti-LGBT past should not be cited as evidence of the cruelty of communism. Homophobia and communism bear no relation. The situation in Cuba was the doing of Castro and his forces, and it is an insult to LGBT revolutionaries to dismiss their revolutionary struggle as homophobic.
What does all of this tell us?
That Castro was a flawed human being, as was his revolution, and that his death is largely inconsequential – it is what happens next that matters. Though Cuba is doing much to rectify the sins of its revolutionary past, there is still much work to be done. One thing above all remains clear: Cuba must never, ever slide back into its status as a colony for the benefit of the Spanish, the Americans, or anybody else. One simply hopes that the Cuban political class ends its poor human rights record and protects its revolutionary gains at the same time.
Cuba libre forever.