Saturday, 26 November 2016

Good Riddance To Fidel Castro



There is a certain enthusiasm amongst political extremists for foreign dictators that they would never brook towards a domestic leader who did even half the same things - they allow people to believe that things they are told (and probably, in their heart-of-hearts, know) are impossible or undesirable may be achieved and are desirable because the dictator's censored media says so.

This is why the very first I ever heard of Fidel Castro was a letter from a listener to Radio 4 condemning then-recently-aired criticism of the communist dictator and praising him as a "great statesman" and "anti-imperialist". Later on I was see Cuba under Castro reported again and again by left-leaning journalists from one view point only: the supposedly-wonderful Cuban health care system, the "equality", the deprivation ascribed entirely to the (misguided) US blockade. That we were talking about someone whose rule, in its ultimate nature, varied from, say, Anastasio Somoza or Alfredo Stroessner only in the colour of his rhetoric, could not be seen clearly from these reports.

When Castro visited Nanjing during my time there, security was as tight as it might have been had Kim Jong-Il been visiting, and for the same reasons: vicious dictators have enemies. Castro made a fair number, and not just the "American imperialists" (opposition to whom seemed enough to confer again a red sainthood upon him), but also Cubans upset by his tyranny, and the emigres who left the country before he could add them to the tens of thousands who died as a result of "Revolutionary Justice".

Just like North Korea, Cuba under Castro impoverished its people whilst spending lavishly on a large military armed almost entirely with Soviet equipment. Just like North Korea, Castro was succeeded by a family member. Just like North Korea, Castro ruled for decades without ever allowing the Cuban people a say in whether it should go on. Just like North Korea, when the massive Soviet support on which a supposedly self-sustaining "revolutionary state" was supposed to have been built was withdrawn, massive deprivation and (further) economic collapse was the result.

Foreign adventures of exactly the kind that those who so regularly lavish praise on the former Cuban leader would condemn as "imperialism" occurred at regular intervals - most prominently his dispatch of troops to Angola, which even now wins him praise on the bizarre logic that it was "resistance to Apartheid" (the South African regime supported the opposing side of the Angolan civil war). Some of the same troops, returning to Cuba unwittingly infected with HIV, found themselves being jailed for life in a cruel form of quarantine.

Early last year, just as the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the US was being announced, I visited Cuba briefly. The poverty and general decrepitude of the country as a whole was palpable. The best that could be said for it was that (as in many dictatorships) petty crime of the kind that plagues the rest of Latin America is kept down.

Only a fool would believe that the US blockade could really be the cause of roughly a third of the buildings in Havana being in a state of collapse - building materials are easily come by - so it was obvious to us that the government that dominates the Cuban economy was to blame. The Cuban health system that wins the country so many plaudits on the left is merely good by regional standards, and does not excuse a dictatorship. The locals that we spoke to all talked of shortages of basic necessities, and of wanting to emigrate.

Fidel Castro's death, reported to day, will no doubt be greeted an outpouring of grief in Cuba. In this, we will see another reflection of the North Korean regime. I'm sure some of it, in a country where Castro is praised in every quarter and where never a word of real criticism of the regime may appear in print, will even be heart-felt.

Outside Cuba, on the other hand, there may also be mourners, but these mourners will have no excuse for not knowing better.

[Picture: Fidel Castro visits another failed Communist dictatorship. Via Wiki]

15 comments:

Ji Xiang said...

I visited Cuba too a few years ago. (see here:http://thecapitalinthenorth.blogspot.com/2010/08/que-linda-es-cuba.html). I thus have no idealistic naiveness about the country. I have seen how hard life is for most Cubans, how most of them long to emigrate, how most of them couldn't even use the internet in 2010, how the regime tries to make it hard for them to even talk to tourists.

At the same time, when you talk about Fidel Castro, you should at least mention that his revolution overthrew a US-backed regime with full popular support. You should also mention that Cuba comes well before most Latin American and third world countries in the UN's human development index, so the Cuban claims about their health system and social services are not empty. Perhaps the crucial point isn't even how good their health services are, but the fact that most Cubans can access them. In fact, Cuban infant mortality rates are better than in the United States.

When you see how decrepit everything in Cuba looks, you must also remember that you can't judge the country by comparing it with East Asia or Europe, because quite simply in Caribbean cultures people aren't as efficient and hard-working. Not a very politically correct thing to say, but none the less true. Life in Cuba's neighbouring countries is probably better for the wealthier half of the people, and worse for the poorer half. Cuba is hardly a paradise, but also not a hellhole like North Korea. And while the Cuban regime is repressive, it has never sullied itself with the kind of heinous atrocities which other regimes brandishing the communist flag have committed. Cuba's last recorded executions were in 2003.

Finally, when it comes to Angola, I think calling the idealistic Cuban intervention "imperialism" is pretty far-fetched, since Cuba could hardly control Angola or anywhere else. Cuba was fighting off a vicious military intervention by South Africa, which had already collaborated with Portugal to quash the independence movement. South Africa at the time was doing everything it could to prevent all of the countries of Southern Africa from having leftist governments, with absolutely no moral or legal right to do so. I think Cuba was fighting on the right side of history, in this and other instances, for instance when Che Guevara got himself killed to help an insurrection in Bolivia.

This doesn't change the fact that all "Marxist" regimes, including Cuba's, have basically been a moral and economic failure. But let's give credit where it's due. Cuba has been the least morally bankrupt of the lot of them.

Gilman Grundy said...

"when you talk about Fidel Castro, you should at least mention that his revolution overthrew a US-backed regime with full popular support."

Even accepting that the majority of people in Cuba supported him (a dubious point) - why is it so important to mention this? I must have missed everyone insisting that this be mentioned about other Latin American dictators.

"You should also mention that Cuba comes well before most Latin American and third world countries in the UN's human development index"

Something that was also true before the revolution ( http://eres.lndproxy.org/edoc/FacPubs/loy/WardM/TheRoadNotTaken-12.pdf ). Since he does not actually appear to be the one who achieved this, why should it be mentioned?

"Finally, when it comes to Angola, I think calling the idealistic Cuban intervention "imperialism" is pretty far-fetched, since Cuba could hardly control Angola or anywhere else. Cuba was fighting off a vicious military intervention by South Africa, which had already collaborated with Portugal to quash the independence movement."

That scribbling sound you're hearing is the sound of history being re-written. The two sides of the Angolan Civil War were not fighting about independence, but about who would rule in an independent Angola.

There is nothing idealistic about intervening in a civil war to ensure that the communist side wins. If the US intervening in one corner of the globe is to be judged "imperialism", then Cuba doing so in another should be judged in the same manner.

"South Africa at the time was doing everything it could to prevent all of the countries of Southern Africa from having leftist governments, with absolutely no moral or legal right to do so."

Whilst Cuba was doing the opposite - backing communist revolutionaries in an effort to paint as much of the African continent red as possible. South Africa could at least make the bad argument that this was their neighbourhood when they backed UNITA in Angola and RENAMO in Mozambique.

I think Cuba was fighting on the right side of history, in this and other instances, for instance when Che Guevara got himself killed to help an insurrection in Bolivia.

A hired gun in a country in a failed attempt to overthrow its government, who was himself killed. This does not look like "right side of history" to me.

"while the Cuban regime is repressive, it has never sullied itself with the kind of heinous atrocities which other regimes brandishing the communist flag have committed."

The thousands of executions that took place after the revolution seem bad enough.

"let's give credit where it's due. Cuba has been the least morally bankrupt of the lot of them."

Saying that Castro was not Kim Il Sung or Ceausescu is not saying much.

Ji Xiang said...

"Something that was also true before the revolution ( http://eres.lndproxy.org/edoc/FacPubs/loy/WardM/TheRoadNotTaken-12.pdf ). Since he does not actually appear to be the one who achieved this, why should it be mentioned?"

The article you mention simply seems to be saying that average income has gone down in Cuba since the revolution. This is probably true, both because of the US embargo and because of the inefficiencies of planned economies. But it doesn't talk about social services, or about inequality (as far as I can see. I didn't read the whole of it). It is a simple fact that Cuba's 100% literacy rates and its average life expectancy are far better than what you get in most of Latin America, and they are connected to the government's policies.

About Angola, I personally don't think that apartheid South Africa fighting to install a government that would support them in Angola (not even a direct neighbour) is on the same moral level as what Cuba was doing, especially since the Cubans had no intention or ability to exploit Angola once their allies won, and appear to have been acting out of pure revolutionary idealism.

You also can't just reduce Che Guevara in Bolivia to a "hired gun" fighting to overthrow a foreign government. Che Guevara could have remained in Cuba and enjoyed the fruits of power, as his probably more cynical friend Castro did. Instead he went off to Congo first and then Bolivia to fight for other revolutions, showing that he was a genuine idealist.

Of course idealists don't always fight for good causes. But I would posit that the left-wing guerillas fighting against a US-backed military regime in Bolivia were perhaps better than the regime they were trying to overthrow. Remember that this was a time when most Latin American countries were ruled by dictators representing rich oligarchies in a context of extreme economic (and racial) inequality. Overthrowing these rulers in the name of socialism would have seemed like a just cause to any idealist of the time. Looking back, the countries where socialists took power (like Cuba) fared no better. But this wouldn't have been obvious in those days. Also, let's remember that the official Bolivian communist party, which took orders from the cynical Soviets, decided to give Che Guevara and his guerilla faction no help at all.

"The thousands of executions that took place after the revolution seem bad enough."

After the Cuban revolution, hundreds of policemen and soldiers from the Batista era were put on trial and executed or imprisoned. This is not something I would ever support, but it is in line with the normal levels of score-settling that happen after a war or revolution. In European countries fascist collaborators were executed after the Second World War, after all. Castro's level of vengeance after taking power still pales in comparison to most other "communist" leaders. And later on, while Castro's regime was always repressive and allowed no freedom of speech, it did not engage in the mass murder of "class enemies" or dissidents in the way that many such regimes did. In fact, Castro was definitely less blood-thirsty then Pinochet, Somoza, Videla and most of the other right-wing dictators that infested Latin America after he took power. I realise that this hardly makes him a saint, but it does give some perspective.

Ji Xiang said...

http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2016/11/27/actualidad/1480259892_372554.html

This article I've just read in El Pais gives a pretty balanced comparison of Cuba before and after the revolution. Unfortunately it's in Spanish. It claims that while Cuba was one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America before the revolution, and in fact was wealthier then than it is now, 44% of the rural population didn't go to school before the revolution, and life expectancy was 15 years shorter than it is now.

Gilman Grundy said...

"the Cubans had no intention or ability to exploit Angola once their allies won"

The Cuban interest in Angola was for similar reasons as their interest in Venezuela - an oil-rich country that would be another ally on the world stage.

"You also can't just reduce Che Guevara in Bolivia to a "hired gun" fighting to overthrow a foreign government."

That seems to fit who he was exactly. Mercenaries often aren't motivated entirely (or even, much at all) by personal gain - many enjoy their work, and Guevara seems to have enjoyed his.

"In fact, Castro was definitely less blood-thirsty then Pinochet"

I see Nick Cohen quoting figures that have Castro putting roughly three times as many people to death as Pinochet (9,200 v. 3,200), though I'm not sure what his source is. Even if these figures were reversed, do we really have to pick between dictators who both massacred their victims in stadiums, and if we do, why would we say that a dictator who ruled well into senility before making a dynastic transfer of power is better than one who gave up power and allowed elections?

"44% of the rural population didn't go to school before the revolution, and life expectancy was 15 years shorter than it is now."

If you look at Table 4 in the above-linked paper you can see that Cuba also enjoyed higher levels of literacy than its neighbours in 1955 as well. Cuba's 99.7% literacy rate is impressive, but that statistic may be from the same school as the DPRK's reported 100% literacy rate.

Similarly, the 14 year increase in life expectancy between 1955 and now is undoubtedly good news, but you to ask how much of that is actually due to Castro. The increase in life expectancy in, for example, Colombia, was 17 years from 1960 to 2014, this despite that country being wracked by vicious guerrilla warfare for which Castro himself bears some responsibility.

Ji Xiang said...

Well, it seems like you are determined not to change your view of Castro's regime by one inch. I would at least like to point out that Castro never massacred anyone in a stadium. I also have to point out that Cuba's 100% literacy rate is bound to be true. Unlike the DPRK, Cuba is a country which outsiders who speak the language regularly travel through, and illiteracy would be easily spotted. The simple fact is that the regime made good on its promise to provide free education for the masses. That Cuba enjoyed higher levels of literacy than Haiti or Mexico in 1955 isn't saying very much.

Also, it should be pointed out that it was probably the United State's pigheaded opposition to Castro's revolution that led him to become such a strong Soviet ally. If the United States hadn't been so opposed to him and hadn't tried to invade Cuba in 1961, things might have panned out very differently. The United States has to take some of the moral responsibility for the state Cuba is in. You can't just call their embargo misguided and leave it at that.

Gilman Grundy said...

"Castro never massacred anyone in a stadium"

Sorry, but you're wrong on this. He held his show trials in the Havana sports stadium, in which the crowd shouting "To The Wall!" was seated. Of course he wanted this disseminated as far and wide as possible, so these show-trials were televised.

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6818509a-d8e6-11dd-ab5f-000077b07658.html?ft_site=falcon#slide5

Gilman Grundy said...

"I also have to point out that Cuba's 100% literacy rate is bound to be true."

Even the Cubans don't claim 100%, and any visitor to the country will also have observed street kids who do not appear to be in school despite being of school-going age, so we may wonder if the figure really is 99.7% when more developed countries with more reliable systems of reporting report lower rates (e.g., South Korea has a rate of 99.2%, Spain with its rate of 98.1%).

"Also, it should be pointed out that it was probably the United State's pigheaded opposition to Castro's revolution that led him to become such a strong Soviet ally. If the United States hadn't been so opposed to him and hadn't tried to invade Cuba in 1961, things might have panned out very differently."

Castro, Guevara, were communists from the start. It was always almost certain that, if Castro took control, Cuba would become a communist country. US policy towards Cuba has been deeply misguided, but mostly because it gave Castro & Co. an ever-green excuse to do things they wanted to do anyway.

jixiang said...

So after the revolution, some of the Batista-era military men who were executed were put on trial in a stadium. This is not a "massacre". It is hardly the same thing as Pinochet amassing thousands of opponents in a stadium, many of them young people whose only crime was being members of leftist organisations, and then having them tortured or executed without their families even being notified of where their bodies were dumped.

After the Cuban revolution, quite a few of the defeated opponents were simply dismissed from the army and left to go free. Under Pinochet, this would have been unthinkable. The ones who were executed were generally guilty of the crimes of which they were accused, although they didn't receive fair trials. Quite simply, Castro's repression after taking power cannot be reasonably compared to what Pinochet or the Argentinian Junta did after taking power. The number of people executed under the whole of Castro's reign is also highly debated, and the figure you provided is a very high one. Over the last decades executions have been few and far between, that is for sure.

Again, I don't want to deny Castro's human rights abuses, but let's give credit where its due. He stifled Cuba, but spilled relatively little blood compared to other dictators. Also, I visited Cuba and did not observe street kids who obviously appeared not to be in school. And I wasn't seeing things through rose-tinted glasses, in fact the country gave me a general sense of claustrophobia and misery.

Jixiang

Gilman Grundy said...

"Quite simply, Castro's repression after taking power cannot be reasonably compared to what Pinochet or the Argentinian Junta did after taking power."

This, I think, an example of exactly the kind of "yes, but" attitude from some people (not all, obviously) on the left about Castro that leaves people in the centre and on the centre-right incredulous.

Firstly, why on earth should you want to choose between blood-soaked dictators? What exactly is it that you are trying to prove? The suspicion is that what people are trying to prove is that leftism is somehow inherently better, such that even its dictators are better, or that a leftist dictatorship is somehow just not all that bad, or that dictatorship is not the ultimate result of taking leftism to an extreme.

Secondly, at least according to the figures that Nick Cohen provides (a left-winger, even if the left in the UK generally rejects him for talking too much sense) Castro killed more people than Pinochet. What possible argument can there be beyond that? Talking about the people being killed being "generally guilty of the crimes of which they were accused" is vacuous when it is the regime itself that you are relying on for that information. Many of Castro's victims were young, and many of them had committed no crime beyond being members of organisations that he viewed as enemies.

Ji Xiang said...

What am I trying to prove? That's a good question.

I certainly wouldn't claim that left-wing dictatorships can't be dreadful. Just look at Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung and Stalin himself. I guess I would claim, however, that in the context of Latin America in the sixties and seventies, the socialists and "anti-imperialists" were more supportable than the fascist dictatorships representing the landlords and the rich. There always have been some positive ideals behind socialism and even communism, which are lacking in the case of fascism. Latin American societies were terribly unequal and unjust, and the leftists were fighting for people whose rights were trampled on in a way that we can't even imagine.

Unfortunately in the authoritarian societies of Russia and China, "communism" came to represent a new and dreadful fashion of modernising huge societies by force, tearing up communities and treating human lives as if they were worth nothing at all, while imposing a new kind of imperial rule which was much more violent and unpleasant than the old one. Of course, it could be argued that Marxist ideology itself lent itself well to this by not placing enough emphasis on the value of the individual.

All the other communist regimes that sprang up were influenced by the USSR, which acted as their mentor and backer, and Cuba was no exception. This unfortunately meant that all of them became repressive, xenophobic and stifling at least to some extent. At the same time, a lot of leftists like to see Cuba as an example of a slightly more humane form of state socialism, which wasn't as grotesquely repressive and actually made good on some of its promises of social justice, as well as being genuinely idealistic in its international relations. I think there is a lot of truth to this. Also, at the time there was a global struggle going on, and in the West and the so-called "third world" the left wing was generally fighting for a lot of good causes: the full independence of ex-colonies, racial equality, social justice, secularism and pacifism (see the opposition to the Vietnam War in the Western world). The Cuban revolution is seen by a lot of people as part of this wider movement, which is why it is still seen with some affection and understanding.

On the point of the executions: executing members of a former dictatorship which has just been overthrown in an armed struggle, and executing members of left-wing organizations which have generally not killed anyone after taking power by overthrowing a democratic government are not the same thing. Pinochet overthrew a democratic government. Castro overthrew a dictatorship. Since you make a very strict distinction between democracies and dictatorships, at least bear that in mind. As for many of Castro's victims having committed no crime except for being members of organizations which he viewed as enemies, do you have any sources for this?

Gilman Grundy said...

@Ji Xiang -

"There always have been some positive ideals behind socialism and even communism, which are lacking in the case of fascism."

Sorry, I fail to see them, and guess what: facists say the same thing about what they believe - "we are the patriots" they say, "but the communists on the other side want to smash everything". Ultimately they are both based on fanaticism and domination.

"Latin American societies were terribly unequal and unjust"

And this was neither really improved by Castro (unless you believe that reducing everyone to the same level is actually good) nor did it justify what he did, and moreover, that it would not improve Latin america was entirely foreseeable since experiements in communism were already coming to their natural conclusion elsewhere in the world.

"Unfortunately in the authoritarian societies of Russia and China, "communism" came to represent a new and dreadful fashion of modernising huge societies by force, tearing up communities and treating human lives as if they were worth nothing at all, while imposing a new kind of imperial rule which was much more violent and unpleasant than the old one."

This was always inherent in communism, not just an unfortunate side-effect or the result of it happening in Russia and China. Communism, Marx-Leninism, involves the concentration of all power into the hands of a "Revolutionary vanguard" exercising "democratic centralism" (i.e., a single-party dictatorship).

"it could be argued that Marxist ideology itself lent itself well to this by not placing enough emphasis on the value of the individual. "

This is inherent to Marxism itself, with its reduction of humankind to so many classes of ants.

"All the other communist regimes that sprang up were influenced by the USSR"

Blaming this on the USSR, when Russian revolutionaries were only, in their own view, learning the lessons of their bloody revolutionary forebears in France, misses the point that the same would have happened wherever communism took its hold because it was inherent in communism itself. Indeed, the record of all the left-wing uprisings of 1917-19 were bloody and brutal. From Bela Kun in Hungary to the Spartacists in Germany, their record was one long massacre.

"a lot of leftists like to see Cuba as an example of a slightly more humane form of state socialism"

They do. It isn't.

Gilman Grundy said...

(posted in two parts due to a weird error message from Google)

"Pinochet overthrew a democratic government. Castro overthrew a dictatorship."

Overthrowing a dictatorship to install your own does not make you any less dictatorial. It is like thugs fighting over who gets to be gang-leader.

"As for many of Castro's victims having committed no crime except for being members of organizations which he viewed as enemies, do you have any sources for this?"

Let's start with the children, shall we? 94 have been counted by the Cuba archive of regime victims ( http://cubaarchive.org/wordpress/wp_database/ ), of which 22 died before firing squads and the rest in assassination attempts and terrorist attacks.

How about the 52 people aboard a hijacked pleasure boat headed for Florida, strafed and sunk by the Cuban Air Force?

How about Delgado Temprana, killed at the age of 15 when he and his family tried to take shelter at the Ecuadorian embassy, by being beaten to death at state security headquarters?

How about Ramon Rivero, aged 16, shot dead whilst under arrest (for reasons unknown) by state security?

How about the man who was formerly Castro's closest friend - General Arnaldo Ochoa - executed by firing-squad on trumped-up charges?

You see, it's not that I think people on the left are responsible for anything a left-winger does, it's that I think that if you defend a regime, even in terms of "yes but, they weren't as bad as X", then you are in some form taking their side.

And it seems I was right: you do basically think that there is something inherently better about left-wing dictators.

Ji Xiang said...

Why would you insist on saying that I see something inherently better about left-wing dictators, when I said clearly that dictators like Pol Pot and Stalin were absolutely dreadful and had no saving graces?

I don't see something better about all socialist/communist regimes, I am only arguing that one particular such regime wasn't really all that bad compared to what it was up against. I also think Mussolini was much more benign than Hitler, and I will even argue the point. Does that make me a fascist?

Out of the examples of human rights violations in Cuba that you mention, the only one I knew about was the case of Arnaldo Ochoa. It is not generally thought that the charges against him were trumped up. He was making deals with Colombian drug cartels. Some claim that Castro himself knew about this, and the only reason he turned against Ochoa was because the general was disloyal or planning to stage a coup. The main evidence for this theory comes from a former bodyguard of Fidel.

In any case, there is no doubt that the human rights abuses of Castro's regime were true and shameful. I also think that these Western (and non-Western) left-wingers who ignore this fact are guilty of hypocrisy and of romanticising a dictatorship. But the Cuban regime's achievements in terms of providing the poor with education and social services are real. Its not clever to deny all dictatorships' achievements on principle. I also think that China's rulers have made some real achievements in terms of economic growth and of providing most of their people with a stable and safe life, but I still dislike them and the values they stand for (especially when you consider that the Chinese poor have much less access to medical care than Cuba's poor, in spite of the vastly richer economy they live in).

Gilman Grundy said...

" I also think Mussolini was much more benign than Hitler, and I will even argue the point."

I'm sure you would, if someone claimed the opposite. But if someone were to say "Mussolini was a ruthless dictator who exploited his people and attacked his neighbours" you wouldn't then feel the need to start talking about his construction of Autostrada and his improvement of various economic/social indicia. If I raised the subject of his invasion of Ethiopia, you wouldn't feel the need to start talking about how the Italian invasion brought Ethiopian slavery to an end and was launched to further an arguably-idealistic mission of civilisation. If I talked about Mussolini's invasion of Albania, you wouldn't feel it necessary to talk about just how bad King Zog was as well. You wouldn't think it pertinent to say that British diplomacy helped drive Mussolini into the arms of Hitler because to say this robs Mussolini of agency and swallows an entire set of Mussolini's self-serving lies whole.

Yet when it comes to Castro, you have just done the Cuban equivalent of all of the above. This is exactly the "Yes, but" approach that I find so perplexing.

"Its not clever to deny all dictatorships' achievements on principle."

Is that what is being done? It is simply the truth that Castro's regime has been a ghastly failure. I see no need to take the "but he made the trains run on time" approach.

"I also think that China's rulers have made some real achievements in terms of economic growth and of providing most of their people with a stable and safe life, but I still dislike them and the values they stand for (especially when you consider that the Chinese poor have much less access to medical care than Cuba's poor, in spite of the vastly richer economy they live in)."

Last time I checked, which admittedly was back in 2011, Cuba's nominal GDP was still higher than Chinese. No doubt China has now over-taken Cuba, but China is poorer than a lot of people recognise based on their knowledge of China through only the city centres of 1st tier cities (I know you are not guilty of this, having seen the countryside, but many others are).

But here again I am no fan of the "yes, but" approach some people take towards criticism of the CCP.