Appraising Fidel Castro: A hero or a tyrant?

Photograph: Pexels
Photograph: Pexels

Fidel Castro has proven as divisive in death as he was in life. The news of El Comandante’s death provoked sorrow in Havana and jubilation in Little Havana, Miami. While Cuba’s citizens begin nine days of mourning for their erstwhile President, opponents of the revolutionary icon sense opportunity in the new, long-awaited post-Fidel era. Less predictably, meanwhile, the past 24 hours have also seen divisions manifest themselves in the form of conflicting reactions to the reactions of various public figures to Castro’s death. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s warm tribute, for instance, sparked much online ridicule and anger, with Florida Senator Marco Rubio denouncing Trudeau’s statement as “shameful and embarrassing.”

What, then, is an appropriate way to respond to Castro’s passing? Perhaps paradoxically, despite their wildly divergent nature, the reactions thus far underline the importance of a sense of nuance, of a willingness to acknowledge shades of grey, when it comes to appraising polarising figures such as Castro. In the case of Castro, this means that first, we ought to acknowledge the effect our values and ideological biases will inevitably have on our evaluations. We then ought to recognise honestly the various aspects of his complex legacy, keeping in mind the reality that historical figures – especially those who held power for such a long time as Castro – have almost always had both benign and malign impacts on the world they inhabited. Doing these things does not preclude us from reaching judgements which are either emphatically positive or negative. What it does do, however, is ensure that the judgements we reach are the product of a serious consideration of the historical record with respect to the values and principles we believe in and not the result of dogma or a willful ignorance of inconvenient facts of reality.

It’s easy to think of responses that fall short of this criteria. Donald Trump’s statement has been lauded in some quarters as a document of admirable honesty, another example of the President-elect’s irrepressible compulsion for ‘telling it like it is’. In fact, like much of the man’s verbal and written output, Trump’s statement belies a deep hypocrisy. His condemnation is rooted in his concern for “fundamental human rights”, and Castro’s denial of these rights. This is a legitimate criticism, of course, but one that would ring rather less hollow in the mouth of a man hadn’t spent the past eighteen months trumpeting not only his belief in the various anti-humanitarian shibboleths of the American national security establishment, such as the efficacy of the discredited practice of waterboarding, but also his support for more specifically Trumpian forms of human rights abnegation, such as the summary execution of the families of suspected terrorists. With regards to the reactions of the American right in general, meanwhile, cynicism is the order of the day: foremost Castro critic Rubio, after all, is a man who built his career on the lie that his parents were exiles from post-revolutionary Cuba.

It’s also not difficult to find reactions which, rather than cynically appropriating the cause of human rights, instead downplay the very real atrocities committed by Castro’s governments. George Galloway’s impassioned tribute to “one of the greatest human beings… who ever walked this earth” seemed rather too keen to gloss over the reality that Castro was, like every human being, flawed, and that when any one person is invested with such authority as Castro was, these flaws inevitably cause immense hardship for some others. Thus there can be no glossing over the authoritarian nature of the Castro regime and its wrongdoings. Ken Livingstone’s reaction, with its somewhat glib reference to Castro being “initially… not very good on lesbian and gay rights”, is guilty of this. Jeremy Corbyn’s statement has also faced criticism on similar grounds. My impression in this instance, however, is that Corbyn’s brief remarks, while making evident his admiration, do not amount to a Galloway-esque hagiography.

My personal view is that Castro deserves respect, if not reverence, for his remarkable success in establishing Cuba as an anti-imperialist bulwark on the United States’ doorstep. Castro’s achievements in improving healthcare and literacy standards amongst the Cuban population are well documented, as are the Cuban government’s exemplary efforts regarding its provision of international medical aid and its support for anti-apartheid movements in Southern Africa at a time long before most Western governments discovered any sense of moral duty regarding the matter. Castro’s successes, moreover, were achieved despite fierce antipathy from the world’s only superpower, a hostility expressed most consequentially by the debilitating 57-year-old commercial, economic and financial embargo. A glance at the tortured recent histories of Honduras and Haiti, meanwhile, gives us a hint of what a non-revolutionary Cuba may look like today, given the overwhelmingly malign effects of American influence in a part of the world which American capital has generally regarded as its to plunder.

But none of this exonerates Castro for his faults. As put by Human Rights Watch, Cuba’s economic and social advances under Castro were simply “never matched in terms of respect for civil and political rights”, the state of which have remained arguably as dismal as under the preceding Batista regime. Political repression is horrific and inexcusable wherever it takes place, and people did indeed suffer, often violently, for their views in the Cuba of Castro. The forced deposition of ‘undesirables’ such as gay people and Jehovah’s Witnesses into labour camps in the 1960s stands out as a particularly abominable episode, one which even Castro himself later expressed regret for.

My overall opinion of Castro errs on the positive side. His success – often against great odds – in improving the lives of the Cuban people in social, economic and cultural terms, combined with his internationalist and solidaristic outlook, mean that depictions of Castro as just another malign tyrant simply do not ring true for me. On the other hand, his authoritarian nature and the repressive character of his regime make it impossible for me to view him in purely heroic terms. Regardless, what I’ve written here has only been my reaction to various other reactions to Castro’s passing. Of course, your reaction to my reaction to these reactions may be one of disagreement, or of anger, or indeed of vigorous assent. Such intricacies amount, in their own way, to a fitting tribute to a legacy as complex, as heroic and as malevolent as that of Fidel Castro.