Fidel: Revolutionary Dictator?

With the passing of Fidel Castro yesterday, one of the 20th century’s most iconic figures has joined an exhaustive list of victims taken in 2016. Eulogies have tended to range from extreme sides of the spectrum: either “anti-imperialist revolutionary” or “ruthless dictator”. However, without placing Castro in his proper historical context, it becomes easy to grossly oversimplify a complicated legacy.

In an abortive prelude to revolution, Castro was put on trial for conspiring to overthrow the government in 1953. His defence statement at his trial was a four-hour long speech titled “History Will Absolve Me” – dripping with evocative revolutionary fervour – was an exhaustive rundown of historical precedent for popular revolution; it is not only right and just that oppression should be overcome, but a duty. By successfully disposing the Bautista dictatorship in 1959, Revolutionary Cuba was spared the ignominy of becoming another American plantation replete with slave labor in service of gangster capitalism that frequently dominated the Latin American landscape, one that historically suffered from repeated intervention as its development remained stunted in service of US empire. Simply put, Cuba avoided becoming another Haiti.

What the Cuban Revolution accomplished was largely an anomaly for any state in the global south: free universal healthcare and education. These are rightly legacies of the revolution that Cubans are proud of. Nevertheless, the context of the Cold War warped the regime’s decision-making. The US-imposed blockade made them strictly reliant on the USSR to stay afloat. Back in 1959, Castro had promised he would not back any authoritarian state (including the Soviet Union), but in the context of that bipolar world at the height of US dominance in central and Latin America and the failure of the revolution to spread, degeneration set in and Soviet alignment became inevitable.

Castro’s regime was revolutionary yet authoritarian; it survived hundreds of assassination attempts and a repressive blockade; it suppressed human rights and dissent at home, yet also provided immense support to anti-apartheid and liberation struggles abroad. While Regan branded the ANC a terrorist organisation in the 1980s, Castro was as an anti-colonial inspiration to ANC leader Nelson Mandela. He stood with the Angolan independence struggle, yet was largely an absent voice concerning the repression in Eastern Europe at the same time. He was not a saint by any stretch, but a political statesman with contradictions like any other.

There is something to be said for the tedious invective showered upon Castro’s legacy coming from the imperial metropoles, but that is to be expected. Critics who choose to reduce the revolution to one that severely fell short on guaranteeing human rights to all of its population are not wrong – there have been some obvious failings on the part of the regime from its stifling surveillance, imprisoned dissidents, attacks on trade unions, and regressive treatment of the LGBT community. However, if one’s definition of human rights is reduced to only freedom of speech and the right to dissent (non-negotiatable as they are) but not to the right of housing, food, health, and education, then the concept becomes politically instrumentalized, with first-world smuggery seeping from every pore.

In a passage from one of Latin America’s most distinguished writers, Eduardo Galeano in his famous work “Mirrors“, paints an arguably fair portrait of el commandante:

His enemies say he was an uncrowned king who confused unity with unanimity.

And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that if Napoleon had a newspaper like Granma, no Frenchman would have learned of the disaster at Waterloo.

And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that he exercised power by talking a lot and listening little, because he was more used to hearing echoes than voices.

And in that his enemies are right.

But some things his enemies do not say: it was not to pose for the history books that he bared his breast to the invaders’ bullets,

he faced hurricanes as an equal, hurricane to hurricane,

he survived 637 attempts on his life,

his contagious energy was decisive in making a country out of a colony,

and it was not by Lucifer’s curse or God’s miracle that the new country managed to outlive 10 U.S. presidents, their napkins spread in their laps, ready to eat it with knife and fork.

And his enemies never mention that Cuba is one rare country that does not compete for the World Doormat Cup.

And they do not say that the revolution, punished for the crime of dignity, is what it managed to be and not what it wished to become. Nor do they say that the wall separating desire from reality grew ever higher and wider thanks to the imperial blockade, which suffocated a Cuban-style democracy, militarized society, and gave the bureaucracy, always ready with a problem for every solution, the alibis it needed to justify and perpetuate itself.

And they do not say that in spite of all the sorrow, in spite of the external aggression and the internal high-handedness, this distressed and obstinate island has spawned the least unjust society in Latin America.

And his enemies do not say that this feat was the outcome of the sacrifice of its people, and also of the stubborn will and old-fashioned sense of honor of the knight who always fought on the side of the losers, like his famous colleague in the fields of Castile.

What will become of Cuba now? Whether it maintains and expands its education, health care and environmental systems while becoming a more democratic society; or whether it goes the way of say, China or Vietnam, maintaining the Communist Party’s dominance while opening the country up to foreign capital in a manner that facilitates an indigenous bourgeoisie; or whether it becomes once more an American neocolonial possession, remains to be seen.

While romanticizing the Cuban Revolution is hagiography and regime apologia at its worst, it would be equally myopic to dismiss its positive impacts tout court. One of the great glories of the Cuban Revolution is that it refused to admit that such a small island was not to have a world historic role. And it is undeniable that Castro (whether for the right or wrong reasons) was and will continue to be an immortal symbol of hope and solidarity to millions of oppressed peoples across the entire world.

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