If you’re the kind of person who celebrates people’s birthdays, you may want to note this one: today Fidel Castro, former Prime Minister and President of Cuba, celebrates his 85th birthday. Certain people, whether considered generally good or bad, become icons of their era, and Fidel Castro is one of these. Icons are hard to judge, because their reputations are not based on a balance of their actions and policies, but on a kind of mystical sense of who they are or were.

But even if you were to dig a little into the Castro legacy, it is hard to present a balanced view. Here is the man who saw off an unloved dictator. Here is the man who established single party rule and locked up dissidents. Here is the man who presided over 100 per cent literacy and universal healthcare. Here is the man who ran a bankrupt and incoherent economy. You get the idea.

I have never visited Cuba, but really would like to do so while it is still Castro’s Cuba; in the same way that I rather regret never having experienced Hoxha’s Albania. If I were to visit, I suspect I’d be impressed with the levels of social care. But I’d also be horrified at the denial of personal freedom.

I hope the lesson taken from the life and work of Fidel Castro, and of those like Hugo Chavez who want to emulate him, is that in the end all the social progress in the world is not enough when it is not part of a state of freedom. But also that social conditions count, and that ‘freedom’ in a world in which it cannot be exercised in any way that matters is inadequate.

Something like that.

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20 Comments on “Fidelity”

  1. John Carter Says:

    “`freedom’ in a world in which it cannot be exercised in any way that matters is inadequate.”

    Rather well put.

  2. Vincent Says:

    If one was a Cuban under Fulgencio Batista I expect you would have found Freedoms but below a certain level that freedom was measured in short years and a shallow grave. Where scum was protected by Vatican doctrine and supported by Monroe.
    Ever notice that the particular catholic colonial system rife in Ireland that has been exposed with the Reports on the destruction of children was in place on Cuba and in Vietnam. And something far far worse in Angola and Mozambique.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    *Icons are hard to judge, because their reputations are not based on a balance of their actions and policies, but on a kind of mystical sense of who they are or were.* Yes, that is exactly right, the same word icon (image) is replete with religious undertones, which applied in a secular context, still exercise their potent function of ‘maintaining the faith’ in the icon, the idol, the leader and ultimately the celebrity (as similar mechanisms are at work of course with regards to most celebrity constructions in different contexts, not least entertainment). Even as a turist on a short visit a few years ago I could see that the contradictions were blatantly clear, a population extremely proud of its history where the ‘revolution’ was the main narrative, the one which shaped their national identity – huge billboards with revolutionary slogans and icons of leaders like ‘Che’ a constant presence on the streets – and yet that same population was desperate for more freedom, freedom of movement, of expression and resentful that social equality was far from being fully realized in Cuba of all places! I’m not sure that Cuba nowdays is still Fidel’s Cuba as it used to be, the regime is challeged ever more frequently on a variety of fronts, not least today, on Fidel’s birthday the first gay marriage in Cuba is announced
    By the way today also marks the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin wall, speaking of potent icons…

  4. Well put, Ferdinand. It could be applied to any country, particularly to Ireland where we have quite high levels of freedom, but where social conditions could still be improved. However, it is a bit like motherhood and apple pie, in that I’m sure the bulk of people inside the extremes of right and left would agree with you. And despite this we still seem to violently disagree on what mechanisms are most likely to improve things. We are subjected in the media to streams of opinions based on poor, if any, evidence and logic. The best academic efforts I have come across so far to help in this are in the “economics of happiness” which tries to predict improvements in well-being in society that are not based on economic activity (they have even done studies on the link between levels of democracy and happiness which support your claim above). However, as i heard on the radio this morning, why is it that politics is the only profession where it is acceptable to be an amateur. Politicians (under pressure from voters it must be said) pay little attention to the evidence from existing economics, so why would we expect them to use the evidence from this more broadly based form?

    • anna notaro Says:

      the ‘economics of happiness’ as a concept has its obvious faults, namely that personal preferences are measurable and comparable in an objective way, besides its obvious exploitation for public policy aims, even Mastercard acknowledges that some things are ‘priceless’, in order to make us consume more, of course…still…

  5. Anna, before getting into a debate on the effectiveness of the “economics of happiness” as a tool for predicting the effects of inteventions on the happiness of people, perhaps you would tell me what you know about the topic already (just in case we are talking about different things). In addition if you know of better tools for predicting, I’d be interested in checking them out.

  6. anna notaro Says:

    Brian, for me one of the most interesting aspects of contributing to a forum like this is to see how different minds tackle, interpret, respond to the topics our host selects, all contributors express opinions which are, in principle, perfectly respectable, based either on their professional expertise, knowledge, ancdoctal experience,(let’s keep in mind that the absence of academic rigour however welcome does not necessarily preclude the development of a stimulating discussion – also, I prefer the term discussion to debate, which has more anatagonistic connotations)…all this to say that asking your interlocutor for some knowledge credentials as a pre-requisite to start a conversation sounds a bit odd to me even though motivated by the best intentions, i.e. to avoid misunderstandings…it might be my familiarity with postmodernist propensity to critical awareness and to find meaning when least it is expected but the possibility to be misunderstood, to talk about different things inadvertently as problematic as it might be is also what makes human communication excitingly unique to our species, it’s part of the game of discovery and, not surprisingly difficult to replicate in robots…

  7. Anna, perhaps this is where we differ. Although i enjoy discussions or debate, I do not see the objective as being the provision of entertainment by the exchange of opinions. I see it, perhaps naively as a way of finding better solutions to problems (That is why I get annoyed with discussions where people constantly tell you what is wrong without suggesting better options). When people present such solutions (or even analyses), I expect it to be based on evidence and reason.

    In regards to my asking you what you already know about the topic, this was because you stated that ” ‘economics of happiness’ as a concept has its obvious faults, namely that personal preferences are measurable and comparable in an objective way” which of course was one of the first tasks that researchers in the “science of happiness” tackled quite successfully. In fact they have been extremely successful in correlating many variables reliably with happiness levels (including levels of democracy – very strong correlation and levels of income- small but measurable correlation beyond a certain level of income), but i have yet to see them develop more complex economic models that would predict levels of happiness when the interactions of very large number of variables are examined.

  8. Fidel Castro believed very strongly in the revolutionary cause. According to him, the most important thing is the revolution. Regardless of his inadequacies as a former President of Cuba, the history of Cuba as a nation will not be complete without mentioning the name of Fidel Castro.

  9. John Carter Says:

    Parading one’s credentials is probably neither a pre-requisite nor a satisfactory substitute for actual debate. Neither, in my experience, is it any guarantee of rigor. Just say what you think and say why.

  10. @John if my request to Anna about what she already knew about the economics of happiness came across as parading credentials, I’ll have to apologise to her for that. Sorry, Anna. I am an interested amateur in the field of economics and have read quite a bit about this particular topic leading me to be persuaded, despite the misgivings of many economists, that it is an improvement to the field and holds out some hope of being able to resolve tensions between economists who tend to advise on how to maximise economic growth and sociologists and psychologists who rightly claim that this needs to be balanced with other issues that are important in people’s lives.

  11. kevin denny Says:

    Don’t know much about Castro but I know a certain amount about the economics of happiness (not sure what the connection is). When this literature took off I was pretty dismissive but I have come round – to a point. We cannot quantify happiness objectively so if two people say “I am happy” , there is no compelling reason to say that they are equally happy. Economists have been assiduous at finding things that predict “happiness” – really subjective well-being: all sorts of stuff like age, sex, health, height, friends but you have to be careful about what you infer. If women report higher levels of happiness, maybe they are just less likely to complain for example?
    Despite the limitations of these subjective measures, I don’t take the extreme view that they are a waste of time.
    Returning to topic, when people want to judge whether Cuba (say) is a good place, some will point to the level of care while others point to the level of political freedom so its pretty arbitrary. In my view a simpler and more objective criterion is to look at emigration. Do many people want to move there? I doubt it. Do people there want to get out? I believe so. Therefore, it looks like a failed state to me.

  12. anna notaro Says:

    @Brian thanks for the apologies, but there is no need really, I perfectly understood your reasoning, just a question of different minds at work, part of the communication game as far as I’m concerned..
    @Kevin *Returning to topic, when people want to judge whether Cuba (say) is a good place, some will point to the level of care while others point to the level of political freedom so its pretty arbitrary. In my view a simpler and more objective criterion is to look at emigration. Do many people want to move there? I doubt it. Do people there want to get out? I believe so. Therefore, it looks like a failed state to me.* I’m not sure that the definition of ‘failed state’ is appropriate in the case of Cuba, at least in the defintion normally used by journalists and political commentators, in general I would agree though that migration is a useful indicator with regards to the *health* (economic or otherwise of a nation), not sure about happiness in such matters..

  13. @kevin It is interesting that people who are skeptical about the economics and science of happiness usually use measurement as the main objection. However, this is one area that is extremely well researched. For example on a simple level it has been found that self-reported levels of happiness (say as score between 1 and 10) correlate extremely well with reporting by close friends and family. This has also been calibrated by more specific questions about people’s lives that are shown to yield repeatable results.

    To be honest this is just affirming the fact that we know we can question people about their lives and get a pretty rough idea of how satisfied or not they are (even if they do not have good reason to be that way).

    The parts of the research that probably support the skeptics the most is that it has been determined that it is heavily genetic. Most people have bands of happiness that they operate in and the best you can do is to move yourself towards the top of that band. In addition as far as the application of this to economics and sociology it seems that the major factors that effect happiness are in your own control ( eg get out and get a hobby).

    By the way, the relevance is that we were asked about balance democratic freedom and the provision of services for the less well off and I suggested that a verbal discussion is less likely to help us find that balance than some sort of quantitative method.

  14. kevin denny Says:

    **Anna: why not happiness ? Is it not likely that migration decisions are determined primarily by happiness considerations i.e. you move or hope to move if you think it will make you happier?
    In economics, at least, we would see happiness as a high level factor – the high level one in fact- that stuff like health, income etc feeds into so once you know about happiness you don’t need to know about all its determinants. I didn’t know there was a definition of failed state, I confess, but Cuba is certainly my idea of one.
    **Brian: well measurement is key so its hardly surprising that it is a major focus. A lot of the empirical work I have seen is not very careful about it: lots of people running any old regression.
    Incidentally, I don’t see how heritability is a grounds for scepticism or otherwise. The “set point” idea also probably applies to BMI.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Kevin, I can speak about my own experience, as an expat/migrant, the reason I left my native country was to realize myself professionally and thus earn a living, however as much as my profession has always been some kind of vocation and I derive great gratification from what I do I never believed that achieving my professional dream would automatically make me *happy* . I remember from my days as a Engligh Literature undegrad a definition of happyness by Coleridge which read more or less like this:
      ‘The happiness of life is made up of minute fractions. The little soon forgotten charities of a kiss or smile, a kind look, a heartfelt compliment – countless infinitesimals of pleasurable and genial feelings. ‘
      Always felt he was right, not much to do with economics, you see..

  15. @Anna – as it happens “happiness” is not a term that economists like using anyway. They prefer phrases like “well being”. Many in the arts really dislike the term as well because they think it is some sort of bourgeois cop out when people should be thinking about higher things. But even these sensitive souls are searching for some sense of satisfaction or purpose that, when they feel they have succeeded, does give them a feeling of well being. Even your own achievement of some “gratification” from your vocation would be classed again as “well being” and included, not to mention the longer lasting feelings of self-worth that individuals receive from “a kiss or smile, a kind look, a heartfelt compliment”.

    The thing is that researchers have found that we can measure these. Not precisely or accurately in an individual, but over a large number of people it can be done quite accurately, and they have found that certain aspects of society can have a positive or negative influence on these general feelings of well being. This idea is not controversial to sociologists who have long believed that how we organise society can have negative or positive impacts on our well being. All the economists are doing is to put this on some sort of a quantitative basis so that we can weigh up the expected negative and positive outcomes of interventions and get away from the mere exchange of arguments.

    @Kevin – You’re right – heritability is not grounds for skepticism of the theory. What i actually meant was skepticism about whether the effort was worth it. The libertarians would argue that it is not for politicians make us happy, that we should do that ourselves (and i’m sympathetic to that) and the science would argue that for most of us the biggest impact on our happiness is dependent on our own actions.

    And as an amateur, i can probably be fooled by ‘any old regression’ when i don’t have time to check it out in detail, but as in all matters scientific I do hope that the academics are doing their jobs properly for the most part.

  16. anna notaro Says:

    just came across a tweet relating to the topic we’ve been discussing, well-being/happiness etc. which linked to a piece entitled ‘Social Connectedness and the Future of Well-Being’. In brief the research discussed pointed out how:
    ‘if we want happier, healthier people, we should focus a lot more on creating trusting and connected societies and a lot less on economic growth, because being connected seems to be so much more valuable. …Being socially connected correlates with improved physical health and other improvements to well-being.’ more at

  17. Go Cuba Says:

    I would urge a visit to Cuba. The University of Havana has some of the best (yet silent) truly world class research being undertaken. The people are wonderful the heritage and culture breathtaking. However, this is tinged with a sadness that while a ‘visitor’ I was able to receive 1st class medical care and drug therapy whereas Cuban friends could only lament the fact that should they take ill they would in all likelihood be swiftly and accurately diagnosed – but alas the drugs they required would be embargoed…..

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