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.
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