Posted tagged ‘Cuba’


November 28, 2016

Occasionally there is an event where the responses to the event are almost more interesting than the event itself. That was the case this weekend with the death of Fidel Castro. He had been, as some of the obituaries noted, the longest serving head of state in the world; though it would probably be fair to add that this is not quite so much of an achievement if your country has no elections.

I have my own history with Fidel. As a teenager I had the iconic poster of Che Guevara, the famous Guerrillero Heroico, in my bedroom, and not far from it was a photograph of Che and Fidel. I also had Mao’s little red book. Today I wouldn’t regard any of these as heroes, though equally I wouldn’t consider Fidel one of the world’s worst tyrants.

But it seems hard for many people to offer a balanced critique right now. Fidel Castro was a dictator, and he was guilty of significant human rights abuses. But he also led a country that managed, given its resources, to establish highly effective systems of education and healthcare. He was not the devil, but neither was he a hero. His death however seems to have reignited, at least for a moment, the spirit of the Cold War, with numerous politicians and celebrities suggesting he was one or the other of these. Irish President Michael D. Higgins was quick off the blocks, suggesting this, at the very best somewhat surprising, assessment:

‘Fidel Castro will be remembered as a giant among global leaders whose view was not only one of freedom for his people but for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet.’

That Castro was much exercised by freedom for his people is doubtful. But the Irish President was not alone: similar epitaphs were suggested by other politicians from the international socialist community, including British Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.

Others were less effusive. The US President-elect suggested that Castro was no more than a ‘brutal dictator’.

The truth of course lies somewhere in between. Fidel Castro toppled a corrupt and repressive régime when he took power in 1959. He subsequently had to grapple with the completely unreasonable campaign by the United States to remove him and isolate his country. He was nevertheless able to develop a society of well-educated people with a very effective system of health and social care. On the other hand his own government was repressive and  undermined basic freedoms; his treatment of the gay community is a particular example. And he also practised the oppression of political dissenters and controlled the media.

As for me, on Saturday I neither rejoiced nor mourned. But I did note Fidel Castro’s passing, and maybe mourned the gradual disappearance of my youth over the horizon.


August 12, 2011

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.

So what are we to make of Cuba?

March 19, 2010

One country I have not visited – somewhat to my regret – is Cuba. And yet I always think of it as a rather familiar place. When I was at school I had that iconic poster of Che Guevara on my bedroom wall, and I kept up to date with the views and policies of Fidel Castro. You could feel there was something heroic about Cuba, in the way you couldn’t feel about Brezhnev’s Soviet Union or most other states claiming a socialist label.

Decades on, Cuba is still Cuba, the land of socialism, Havana cigars, Fidel Castro (just about), 1950s American automobiles, free healthcare, crumbling buildings – or whatever image you may have in your mind. But is it heroic? The revolution has provided education and welfare for its citizens, but also many of the trappings of a police state. And here’s something new: dissident protests, or to be more precise, protests by the wives and mothers of jailed dissidents, who march through the streets of the capital dressed in white, earning the name ‘Damas de Blanco’.

Cuba should be allowed to find its own political and economic direction. But it should also observe basic human rights, including the right of dissent. Suppressing that is not heroic, and if Cuba is to find new and lasting friends it needs to abandon those practices of Soviet era socialism.


January 2, 2009

For a few years, when I was a teenager, I had a copy of the iconic poster of Che Guevara on my bedroom wall. The original photograph on which it was based was taken by Alberto Korda, but the poster version which became so famous was the work of the Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick. For a generation of adolescents it was the banner of the ‘revolution’, something of an abstract concept that suggested that the world could be changed for ever and that posters on a bedroom wall were a start. In fact, I am not really dismissive about that particular phase so many of us went through, as it contributed to a heightened sense of political awareness and social justice and a desire for peace.

Che Guevara died, as many people know, in Bolivia in 1967, but Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba survived and even today is stuttering on, having made some compromises and concessions but, apart perhaps from North Korea under the Kim dynasty, having stayed truer to Communist purity than any other country. In fact, January 1 marked the 50th anniversary of the revolution. The socialist system it created can celebrate the occasion, but it is  not in a healthy state. Whether that is because the blockade by the United States over all these years has undermined the economy, or because old-style socialism has run its course, is something that can no doubt be debated.

But what I wonder is whether the bedrooms of students today are still decorated with Che’s poster, or indeed any other symbol of alternative frames of reference or progressive ideologies. I don’t have a rose-tinted view of Castro’s Cuba, which may have tackled educational disadvantage and healthcare better than most, but which is still an authoritarian dictatorship that often silences dissent. But I do believe that in order for society to retain an idealistic streak alongside the necessary pragmatism, young people in particular need to have visions and icons that lift the eyes above the idols of success and wealth, at least for a while. I hope that spirit is still alive.