The death of Fidel Castro has occasioned considerable comment in our press, much of it vitiated by the narrow perspectives and selective memory of our capitalist culture. Little twerps who have done nothing brave in their short lives are given space to denigrate a man whose greatness is beyond their comprehension. For even if we attribute all the injustices of Cuban life since 1959 to Castro he remains one of the most considerable human beings of the last 70 years. Revolutionary agitator, guerrilla commandant and political leader, he endured countless set-backs, overcame murderous plots, took terrible decsions to preserve the life of his nation, labouring constantly for the social justice in which he believed.
His politics were determined by events outside his control; especially by the prolonged enmity of the USA and its allies, which nearly destroyed the Cuban economy and led to Castro’s dependence on the Soviet Union. One can describe his pro- Soviet alliance as wrong in that it gave succour to an odious tyranny, and almost self-defeating in that it tied the survival of Cuba to that of the Soviet Union, which was a bad bet. But if you ask yourself what else he could have done to preserve the Cuban revolution in the face of American opposition, you will find no obvious answer.
His irresponsible foolishness in permitting Soviet nuclear weapons to be placed in Cuba, must also be added to the debit side of his account, although it’s not clear that these were more provocative than the similar weapons the USA had placed in Turkey.
His treatment of dissenters, some of whom were loyal to his social vision, is his most serious discredit, and is typical of one -party states where there is no constitutional room for disagreement. Those who value liberal democracy above all other political goods, will judge his autocracy and illiberalism as a crucial weakness. Those who value the life-chances of men and women and children more highly than any political system, and who notice the ease with which these are diminished by a political system that is porous to capitalism, want to look at the results of Castro’s rule, as well as its casualties.
A state that was described by Arthur Miller as a brothel for the USA, run by a violent dictator with the help of the Mafia, for the benefit his international cronies, in which most people had no access to education or health care, has been transformed into a nation of almost universal literacy and free health care, with the social cohesion to withstand the longest economic boycott in history. By any standards this has been an astonishing achievement of the many thousands of Cubans who have brought it about. They acknowledge however, that Castro’s iron determination agamist the odds, was essential to their success.
His own speeches and writings prove that he understood the nature of the choices he was making, and did not deceive himself that they were without bad consequences. Perhaps one of the reasons for the length of his speeches was his desire to convince himself that he had been right. In old age however, his relationship with Pope Benedict reveals a readiness to question himself and the roots of his socialism.
I guess I’m saying that our society has almost lost the capacity to see human greatness in those who do not fit our our prejudices, unless, like Mandela, they are noble victims of our own oppression. (How many admirers of Mandela supported the anti-apartheid movement?) Castro refused to let his people be victimised and used the means at his disposal to help them flourish.
Castro himself knew and valued the observation of the Christian bishop of Recife, Dom Helder Camara:
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
Fidel Castro was happy to be called a communist.