I am furious.
Fidel Castro died earlier this week at the age of 90. I have been busy over the weekend and have therefore missed the majority of news on the subject. However, when turning on my laptop this morning, I am appalled to see the ferocity of attacks against the Cuban leader. As the days go by, I am growing increasingly apoplectic at the state of the political world. A vain, unintelligent, and cruel television star is president of the USA, Britain has voted itself poorer in a referendum based on lies, the far right is on the rise around the world, and hateful rhetoric is growing, palpably. Now, Fidel Castro is gone. Cue the outpouring of hatred against him.
I have been to Cuba, I have travelled the length of the country, spoken to the people, and seen their way of life. I have spoken at length with Cuban journalists. I have spoken with doctors, waiters, teachers, hostel owners, hustlers, prostitutes, taxi drivers, filmmakers. The consensus has varied enormously – I have heard that Cubans are the happiest people on earth, and I have had darker conversations denouncing the state. However, one thing is certain: the comparisons I have been reading all morning, of Castro to Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and a wealth of real or fictional villains, is unjust and appalling.
When discussing Castro’s legacy, the same themes are raised again and again – primarily, human rights abuses. Yes, there have been human rights abuses in Cuba since Castro rose to power. Any violation of human rights is horrendous, and I would condemn any politician who oversaw such actions. It is an indisputable fact that under Castro, many Cubans were executed. Between 1959 and 1987, estimates on the number vary wildly, between 237 and 33,000. The general consensus among scholars is towards the lower end of the spectrum. The context of these executions is crucial.
Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were revolutionaries. Before Castro, Cuba was ruled over by Fulgencio Batista, whose regime was one of police brutality, political bribery, blackmail, corruption, mafia ties, and violence. In 1956, the previously exiled Castro arrived back on Cuban soil with Che, having sailed from Mexico. They, with 80 other men, began the revolution that would eventually overthrow the dictatorship, with repercussions around the entire world.
With regard to the executions and rights violations that followed, Wikipedia has this to say:
“The vast majority of those executed following the 1959 revolution were policemen, politicians and informers of the Batista regime accused of crimes such as torture and murder, and their public trials and executions had widespread popular support among the Cuban population. Scholars generally agree that those executed were probably guilty as accused, but that the trials did not follow due process.”
It would be wrong of me to gloss over the more unsavoury aspects of Castro’s rule. Elsewhere under his regime, outspoken opponents of the state are imprisoned. Travel for Cubans is limited. Censorship is strict, although tourism naturally dilutes its impact. Some of the country’s prisons keep inmates in inhumane conditions. Racism is high in the police force, with increased suspicion and incarceration of black Cubans. I saw this with my own eyes – passing through a police line into a free concert in Havana, neither I nor any of my white friends were searched, while the majority of black Cubans were stopped. It is an indefensible truth that the Cuban government is oppressive, and has violated human rights. I will not deny or defend that.
What I want to draw attention to, with this in mind, are the aspects of Cuba which are enviable the world over. Education is free at every level. Consequently, one of the country’s main exports is skilled workers – doctors, engineers, etc. The average Cuban, I found, was incredibly well educated, no matter what their profession. Housing is so affordable as to be essentially free (however the quality of housing is admittedly low). Healthcare is universally free, and one of the most efficient systems in the world. Private healthcare is prohibited. The Cuban constitution states, “Everyone has the right to health protection and care”.
Advertising does not exist, which makes for cityscapes free from photoshopped bodies, unrealistic beauty standards, and corporate greed. You are not a product in Cuba, you are a human being. The death penalty has recently been all but abolished, only being used in extreme cases. Women make up 48.9% of the parliamentary assembly. Despite the fact that until the 1970’s homosexuality was illegal, in recent years, Castro’s own niece has become a fierce advocate for gay rights, and Castro has blamed himself for the regime’s shameful treatment of gay people and publicly apologised, calling his previous actions “a great injustice” stemming from the innate homophobia of a bygone era.
Now, I would like to draw attention to the countries voicing disdain for Cuba and its politics.
President elect and reality television star Donald Trump last week tweeted a series of updates celebrating Castro’s death, with all the finesse and literacy of a 5 year old. At this very second, however, at Standing Rock, North Dakota, an oil pipeline is being built through the sacred burial grounds of the Sioux tribe. Heavily armed, militarised police are tear gassing, tasering, hosing, and setting dogs on unarmed protesters who are fighting to keep their homeland. Arrests are being made without due process or legal advice. Special cages have been set up for containing protesters. Nothing is being done to prevent this. Money is more important than people. The Native American people will not win this fight. They never do.
The website ‘www.killedbypolice.net’ keeps track of the number of US citizens who have been killed every year. The number currently stands at 1045, with the last update yesterday, when two more were shot dead. There have been 353 mass shootings in the US this year, and 13,441 gun related deaths. The Twitter account ‘@gundeaths’ tracks this. In the past 72 hours, there have been 273 incidents, 92 gun deaths and 203 gun injuries in the USA. Despite the mass deaths of the American people and the frequent mass shootings of infants, the government fiercely defends the 2nd Amendment.
Guantanamo Bay, the infamous prison, known throughout the world for its outrageous abuses of human rights, was created in 2002 by the Bush administration. Reported practises in the prison include forced feeding, sexual degradation, waterboarding, drug injections, sleep deprivation, beatings, stress positions, and worse. Guantanamo Bay still operates today, despite Barack Obama’s 2008 election promises that it would be closed down. The most howling irony of all is that this prison is built on a US-owned portion of Cuba itself. Donald Trump has also recently advocated the use of waterboarding and ‘a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding’, and suggested he would kill the families of terrorists.
Meanwhile in Calais, France, thousands of refugees fleeing the war in Syria have been kept in sub-human conditions for years, living in their own filth, denied entrance into the UK. Refugees frequently die in attempted border crossings. Recently, the Calais ‘Jungle’ was demolished; the makeshift homes burned to the ground, and the children living there shipped off to various processing centres – after several days stuck homeless in the cold, of course. Refugees living in their own shit just down the road from your shop is bad for business, and the good residents of the town of Calais were suffering tremendously.
The Iraq War was started by George Bush and Tony Blair on a false premise; the lie that the country had secret weapons of mass destruction, and resulted in the deaths of civilian Iraqis numbering somewhere between 151,000 and one million. Various factions in the Middle East have been used and abused by first world countries for decades, being alternately armed and heralded as revolutionaries, then exterminated as terrorists, whenever it best suits the agenda of wealthier countries.
In the Vietnam War, the USA waded into the midst a civil war in Vietnam to attempt to ensure the victory of capitalism against communism, fearing that, should communism prevail, it would spread quickly to neighbouring countries. In this war, there were 282,000 Allied deaths, 444,000 Viet Cong deaths, and 627,000 civilian deaths. Over half a million innocent people, living in rural villages, died screaming, their lungs filled with napalm. This was considered necessary and preferable to the evils of communism.
Our newspapers and our publications in the UK are aggressive, cruel, and incendiary. A recent Daily Mail headline read “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE”, referring to three judges who (having actually studied the law) ruled that ‘Brexit’ could not legally go ahead without an MP’s vote. Furious headlines are daily occurrences, and the reason for this is that the print industry is in sharp decline, and terror sells papers. Well informed, balanced arguments do not sell newspapers, and so we are helplessly subjected to spittle flecked rage coming from every tabloid, courtesy of Rupert Murdoch and his ilk.
In the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the CIA gathered up several thousand anti-Castro Cuban exiles that had fled the country and trained them in combat. The invasion was deemed necessary after Cuba began to build relations with the Soviet Union. The invasion force landed in the Bay of Pigs with the intent of overthrowing the Cuban government, but met heavy resistance and ultimately failed. The reason that Cuban exiles were sent to fight and die, rather than US troops, was that this could not therefore be considered a declaration of war on Cuba. The USA would be blameless.
In the wake of all this destruction, all the deaths, all the aggressive, oppressive greed and callous indifference towards the everyday human being, is it right, or fair, to call Fidel Castro a monster, without also condemning every one of our own leaders?
The CIA spent decades trying to kill Fidel, as I have previously written about (in a much more light hearted article) here. The Embargo against the country has left them resourced-starved for half a century. The cars the Cubans drive are 60 years old. They don’t even have seatbelts, as seatbelts weren’t invented when the Embargo hit. The Cuban people have been left behind the rest of the world, abandoned, the country vilified and feared. When I planned my trip last year, a colleague of mine asked me why I wanted to visit one of the most dangerous countries in the world. That is the public perception we have. Why? Because Cuba, and Fidel Castro, dared to attempt to create a different society, based on a different set of core values and freedoms, and has consequently been made the theatrical villain of the world for half a century.
The Cuban government and the Castro regime, currently in the hands of Fidel’s brother, Raul, has a lot to answer to. The violations of human rights need addressing, urgently. Progress is being made, but more is needed. However, I refuse to accept the narrative being spun across the internet this week that Fidel Castro was an evil tyrant. The regime he ran for 6 decades was deeply flawed, but he put his vision for the country and the people he loved before his own safety. He risked his life constantly, starting with the first time he spoke out against the Batista government, and every single day since.
When captured and imprisoned by the Batista regime after speaking out against them for the first time, Castro represented himself in court. In his fiery defence, he outlined his plans for Cuba, spoke passionately of his country, and through his words gained heroic status with the people. His four hour speech, given without notes, gave birth to one of his most famous quotes, one that has never been so relevant:
“Condemn me. It is of no importance. History will absolve me.”