I have been bemused by the captious tone and condescending assessments of mainstream media in the West reacting to Fidel Castro’s death on November 25, 2016. Typical was coverage in The Economist, which while acknowledging Castro’s epic historical role, and even grudgingly admitting that he achieved world class health care and universal education in his impoverished country, reached the ‘politically correct’ conclusion that these achievements were “outweighed by his drab legacy. Much of the human capital was wasted by his one-party system, police state, and stagnant centrally planned economy.” The lead editorial in The Economist went on even to mock the reverence ordinary Cubans felt for Castro: “Cubans say Mr. Castro was ‘like a father” to them. They are right: he infantilized a nation. Anyone with initiative found ways to leave for exile abroad.” [The Economist, “After Fidel,” Dec. 3-9, 2016]
In contrast to generally condescending appraisals in the West, I call attention to two extraordinary essays of appreciation written by cherished friends. One by Sri Lanka’s lead diplomat and cultural critic, Dayan Jayatilleka, published as an opinion piece in the Colombo Telegraph beneath a suitable headline, “A Farewell to Fidel: The Last of Epic Heroes,” Nov. 26, 2016. Dayan not only celebrates Castro’s heroic revolutionary achievement in transforming Cuba from its gangster state identity in the Batista period to a vital outpost of Third World progressive ideals. He also underscores the admirable ethics of liberation violence that guided Castro’s revolutionary practice in ways that exhibited disciplined respect for the innocence of civilian life. For greater detail see Jayatilleka fine appreciative study, Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro (London: Pluto Press, 2007). This conception of the ethics of political violence has been essentially absent from the manner in which the struggle between terrorist groups and sovereign states has been waged in various combat zones, especially since the 9/11 attacks. Jayatilleka’s assessments have been confirmed and extended in the recently published book by Nick Hewlett entitled Blood and Progress: Violence in the Pursuit of Emancipation (Edinburgh, Scotland: University of Edinburgh Press, 2016).
The other tribute to Castro’s legacy that is deeply informed and resonates strongly with my own perceptions is that of Marjorie Cohn, a lead progressive commentator on national and international issues who writes with knowledgeable passion. In her “The Remarkable Legacy of Fidel Castro,” Huffington Post, Dec. 4, 2016, she contextualizes the Cuban experience during the Castro years, especially lauding the exceptional leadership provided by Castro and the memorable resilience of the Cuban people in withstanding the determined, persistent, and criminal efforts of the United States to reverse the Cuban Revolution and restore the old dictatorial gang to power in Havana. It is truly one of the political miracles of the past century that Cuba was able to withstand this sustained and vicious superpower challenge to its right of self-determination, and as a result Castro’s Cuba served as both inspiration and engaged partner to peoples around the world in their various liberation struggles to free themselves from various forms of colonialism and hegemonic exploitation. Marjorie reminds us of the words of gratitude spoken by Nelson Mandela to Castro in recognition of the help given by Cuba to the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Castro was a genuine internationalist, as well as an ardent nationalist, a combination that is both necessary and rare among statesmen of the last hundred years. Perhaps, it is best to appreciate Castro as a progressive humanist, devoted to improving the human condition throughout the world, and not just in his home country.
Even these tributes do not credit Castro’s leadership with its innovative responses to economic isolation and punitive sanctions, which entailed Cuba moving toward ‘a green economy’ (well depicted by Stephen Zunes in an excellent article published on December 9, 2016 by the National Catholic Reporter under the title, “Fidel Castro Left Cuba a Green Legacy”), a vivid instance of necessity serving as the mother of invention. Cuba moved away from monoculture (sugar and tobacco), and concentrated on small scale ecological farming (with greatly reduced reliance on pesticides, fertilizers, and oil consuming machinery) that produced healthier foods in sufficient quantities to meet Cuba’s food security requirements. Now with the opening of the country to a flood of visitors, especially from the United States, there are renewed reports of food scarcities confronting the Cuban people. Paradoxically, it might turn out that the Cuban people benefit more from external pressure than they do from its welcome removal.
Personal Notes of Remembrance
When I was a teenager I visited Cuba with my father, a lawyer with close friends in Havana. We were there during the height of the Batista period, and I remember being at a nightclub where other guests at neighboring tables placed their guns on the table in full view. At that time, Havana possessed Spanish colonial charm, with a small elite doing well while the mass of the people were impoverished and ignored, if not abused. Cuba as a country had no international presence beyond being known as a pawn on Washington’s Caribbean chessboard. It was against such a political background that Castro emerged, and was led to mount his historic challenge a decade or so later.
As with so many others, I found Castro to be an inspirational figure whose basic energies were directed at establishing a progressive and proud state in Cuba that stood its ground against the intense geopolitical pressures mounted by the United States under the banner of anti-Communism and in light of the ideological divide that defined the Cold War. How many poor countries, including those not subject to sanctions by its powerful neighbor to the North, would have been able under these conditions to provide universal health care and education for the whole of its population, with resulting high literacy rates and low levels of infant mortality? And not only this, that despite the massive pressures arrayed against Cuba, the government still lent material and invaluable psychological support in solidarity with progressive nationalist movements throughout Latin America and Africa that were in the midst of struggles against colonialist and oppressive forces.
No wonder the Cuban people en masse and many millions throughout the Global South deeply mourn with genuine displays of sorrow the passing of this great man, whose warm, vital, and lofty spirit, survived numerous assassination plots and terrorist initiatives launched by CIA operatives and Cuban exiles. As confirmed by declassified official documents, US Government went so far as to enlist notorious Mafia (Cosa Nostra) figures such as Salvatore Giancana and Santos Trafficante in its undertaking to decapitate this Cuban leader as beloved by the great majority of his people as any political figure anywhere in modern times. What an objective media should have focused upon was the degree to which the economic and political deformations in Cuba that so obstructed its political and economic development were largely attributable to the unwillingness of those who governed in the United States to live in peace with the outcome of the Cuban Revolution.
While a student at Harvard in 1959 I had a brief experience of the Castro magic. During Castro’s visit to the United States and UN shortly after his revolutionary victory, prior to the split with Washington occasioned by the nationalization of American owned properties in Cuba, he stopped at Princeton to make a guest appearance at a famous seminar on revolution taught by the celebrated historian, R.R. Palmer, and then came to Harvard to speak in the evening at an outdoor sports facility, introduced by the then Dean of the Faculty, McGeorge Bundy (later the National Security Advisor of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson). I found Castro to be a colorful revolutionary figure who spoke eloquently and in a conciliatory tone expressing fervent hopes for friendship between Cuba and the United States. These hopes were immediately permanently crushed after Castro proceeded to nationalize foreign owned investments in Cuba, especially in the vital sugar industry, offering compensation based on the fraudulently low valuations used by these companies to determine their tax responsibilities during the years when the corrupt Batista regime made a variety of ‘crony capitalist’ arrangements beneficial to foreign investors and damaging to Cuban society.
Decades later I again felt a connection with Cuba through the efforts of my son, Dimitri, who made a documentary film depicting life under Castro as affected by crippling American sanctions and assorted other disruptive tactics. I was very proud of Dimitri’s efforts, resulting after years of dedicated work that included overcoming a variety of obstacles to complete this difficult project during a period when all forms of travel to Cuba were forbidden for Americans. Dimitri’s commitment resulted in a fine film, Media Noche in Cuba (Midnight in Cuba) that was completed in 1998, shown in the Berlin Film Festival as well as other cinema venues. The film captures the vitality and confining impacts of Cuba’s isolation by tracing the lives of four ordinary Cubans, a dancer, boxer, rock musician, and a prostitute through their ups and downs, conveying a positive image of Cuba that at the same time avoids sentimentality.
Fifteen years after watching Dimitri’s film I finally got a second touristic chance to visit Cuba with my wife, Hilal Elver while spending a semester at McGill University in Canada. Travel at that time to Cuba from Canada was easy to arrange, and as long as Americans didn’t spend dollars in the country it was quite legal to visit. Although I fell hard on a concrete tennis court on the day of our arrival due to strong winds, causing a bad gash above my left eye, we had a wonderful exposure to Cuban life, experiencing the warmth of the people and the lyrical grace of its vibrant popular culture. My injury also gave me direct contact with the Cuban health system. After the fall I was immediately driven to a nearby hospital in an ambulance, receiving seven stitches, and daily treatment for our week of residence at a clinic linked to the hotel without ever being asked to pay a single dollar for this exceptional health care. I wonder if it take a second American Revolution to be able to have a comparable experience if a Cuban visiting the United States suffered an accidental injury.
A Final Word
As suggested, there are many reasons to celebrate the life of Castro and numerous reasons to lament the severe hardships imposed on the Cuban people by the long American unseemly campaign to undo the Cuban Revolution, and turn the country back to the malicious mercies of what would likely be a corrupt and dictatorial replay of the Batista years. True, Castro imposed one-party rule and limited the freedoms of Cubans in various ways, but could the revolution have survived if a more permissive approach to governance had been adopted? The United States tried every dirty trick in the book to get rid of Castro, with a range of macabre assassination schemes involving poisoning his food and infiltrating toxic and exploding cigars. When we look at more ‘democratic’ attempts to recover control of a nation and its resources on behalf of its people throughout Latin America, we are confronted by a series of progressive assertions of national political will followed quickly by counterrevolutionary seizures of powers encouraged and abetted by the US Government (e.g. Guatemala 1954 or Chile 1973, and many others over the years). Castro seems to have been enough of a realist to take the measures needed to safeguard the revolution from repeated efforts to overthrow the Cuban government by intervention or achieve the same results by imposing sanctions intended to strangle the country and cause the collapse of its government. Americans should never forget the Bay of Pigs (1961) failure of a CIA backed intervention that might have succeeded had not Jack Kennedy withheld air support from the invading Cuban exiles or the closeness to World War III that produced a confrontation with the Soviet Union known as the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ of 1962. In this regard, American paid a large reputational cost by its embrace of the Cuban counterrevolutionary cause, and actually risked the catastrophe of nuclear war as an indirect result of challenging Castro’s legitimacy as the head of the Cuban state.
Barack Obama deserves credit for breaking the anachronistic logjam, and taking steps to normalize relations with Cuba over the course of the last year. But even Obama could not let go of economic sanctions altogether, and endured another near unanimous resolution of censure of the US economic embargo of Cuba by the UN General Assembly. Nor would he send a formal delegation to attend Castro’s funeral, which would have subtly signaled a willingness to acknowledge how wrong had been the US policy toward Cuba over the years. Now with Trump posturing about reconsidering Obama’s normalization moves, the Cuban people are being made newly aware that their sovereign reality is cruelly subject to the arbitrary political whims of the American presidency.
The perversity of the American policy toward Cuba is underscored by its persistence for more than 25 years after the end of the Cold War. This hostility, fueled by the reactionary Cuban community in Miami, has survived even a Cuban post-Castro turn toward market economics and a willingness to turn a blind eye toward the suffering inflicted on the Cuban people as a result
of U.S. policies designed to isolate, punish, and destabilize. Now it is entirely possible for the nightmare to be extended even beyond Fidel Castro’s death. It would take only one more midnight tweet from the fertile imagination of Donald Trump.
And finally, it is sad that the media coverage of Castro’s death, while acknowledging his significance, contented itself with platitudes about the failures of freedom in Cuba without ever seriously exploring the degree to
which the alleged regressive patterns of Cuban governance were necessary responses, the prudent price paid for the revolutionary survival of the Cuban political experiment. Of course, domestic politics played its part in pushing American hostility to such an irrational extreme, and may continue to do so. The location of a large, activist anti-Castro Cuban exile community in Florida, a swing state in American national elections, made political leaders in Washington reluctant to challenge Cuban policy even after the end of the Cold War. Just as with Palestine, there is no political upside for such a challenge, and the adverse practical consequences of challenging the anti-Castro consensus in Washington were understandably inhibiting, and sadly, maybe still are. Unfortunately, the moral upside of challenging these regressive policies doesn’t pay dividends in domestic politics.