The death of Fidel Castro — the revolutionary politician who ruled Cuba for more than 40 years — was always going to be momentous for both Cubans and on the grandest of geopolitical stages. It exposed the differing feelings towards the Castro dynasty, as well as drawing attention to the evolving relationship between Cuba and the United States, and the extent to which this is going to change over the coming years.
Reactions from political leaders were deliberately vague, often with airs of respectability — what we might expect. Barack Obama’s statement was reserved, with a focus on the future of Cuba, and the shared values of the “bonds of family, culture, commerce”. The Guardian rightfully observed that this statement was “carefully calibrating”: neither overtly condemning Castro’s rule, nor supporting him. This stands in great contrast to President-elect Donald Trump’s official statement. He vehemently denounced Castro as a “brutal dictator” and said his legacy is one of “firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.”
Alarmingly, however, this event highlighted the inability of certain groups and people to separate the romantic notions of revolutionary politics with Castro’s tyrannical, oppressive, and damaging practices and policies. Both Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, and the Black Lives Matter movement have failed to address the extent of Castro’s oppressive policies, onset by his overthrow of Fulgencio Batista’s government in 1959.
When it was announced last December that diplomacy between the U.S. and Cuba would be reopened, Carlos Eire, a historian at Yale, commented in the Washington Post that, “as an 8-year old […] I watched televised executions, and was terrified by the incessant pressure to agree with a bearded dictator’s ideals”. To have to witness this, let alone as a young child, is not something to excuse. It highlights the brutality of Castro’s regime, and his complete and unwavering lack of tolerance towards anyone who might oppose him.
Eire went on to say: “I began to feel as if some monstrous force was trying to steal my mind and soul through incessant indoctrination,” drawing attention to the lengths to which the Castro regime held domination over the Cuban people.
William Doino Jr argues on First Things that the regime’s crimes need to be recognised for diplomatic relations to resume. He also argues that at the time of the overthrow of Batista, many believed Castro to be a ‘genuine social reformer’. It seems that the Black Lives Matter movement also believe this to be true.
In their article “Lessons from Fidel: Black Lives Matter and the Transition of El Comandante” published following his death, they state: “Although no leader is without their flaws, we must push back against the rhetoric of the right and come to the defense of El Comandante.” To describe the character and conduct of Castro as “flaws”, to reduce them to mere imperfections, is absurd. Furthermore, to try to rally defence for him is disrespectful to those who fell victim to his oppressive and violent practices. More generally, it is worrying that their focus is on Castro as a figure of inspiration, rather than a tyrannical dictator.
All governments, not that Castro’s regime can properly be described as a democratic government, have successes and failures. Discrimination, exiling, and mass execution cannot be deemed mere failings.
As has been argued recently, it seems as though people are trying to reconstruct and revise history by overlooking the atrocities of the Castro regime purely for the romantics and idealism of the revolution. It seems as though certain news channels and publications chose to focalise the length and “iconic” nature of his rule, rather than the atrocities committed under his watch, often by himself.
These atrocities include the mass execution of his political opponents, often with the carelessness of a firing squad, as well as “dismantling” the Catholic Church and condemning homosexuals as “a deviation incompatible with the revolution.” Black Lives Matter said in their statement that we should strive for “a vision of freedom and the peace that only comes with justice”. This raises the question of where the justice is in marginalisation and oppression.
Pink News reported on how Castro’s regime specifically targeted homosexuals. It says “many received false telegrams telling them they had been called for military service and should appear at a chosen location — where they would then be rounded into trains, trucks and buses and sent to camps with little food or water.” This barbarism cannot be ignored or forgotten.
Black Lives Matter rounded their article off by stating that they summon Castro’s leadership in their recommitment to “the struggle for universal freedom”. This notion of equality and freedom does not seem to connect to Castro’s regime. I’d like to know how Castro’s dictatorship can inspire us to strive for “universal freedom”, given his horrendous human rights adherence record.
How can oppression, violence, and discrimination possibly be overlooked when it is so blatant? How can other aspects of his dictatorship, such as the length of his rule and its “inspirational” nature, be reported above his tyranny? It fails to give a voice to those who suffered under his watch, and brings unease to future international relations with Cuba.