Saturday 26 November 2016

Farewell Fidel

As the world wakes up to the passing of the world's best known revolutionary, coal mountains' worth of electronic comment are already pontificating and positioning. Fidel Castro was a goodie because hospitals. Fidel Castro was a baddie because gay repression. Talking points designed not to encourage talking, and think pieces conceived to shut down thinking. Their contributions hymns to Castro's censorious regime, of its declaration against free flowing opinion. Nevertheless, his was a figure that made the we were born into, and as it passes into the pages of history it is fitting that he too should shuffle off this mortal coil.

Many on the left have a soft spot for Cuba and Castro. He was the best known survivor of communism's heroic period, of an underdog ragtag movement that took on the full might of the US-backed Batista dictatorship and won. For the peoples of Latin America during the Cold War, Castro's regime was a fuck you to the greatest military power the world has ever known - and just 90 miles off its coast. He was and is a potent symbol of revolutionary resistance and tenacity. The victory of the July 26th Movement and the survival of the Cuban state over nearly 60 years goes to show there are alternatives to the Western consensus - and that points stands without having to prettify the regime's repressive character and big it up with the education and health stats.

As James notes, there will be those who try and portray Castro's authoritarianism as entirely reactive, that the original sin lies with the United States and its repeated attempts at undermining and overthrowing the J26 Movement almost from the get go. While true, these material circumstances cannot be waved away either. For one, five years prior to the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship the United States instigated a coup in Guatemala. This was then a liberal democracy that had between 1944 and 1954 returned two presidents you would class as Christian Democrats. They presided over governments that were largely middle-of-the-road, politically speaking. Except in 1952 Jacobo Árbenz undertook land reform, which confiscated uncultivated land and handed it to the peasantry. For Eisenhower, this constituted communism and initiated a terrorist campaign that ended in Árbenz's resignation. Thereafter followed a period of instability, characterised by coups and civil wars. Later again in 1973, the US used the democratic freedoms in Chile to undermine and destroy a liberal democracy that had produced the wrong outcome. With a history of interference behind the United States relationship with the countries to its south, which included the Bay of Pigs invasion, assassination attempts, coastal raids on militia outposts, sabotage and not forgetting the economic blockade, authoritarianism appeared to have much to commend it.

Cuban authoritarianism does have a dynamic of its own though, and these were embedded in the characteristics of the struggle led by Castro. His was not a popular uprising in the conventional sense but a guerilla struggle. Che Guevara's Guerilla Warfare distilled the essence of the J26 Movement as a hyper vanguard of committed communist fighters. The group was the nucleus and repository of the lessons of history, and it would be the active agent that would draw the peasantry behind it. Not dissimilar to Mao's approach to revolution. Here, in Cuba, the masses were conceived of as having a spectator role. The opposition to Batista in the cities, the workers' organisations and the Communist Party (which, bizarrely, supported the dictatorship) were marginal to the revolution rolling in off the countryside. The overthrow was accomplished by military struggle, and the command and control model appropriate to that remained. The absorption of the city-dwelling communists, the transformation of the unions into apparatuses of the state, the clamping down on the media were certainly conditioned by the exigencies of a revolutionary changes, but not determined by them. Effectively, a military movement became a military government, and the trappings of a Stalinist state acquired while consolidating the hold on power was an extension of these governing principles to all aspects of society. One cannot distinguish between the command economy and the state that sat atop it, they were and remain mutually interdependent.

Castro has officially been out of power since 2008. Since then, what you might call the Chinese turn has gathered speed. Rapprochement with the US has got underway, though there's every chance progress could be rolled back under Donald Trump. But necessity demands that the regime continues to open up Cuba's economy and, from its point of view, the more difficult task of relaxing authoritarian rule without the whole thing collapsing a la Eastern Europe. There's also the tricky job of ensuring present elites avoiding having to account for the crimes committed since 1959 too. Regardless of what happens, Castro's position in history is secure. He was a revolutionary hero who inspired millions. Cuba threw off American domination and forged its own path, creating health care and education systems among the best in the world. Castro was also a ruthless autocrat whose achievements cannot be separated from the violence and brutality that underpinned his rule.


Alex Ross said...

As a data analyst who works a lot with NHS data in the UK - I'm extremely unconvinced by how reliable official health and education data can be in a closed society, with no press freedom and independent scrutiny - and not willing to trust the reports of a few idealistic NGOs.

The appeal of Cuba on the far-left is purely psychological. It appeals to tribal notions of group identity (who really cares about individual rights?? - those that pretend to do so are only acting as agents for the US) and to a self-loathing of western liberal democracy. If we are taking an interest in Latin American politics, there are many examples (non of them ideal examples) where countries have come from difficult backgrounds (often CIA backed dictators) and evolved into countries with decent Human Rights records and significant improvements in human development. Costa Rica, for example, is now in the top ten countries for Press Freedom in the world (according to Reporters Without Borders) whereas Cuba languishes in the bottom 20.

And the "He outlasted 10 US presidents" comment I've seen on Social Media so many times, seems to ignore the fact that the US has term limits!!

Here is a database of disappearances, murders and torture committed under the Castro dictatorship.

Good riddance to the dictator.

David Parry said...

Alex Ross

It's just not true to say that there's no independent scrutiny of the Cuban authorities' claims relating to healthcare in the country. Such scrunity comes from the UN and WHO. To take one example, the latter recently confirmed that Cuban had become the first country in the world to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.

MikeB said...

@Alex Ross - you claim that, "the appeal of Cuba on the far-left is purely psychological".

What is the basis of this claim? "Reliable official data"? Or do you simply feel that people "on the far-left" cannot possibly have real information or experiences that go beyond this? Speaking for myself, I never visited Cuba, but have worked in Nicaragua and in Southern Africa. Both for me and for citizens in those countries, Cuba provided concrete support, including doctors and infrastructure advisors, in situations where the support from not-so-far-left was nothing *but* "psychological" ...

Robert said...

Washington has been waiting for years for the Old Man to die. Now a new offensive will begin. It will be an economic not a military assault, offering money in unlimited qualities to buy the loyalty of the island people and promising them a consumer paradise for eternity. If they succeed it will be a tragedy for Cuba and Latin America. The choice in neo-liberal times is between the destruction through privatisation of the remarkable system of health, education and culture that has been constructed here, and the strengthening of the Revolution by preserving its gains by creating an effective internal mechanism that makes the leadership and politics accountable to the people. This will not happen overnight but it is worth working for.

Matt W said...

@David Parry

That is a fake claim from the Guardian.

What they actually achieved first was the rubber stamp from the WHO.

At least 17 countries from the same region were in a similar pisition in the same year:

I see no data making worldwide comparisons with other health systems.

But don't forget the people whose health Cuba did not care for:

"When Cuban government ships spotted a tugboat full of refugees headed for Florida on July 13, 1994, they blasted it to pieces with high-pressure fire hoses. “Our tugboat started taking on water,” recounted one of the survivors, María Victoria García. “We shouted to the crewmen on the boat, ‘Look at the children! You’re going to kill them!’ And they said, ‘Let them die! Let them die!’ ” Forty-one of the refugees did."

Read more here:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Castro was definitely an ambivalent figure. But, as a South African, he does have my gratitude for helping to push back South African military forces in Angola (something my father was involved in as a conscript). The defeat contributed pretty directly to the apartheid regime's subsequent fall. That's not an achievement to be written off lightly.

David Parry said...

Matt W

You posted several links but none of them give any reason to cast doubt on whether Cuba became the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child HIV and syphilis transmission. Nor do I see any reason to dispute the independence of the WHO as you implicitly have.

Look, I'd really, really hate you to think that I'm an apologist for the Castro dictatorship. I'm not in the least, but the aforementioned development regarding HIV and syphilis, like the vast improvements in healthcare more generally, along with education, and the universalising of access to both, are positive things which cannot be gainsaid, though they don't, to the slightest degree, detract from the brutal, despotic, authoritarian character of the regime at the helm of which the Castro brothers have sat for all these decades.

MikeB said...

Well said, David Parry,

Castro headed a brutal authoritarian state that no decent socialist would advocate as a model.

But the failure to acknowledge Cuba's successes - especially in the teeth of American hostility - is to buy into the kind of crude binary thinking that bedevilled the world during the Cold War, and which makes it impossible to analyse any political or social phenomenon properly.

Alex Ross said...

@ David Parry

My point was more fundamental than that. E.g. if I look at Higher Education Data in the UK, I know that it based upon an enormous individualised file which has been scrutinised to the nth degree by HESA (independent from the institution and government) and externally audited by HEFCE (ditto) and made available (at aggregate level) to a free press for review and a variety of interpretations.

Closed societies don't have that internal data culture - hence my scepticism.