Friday, February 22, 2008

Castro and Manichaean-Marxists - and rightists

Fidel Castro retires after half a century of being the dubious beneficiary of uncritical support from Manichaean-Marxists who firmly believe that being attacked by Washington is tantamount to canonisation. None of the Leninoid left's idols have feet with any hint of clay and Castro's halo of infallibility is already luminescing around Hugo Chávez.

There can be no denying Castro's charisma and attraction to many people across the world. Whether at conferences in the United Nations general assembly or receptions at the Cuban mission in New York, the presence of El Lider Maximo always pulled maximum crowds.

Across the Caribbean, crowds would gather to greet him for his stand against the US, but you did not see boatloads of Caribbeans paddling their rubber inner tubes to the promised land of socialism. Not even the desperate Haitians were, or are, that desperate.

I met Castro several times at such events, and, with my longer, redder beard at the time was rather chuffed that he called me "El Vikingo". On one level, it is easy to see why he attracts that support and even why it gives me frisson to be sobriqueted by a historical leader. In a world where almost everyone tries to do America's bidding, Castro has successfully defied president after president.

In that battle, the US has mostly been wrong, morally, legally and tactically. The Pentagon's torture chambers in Guantánamo on the island mock Washington's relatively recent rhetorical attachment to democracy and human rights. Earlier, its oft-expressed concern for human rights in Cuba belied its sponsorship of military regimes across Latin America, which killed more civilians in a single day than the Castro regime executed in the last 50 years. And of course sanctions on Cuba compare oddly with almost complete trade dependence on China, compared with which Cuba is an open society.

However, while Washington may have usually been wrong, that does not mean that Castro was always right. Castro's execution of his former comrades Antonio de La Guardia and Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, and his wholesale arrests and imprisonments of dissidents merited condemnation, but when a group of us drafted a letter about the latter to the New York Review of Books, the vitriol from some of those who now condemn Bush for Guantánamo reflected the pseudo-Marxist Manichaean thinking of some of the left.

Inspired by the same unthinking solidarity that overlooked Stalin's purges, or indeed more recently Milosevic's mass murders, they reacted in fury. I have never quite understood why executions in Texas should be so obviously bad, while those in Havana or Beijing should be excusable, or vice-versa for that matter. But then Fidel's support for various mass murderers masquerading as socialists, from Mugabe to Milosevic showed the same uncritical solidarity of the Levant: his enemy's enemy was his friend.

These starry-eyed supporters will tell you of Cuba's education, of the health service. On one visit to Cuba, I went round to the house of Alberto Korda, the photographer who took the iconic photo of Che Guevara. Although he was getting his heart medication, he showed me the local ambulance station, where the ambulance was propped up on bricks, without tires. Others complained that they needed hard currency to buy medications, and I usually brought unobtainable across-the-counter painkillers for the arthritic parents of another Cuban friend.

Cuban education was indeed successful in effecting near universal literacy - but there are strict limits on what anyone is allowed to read with their skills. I had known several of the dissidents against whose sentences we had protested, and, sadly, I also knew the one who became a stool-pigeon for the regime. His eloquent and cogent denunciation of the falling intellectual standards brought about by such censorship suggests that he was turned later, or was a deeply conflicted person, old and weak.

But let us look at the reality. Also in the Caribbean is Barbados, where people do not need permission to leave the country, where free trade unions exist and where a government that was defeated last month has stepped down gracefully. It also has treble the per capita GDP of Cuba. Compare Barbados's UNDP human development report with that of Cuba.

When I checked, Jamaica actually had a larger proportion of its population abroad than Cuba, and like the emigrants from many Caribbean islands, they send remittances home and harbour no grudges against their home governments. The perverse genius of Castro was to declare most of those who left criminals or "worms", although it has to be said that it was not totally East German in its application. Cubans who married foreigners could leave with them, as many have.

Now that Castro has stepped down, albeit in favour of his brother, bringing Cuba into the North Korean dynastic socialist mode, one can only hope that there is a middle way. Sadly the signs are that some of the leadership are more interested in the Chinese model, letting the economy rip while the party holds ruthlessly onto power, while the Miami exiles' vindictive attitudes to those who stayed do not bode well for either democracy or equality.

Many of the dissidents I've met thought that Cuba should emulate Scandinavia and western Europe as a way of combining prosperity, democracy and social equality. Let's hope that with El Lider Maximo sidelined, they can persuade some in the leadership. Cuba is a wonderful country with enterprising and generous people. It deserves better than Castro has given them, or the Miami crowd can offer.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A bit starry-eyed about "western Europe", which has acquiesced in, if not supported, the destruction of Iraq, of Afghanistan, and the Palestinians, which did not act decisively to stop genocide in Rwanda (France arguably enabled it), in which racism against immigrants and ethnic-minority Europeans remains deep. Etc. Western Europe is not an alternative model, even if it offers some progressive alternatives to the US. Which must makes a critique of Cuba somewhat different. As for a comparison with Barbados: Cuba's population is over thirty times larger, and its developmental challenges were far more severe in the early 1960s than those of Barbados. Its comparative performance has exceeded Barbados, which might be a more pleasant place to live than Cuba...or not.