By Chris Jarvis
Content warnings: mentions execution, torture
Throughout the twentieth century, as ‘socialist’ regimes sprung up across the world, their leaders and key figures were consistently deified in the west. Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Guevara, Chavez, Allende; all were adopted as icons of the revolutionary left, with posters of them adorning walls across the world, and their words taken as gospel. For a time, much of the left in Europe and the USA endorsed Stalinism, even as the true horrors of the gulags, the famines, the mass executions, the anti-semitism began to be revealed. The unbelievable death toll of Mao’s ‘great leap forward’ was brushed aside by apologists. Colonel Gaddafi was revered by many as a valued comrade, even as he ordered mass executions and dismantled trade unions.
On Friday, news broke that one of the most prominent of these figures of the 20th century revolutionary left – Fidel Castro – had died at the age of 90. The obituaries have sprung up thick and fast, polarised and definitive. Either Castro is the terrible dictator who crushed democracy and dissent on the Caribbean island, or he is the man who liberated Cuba from American imperialism and gave hope and inspiration to socialists across the world. It’s a simple case of black or red, pick your side. This unnuanced cherry picking of history is typical of modern analysis of politics and political figures. The reality, as always, is more complex.
As ‘socialist’ regimes sprung up across the world, their leaders and key figures were consistently deified
To understand Castro’s legacy, we must understand its history. In 1902, shortly after the Spanish-American war, Cuba became an independent nation. The following years saw repeated American military interventions and the beginnings of US economic imperialism. After coming to power through a military coup in 1952, Fulgencio Batista set about inadvertently sowing the seeds for the revolutionary government that would follow his premiership. Elections were suspended, organised crime was encouraged, corruption was endemic, and the economy was reorganised to benefit of US business interests.
On July 26 1953, Castro and a band of fellow revolutionaries attempted to capture a military barracks in Santiago De Cuba, in response to the cancellation of elections by the Batista regime. As punishment, Castro was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment, but a public outcry led to him serving only two. After his release, Castro commanded a guerrilla army which worked to destabilise Batista’s government. These militant efforts coincided with a rise in popular protest and revolt, with students and workers demonstrating and rioting for political change. Batista responded with aggressive military suppression of the guerrilla revolutionaries and a police crackdown on student and popular protest, supported by US military equipment.
Ultimately, against the odds, Castro’s movement toppled the Batista government and swept to power in 1959. Castro sought to consolidate, but faced repeated attempts to undermine the new government by US military and intelligence, as well as Batista loyalists. The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion saw American troops land on Cuba, intending to occupy and end Castro’s regime. Its failure was followed by ‘Operation Mongoose’, the CIA project of industrial sabotage, terrorism and attempted assassinations targeted at Castro’s government. The economic blockade that remains to this day is intended to inflict ongoing economic damage and force regime change.
All these attempts at destabilisation and assassination pushed Cuba towards regional isolationism and increased authoritarianism. Had Eisenhower and Kennedy not pursued this aggressive policy towards Cuba, had the US not engaged in a 50 year imperial project on the island, had American capital not stripped the Cuban people of their assets and resources during Batista’s rule, perhaps Castro’s alliance with the Soviet Union and the nuclear disaster that almost followed could have been avoided. Perhaps Castro’s paranoia, terrorism and dictatorial tendencies would have been tempered.
But despite the convenience of the narrative, Castro’s authoritarianism, his disregard for democracy and human rights, cannot be viewed solely as the result of American action. From the end of the guerilla offensive onward, prisoners of war were executed en masse in the name of ‘revolutionary justice’. Hundreds of police, soldiers and other members of Batista’s political infrastructure faced Castro’s firing squads. Censorship of the media and press has been near total throughout Castro’s reign. Political parties other than the Communist Party have been banned. Freedom of assembly is restricted. Mass imprisonment of political dissidents continues, with the 2003 Black Spring seeing 75 people dealt heavy-handed prison sentences. Torture of prisoners is ongoing. Extensive travel and emigration restrictions were enforced until 2013. Despite substantial improvements in recent decades, state oppression of LGBT+ people has been commonplace since Castro’s ascendancy. In short, authoritarianism and anti-democracy have been an ever present aspect of Cuban socialism. Like the murals and sculptures of revolutionary figures that line Cuban streets, the presence of Castro’s regime in the life of its citizens has been recurrent and always striking.
There are those who would end the story here. We’ve covered all the bad stuff and caught up with the present. The obituaries end and this chapter of history closes. But there is more to tell.
In the earliest days of the revolution, economic inequality in Cuba plummeted. Much of the American enterprise that dominated Cuban agriculture was evicted, with profit driven farming being replaced by a system of peasant owned smallholdings, farmer’s cooperatives and nationalised land. High level state employees saw their pay cut, while those on the lower rungs had their pay increased. The cost of housing for the poorest saw a sharp decline. Food subsidies were introduced.
The achievements of the Cuban healthcare system are undeniable. The Castro government nationalised healthcare and abolished private provision in the early stages of their programme. Since then, health coverage in the country has vastly improved, with emphasis placed on a preventative, rather than cure-based, model of care provision. Illnesses including Polio and Rubella were eradicated after an extensive vaccination programme in the 1960s. Cuba has more doctors per person than any country in the world bar Italy. Life expectancy has risen to around 80. Thousands of patients from around the globe travel to Cuba each year for eye surgery or neurological treatment from expert medics. Cuban medical workers provide direct care around the world, particularly at moments of humanitarian crisis.
Similarly, the Cuban education revolution should be seen as a lasting and proud achievement of Castro’s regime. A literacy campaign of 1961 brought many rural Cubans the experience of reading and writing for the first time. In 1953, the Cuban literacy rate was barely 50%; by the 1980s it neared 100%. The abolition of private education, its replacement by a free-to-access nationalised system, and substantial investment in education have made significant improvements in both access to and quality of education in Cuba.
Neither healthcare nor education in Cuba is perfect – far from it, and economic inequalities persist. The healthcare system is plagued by endemic resource deficiencies, and the stranglehold the US embargo has placed on Cuba’s economy has obstructed continued investment in public services and equality measures. Nonetheless, given the many international and domestic obstacles that Cubans have faced in the past century, these achievements should not be understated.
Like the murals and sculptures of revolutionary figures that line Cuban streets, the presence of Castro’s regime in the life of its citizens has been recurrent and always striking.
With Castro’s passing, the last of the great authoritarian socialists of the 20th century has left us. The old icons of the revolutionary left now fade into history. How should we understand the legacy of Cuban socialism and Castro? Trotskyists and others might argue that the economic perils of the 1990s and the isolationism forced by American encroachment proves the folly of attempting to build ‘socialism in one country’. But to direct all blame at the US, and to analyse the Cuban story by economics alone is crass and incomplete. Nobody can deny that Castro, for all of his successes, for all of the achievements of Cuban politics from 1959, has built a dictatorial and authoritarian infrastructure that has damaged the lives of millions of Cubans. With one hand Castro gave life and culture to the nation through healthcare and education. With the other he squeezed the breath from its body through repression and unchallenged state power.
In Castro’s wake, the left needs to build a new set of ideas, a new narrative, a new socialism. A narrative that does not seek to airbrush the ‘inconveniences’ of historical reality. A socialism that recognises the ideas, the work and the values of those that came before us, while also committing to never repeat their unforgivable actions. A socialism where we fight not only for liberation from the oppression of capitalism, the free market, and wage labour, but also, crucially, for liberation from the oppression of the state. And a socialism that recognises that its history cannot be written only with words like tyrant, saint, comrade, hero, dictator, despot, but is more complex than any one impression of any one man.
The fire of socialism will never be extinguished. But I hope that as we reflect on the life and legacy of Fidel Castro, the last ember of the old authoritarian approaches will flicker out.
Featured Image via Brookings