Mr Comandante himself toppled Batista, erected a communist state, and weathered incalculable American assassination attempts. However, his own citizens experienced systematic and appalling freedom-abuses and all sorts of other acrid moral infractions.
On November 25th, Fidel Castro, the Cuban politician and revolutionary, passed away aged 90. Cuba declared 9 days of national mourning to mark the end of Castro, whose passage into sanctuary terminus has been met with wailing sobs and eerie dithers in Havana, galling celebrations in Miami, salutations from world-leaders, and has ushered in a new era of uncertainty for Cuba.
Interestingly, many left-leaning politicians here in Britain have reacted in the most unusual of manners by portraying Castro as a champion of social justice – a portrayal that has, of course, whitewashed the many repugnant things that came to pass under his leadership. Indeed, the leader of the Labour Party here in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn, publicised such a view when he uncouthly claimed: “Fidel Castro’s death marks the passing of a huge figure of modern history, national independence and 20th-century socialism,”. The former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, said that Castro was an “absolute giant of the 20th century” but did recognise that “Fidel did things that were wrong,” Nevertheless, resolute in his approbation for the former revolutionary, Livingstone was keen to stress the point that whilst Castro “wasn’t [initially]very good on lesbian and gay rights […] the key things that mattered was that people had a good education, good healthcare, and wealth was evenly distributed. He was not living as a billionaire laundering money off into a Panamanian bank account or anything like that – he was good for the people.”
Before we bunglingly change our Facebook display pictures to commemorative Castro with colourful Castro-RIP pictures and don our Castro-clad t-shirts, let us take stock of Castro’s legacy and question whether progressives can indeed legitimately respect – let alone exalt – the Marxist-Leninist and Cuban nationalist.
One would think that a progressive would have abject difficulty reconciling a commitment to human-rights with, say, an admiration of a ruler whose cloying political career has symbolised human rights infringement. However, I have seen many fervid self-described “progressives” eulogise Mr Comandante, and they seem to do so without, it would seem, either a comprehension of (at best) or a nod to (at worst) his incalculable human rights abuses.
The Amnesty International Report 2015/2016 makes a vexing read for any morally-conscientious fawner of the dictator’s legacy. Why, though, might I say this? Let’s pore over its findings and see what evils, when exposed, lolls ensconced under the sundry political entrails of the Cuban’s dictatorship.
Freedom of Expression and Association:
Government critics continued to experience harassment, “acts of repudiation” (demonstrations led by government supporters with participation of state security officials), and politically motivated criminal prosecutions. The judicial system remained under political control. The government continued to control access to the internet and blocked and filtered websites, limiting access to information and criticism of the state. Activists reported that mobile phones were without service during the Pope’s visit in September.
Reporters Without Borders has also implicated Cuba in serious press restriction, so much so that they have ranked Cuba as 171 out of 180 for press freedom.
Arbitrary arrests and detentions:
Reports continued of government critics, including journalists and human rights activists, being routinely subjected to arbitrary arrests and short-term detention for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) documented more than 8,600 politically motivated detentions of government opponents and activists during the year.
Prior to Pope Francis’ visit in September, the authorities announced they would release 3,522 prisoners, including people over 60 years of age, prisoners under 20 years of age with no previous criminal record, chronically ill prisoners, and foreign nationals whose countries agreed to repatriate them, according to Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party.
However, before and during the Pope’s visit, human rights activists and journalists reported significant increases in arrests and short periods of detention. In September alone, the CCDHRN registered 882 arbitrary arrests. They included three activists who reportedly approached the Pope to discuss human rights. The three went on hunger strike in detention.
Amnesty international isn’t the only non-governmental organisation to report such eerie findings, The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also unearthed many a political deviltry. Let’s take a look at its 2016 report.
Reforms to travel regulations that went into effect in January 2013 eliminated the need for an exit visa to leave the island. Exit visas had previously been used to deny the right to travel to people critical of the government–and to their families. Since then, many people who had previously been denied permission to travel have been able to do so, including human rights defenders and independent bloggers.
Nonetheless, the reforms gave the government broad discretionary powers to restrict the right to travel on the grounds of “defense and national security” or “other reasons of public interest.” Such measures have allowed the authorities to deny exit to people who express dissent. For example, José Daniel Ferrer, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (Unpacu), was denied the right to travel abroad in August for “reasons of public interest,” authorities said.
The government restricts the movement of citizens within Cuba through a 1997 law known as Decree 217, which is designed to limit migration to Havana. The decree has been used to prevent dissidents from traveling to Havana to attend meetings and to harass dissidents from other parts of Cuba who live there.
Prisons are overcrowded, and unhygienic and unhealthy conditions lead to extensive malnutrition and illness. Prisoners are forced to work 12-hour days and punished if they do not meet production quotas.
Despite updating its Labour Code in 2014, Cuba continues to violate conventions of the International Labor Organization that it has ratified, specifically regarding freedom of association, collective bargaining, protection of wages and wage payment, and prohibitions on forced labour. While the formation of independent unions is technically allowed by law, in practice Cuba only permits one confederation of state-controlled unions, the Workers’ Central Union of Cuba.
Human rights defenders:
The Cuban government forbids any legal status to local human rights groups. Furthermore, they will harass, assault, and even imprison human rights defenders who dare document such abuses.
Homosexuals were viewed as inherently counter-revolutionary and homosexuality was declared a “deviation incompatible with the revolution” by Castro’s regime. LGBT people, particularly gay men, were routinely sent to prison without charge or trial by the state. In 1965, the regime established prison work camps known as Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), where homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other “undesirable” peoples deemed out of line with the Communist ideology were forcefully sent.
What, though, are we, as progressives, supposed to make of these findings? Perhaps I am far too scrupulous in my judgement – a facet I nevertheless refuse to apologise for – when I state that such findings should, of course, unequivocally implicate el señor dictador, Castro, in the most indisputable degree of disapprobation. Not only have Cuban citizens experienced systematic and appalling freedom-abuses and all sort of other moral infractions, but there has been a calculated attempt to curb the work of human-rights defenders – which has resulted in many of them being prevented from travelling, as well as being arbitrarily arrested. How can any progressive – someone who heralds, defends and pervades human-rights – possibly ingratiate oneself to such a despot?
As I have already said, many on my side of the political spectrum – the left – seem to be grittily toasting the legacy of such a figure. This I cannot understand. Ostensibly, sharing any convergence in the partisan-driven political weltanschauung somehow legitimises deference to political reprobates.
This isn’t the kind of left that we in Britain – let alone the west – recognise anymore. The Left used to be a political movement whose political drive hailed from its bold thump-for human-rights, its attention to nuance and political gradation, and its forward-thinking approach to the political beau ideal.
What, though, are we supposed to say to those lefty-leaning sorts whose swooning has further consternated the political paradigm? I think it’s timely to reaffirm the point to our fellow leftists who appear to display symptoms of the Castro-loving-contagion how crucial it is to buck this regressive appendage, to cast-aside Cuban emblems, to render needless the sickly pact with partisan politics, and to finally take back the left and restore it to its former standing as a bastion of human-rights and progressive politics. This means means that any “positive” legacy for Castro argued within our lefty-circles is rightly challenged with the kind of excoriation and disgust it deserves.
We cannot possibly mobilise ourselves as a force if we continue sullying the very scepter that we need to effectuate progressive social change.
Benjamin David founded Conatus News in 2016. He currently works as an editor for Parliamentary Review.