It seems the death of Fidel Castro is controversial among liberals: is it allowed to praise the historical and political figure for the good reforms he brought to Cuba or shall we condemn the man for the violence used in the process and the targets of this violence?
Politically and historically, I consider Fidel Castro a peer of figures like Nelson Mandela (who was one of Castro’s friends and open admirers). This is despite the two main flaws that I have read these days are associated with the Cuban: namely, the persecution of minorities, and in particular the LGBTQ+ community, and the oppressive authoritarianism that prevented the development of a democracy in Cuba. Both accusations simply mean Castro’s government has denied fundamental human rights in Cuba.
The first accusation mainly concerns the use of labor camps (UMAP) between 1965 and 1968. Homosexuality in general was illegal in Cuba until 1979, but the real cultural shift started in the 90s, whereas the cultural campaigns against discrimination started in the ’00s. Cuba still awaits a law that would make same-sex unions legal (neither marriage nor civil unions are allowed) and LGBTQ+ political activism has been recognised only in the late ’00s. Fidel Castro himself has been in power starting from 1961, until 2006, so he is personally responsible for the UMAP and he took full responsibility for the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community, calling it “a great injustice”. A crime it was. Yet it might be helpful to establish a comparison with contemporary laws in other countries. With very few exceptions (e.g. decriminalisation of “sodomy” in France took place immediately after the French revolution in 1791, in Italy, after unification in 1889), homosexuality (usually referred to as sodomy at the time) was considered illegal in a vast majority of countries well into the XX century. In England and Wales homosexual relations were illegal until 1967 (Scotland only joined decriminalisation in 1980, for Northern Ireland it was necessary a pronouncement of the European Court of Human Right, in 1981). In USA, sodomy was a felony in every State up until 1961, punished with imprisonment or hard labour. The first State to start the race for decriminalisation is Illinois in 1961, California will follow only in 1975. In general homosexuality was considered as mental illness in most world countries up until the 90s, when many started adapting to the WHO which removed homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases in May 1990. Even in countries where it was formally legal, being openly homosexual would put any person at life risk. I have to mention Pasolini, poet, film director, writer, prominent intellectual figure in Italy, killed in 1975 for being communist and for being openly gay, who was also isolated by a significant part of the Italian communist party because of his sexual orientation. Still today the LGBTQ+ community is actively discriminated in many “occidental” countries. Does this make Castro’s government decision on the matter less of a crime? Of course not. But I have yet to hear somebody criticising (for instance) JF Kennedy for having allowed the incarceration and discrimination of homosexuals in the US during his presidency.
The second argument concerns the development of democracy. A fact often ignored is that Castro did not seize power immediately after the revolution. The first president in a provisional government in Cuba in 1959, after the dictator Batista was overthrown, was Manuel Urutia Lleo. Of course Castro was the head of the revolutionary army, so he was extremely influential on that government and he was planning to have an easy win at the elections, in particular thanks to very popular agrarian reforms. The situation evolved rapidly when some of the economic reforms strongly wanted by Castro and the marxist group found the opposition of part of the government which was afraid they would have caused a US intervention to protect their interests in the area. Castro then became prime minister in the provisional government and only in 1961, after the bay of pigs invasion, he took complete control and committed to a socialist state organisation, rather than a social democracy. It is easy to forget today that the cold war at the time was anything but “cold” for most of the countries involved. There were actual plans to subvert freely elected governments if the local population had dared to turn towards the non-aligned socialist, social-democratic or communist parties. I am Italian and operation Gladio comes to mind or the military junta in Greece. The equilibrium in South America was strictly controlled at least as much as it was in Europe. What would have happened to Cuba if Castro had not aligned with the USSR or had decided to give space to free elections, say, 10 years later, in the 70s? It is not absurd to imagine an argentine scenario and a “National Reorganization Process“, or a Chilean scenario with a coup followed by dictatorship, or even a Colombian scenario, with multiple factions at war for decades. Not to mention what was happening in Vietnam. Why am I sure these scenarios may have been also valid for Cuba? Because there were already plans in that sense, before and beyond the bay of pigs invasion. What about the ’80s? Reagan and the funding of terrorist organisation like the Contras still don’t speak in favour of a peaceful transition. I am not naive, I am not making the point that imperialism was just on one side, but merely stating the obvious: either Cuba had aligned on one side or it would have been crushed by the other.
I will not make it too long. I guess what I am trying to say is that I agree with those who think socialist utopias should be compared with the highest imaginable standards. We should point out the mistakes and the crimes that have been reported. Finally, I am sincerely troubled by the fact that these revolutionary figures, despite having incorporated feminism for more than 50 years, failed completely to see the crime they were perpetrating against the LGBTQ+ community.
But there is as much a lie in pretending that the whole story is limited to these crimes as much there would be in denying them. If we consider access to education, literacy levels, health access, primary care and preventive care, gender equality and women’s rights (here a full length work on the issue), the overall human development index, commitment for social justice everywhere in the world and the fight against hunger or climate change, Cuba has much to teach to us all. This is the only country in the world meeting both the criteria for “very high human development” and and those for ecological sustainability. There is something humbling in a country that has planned to have as first export its medical doctors and medical skills and that provides assistance to anyone requires it, including US citizens when the Embargo was still fully operational. This is particularly astonishing considering the starting point of this Caribbean country with little resources, which started from a quasi-feudal economic system in the ’50s and has been significantly slowed down by the US embargo. It is not absurd to assume that, without the revolution, Cuba today would look at health, education, living and economic standards similar to those of Haiti, incidentally demonstrating that multi-party elections do not necessarily provide human rights.
Finally there is a reason why Castro is today mourned in the “south” of the world. That “third world” that has struggled for the best part of the last 100 years to get it’s own independence. Countries who paid their attempts to freely govern themselves with brutal wars, mass murders, torture, incarcerations and ethnic cleansing. This is the same reason why Mandela admired Castro: he represented a victorious attempt and by this mean, he represented hope. He was living proof that, against all the odds, a small group of determined rebels, winning the support of the general population in the farms and the factories, could overpower colonialist and imperialist interests and the greed of rich and powerful multinational corporations. This hope resonated in south America as much as in Africa, where Cuban military trainers helped insurgents against the European and South African (before the end of the apartheid) colonialist aggression.
The powerful message that elsewhere has been stopped by killing the figure representing it (think about the very different and commonly tragic end of Guevara, Sankara, Lumumba or Allende), has been this time only stopped by age.
I cannot but hope for better political figures to admire for the XXI century, but I won’t deny the past ones their merits.
From left to right: Romano Prodi, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Fernando Hernique Cardoso (photo shot in 1998)