CampusForeign AffairsOpinion

Castro v. Cuba: A Response to Zak Vescera

By December 4, 2016 2 Comments

By Mark Narusov

Note: This piece is a response to Zak Vescera’s article entitled “Canada, Castro, and History’s Absolution”[1] published in The Student Press. It is of little value to read a response to something without looking at that something first. Needless to say, I have no enmity towards Zak, and in fact would like to thank him for the significant amount of time and effort he put into demanding greater transparency from the Sciences Po administration in response to professor Ruchet’s dismissal.

It is not without a reason that the phrase “fascism with a human face” became so much of a cliché in describing communism. The totalitarian nature of both communist and fascist states was truly one, “boot stamping on a human face — forever” (Orwell, “1984”). It is probably safe to say that a fascist is, as a general rule, more morally despicable than a communist or even a Stalinist. For the former, militarism, tribal supremacy, unity of belief through suppression of dissent, modification of fact to satisfy the needs of the collective are all core values, inseparable from the doctrine, the ends one is supposed to strive for. For the latter types, all of the above are merely an unintended consequence — of varying degree of toleration allowed — of collective liberation of the proletariat, a few eggs to be cracked in preparing the utopian omelette. However, this does not translate into much difference if one looks at the societies where these ideologies are implemented. In both we find the same social environments in which fear reigns supreme, the same horror of letting your mind cross into the realm of thoughtcrime, the same glorification of unity at the expense of diversity, the same doublethink essential to the preservation of the regime, the same absolutist mightiness of the powerful over the powerless. Nevertheless, the governments who adopted communism as their credo have the privilege of enjoying a greater support among the publics of Western democracies: the lie of international solidarity spread by the Soviet Union is far more appealing than the honest adoration for national supremacy spread by fascists. The death of Fidel Castro is probably the single best illustration of this fact I have encountered in the present tense.

Although under the Batista dictatorship, before 1959 “[Cuba] ranked third in Latin America in doctors and dentists and daily calorie consumption per capita. Its infant-mortality rate was the lowest in the region and the 13th lowest in the world”[2], its literacy rate was at an impressive 85%. Shortly after seizing power, abolishing private ownership of business and collectivizing agricultural production, Castro put Cuba’s economy on life support of subsidies from the Soviet Union. Its GDP lost 35% as a result of the dissolution of its willingly chosen patron, and physical famine became a reality for many Cubans in the period thereafter.

Some may say that the alliance between Cuba and the U.S.S.R. was necessitated by the American reaction to the Cuban Revolution, including the economic embargo. However, Vasiliy Mitrokhin, the KGB defector who had access to secret files of the agency, reached the conclusion that “While American hostility [after the revolution] was later to reinforce Castro’s alliance with the Soviet Union, it did not cause it. The initiative for the alliance came from Havana.” [3]

During the battle against Batista, Fidel wrote in private “When this war [against the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista] is over, I’ll start a much longer and bigger war of my own: the war I’m going to fight against [the Americans]. I realize that will be my true destiny.”

Thus the embargo, preceding and subsequent actions taken by the U.S. against the newly created Soviet satellite on the island of Cuba were not in the least without justification, given the context of the geopolitical rivalry with the expansive and menacing Soviet Union.

It is often claimed, as by the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition Mr. Corbyn, that Castro’s proxy conflict against the South African apartheid government in Angola serves as proof of Castro’s selfless internationalism. It is incredibly convenient to focus on one incidental moral success (let’s assume) in relation to South Africa and neatly look over all other actions on the world stage by Castro’s regime.

He militarily supported Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Ethiopian communist dictator whose Red Terror campaign resulted in at least 500.000 deaths; Hafez al-Assad, the totalitarian dictator of Syria; the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, who later supported the Leninist “Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement” in Peru; and Hugo Chavez, who ascended to power democratically in 1999 after organizing a failed coup in 1992.

In 1968 the great liberator of the Cuban people had little mercy for the real and truly liberating struggle against imperialism of the people of Czechoslovakia, trying to break away from the totalitarian communism imposed from the outside. After the “Prague Spring”, a period that saw some liberalization of public life in the Soviet satellite, the U.S.S.R. and the more loyal of its colonies invaded the country and halted the reforms. The cherished el Commandante: “Certain measures were taken, such as the establishment of a bourgeois form of “freedom” of the press. This meant that the counter-revolution and the exploiters, the very enemies of socialism, were given the right to speak and write freely against socialism”. Apparently the concept of freedom of speech was too complex to grasp for the revolutionary intellectual. Castro could have voiced the minimal amount of support he felt the pressure to given his dependency on the U.S.S.R., but instead he offered an elaborate — and, may I add, reactionary — rebuke of the Enlightenment ideal of freedom and exposed himself to be the petty dictator that he was.

As to the doubtlessly progressive cause of LGBT rights, say, Castro said “[W]e would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true Revolutionary, a true Communist militant. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant Communist must be.” The regime — not unjustifiably, I must say — saw anything differing from the imposed unity as a direct threat to its grip on power, which led to these counter-revolutionary elements being sent to a network of slave labor camps named “Military Units to Aid Production” (UMAP), a kind of GULAG à la cubain. In the 1980’s the government decided to send to sanatoriums anyone who had been infected with HIV/AIDS. Commenting on the wonders of Cuban universal healthcare, the founder of the World Health Organization’s Global Program for AIDS referred to the sanatoriums as “pretty prisons”.

Zak: “We can respect his implementation of healthcare and comprehensive education systems in Cuba while still condemning his legacy of imprisoning and murdering dissidents”. What Zak forgets about the Castro regime is its totalitarian nature, the impulse to control all spheres of life. A regime considering its grip on power the first criteria of a policy would evidently desire to make “education” as accessible as possible: rooting out the counter-revolutionary spirit by starting to indoctrinate the citizen at an early age to cement the homogeneity and the Party’s dominant role. It may well be the case that the Cuban education is decent at producing valuable technicians, physicians and mathematicians. But who it reliably fails to produce — and is actively trying to avoid doing so — is free-minded people, being able to distinguish fact from propaganda and question authority.

Not that it is part of his argument, but Zak’s saying that “<…> mainstream politicians brand [Castro] as a ruthless tyrant” is way too rich. I wish. Not counting the heads of state whose countries have enjoyed an alliance with Castro’s Cuba, the tyrant’s death caused the proclaimed mourning of the President of the European Commision Jean-Claude Juncker (no mention of human rights abuses), UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (“He was a strong voice for social justice”), former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (“Today I mourn the loss of a friend”), and the Obama Administration (no mention of human rights abuses) among others.

Zak defends Justin Trudeau’s eulogy because “it adds nuance to the polarized politics that Rubio and Cruz spew”. Too bad the mentioned nuance was absent in Trudeau’s statement itself. Some truths simply do not deserve to be compromised upon in the name of “reaching out” intellectually. No matter how lamentably radical the view of Castro as an “evil, murderous dictator” (Rubio) might be in the U.S., here at Sciences Po or anywhere else, truth, as many of my leftist friends would agree, should not be judged by its distance from the “middle ground” of the mainstream.

The core of Zak’s case in favor of Trudeau’s statement is that the historical relationship between Canada created with Cuba rightly broke away with U.S. strict policy of containment of global Soviet-backed communism. He complains about the very contestable fact that “At the height of the Cold War, the United States viewed Canada as being little more than a pawn in the great game of chicken against the Soviet Union”. This ignores the importance that the West’s strategic deterrence played in response to the Soviet threat, and the right to demand a level of the alliance’s rigidity during a time period when the enemy sought to exploit any schism within the West and treated a display of weakness as an opportunity for expansion. The value of “international cooperation” is – as if this needs to be reiterated — not absolute in general, as well as self-destructive, counter-productive and suicidal in the face of a Soviet Empire engaged in a Cold War zero-sum game to undermine the West.

“Countless Canadians, politicians and citizens, have criticized his actions, just as we have criticized violations of human rights in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and even the United States — but these things haven’t stopped us from granting Cuba the respect it is due as an autonomous country”. It is ironic that the respect Zak speaks of can, in reality, only be voiced if we side with the victim: the country, its people, against its oppressor, the Castro regime. To claim that respect is given by praising the oppressor is to imply that the Cuban people do not have a set of needs, aspirations or a sense of dignity present in the peoples living in democratic countries. At least a million of people who have fled the Island of Freedom since 1959 prove the opposite, some of them having risked their lives to escape Castro’s prison.

“Insulting a dead head of state is rarely the way to further relations with an ally — especially one that could very soon be emerging from its dictatorial rule. Making a “gotcha!” ideological statement over Castro’s grave is crass, cowardly, and plainly opportunistic.”. Castro’s regime was never an “ally” to Canada, I do not know where Zak got that from. On the second point, I agree. To justify the crimes of the deceased thug, even “over his grave”, is surely crass, cowardly, and ideological. To mourn his victims is the opposite of that.

Notice how Zak does not mince words when describing Cruz’s and Rubio’s statements as “plainly opportunistic” but goes to great lengths to ascribe the Canadian PM the highest of motives as he praises the dictator who, among other things, sold blood of his victims (50$ per pint) to the North Vietnamese. I am sure that Zak did not consciously choose to deride Castro’s critics as opportunists and elevate his supporters as pragmatic politicians and sincere Marxists, but it is nevertheless a major failure of moral analysis.

It is not in the least unreasonable for a leader of a democratic state to overlook the state of human rights in a dictatorship and seek cooperation with it for reasons relating to international security or economic development, as President Obama did in 2015 when he praised the then recently deceased King Abdullah al-Saud. It is, however, at the very least doubtful if the value of extending a hand to Castro outweighs the value of speaking the truth about his regime.

“It’s possible to view Castro as both a liberator and a tyrant”. It is not, unless one adopts a collectivist view of freedom espoused by the two totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century. Freedom of a group is nothing but the sum of the freedoms enjoyed by the individuals it includes. Castro got rid of American imperialist influence, and walked his people on a journey from authoritarianism to totalitarianism. By the standards of achieved freedom, in the face of the latter the former is void. He exploited the grievances the Cuban people had from living under a less brutal but nonetheless dictatorship of the U.S.-backed Batista. He was the ultimate betrayer of those striving for a Cuba libre. To regard Fidel as a liberator would necessitate the same judgement with regards to Al-Baghdadi’s supposed liberation of Sunni Muslims. He was a relentless oppressor domestically and a loyal servant to the Soviet regime externally, period.

“Prior to his imprisonment, Castro famously said “History will absolve me”. It hasn’t, but perhaps that’s because he’s joined it. Castro should be history’s to judge and absolve; not Trumps, nor Rubio’s, nor Cruz’s.” The most important thing to remember about Castro in relation to history is that he was on the wrong side of it. The beliefs he espoused are unenlightened and anti-Enlightenment. He imposed the reactionary quasi-feudal economic system known as communism-in-practice.

The insecurity and paranoia about the grip on power is essential to understanding the psychology of any totalitarian regime. Since at least 1992, the proclaimed condition of dropping the embargo on Cuba by the U.S. was “democratization and greater respect for human rights”. But of course the regime was not willing to ameliorate the embargo-caused part of economic hardships, the alternative of the Cuban people’s true liberation is doubtlessly the worse alternative with regards to their survival as the ruling class. The very paranoia and fear of the liberation of the people you control — this is precisely the horror of the oppressors in the face of History, and the persistent “struggle for recognition”. Castro declared war on History, and the imminent democratic transformation of Cuba will show just how spectacularly he lost the fight, just like so many communist leaders before him.


[2] “Fidel Castro’s Communist Utopia” — The Wall Street Journal

[3] The book “The World Was Going Our Way” — Vasily Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew

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