Death of a dictator

It was easy to predict that the death of Fidel Castro would bring out the worst in both the left and the right. But it’s depressing none the less.

Start with the right; for all their occasional tributes to courtesy and decency, they’re capable of some dreadful behavior, and the crowing over Castro’s death belongs in that category. Wishing that one’s opponents should burn in hell is a bad look from anyone, and especially from those whose political alliances raise the thought that they might even mean it literally.

But it’s more than bad manners: the right’s lack of nuance prevents them from seeing important truths about the world. To them, Castro was just another Stalin, so anyone who defends him must be just as deluded or deceitful as those who supported Stalin in the 1950s.

The similarities with Uncle Joe are not fanciful, but there was much more to Castro than that – most obviously in the geopolitical role that he played. Whereas Stalin ruled an imperial superpower, Castro defied one, and it’s impossible to understand his appeal without appreciating the deep levels of resentment across Latin America against the United States’ policies in the region. As Tony Karon put it back in 2008:*

In Latin America, Castro personifies nothing as much as defiance of the Monroe Doctrine, by which the U.S. had defined the continent as its backyard, reserving the right to veto, by force, anything it didn’t like. Get a Mexican conservative politician drunk in a discreet setting, and you’ll probably discover a closet Castro fan.

I don’t believe that excuses the support that Castro got from such confirmed democrats as Nelson Mandela, but it’s vital for understanding it. The same goes for the social achievements of Castro’s regime: they came at an unacceptable cost, but that doesn’t mean they were not real. Ten years ago, when Castro first handed over power, I argued that “Cuba’s would-be saviours should pay some attention to its strengths as well as its weaknesses,” and the point still stands. (Excuse the bizarre formatting in that piece; just be grateful the archive was able to retrieve it at all.)

But the left has much more serious problems than lack of nuance. Praise for authoritarianism is disturbing coming from anyone; coming from those whose first priority is supposed to be the promotion of democracy, it suggest some very deep troubles.

Regular readers will know that I usually have little time for the alarmists who see every instance of “political correctness” as an expression of incipient totalitarianism. But seeing the praise lavished on Castro by so many on the left, who would in other circumstances be among the first to warn of dictatorship …  Well, one can’t help feeling that the spirit of Lenin still walks in some corners of the land.

Let’s be blunt: Castro was a dictator. That’s not a debatable value-judgement; it’s a simple statement of fact, and a necessary starting point for any evaluation of his career. He was not the worst dictator in the pack, but his systematic denial of human rights was not something that any combination of successes in foreign or domestic policy (neither of which were as glorious as his admirers made out) can ever justify.

Democracy matters. A regime that seals itself off from competition or criticism has confessed that it is no longer the servant of the people, and it is no surprise when it behaves accordingly. Setting yourself up as a dictator is not some minor or incidental fault.

No, one doesn’t have to seize on the occasion of someone’s death to engage in a polemic against them. It’s perfectly legitimate to accentuate the positive, as did Barack Obama – whose statement barely mentions Castro’s record but looks forward to an era of better relations with Cuba. Better still to restate some home truths as well, as in the statement from House Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi, which expresses the same hopes of “a new, forward-looking relationship,” but also acknowledges the “Generations of Cuban political prisoners, democracy activists and families [who] suffered under Fidel Castro’s rule.”

Contrast that with the statement from Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau (a politician I usually have great respect for), which is appalling in its moral blindness: nothing worse than “controversial” is allowed to dim the praise of Castro.

At the other end of the spectrum, president-elect Donald Trump did not mince words, saying that “Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.” True, and a reasonable point for a candidate to make, although falling short of the diplomacy that we expect from a president. (Still, if bluntness is the worst we get from Trump as president, most of us will be pretty content.)

Other Republicans have been more unhinged, showing no recognition of the way that their adherence to the whims of the Cuban exile community over decades helped to prop up Castro’s regime.

The double standard is alive and well. How many of those now weighing in against Castro were similarly candid on the death last year of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, whose tyranny was a good deal more comprehensive than Castro’s? And how many of those who praise Castro would show any sympathy for the right-wing intellectuals and politicians who gave credit to Chile’s General Pinochet or Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew for their countries’ economic successes?

Death is the universal human predicament; respect in the face of death is never inappropriate. But respect for the living also demands that we make some effort at honesty. And a bit of soul-searching in certain quarters would not go amiss.

 

* Thanks to Sol Salbe for drawing my attention to this piece.

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