The death of Fidel Castro is a huge historical moment for the older generation who grew up with the toppling of Batista, the Bay of Pigs debacle, the death of Che Guevara and the US blockade against Cuba. For younger people who are not students of history Fidel Castro may not be so well known, and Che Guevara adorns mass produced t-shirts a. But the legacy of Fidel has been much discussed in recent days, considering his extraordinary achievements and his damning human rights record. Both need to be considered as this leader is laid to rest.
The Green Party is dedicated to human rights and non-violence and I acknowledge the contradictions of Castro’s regime. Context is crucial, however; we need to look at Cuba in light of the similarly problematic record of its giant neighbour, where successive Governments dedicated many years to undermining the Cuban revolution.
The legacy of Fidel begins with the successful revolution against the Batista regime, a dictatorship supported by the US Government which presided over increasing corruption and inequality. It continued with the determined and often painful survival of a socialist state in the face of the economic blockade, a legacy he shares with the Cuban people.
Most notably Castro is remembered for the creation of a state health and education system which continues to outperform many others. The barefoot doctors of Cuba have not only helped their own people but travelled the world assisting the poorest of the poor. Small scale farming during the blockade yielded a living when isolation reduced life to some very bare essentials. Castro was admired across the world for his solidarity with the most oppressed countries and his epic speeches of solidarity with these voiceless communities.
It’s important to note, however, that every major human rights group has condemned the Cuban government’s treatment of dissenters and political prisoners. Cuba’s history of violence post the revolution should never be minimised. Nor should we forget the ongoing oppression of minority groups, particularly the LGBT community, who have suffered under the heavy hand of Castro’s regime.
Many of us have seen the contradictions of Cuba first hand. A good friend of mine participated in the Cuban solidarity brigades programme two years ago. She described the unique experience of a society not bombarded with corporate advertising and with a passion for political discussion, music, dance and all forms of culture. She said there was economic hardship, especially after the loss of Soviet aid, but also a deep reverence for the values of the original revolution.
Changes are slowly coming to Cuba, and this has been evidenced by a more progressive political atmosphere and the way family based businesses are spreading within the socialist state. Developments in Cuba’s relationship with the USA will inevitably change the situation of Cubans who have experienced sustained economic deprivation over the past five years.
One wonders what the future of Cuba would have looked like had it not been for the economic blockade by the world’s most powerful state. The Mandela legacy suggests that forgiveness is the most inspiring response to oppression. But that of course is no guarantee of peace and prosperity; South Africa is still wracked by inequality. Cuba followed a different path and Fidel Castro has to be understood in that complicated context.
No discussion of Cuba can avoid the ugly travesty on the border. Guanatanamo Bay reminds us every day what torture looks like in the 21st century looks like, and why the status of human rights are the measure of all societies.