In the days following the passing of the political titan Fidel Castro, the overwhelming reaction of the British political classes has been to treat the death of an unscrupulous tyrant as a triumph. This is not to say a reaction of the other extreme, albeit less common, has occurred: adoring mourning of a flawless leader, his death representing an utter tragedy. Neither reactions are entirely fair, appropriate, nor tell the full story. Regardless of your thoughts on Castro's regime, he was a giant of modern history whose legacy will live on, and that legacy should not be tarnished nor airbrushed with the passing of time, as it has this past week.
Many on the right see Castro's death as a long-awaited triumph, but this festivity is at best misplaced, and at worst deeply morbid. Was Castro an authoritarian leader, even a dictator? Yes. Did he grotesquely mistreat political opponents and homosexuals? Yes. However, a very different question relates to his ideology: was he a revolutionary socialist? Yes. It is for these three reasons that Castro has been demonised by the British right for so many years, his death only further intensifying that demonization.
However, apply those three questions of democracy, oppression and ideology to Pinochet, a leader Britain vocally backed, and we uncover the crippling hypocrisy of the British right. Was Pinochet an authoritarian leader, even a dictator? Yes. Did he grotesquely mistreat political opponents and homosexuals? Yes. Did the British government eagerly support Pinochet's regime in Chile because he a revolutionary socialist? No. Far from it. He was an avid capitalist, enthusiastically embracing neo-liberal economic reforms showcased by the Reagan/Thatcher-dominated West. For this reason, the British right turn a blind eye to Pinochet's atrocities.
Furthermore, the hypocrisy of the British right with regards to Castro goes beyond an antiquated and McCarthyist fear of socialism. There are examples – both recent and more dated – of the right turning a blind eye to the very atrocities they attack Castro’s legacy for. While justly lambasting Castro’s practise of oppressing homosexuals in Cuban society, there is an apparent memory-deficit of how recently homosexuality was illegal in Britain. It is little remembered that thousands of Britons were burdened with criminal records for their sexuality (only now is posthumous pardoning underway), and this is without even mentioning the continuation of hate crimes, under-representation and stigma aimed at the LGBTQ community in 21st century Britain.
Furthermore, the British right have, with good reason, attacked Castro’s regime for its heavy-handed approach to crime and punishment, and its repressive treatment of political opponents. Yet, there is minimal recognition of Britain’s role in glorious rendition, in dismissing habeas corpus, and in torture of ‘terror suspects’. Moreover, the right-wing British press, along with several Tory MPs and even some left-leaning publications, claimed Prince Harry bowing his head at an impromptu moment’s commemorating Castro’s death was an ‘awkward experience’, ‘unfair’, that he was ‘forced’ and that it was embarrassing for him and for Britain. Frankly, phrases like ‘embarrassing’ and ‘unfair’ could aptly describe the decision to fly the British flag at half-mast at Westminster Abbey as a tribute to the passing of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, despite his overseeing of a highly oppressive, authoritarian regime. To condemn the dictatorial practises of Castro’s regime, yet airbrush the legacies of dictators Britain has found itself allied to, be it for oil wealth and access or geopolitical stratagem, is frankly duplicitous.
This is not to say the British left are not guilty of similar hypocrisy. The left vocally opposed Pinochet’s regime and Britain’s support of it, yet many on the left idolised Castro. However, removing ideological bias, there is a stark contrast between Castro’s and Pinochet’s regimes. While Pinochet was effectively propped up by the west, Castro managed to deliver world-leading healthcare, education and social reforms, in the face of constant and incessant western opposition and economic oppression. The US trade embargo of Cuba was a consistent obstacle to the country’s economic development, yet Castro’s Cuba has still achieved impressive human development thanks primarily to its enviable healthcare and education systems. In 2013, Cuba ranked 44th in the world in the Human Development Index (HDI) League Table, achieving the lowest rate of youth unemployment of any country viewed by the UN as having ‘very high human development’ besides Qatar, recording 99.8% of adult literacy (matched only by Latvia and Estonia in the same category), and a life expectancy of 82.9 years, higher than the likes of Denmark and Finland.
Considering that HDI is measured by judging a country’s literacy rate, life expectancy and GDP, it is not difficult to ascertain that without the crippling economic impact of the US trade embargo Cuba could have ranked even higher on the HDI table as well. To accomplish these outstanding measures of human development are evidence of the remarkable successes of Castro’s socialist programme, in the face of constantly crushing neo-imperialist opposition from the West. These feats make it nothing short of one-eyed to dismiss Castro’s entire regime and tarnish his legacy by rejoicing his death, viewing him as no more than a merciless tyrant, and ignoring the progress Cuba made under his purview.
Any form of dictatorial tyranny or oppression is clearly incompatible with the values of democratic socialism, social democracy and the whole mainstream British Left, and should be condemned without question. Nobody claiming a moral compass can justify Castro’s treatment of dissidents and minorities, nor should they bother trying. However Cuba's healthcare, education and social systems are enduring testaments to what can be achieved when a socialist government gains power and refuses to yield to unbridled free market forces. For this reason, Castro's legacy, while tainted by its barbarism, can provide many lessons from which the British left can learn.
No one should airbrush the tyranny from Castro's regime – it would be a betrayal of the mainstream left's belief that oppression cannot be reconciled with social justice. That said, using instances of oppression to dismiss the undeniably positive remaining impacts of Castro's time in power, as the right in Britain are currently attempting, is perhaps an even more twisted distortion of the undying legacy of Fidel Castro.
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