Fidel Castro’s death reveals diverging views on human rights
In Castro’s Cuba there was never a debate about balancing individual and social rights
Students at Havana University lay a wreath in tribute to Cuba’s late president Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba. Photograph: Reuters
The divided international reaction to the death of Fidel Castro makes clear that there are two opposing world views when it comes to the question of human rights.
While many have been quick to condemn the repression of individual rights in Cuba under Castro, others have defended his record pointing to the advances in social rights such as greater access to education and healthcare under the revolution.
But in Castro’s Cuba there was never a debate about where best to strike the balance between individual and social rights such as happens in more free societies.
While the severe repression of dissent witnessed during the early years of the Cuban revolution has since eased, the communist island remains a totalitarian state that even most of Castro’s western admirers would baulk at living under, no matter how good the healthcare.
Though Castro, his brother Raúl and Ché Guevara initially sought to mask their revolution’s true totalitarian nature, delaying as long as possible before announcing they were communists, the signs where apparent early on.
Hundreds of enemies were summarily tried and shot in the months after they took power in 1959. Many were undoubtedly supporters of the overthrown Batista dictatorship. But the speed with which the new regime moved to eliminate its enemies struck a discordant note given that the rebels had said their were fighting to restore the constitutional order done away with by Batista.
In total, Cuban activists estimate more than 3,000 people may have been executed for political reasons since the revolution, though the secrecy of the Cuban regime makes arriving at an accurate total impossible.
It was Castro’s early retreat from his promise of free elections that created the first dissidents. After one longtime ally, Mario Chanes de Armas, broke with him over his backtracking on free elections he was accused of plotting to kill his friend – a charge he always denied – and was sentenced to 30 years in 1962 after what was one of the first of the regime’s show trials.
Airbrushed out of the photographic record, Chanes de Armas served his full sentence in a growing prison system where tens of thousands were sentenced to hard labour and political re-education. In these camps political prisoners and conscientious objectors were forced to work alongside other “anti-social” elements such as priests, pastors and homosexuals.
As the revolutionary regime consolidated its power, the numbers of those executed and jailed for political crimes declined, but Cuban society’s totalitarian architecture remains intact. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a rapprochement with the Catholic Church which led to a visit from Pope John Paul II, whom Castro thought of as a fellow critic of capitalism.
This did not stop the Pope calling for freedom of expression and association on the island, but the regime was not for turning. Cuba remains a one-party state with the ruling communist party using neighbourhood Committees for the Defence of the Revolution to closely monitor the population. Freedom of conscience is denied. Independent political parties, autonomous trade unions and a free press are banned. The right to free assembly is outlawed, censorship rigorously enforced, access to the internet severely restricted.
Defiance leads to arrest and possible prosecution for upsetting public order or disrespecting authorities. The hunger strike has become a weapon of last resort for dissidents, many of whom, rather than the lackeys of Washington the government would paint them as, are in fact disillusioned fidelistas.
In recent years the regime, which exercises total control over the judicial system, has switched from a preference for long sentences for political prisoners to shorter arbitrary detentions, including round-ups of dissidents before visits by foreign dignitaries.
Human rights organisations are barred from entering and the government is not forthcoming with information. Activists inside the country try to keep tabs on repression with the independent Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission reporting over 9,000 political arrests so far this year.
The regime is also accused of more underhand means of repression. The unexplained deaths of opponents has been a feature of Cuban life for decades, such as the case of dissident Catholic priest, Oswaldo Payá, who died in a car crash in 2012. His family said he had been rammed off the road after receiving numerous death threats. Secret police swooped on his funeral to arrest more dissidents.
At no time since the revolution have the Cuban people been given a free vote on whether this intense repression of individual rights is worth the gains the country has made in areas such as health care and education. Anyone demanding such a vote could end up in prison.
Instead Fidel Castro decided for them during his half century in power and his brother Raúl shows no intention of letting them have their say any time soon.