John Horgan: It is too early to pass judgment on Fidel Castro
Things went wrong but Cuba is not an unredeemed failure
Fidel Castro with Che Guevara. in the early days of the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban leadership, for all its doctrinaire and embattled postures, does not reflect the corruption and greed of a Batista, a Mobutu, a Marcos, or any more contemporary tyrant. Photograph: Roberto Salas/AFP
When I reported from Cuba for this newspaper in 1969, 10 years after Castro had taken power, what I encountered was a persuasive reminder that in politics, as in life itself, there are few solely binary choices.
Cuba, cocooned in its own, largely homegrown version of Marxism, was (and remained) almost a time capsule, the still living and breathing laboratory of an experiment in social and political engineering almost without parallel in our times.
It cannot be said to have been an unvarnished or unproblematic political experiment. But does that mean that it has been an unredeemed failure? And would it not be wiser, and perhaps fairer, to look at Castro’s legacy in a wider context than that of a proxy battle between combatants in our own country, or of geo-political flag-waving?
It is easy enough to enumerate the things that went wrong in Cuba after 1959: the absence of political freedoms, the repression of much intellectual life, the development of a militarised command economy and – above all – the often ruthless subjugation of the individual to the needs (real or supposed) of the collective.
It is easy, too, to forget that for most of the past 50 years Cuba has been, economically and sometimes even militarily speaking, on a war footing, faced with blockade, invasion and assassination campaigns organised by a superpower 90 miles away from its capital city.
Would a socialist Ireland (God save the mark), faced with similar tactics from a wealthy, warlike and deeply hostile neighbour only 60 miles away across a narrow strip of sea, have reacted with a selfless devotion to the ideals of liberal democracy?
To say this is not to justify any of the infringements of human liberty which have taken place in Cuba and which have rightly been criticised. Although the resultant progress in health and education (its infant mortality rate is lower than that of the US) has been admirable, and to an extent underpins whatever moral legitimacy the regime enjoys, we know that the price was unacceptably high. But that does not mean that all that was purchased was without value.
The effects of change, too, sometimes need more than a couple of decades to be fully assessed. It was nearly 800 years ago, after all, that the Catholic Church, at the Synod of Toulouse, dealing with the problem of heresy, came to the conclusion that it was in everybody’s best interests, including in the first place the heretic’s own, to inflict on him pain and even death to purge him from his false belief and to bar its socially disruptive propagation.
The Cuban leadership, for all its doctrinaire and embattled postures, its oversimplifications and its continuing insistence that the end justifies the means, does not reflect the corruption and greed of a Batista, a Mobutu, a Marcos, or any more contemporary tyrant. And the Cuban people, despite or perhaps because of their many privations, have learned a sinewy kind of existence that will serve them well in the world that awaits them in the aftermath of Castro’s death.
Helpless prey of modern consumerism
On a hot and dusty day during that visit almost half a century ago I found myself being driven in an antique Dodge limousine up to the episcopal palace in Santiago, at the eastern end of Cuba.
I was going to see a bishop at a time when most Cuban bishops were still deeply suspicious of their new regime, and many were actively hostile to it. This man was an exception. Every summer, when all the able-bodied men in his diocese were dragooned into the cane fields for the sugar harvest, he would join them, stripped to the waste, sharing their privations and their fatigue in every respect. He was plainly someone worth talking to.
Earlier that day, my guides – somewhat bored bureaucrats of the revolution – had taken me to see a school in the city. As I entered each classroom of 11 and 12-year olds, the children stood up in unison and chanted enthusiastically their socialist commitment, and about their readiness to die on the battlefield, like Che.
Irish Catholic upbringing
Thinking that it was probably quite some time since he or other members of the clergy had been allowed inside the doors of any school, I described the scene I had encountered in some detail, and repeated my question. The answer was the same. But why, I asked, was he not concerned?
”I think”, he said slowly, after a pause, “that they are making the same mistake that we did.” John Horgan is the former press ombudsman