The revolutionary is dead. The news drew mixed reactions around the world.
Fidel led a life drawing the ire of the West while maintaining the hopes of social justice and equality from his supporters. With his brother Raul now in power, what happens in Cuba’s following years will help solidify Fidel’s legacy—was he the revolutionary his supporters claim, or was he the oppressive dictator hated by the West? You may already have made up your mind.
Putting aside the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs, and all the general animosity which has existed in the 20th century between Cuba and the West (who can forget the US embargo?), examining Castro’s accomplishments and shortcomings can help us appreciate the lasting effect he has had on 20th century politics.
My personal view is that it’s easy to support the idea of “taking down the imperialist ruler to let the people rule for themselves”—if that’s how the argument is framed, then the line between “the good guys” and the “bad guys” favours Castro: Fidel is a hero. He fought in the name of justice, giving land to peasants, bringing black Cubans from the countrysides to white-populated cities like Havana (NY Times, “Global Brinksmanship”).
But I don’t believe it’s that simple. For Cuba’s political environment to have functioned in the Fidel era, Cubans have had to make sacrifices; ones which consisted of rights they fought for in their revolution, and ones which if we were to put in standards of developed countries—“democratic” or “communist”—would be unacceptable.
Successes: School and Health
For the purpose of this post, I want to hash out two successes in areas often touted by the supporters of Castro’s policies: Education and Health Care. These successes are noteworthy; while Fidel has many critics, it would be impossible for them to ignore the positive effect he has had on two of man/woman’s most fundamental human rights.
If one follows international standards, Castro delivered on his promise for access to education. Cuba is the second-highest ranking Latin American country in the world on the UN Education Index, placing 44th in a list of 187 countries. That’s only three behind of Chile, which placed 41st. Adding to that, UNESCO figures show that the country boasts a 99% literacy rate. Castro has undeniably been successful in promoting education in Cuba.
This is not surprising. After overthrowing Batista in 1959, Castro envisioned an education system unobstructed by social barriers. One academic reported early on that the illiteracy rate dropped from 25% to 2-3% in the first ten years after his revolution (Allan, G., 1974). Similar policies were pushed and evolved in the following years, to the point where Cuba now has a fully state-funded tertiary education system. Thus, even in the new millennium, when compared to their regional counterparts, Cubans were likely to access education under Fidel:
|Level of Schooling||1991, End of USSR||1999, Turn of Century||2006, Castro final years|
Figure 1: Percentage of students of enrolment age enrolled in primary, secondary, or tertiary education (%). Source: World Bank
Successes in healthcare are equally as noteworthy. Cuba’s publicly run system is considered among the best in the Latin American world, even drawing praise by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2000.
In 2014, Cuba devoted 11.1% of its GDP toward healthcare (about US $8.8 billion), a figure larger than what most Latin American countries had spent on their own systems. It’s also been on record that other Latin American heads of state, such as Salvadoran President Sanchez Ceren and former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, have made trips to Cuba to receive medical attention rather than relying on the health care systems of their own countries. While it doesn’t boast the same technological health care advancements as more developed countries, by Latin American standards, Cuba is a leader.
So, in terms of spreading knowledge and health care—two rights highlighted in the UN Declaration of Human Rights (Articles 25 and 26)—Fidel did well in Cuba, and these successes have helped legitimize the communist revolution for other left-leaning Latin American leaders and groups: Salvador Allende in Chile, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, the FMLN in El Salvador, and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua are just a few.
But of course, Fidel has as many critics as he has supporters.
More work to be done
Criticism of Castro’s rule quickly gravitates towards Cuba’s human rights record, which is mired with accusations of imprisoning political activists and journalists. According to Human Rights Watch, as of 2016,
the Cuban government continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism. It now relies less on long-term prison sentences to punish its critics, but short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others have increased dramatically in recent years. Other repressive tactics employed by the government include beatings, public acts of shaming, and the termination of employment.
These sentiments were echoed by Amnesty International, which reported that “the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) documented more than 8,600 politically motivated detentions of government opponents and activists during [2015/2016]” (italics mine). Commentators have lent their support to this claim, in addition to claims that Castro sanctioned extra-judicial killings.
Additionally, Cuba has also been criticized for the state of its promotion of press freedom: Freedom House gave Cuba a score of 91/100 (where the closer the score is to 100, the more infringed the press is) and labelled the country’s “Press Freedom” status as “not free”. As my fellow communication and journalism colleagues will know, journalism’s fourth-estate role is crucial for keeping tabs on heads of state and individual human rights. Very few newspapers outside state-sanctioned ones exist in the country, which creates an obvious (and quite problematic) conflict of interest (Miami Herald, “A Major Advantage”).
The issues of access to free speech and the freedom to share information are troublesome regardless of where one lies on the political spectrum.
It’s been contested even in the context of the West: Canadians expressed outrage when C-30 (The “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act”) was proposed in 2012. Critics argued that such a bill would have facilitated mass surveillance of online activity. In the US and around the world, SOPA and PIPA caused a stir, as did Edward Snowden’s revelation of the CIA’s PRISM program. Even Turkish President Recep Erdogan caused a stir after trying ban Twitter in his country after some unflattering news was leaked on the platform.
In the case of Castro, these problems are at times seen as necessary consequences in the fight for socialism and against Western Imperialism. This doesn’t mean that Canadian, U.S., or European attempts at presenting these laws were any better, but it also shouldn’t legitimize Castro’s approach to implementing them.
Furthermore, much can be said about the socio-economic state of many Cubans. it would also seem that Castro’s economic policies—ones which may have seen success 50 years ago—haven’t adapted for the 21st century. Low wages continue to plague the country’s population—shortly after Castro’s death, many reports surfaced of younger generations of Cubans who were concerned that the old “Castro economic system,” which relied on USSR subsidies and state-run industries, was failing them. For instance, one CBC article noted that some Cubans turn to black market jobs, such as prostitution, to make ends meet. Similarly to other Latin American countries, many rely on remittances to tie loose ends.
Such policies may have fostered nationalism, but it also hurt Cuba’s ability to keep up with new communication technologies: Cuba has only recently opened its communication infrastructure to allow for cellphones and for internet wifi-zones around the country, communication technologies which are vital for 21st century commerce, political engagement, and day-to-day living. Access is limited and often times expensive.
Rest in Peace, Comrade
One thing the pro-Castro and anti-Castro camps can agree on is the lasting impact Fidel had on Cubans. Thousands lined the street to catch a glimpse of his ashes as they made their way across 800km (500 miles) of Cuban terrain. Over the weekend, I saw a speech delivered by his brother Raul in front of thousands of Cubans in which he was emphatic that Cuba’s socialist dream was within reach.
Whether positioned on the left or the right, it’s important to examine Castro’s legacy from the height of a U-2 spy-plane (*pun*). I’ve examined some arguments made by both sides. It’s important not to frame the debate in terms of “The West vs. Cuba,” because there will never be a “perfect” leader—if framed this way, the debate is set up in such a way that paints a “good guy” and a “bad guy,” which trivializes it. Rather, we should look at what the leaders—Castro, Kennedy, Nixon, Trudeau, etc.—have done for their countries.
The truth is that Castro succeeded in areas other Latin American countries failed, particularly in access to education and access to health care. By those measures, his “dreaded” communist policies were actually efficient.
However, access to education and access to healthcare are only two social aspects that Castro wanted to tackle in his fight for social equality for all. Fidel may have been a champion for Latin America in these areas, but as of now, if viewed from a broader, international level, his 50 years of ruling leaves much to be desired.