The retrospectives on Fidel Castro continue, even as the entombment of the Cuban dictator has passed. New photographic essays, retrospectives and interviews appear on our computer screens. So symbolic has this figure proved that I expect to see apologias and indictments into the New Year, if only because the former necessitate the latter.
Ponder the inability in some quarters to name unpleasant facts. President Obama never quite could bring himself to say “radical Islam” or to tell us what the “extremists” of which he spoke instead were extreme about. Here, he went a step further, silent on the ideology that animated Castro as well as the crimes to which they gave rise.
Indeed, the language deployed by some world leaders has been no more honest or creditable than that heaped upon Castro by veteran KGB stooges and communist fellow-travelers. Note the common resort to the purposely evasive, syrupy valedictory language normally reserved for the passing of a pioneering CEO or a charismatic motivational speaker — “powerful emotions” for someone who “altered the course of individual lives” (President Obama), “deep sorrow” for “a larger than life figure” (Canada’s Justin Trudeau), a “beacon of light,” an “absolute giant of the 20th century” (Marxist former London mayor Ken Livingstone), “a really great man” who “controlled things very firmly” (KGB agent of influence historian Richard Gott).
Note, too, the substitution of real or imagined successes to the exclusion of the dread, deadly deeds dispositive of the lives hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Nothing here of the show trials, the mass executions, the forced labor camps or the decades-long confinement of dissidents to windowless cells. Nothing of the 5,300 people killed resisting Castro’s forces; the one-fifth of Cubans who voted with their feet to escape totalitarian oppression; the lives of the still less fortunate 78,000 Cubans, lost in shark-infested waters fleeing in horror the only home they had known; the 14,000 Cubans killed in Castro’s wars abroad; the 6,800 politically motivated assassinations; the gulag of labor camps, known by their Spanish acronym UMAPs, holding tens of thousands for infractions as arbitrary as being gay, a Jehovah’s Witness or a Seven Day Adventist.
Indeed, the destruction of the lives of opponents was raised to a new virtue and the very concept of law explicitly subordinated to the enforcement of control through brute force. As Castro’s executioner, Che Guevara, put it, “To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail. This is a revolution. And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.” These were not the aberrant words of a maverick henchman. Castro himself put it no less forcefully: “revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts, but on moral conviction.”
Few more eloquent testimonies exist to the avoidable misery and wastage to which Castro subjected Cuba than the fact that, by the mid-1900s, the 2 million-strong Cuban-American émigré community Castro’s tyranny had created were generating eleven times the gross domestic product of the island they had fled.
In short, Castro’s human rights record amounted to the diametric opposite of the middle class-backed restoration of constitutionality, free elections, free enterprise, anti-nationalization, and anti-communism which Castro rode into power. Yet, the man who vehemently denied communist tendencies and who famously told the New York Times’ Herbert Matthews, that “power does not interest me. After victory I want to go back to my village and just be a lawyer again,” turned Cuba into a Moscow satellite and never held an election. As Mona Charen notes wryly, “Castro promised free elections within 18 months. That was 708 months ago.” Biology, not constitutionality, determined his reign as Máximo Líder. As constitutional lawyer Augusto Zimmerman mordantly observes, “‘Freedom with bread and without Terror’ was the original slogan of the Cuban Revolution. ‘Terror without freedom and with insufficient bread’ was the final solution arrived at by Castro’s brutal dictatorship.”
Thus, prattle about “significant improvements to the education and healthcare” (Trudeau) “advances in the fields of education literacy and health” (UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon) are made to function as alibis for a brutal tyranny that is at most barely insinuated. (The customary anti-American voices were saying the same things about Saddam Hussein, who presided over a country rightly described by post-Saddam president Jalal Talabani as a “concentration camp above ground, and a mass grave beneath”).
The tortured rationalizations of Castro’s regime are also redolent of the old (largely false) exculpation of Mussolini that held him in honor because he had made the trains run on time. What are piles of corpses and overflowing prisons when weighed in the balance against the achievements of the Ferrovie dello Stato? In short, a propaganda fiction devised by his regime, much like Cuban agitprop retailed by Castro admirers about his alleged achievements in the realms of health care, education and social justice for blacks at home and abroad.
In point of fact, as National Review’s Jay Nordlinger once vividly elaborated, the much-vaunted Cuban health care in reality is a caste system that confines its excellence to the ruling elite and hard cash-paying foreigners. Ordinary Cubans are consigned to the vagaries of dilapidated, unsanitary hospitals and medical supplies so scarce that doctors have been known to reuse latex gloves. Even the still-respectable infant mortality rate, which was one of the world’s lowest when Castro seized power in 1959, is kept in check by such expedients as state-mandated abortions in the event of the smallest complications, producing in turn a black market of prenatal care struggling to conform to customary humanitarian standards.
The re-emergence over the years of tuberculosis, leprosy, and typhoid fever ought to be sufficient commentary on the state of health care in Cuba. So, too, should be a 2014 report from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting which found that in Cuban hospitals “the floors are stained and surgeries and wards are not disinfected. Doors do not have locks and their frames are coming off. Some bathrooms have no toilets or sinks, and the water supply is erratic. Bat droppings, cockroaches, mosquitoes and mice are all in evidence.”
The oft-heard claim that such abysmal conditions are due to America’s now-lifted embargo crumble with the recollection that Castro had no problem providing abundant medical resources to foreigners and “revolutionary” states that were charged lavishly for the privilege. Doctors who protest this state of affairs end up, like Oscar Élias Biscet, in prison, or like Hilda Molina Morejón, the country’s former chief neurosurgeon, subjected to mob violence and prohibited from practicing medicine. Little wonder that Castro’s health minister, José Ramón Balaguer, applauded Michael Moore’s audacious whitewash in his 2007 agitprop film, Sicko.
Yes, Cuban education, thanks to vast expropriations and munificent Soviet subsidies, ensured major advances, though these have proved unsustainable since the end of the Cold War and withdrawal of Moscow’s backing. In any case, the paradox of churning out credentialed young people into an economy utterly incapable for the most part of providing jobs remotely commensurate with their skills was bound to produce a reckoning, and so it has: a 30 percent university drop-out rate and an epidemic of teacher and student absenteeism. Like many a Western country in the age of cash-strapped downsizing, only with more urgency, Cuba’s universities now lavish their attention on foreign, full-fee paying students.
Was this any more than could have been guaranteed in a remotely democratic state? Or is it sound reason to recall the timeless reaction of Armando Valledaras, an early Castro supporter and later Cuban bureaucrat, jailed for 22 years by Castro (his troubles began when he refused to have a “I’m with Fidel’ slogan placed at his desk), to assertions of Castro’s achievements in a Q&A at Harvard: “It’s all untrue — a pack of lies. But even if it were true: Can’t a country have those things without dictatorship, without tyranny, without gulags, without torture — with freedom?”
And what of apartheid? Were the tens of thousands of deaths in Castro’s war in Angola worth the candle to pressure a racist system? Or did South Africa’s white minority government become amenable to change due to Western sanctions, especially in the realm of oil and energy? However, let it be conceded that even the armies of brutal dictators sometimes do some good. Julius Nyrere’s Tanzanian forces ousted Uganda’s psychopathic Idi Amin. Stalin’s Red Army drove out the Nazis from eastern Europe. But few have been bold enough to praise Stalinism. Apparently, however, Castroism can be widely excused on the Left on account of Cuban troops dispatched to Angola. This is tantamount to saying that causing abuses and misery in some places is excusable because it relieved it in other places. Indeed, even one of Castro’s admirers, who is still busy recycling the false claim that Castro instituted excellent health coverage for all Cubans, correctly noted that the “South Africans who hero-worship Castro [possess] anti-Western instincts [that] are stronger than their pro-democratic instincts.”
But it will be asserted, in the face of all these considerations, that it is unfair to hold Western leaders, never mind others, at the moment of Castro’s passing, to a standard of truth-telling unknown to diplomacy. This was, they will insist, the time for a diplomatic message of condolence, however reluctantly offered, to a nation with which these states had diplomatic relations. Putting aside the obvious lack of reluctance on display for example from Mr. Trudeau, the answer must be: Yes — and that is precisely what did not happen here. To have expressed condolences and noted Castro’s importance could have been done without unsavory euphemisms about his “larger than life” impact and the individual lives “altered.” President Ronald Reagan did as much (and no more) on the death of Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev, leader of a hostile superpower.
The conclusion is inescapable: the language used disguised the reluctance of these leaders to recognize evil. Doubtless, political proclivities account for these in many a case, and a better insight into how they felt is provided by the communist fellow travelers who felt free to lavish their praise openly, fully aware of Castro’s crimes. Of such people, of their reluctance to name crimes, of their choice to identify with perpetrator rather than victim, let alone their refusal to welcome the passing of an evil man, one must conclude that justice cannot be their concern, however much the word featured in their apologies.
Dennis Prager put it well when observing the similar reluctance of some to note with satisfaction the death of Osama Bin Laden: “It seems to me that if one does not celebrate the death of a truly evil person, one is not celebrating the triumph of good over evil. I do not see how one can honestly say, ‘I celebrate that bin Laden can no longer murder men, women, and children, but I do not celebrate his death.’” Such people are guilty, as British historian Andrew Roberts noted on the same occasion, of a refusal “to obey the natural instincts of the free-born to celebrate the death of a tyrant.”
A large number of Christian and Jewish clergymen, of a leftist stripe, can be found eager to cite Proverbs 24:17 (“When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, and when he stumbles, let your heart not exult”), conveniently forgetting Proverbs 11:10 (“When the wicked perish, there is joyful song”), as also the fact that one’s personal enemy is not necessarily in the category of the wicked, making 24:17 inapplicable. But moral confusion is not a new condition and those who failed to take satisfaction in Castro’s death have told us more about themselves than anything else.