No You Don’t Have to Be Outraged that Our Prime Minister Was Fond of Fidel Castro

Justin Trudeau’s statement about Castro's death may have come across as somewhat shallow. Perhaps it was somewhat lacking in analytical detail. But I find it exasperating to see how “outraged” some of the conservatives and media pundits among us have become about it. The hypocrisy is outrageous. Trudeau’s statement was relatively banal and friendly, little more than a heartfelt gesture of kindness to Cuba. His words were just a notch louder than what would have been deemed completely forgettable, only because of the fact that he focused on the positive aspects of Castro’s rule and omitted the negative. In the view of many on the right through left-of-centre of politics in this country, that’s completely unacceptable when you’re talking about Fidel Castro.

But why? Yes, Castro was responsible for many human rights violations, and the Cuban Revolution was a violent and destructive foundation for a Communist dictatorship. At the same time, the historical impact of this violence is often blown out of proportion and removed from its historical context — in comparison to other violent conflicts that have gone largely ignored. The brutality of the Cuban Communist Government that came out of a violent revolution has often been overstated — especially when you consider the free pass that is given by our government to so many oppressive regimes around the world, such as Saudi Arabia. If Fidel Castro is a “monster”and a “torturer,” then so have many other world leaders been, including many United States Presidents.

Moreover, we’re too prone to forget that the Cuban Revolution was orchestrated by Castro and his allies to overthrow the oppressive authoritarian government of President Fulgencio Batista, who seized power in a coup and then staged fraudulent elections to retain his power. That is to say, Cuba was already living under an oppressive dictatorship, and had been in a state of political unrest and fragility for decades. Oppression was an inescapable part of reality for the people of Cuba.

In 1952, when Batista was running for the office of President, he could not rekindle the popular appeal he had once had and was clearly on the verge of losing. So he staged a second, military coup and began a regime to facilitate his own personal profit by means of exploiting his country.

After seizing power, Batista allied himself with wealthy landowners and began scrapping Cuba’s civil liberties. He established lucrative deals for himself with US-based multinational corporations to profit from the country’s resources and workforce, and underhanded deals with the American Mafia to profit from organized crime within his country. He implemented mass censorship and repression of free expression, and tortured and executed his enemies. The infamous brutality of Communist Cuba is, by many accounts, dwarfed in comparison to the brutality of Batista’s government that came before.

In spite of this, Batista’s illegitimate government — a government that came to being by thwarting a democratic election with military force — was not only recognized, but also funded, supported, and enabled by the government of the United States. So those who are critical of the violent nature of the Cuban Revolution would do well to remember that the United States actions in Cuba contributed in a very major way to making that violence inevitable, and sowing the seeds of the revolution.

Those of us who have lived our entire lives in a stable democratic society, with a court system to protect our civil rights, are too far removed from the extreme injustice that led to the Cuban Revolution, to understand how it motivated people to revolt. It is difficult to truly understand the decisions that Castro made that led to eventual despotism, when you have never had your civil liberties completely disposed of, never experienced a military coup, and never had your country turned into a safe haven for organized crime. The Cuban Revolution was inevitable because of Batista.

There is a fine line to be aware of here, because it is too easy to say that the conditions of Batista’s rule that led to the revolution justify the oppression that followed, too easy to paint a pretty picture of Communist Cuba when it was deeply flawed in many ways. Human rights should be inalienable. The end does not justify the means when the end is still an oppressive system. However, it still must be understood that Castro was only the face of what was in its inception truly a revolutionary and necessary movement — his cause was just, even if one does not agree with his violent methods or the oppressive government that he was at the head of.

To some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.
— John F. Kennedy

Ultimately Communist Cuba sacrificed too much of its citizens’ liberties and caused too much suffering. We have to ask — after the revolution had been won, why did the human rights violations continue, and why have there been no real democratic elections for the government of Cuba in over 50 years? Why did Castro favour dictatorship when he famously defended an attack against Batista’s government by citing the illegitimacy of Batista’s claim to power? Why not have some faith in democracy?

Again the answer is not as simple as it may appear on the surface. I wouldn’t agree with anyone who would think that authoritarianism was ever a “necessary evil,” but given the historical context, it is certainly easy to understand why Castro may have seen it that way. And in no small way, we must again acknowledge the extent to which the United States was complicit in the conditions that caused Cuba to stabilize under authoritarianism, and for Castro grow into the despot that he did.

The Cuba that Castro lived in prior to the revolution was susceptible to civil unrest and frequent government coups (two happened in a matter of decades prior to the revolution), and at the centre of a lot of interest on the part of US imperialism. The United States is known to install or support authoritarian governments around the world when it does not like their policies, and they were quite active in this regard in Cuba’s part of the world in the mid-20th century. In 1954 the CIA overthrew a democratically elected government in Guatemala, and facilitated a coup d’etat that installed a government more favourable to US imperialism. They made similar efforts in Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, around the same time.

Meanwhile, in comparison to the US support of Batista’s regime, the CIA made 638 documented attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro in the half century following the revolution. During the same period that they were active in Guatemala, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic they were also trying to do the same in Cuba. As we know, in 1961, the CIA orchestrated and funded the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. So we can see where Communist Cuba may have got its protectionist policy positions. Furthermore, one can imagine the paranoia and vigilance which repeated assassination attempts may have inspired in Castro, quite possibly impairing his better judgement. Even if Cuba’s military could defend the country, he still had to worry about propaganda and espionage, which is probably why he did not trust democratic elections nor free press.

US Imperialism has posed a very real threat to the people of Cuba, both before and after the revolution. If they were truly worried about the well-being of the Cuban people, why didn’t the United States at any point seriously try to normalize relations or pursue any sort of diplomatic solution with Cuba as they have done successfully with other oppressive dictatorships? Evidently Canada was ahead of the game on this, or at least Pierre Trudeau thought he was.

In 1976, Pierre Trudeau visited Cuba and established a lasting and meaningful personal friendship with Fidel Castro that set the tone for Canada’s relationship with the country. It wasn’t necessarily a very popular move at the time, but Trudeau believed he was doing the right thing by opening up relations, and in my opinion this was one of the areas in which our current Prime Minister’s father excelled. He was no perfect leader either, but he certainly improved Canada’s standing on the world stage.

Perhaps Justin Trudeau is speaking kindly about Fidel Castro now in the spirit of his father’s actions, given his family’s history with the man. Let’s be optimistic for a minute here. Perhaps our PM is actually doing something smart for once, trying to strengthen our country’s diplomatic ties with Cuba and give us a more instrumental role to play on the world stage — while at the same time helping Cuba participate in the global economy, strengthening their trade relations with us. It would, after all, be in keeping with his role as Prime Minister.

You won’t ordinarily find me defending anything that Trudeau says. But in this case I think that what he said about Castro was earnest, fitting and diplomatic, and just politically vague enough to avoid being a major cause for offense to anyone. What is the reason that anyone would feel so strongly that our Prime Minister needs to make a token denouncement, an acknowledgement of Castro’s failings upon news of his death? But even that is not enough —some are even offended that Trudeau would praise the successes of their health and education systems. Just a few months ago, Obama was talking about charting a new course with Cuba. Trump has indicated that he may not follow in Obama’s footsteps in this regard, but we don’t have to do whatever America does.

Castro was a leader with many flaws, and he did not liberate the Cuban people from oppression without giving it back to them in another form. But he was not equivalent to Pot Pol, Stalin, or Hitler, as Ezra Levant has suggested. Ezra Levant, by the way, is outraged that Trudeau spoke so kindly of Castro in response to the news of his death , but feels that a more appropriate way to respond to the news is to slut-shame the Prime Minister’s mother on Twitter and “joke” about how much Justin looks like Castro. A dignified, warm good-bye to an old family friend is wrong, but the kind of deliberately offensive humour you’d expect to hear from a ten years old boy who doesn’t know any better is apparently okay.

I have others saying that Castro “murdered his own people,” but these same people are proponents of the death penalty. Why be in favour of it when it is done in the United States but not when it is done in Cuba? What’s more, US Imperialism and neoliberalism have repeatedly been responsible for or complicit in installing oppressive dictators around the world that have done a lot worse than Cuba in terms of human rights, torture, forced labour, and more.

The hypocrisy abounds. All of these pundits, journalists and others who have made a new hobby of litanizing everything they hate about Castro now that he is dead — I would like to ask them why they feel that it is so much more important to voice their opinions about this than it is to say, speak out about about the White Supremacists shouting “Sieg Heil” in Washington D.C. and infiltrating the Whitehouse.

None of this sad state of affairs in our own country and in our neighbours to the south excuses the terrible things that Castro did as dictator, of course. Cuba is still known to arrest or harass those who speak out against the government, or publish opinions that cast the government in a bad light. The country’s anti-emigration policies, lack of freedom, and economic struggles are all signs that Castro took his country down the wrong path, and I have certainly seen far-left voices trying to obscure this fact with misleading information. There is a time and a place to remind everyone that Communist Cuba wasn’t a paradise for all of those living under it— the Prime Minister’s response to Castro’s death just isn’t one of them.

But some people do take the Castro-worship to a level that could be offensive to some. One Facebook page shared a photo saying this — “Executions in Cuba under Fidel: 276. Killed by Police in US 2016 YTD: 875.” I am not sure where they got their numbers from, but after some digging, it seems that the Cuban executions number only includes death sentences. Political executions in Cuba, which would entail far more than the number of death sentences, are an unclear number because they didn’t keep careful track, but all estimates are much higher than the numbers given in the meme, sometimes in the tens of thousands. Because a lot of these are associated with wars and military operations, I don’t really agree with the use of terms like “atrocities” and “murderous” here, but it certainly reeks of terrible brutality.

There is no reason to try to cover up or forgive the violent or totalitarian qualities of Communist Cuba. And this article is certainly not intended to be a defense of Communism. But many of the same people who seem so passionate about denouncing Castro have been supportive or complicit in the support of various murderous tyrants of all shapes and sizes — so long as they’re acting in the name of free trade. I have to wonder, is it really about defending human rights, standing against extremism, authoritarianism and oppression, or is it about condemning Cuba’s anti-capitalist ideology? Castro wasn’t the devil. He wasn’t a hero either — he was a deeply flawed human being with some good intentions gone wrong.

Castro acknowledged later in his life that he was responsible for many “mistakes,” such as the labour camps and other human rights violations against homosexuals. Again, this doesn’t excuse those things obviously, and Castro must own his reputation accordingly even in death. But as Cuba evolved under Castro, we did see the nation move in a more egalitarian direction, and a nation that was once plagued with homophobia now covers sex change operations under their universal health insurance. Meanwhile, their social programs have had some major successes recognized on a global scale, and they’re starting to move towards better relations with other countries, and possibly towards trade. There’s reason to believe that with a few changes, they can make it work.

Ultimately we’re still talking about a Communist dictatorship with a poor human rights record, but that being said, the fact that their literacy rate is higher than ours or America’s should put us all to shame. The fact that their citizens have easier access to social services than many of Canada’s poor is a disgrace that should cause our Prime Minister great embarrassment — he should not be embarrassed by anything he said about Fidel Castro. Furthermore, shouldn’t the United States Congress be ashamed that a Communist Dictatorship has been able to solve some of the problems that have been plaguing the US for decades? Isn’t it about time that they looked into some of the systems that allowed that to happen?

Given his track record of praising dictatorships and building relationships with oppressive dictators, maybe it was a good PR move to skip Castro’s funeral, but for me it was quite disappointing news to hear. I wish Justin would act more boldly like his father did, to lead instead of buckling under political pressure. He seems rather more afraid of taking risks than his father Pierre ever was.

A lot of the “outrage” I am seeing over this issue strikes me as somewhat disingenuous. Do we really need to take a stand against Communism? This isn’t 1959. Harper’s legacy already committed 1.5 million dollars of federal money to a “victims of Communism” monument in Ottawa. Interestingly enough we won’t be getting a federally funded monument to victims of neoliberalism. Must this bitterness and contempt of Communist ideology apply to diplomatic gestures made to other countries in perpetuity?