Castro: “Refusing to decry dictatorship is a self-indulgence: it is helping the enemy…”

I think most of us have seen the back and forth on the legacy of Fidel Castro between friends on his legacy. All in all, he was probably an upgrade on Batista: although that’s not something you can expect many of the 1.5 million Cuban Americans living in Florida to agree with.

In the Guardian, Zoe Williams gets to the pointy end of argument for people on the left, starting with Ken Livingstone, who, she notes:

…approaches history like a toddler with a cattle prod, and one can only brace for the needless shock of insult. He delivered: “Initially he wasn’t very good on lesbian and gay rights, but the key things that mattered was that people had a good education, good healthcare and wealth was evenly distributed.” By “initially”, he means “for the first two decades of his rule”; by “not very good”, he means “incarcerated homosexuals in labour camps”; but sure, let’s not get aerated about it. It’s not as if it were a key thing that mattered.

Later, after recounting the material poverty of the island state she visited in the 1990s:

Livingstone would doubtless argue that it was because of American sanctions, and not Castro, that Cuba was poor; he would point to the healthcare, the internationalism, the Cuban medics trained and exported to countries poorer still. Critics would come back with the charge that ordinary Cubans couldn’t afford healthcare; and the pharmacies, while elegantly appointed, were empty.


This crotchety back-and-forth misses the point. Castro was an authoritarian. As JFK said of the revolutionaries: “They promised individual liberty and free elections. They promised an end to harsh police-state tactics. They promised a better life for a people long oppressed by both economic and political tyranny. But in the two years since that revolution swept Fidel Castro into power, those promises have all been broken.”

That was 1960; the 50-odd years ensuing, even though they brought a softening on matters like homosexuals and microwaves, didn’t alter the key thing that really mattered; Castro was a dictator.

Quite. Then the critical (Trump?) card:

Pluralism, democracy and universal rights are the foundations of progressive politics. One man, even if he’s a woman, does not get to govern by force and decree. One oppressed group, even if it’s dentists, is an oppression of everybody. One nation, even if it’s tiny and exports a lot of doctors, is as great an insult to the principles of the left as one dictatorial superpower.

Were it not for the current developments in global politics, this could be left unsaid: leftwing politics could spend happy hours and days in a cloud of whataboutery, like a cartoon of cats fighting. Yet the return of strongman politics to the US, with Vladimir Putin emboldened and Nigel Farage on his way to America to ask for “forgiveness” for the mean things British people have said about Trump, requires a response that is pointed, plain and coherent.

And the capstone:

…the problem (with all Dictators) is that the power annexed by one big daddy hasn’t come from nowhere: it is power surrendered by everyone else, whose human destiny is then smothered by their political impotence. Whether you are explicitly denied the vote or simply rendered irrelevant by a winner-takes-all authoritarianism, you are left infantilised and directionless. [Emphasis added]

And given the times that are in it, this is a crucial denouement:

The powerlessness of a populace is hard to articulate, and we often describe it by synecdoche: people travelling in the USSR in the 80s would talk about the scarcity of Levi’s, or the fact that East Berliners couldn’t visit the west; we use “women can’t drive” as a shorthand for life in Saudi Arabia.

These were or are demonstrable facts, and yet, it’s not the end of the world, is it, denim? What we were really trying to convey was the drabness, the rigidity, the sense of enclosure.

There is no such thing as a modern autocracy, since there can be no positive vision of a future if you have no hand in building it. That’s why life under authoritarian communism always looked so tired; not because the clothes were secondhand but because civic identity was trapped in an inescapable present.

During the first world war the Scottish War Savings Committee produced a poster: Self-Indulgence AT THIS TIME is HELPING THE ENEMY. It’s my new motto: we cannot afford to argue the toss about dictators, parse the difference between the really bad ones and the less bad ones who looked cute in a beret.

Refusing to decry dictatorship is a self-indulgence: it is helping the enemy. [Emphasis added]


Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    I don’t hear Zoe decrying the murderous creeps who rule Saudi Arabia, or Israel, or any of the other pals of the US/UK – although she would probably have a pop at the equally vile Iranian leadership as they are on the ‘wrong’ side, as was Castro.

    Castro may not have been an angel but he provided the Cuban people with a better health and education service than the US has, despite their vicious blockade, and numerous attempts on his life by that paragon of decency, the CIA.

    Zoe Williams is a representative UK journalist who takes her lead from the other establishment mouthpieces who are her colleagues on the Guardian. To give these sorts of odious politically slanted propaganda pieces credibility, Mick, is “a self-indulgence: it is helping the enemy”.

  • ted hagan

    The West, especially the US, in recent decades, has propped up much worse regimes and has helped to topple many more democratic ones. Had the US not imposed an embargo on Cuba the country might have evolved into a much healthier state. The irony is Guantanamo, in Cuba, which symbolises US injustice and brutality and the wicked wars that went with it. God knows what cruelties have been inflicted by US agents and which its citizens will never find out about.

  • Philip Herron

    Its a stretch to say its a better health care system than the US because it ignores the scale difference. But i agree on some points. For instance Oil Rights were to be given to American companies and Sugar rights for Pepsi in the 1960’s is what pushed the Bay of Pigs to happen if you look at the policies. Fidel wanted to heavily tax the rights being given away for essentially free. It was also a political football through the cold war because of the missle crisis.

    Looking at america though its easy to forget that so many Cubans have immigrated illegally and legally to get out of Cuba. They must have had their reasons to go in such large numbers. But he was a dictator and big government guy which generally given enough time fizzles out because of the inevitable money problems like USSR or North Korea.

  • ted hagan

    Plus no one likes anything better that to see the United States get its nose tweaked.

  • csb

    Quite a few people have been calling Williams out over her double standards.

  • woodkerne

    There is far better coverage to hand, even within the same edition of the Guardian (notably Samuel Farber’s contribution), than the tendentious piece by the very ignorant and ideological Zoe Williams (aka the new Melanie Phillips) chosen by the Slogger editor. One suspects the editorial choice was determined by its polemic rather than its analytic value. “Stop calling Tony Blair a war criminal. The left should be proud of his record,” pronounces Ms Williams in a recent column. Two things stand out in Ms Williams’s liberal-propagandist slur: the open display of double-standards and the absence of geopolitical context shown. For myself, I prefer the testimonial of Nelson Mandela or for that matter the measured judgement of Irish president, Michael D. Higgins, an Irish Labour politician, who by contrast with the self-appointed progressive elites in London is capable (drawing on the lived experience of a post-colonial intellectual) of grasping the real complexities (and true contradictions) of a history of asymmetrical struggle against an almighty colonial oppressor nearby.

  • file

    Is everyone else totally against dictatorship? I mean, it has its advantages. And I do not think that democracy really works because of my underlying suspicion that 95% of the world’s population are too stupid to know what is good for them, or to vote for it.


    Israel is a democracy and Saudi is a theocracy. Both recognised as legitimate by the UN as is Cuba and British Northern Ireland.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Well, if they were right-wing leaning crooks (and there must have been many such under Batista) they wouldn’t want to stay and contribute to their society. The Cuban emmigrants in Florida do seem to be very vocal tea-party types.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    That does not stop them from employing vicious state sponsored wholesale murder. As does the US on a large scale, as well as (if you leave out the ‘wholesale’) possibly a quarter to half the other “UN recognised” governments, including the UK.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    If it was consequence free for the rest of the world I would actually like to see it get more than ‘tweaked’ – and if they keep prodding China, this may happen, Good luck to the rest of us then!

  • Cináed mac Artri

    The Left does a disservice to its own moral case when it refuses to acknowledge the dictatorship and human rights abuses of the Castro regime. This failure to call out the obvious shortcomings of Castro only serves to tarnish the real advances made in the lives of ordinary Cubans by the revolution and the overthrow of Batista.

    Talking ‘whatabout’ Rightwing regimes, oppressive theocracies or the excesses of the USA only adds insult to injury. It’s not about failings on the political right. It is simple honesty to acknowledge that Fidel Castro had feet of clay, becoming a dictator (who handed power on to his brother as if it was some type of family heirloom) and squandered many of the hopes the Cuban Revolution promised.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    That would be ok if all the others with ‘feet of clay’ were attacked in the same way as Castro, and subjected to embargo and vituperation by the rest of the world, but it doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. There is a very selective approach to such matters by Government and the media. If you rail against every mote in the progressive eye, you distract attention from the beam in the reactionary one.

  • Philip Herron

    Setup by Britan post WW2. Its crazy if you study the history around ww1 and the manipulation of the middle-east from the late 1800’s because of oil interests of BP and Shell and the railway lines from EH Harman

  • Cináed mac Artri

    Using the tools of the oppressor is not “progressive”. Human rights abuses are, in most people’s opinions, not dismissed as ‘motes’.

    They must be condemned wherever they appear, not sidestepped solely on the basis that the exponents of an individual’s favoured political philosophy are the perpetrators.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    You ignore the fact that there is a context to every situation. Any action must take context into consideration. The world does not work in some higher plane where everyone is fair and honest, and good is the supreme goal, unfortunately. That’s not to say that you throw out the baby with the bathwater, but a measured flow is required.

    The unfortunate fact is that the vast majority of governments in the world are right-wing or centre-right, and are extremely hostile to the emergence of real socialism anywhere. You won’t get justice by being an unexamined idealist.

  • Declan Doyle

    And Unionism/loyalisn although not recognised by the UN went on a murderous and genocidal rampage against their fellow Irish who just happened to disagree with the aims of Uniinism/Loyalism. Israel is a sovereign State and does what it does to avoid annihilation just like the Catholic/ Nationalist/ Republican people of NI did. Recorded history is good especially for those who read it and survive.

  • Starviking

    You don’t hear her decrying those people because the piece she wrote was about Castro. She wrote it because it was a topical subject, which interests the public.

    As for Saudi, she has written about them:

  • mickfealty

    Yes to the accusation re polemic. So, to you, democracy is worth…?

  • mickfealty

    I’ve made the same (albeit limited) arguments elsewhere re health and education. And it’s true that the political and economic face off with the US didn’t help. But he was the last of a kind that was prevalent in Latin America in the sixties.

    What is it about the term (and reality of) dictator we have such accepting if he swings in from the left rather than the right? It should be noted too that. Costa Rica has a better universal health service than the US with out the state oppression.

  • mickfealty
  • mickfealty

    Bit of a blood libel there Boney? That wouldn’t cover the 1.5 million living in Florida. It hardly covers those who left for fear of imprisonment, dispossession or worse. All of which are ramifications of the mass withdrawal of Human Rights. Something we in the west are often a little bit to focused on expanding rather than defending.

  • Zig70

    I can’t help wondering why our modern democracies can’t get anywhere near the ideals that Cuban society worked for. A lot of the criticisms from other societies can be reflected right back. Are we worse, living in a society with lots of hidden dictatorships that keep us down.

  • Declan Doyle

    Sometimes very necessarry and appropriate to pull up those with a one sided and amnesiac view of history.

  • woodkerne

    Desirable certainly. It is surely only metropolitan liberals who can seriously suppose that democracy is a universal standard and absolute norm of civilization (which as a benchmark of legitimacy, moreover, has been readily disregardable in the countervailing face of the Monroe doctrine). In reply, as with all such questions of realpolitik, and as I’ve said viz Zoe Williams’s diatribe, the answer – the how and when of it – depends upon the particulars of the context. How can it be otherwise under circumstances of sustained duress in the form of a punitive blockade and constant threat of invasion?

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Well, there are much better targets for criticism about human rights than Cuba. The US and the UK for starters. But they are let off lightly because they are “our” side. There is no widely held support for the concept of the Iraq war and the Libya fiasco being ‘wars of aggression’, which is a war crime according to the UN – but they clearly fall under this definition.

    Similarly, Russia is in Syria at the invite of the Syrian government. Any other forces fighting in Syria are there illegally, including Turkey and the US. The media never mention that these interventions are illegal according to international law.

    Then there is, for example, Craig Murray, the UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, who pointed out widespread abuses to Human Rights there to the UK government. Result – he was sacked.

    And so the double standard goes on and on. “We” do something illegal and it is swept under the carpet. “They” do something we don’t like, legal or illegal, and the sky falls in.

    (“Blood libel”! – going a bit over the top there, Mick?)

  • Philip Herron

    Cuba is kind of America’s version of Taiwan. And the political football that was cuba no suprise that a dictator would come up through the ranks. Kind of like giving money and weapons to the iraqi mujahidin in ~1979 or Rambo 3 lol.

    Thing is though he was a dictator he did remove alot of freedom of people which is the complete opposite to what I was brought up to learn. The same thing goes for this guy Nelson Mandella too i had many misconceptions untill i started reading or watched this.

  • woodkerne

    Your source for impugning Mandela – probably the most revered world figure of our age – is a video blogger! I suspect Madiba’s reputation is safe from this calumny. No less in the long-view than Fidel’s from the hypocrisy of liberal propagandists in the Guardian, on the BBC, and elsewhere.

  • Philip Herron

    Cosntant thread of invasion sure thats definetly true or being framed also:

    But at the end of the days post cuban missle crisis i think big government was totalitarian and was unable to transition back to freedom for people not simply a political symbol against america which is what it became. Due to the totalitarian nature of communism or marxism government become to slow to change and this is the fundemental flaw with these ideologies.

    Its funny how LGBTQ community flocks to socialism etc but it was western democracy that has allowed this community to grow.

    Its way to easy to point a finger at Ashers or right wing christians at not baking a cake when countries like Cuba dont allow these rights or Saudia Arabia and Palastine execute homosexuality.

  • Philip Herron

    I can list you countless sources for his arguments but that doesnt really matter when views conflict…

  • woodkerne

    List them if you please for what they’re worth. Whether they’ll be of any citational – which is to say, authoritative – value is another matter entirely.

  • Philip Herron

    Take a look at this it made me change my mind alot. But more over i try to read things that conflict with my world views more and i’ve started to question most beliefs i have had through my early 20’s.

  • woodkerne

    Even supposing English may not be your native language, respectfully, I suggest you exercise greater discrimination in your use of sources.

  • Philip Herron

    What part are you questioning here? That Operation Northwoods didn’t exist? Or that over the last 100 years communism has killed over 95 million or something if you add it up which is more than ww2.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Try adding up the deaths caused by these:

    Since the end of World War 2, the United States has:
    Attempted to overthrow more than 50 foreign governments, most of which were democratically-elected.
    Dropped bombs on the people of more than 30 countries.
    Attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders.
    Attempted to suppress a populist or nationalist movement in 20 countries.
    Grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries.

    Plus … although not easily quantified … more involved in the practice of torture than any other country in the world … for over a century … not just performing the actual torture, but teaching it, providing the manuals, and furnishing the equipment.

    (William Blum –

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Here’s another little bit of perspective (must be read all the way through). But you’ll never read this in the Guardian.

  • aquifer

    One big daddy is the most a child needs.

  • Philip Herron

    Yeah i agree America has done many bad things. I wear a bit of a conspiracy hat here like 9/11 or JFK or RFK or MLK but thats another debate again. The debate shifted to Communism vs Free Market.

    Overall for me to create an equal and fair society i believe the way to do that is by ensuring there is equality in opertunity and not equality in outcome which is the overal distinction of Free Market vs Socialism/Communism.

  • Reader

    Zig70: I can’t help wondering why our modern democracies can’t get anywhere near the ideals that Cuban society worked for.
    Maybe it’s because the ideals are abstract whereas the living standards are real. And much less tolerable in a cold climate.
    Or maybe you just need to form the right political party. Who knows, if you offer the people labour camps and promise to throw a load of journalists into prison you will get huge numbers of votes.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Equality of opportunity will not create an equal and fair society – it will create a society where the powerful and/or unscrupulous will lord it over the powerless and/or ethical. How would you feel about it if through no fault of your own you were one of the powerless and/or ethical.

    So look at this again – only “equality of outcome” creates “equality of outcome”.

    Some may be better equipped than others to overcome any disadvantage or challenge, but human society does not operate on that basis – otherwise we would be killing the old, unwell, unfit and generally going down the nazi road.

    Additionally, exponents of the “free” market often forget that much of the infra-structure that enables them has been created and is maintained by mutual effort (e.g. road systems by all people paying their taxes). Society is an exercise in mutuality, and without it we would be tooth and nail savages.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    The cry of “whataboutery” is a joke – just a phrase designed to cut off an argument one dislikes.

    Nothing happens in a vacuum, all events on earth are in some way related to, or affected by, all others. If the US, for example, feels entitled to illegally invade a sovereign country because it dislikes it’s government or wants it’s resources, that then nullifies any claim it has to criticise others for doing the same thing elsewhere. If these sorts of comparisons cannot be made, then language and ethics become meaningless.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    The author of this diatribe, one ‘Stefan Molyneux’ appears to be a very dysfunctional individual with tendencies to cultism, and a devotion to the ‘principles’ of Ayn Rand. I would strongly distrust anything he says.

  • mickfealty

    See the note in the link about moral evasion?

  • mickfealty

    Mar tu fhéin?

  • AntrimGael

    Boo hoo! Castro and the Cuban people refused to be bought by the crazy US Neo Cons and kicked their arses at the Bay of Pigs and so we must shun and condemn them?? Nah, give me Castro and his socialist regime ANY day over the right wing, warmongering, nut jobs in Washington.

  • Declan Doyle

    Bíonn dhá insint ar scéal agus dhá leagan déag ar amhrán

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    But this is not about “using the past” to defeat peace in the present – this is about the media not taking a balanced and fair approach to all, but instead promoting and not challenging the establishment views of the society they are embedded within.

    “As the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger told us in an interview:

    ‘[T]he whole thing works by a kind of osmosis. If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, “Rupert Murdoch,” or whoever, “never tells me what to write”, which is beside the point: they don’t have to be told what to write. It’s understood.'”

    Or as Noam Chomsky told some BBC suit:

    “If you did not hold the opinions you do, then you would not be sitting in that chair.”

    I had thought when I at first came across this site that it held to rather higher standards.

  • mickfealty

    We do, and that’s the only rule that holds it together. It’s really simple, clear and needs no ideological buy in.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Well, I hope that is so, Mick, but your audience will be the ultimate judge.

  • mickfealty

    And me. Someone has to be the final arbiter of where the line is, if there’s any confusion.