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