[This essay can also be read in conjunction with my previous critique of double standards on the Left, posted February 2014.]
Castro & the Police State Left
Fidel Castro has died. His enemies and his sympathizers are framing their predictable responses. I am addressing the latter. I have read many glowing eulogies from the Left in the last few days, some hagiographic, some more carefully worded, but all quite problematic in what they say, imply, and more especially, in what they do not say about ‘Fidel’ and the Cuban system.
I come not to demonise nor to idolize. He was not my friend or comrade, and just as I do not talk about Barack or Hilary or Donald, so I will not call him ‘Fidel’.
I come not to deny the violence and many atrocities of US imperialism, including those perpetrated against Cuba. I come not to deny that such external violence and pressure always exacerbates all internal tensions, problems and conflicts in any social system.
I come not to deny that the terror, suffering and obscene levels of inequality and poverty in most US client-states in Latin America were much worse than in Cuba.
I come not to equate Castro with Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Pinochet. Cuba knows no killing fields, death squads or outright gulag system. Castro was the son of a wealthy landowner, taught by Jesuits, a lawyer, an avowed Jacobin fan of Robespierre and Napoleon who let himself be called The Maximum Leader and did not sing and dance like other Cubans but loved to harangue and preach to them for five to seven hours at a stretch. Despite all this Cuban ‘communism’ was of course culturally tempered by heat, cigars, guitars and a certain erotic sultriness.
I come not to ask about good subjective intentions but about objective social facts.
In fact, I come to ask ‘the Left’ what it really stands for.
I ask whether the Left wishes to be an authoritarian Police State Left or a radically democratic and libertarian one that eschews all double standards when it comes to evaluating oppression and suffering, no matter where.
I ask the Left whether it is always on the side of the victims, the common people, the workers, the suffering people, the dissenters from authority or whether it is as often on the side of the new ‘revolutionary’ oppressors and ruling classes who are responsible for the massive suffering of those common people, those victims and dissenters.
I come to stand by those thousands executed without due process after the Cuban revolution. I stand by the persecuted anarchists, liberals and non-political dissenters. I stand by the thousands sent to forced labour camps and prisons where conditions are so abysmal that both Amnesty International and the International Red Cross are denied access. I stand by the dissidents, homosexuals, Jehova’s Witnesses, conscientious objectors who were sent to do their military service to be ‘re-educated’ for their ‘deviations’ at such forced labour camps during the 1960s under appalling conditions, malnourishment and maltreatment.
I stand by the workers who have no right to strike or form their own unions but must, as in all Communist ‘worker-oriented’ states, join state-controlled unions and sign pledges of loyalty to the Communist Party. I stand by labour activists harassed and imprisoned for trying to form independent worker-controlled unions.
I stand by the victims of the state terror that puts informers on every block and sends Rapid Response Brigade mobs to engage in public ‘acts of repudiation’ (verbal and physical abuse, stone-throwing) against the homes of alleged dissenters and ‘counter-revolutionaries’. Even when I may not share their ‘politics’, I stand by the more than a million Cubans who have, often at risk of their lives, voted with their feet and fled the country in disgust (there was no freedom of travel until 2013).
I stand by the citizens, dissenters and human rights activists who are harassed, intimidated, sometimes beaten and prevented from free association, free assembly and free speech. I stand by all Cuban citizens who wish to have free access to information of their own choosing instead of living under total state and Communist Party control of the media (TV, press, books, internet). Cuba has found itself at the bottom of the global press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders and is one of the ten most censored countries in the world.
But is this fair? What of the other side of the ledger, what of Castro’s achievements? What about Cuban education, health care, Third World medical aid?
Yes, education is universal and free. It is also a state propaganda and conformity machine demanding devotion and loyalty to Castro and the state without the teaching of critical thinking. It once strongly encouraged students to ‘denounce to the militia anyone who threatened the Revolution, including friends in the neighbourhood with long hair, cousins who listened secretly to the Beatles, and boys who were said to kiss other boys’ (Luis M. Garcia, ‘How the Maximum Leader made my family leave home’, Sydney Morning Herald 28/11/2016, p, 17). A file is kept on children’s ‘revolutionary integration’ and this file accompanies the child for life. University options depend on how well the person conforms to Marxist ideology. The Code for Children, Youth and Family states that a parent who teaches ideas contrary to communism can be sentenced to three years in prison.
Yes, health care is universal and free. Cuban Third World medical aid has been spectacular. However, there is no right to privacy or a patient’s informed consent or the right to protest, refuse treatment or sue for malpractice. Doctors are expected to keep records of patients’ ‘political integration’. There are many complaints about empty pharmacy shelves and ‘politics’ in medical treatment and health care decision-making. Like Mao’s food exports during Chinese famines and shortages, it may not be too far-fetched to speculate that Castro’s generous medical help to Third World countries may to some extent also have been a form of ‘soft power’ geopolitical influence-seeking bought at the expense of Cubans’ health care.
If ‘socialism’ is to be simply equated with decent education, health care, adequate food and housing for all, then a social democratic welfare state as in Germany or Sweden, the US New Deal and even Hitler’s Third Reich also come fairly close to being ‘socialism’.
If ‘socialism’, in contrast, means a radically participatory society and economy in which the people democratically decide all major political and economic issues, then Castro’s Cuba, like all ‘Communist’ systems, is much further from ‘socialism’ than are social democratic capitalist systems. Socialism, if it is still to mean anything at all, is not the abolition of democracy but its deepening by extending democracy to economic decision-making, both in workplaces and regionally/nationally.
To conclude. Instead of hagiography or ‘balanced’ praise, a Left worthy of the name would be applying critical analysis to a Cuba in transition. Central to this might be Cuba’s ruling class of apparatchiki and its various factions after Fidel Castro. For example, 40% of the Cuban economy belongs to the holding company Gaesa that controls the Cuban military’s business interests. Its president Lopez-Callejas is thus one of Cuban ‘socialism’s’ most powerful men; another is Castro Espin, Raul Castro’s son and coordinator of the military’s and Interior Ministry’s intelligence services. Old Communist hardliners like Ventura seem pitted against younger liberals like Mariela Castro Espin and Bermudez.
As in Russia and China, one can from a rigorously Marxist perspective fairly comfortably predict that the opening of Cuban state capitalism to the power of market capitalism will most likely be accompanied by the usual in-fighting, jockeying and shifts within the ruling elites from being communist apparatchiki to being the new capitalist oligarchs. Their wealth and privileges will increase, as will inequality, and a rising middle class will finally get cable TV, flash cars, Chinese consumer goods and holidays in Miami and Las Vegas.