Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Fidel Castro and the tragedy of revolution

Last week, for the first time, my column attracted censure. Someone identifying himself under a pseudonym took me to task over two points: my indifference towards the American Election and what was unfortunately perceived as my championing of Fidel Castro. I answered him twice but could not, for some unfathomable reason, get him to see my perspective. This person was adamant that I was refusing to see Donald Trump’s demagoguery, his blatant racism, and his stance on immigration even as I clearly noted that a United States under Hillary Clinton would be no better, at least in terms of that great country’s foreign policy.

As for Castro, I hold no candles for him. The Cuba he governed languished without democracy for almost half a century. Dissent was out of the question, criticism not at all tolerated. Even the slightest hint of sarcasm, wit, and unconventionality was met with imprisonment: sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks, more often than not for decades. It is indeed unfortunate that those who worship the likes of Castro, Che Guevara, and the Sandinistas are entranced by their garb and their supposedly ascetic existence. Fact is, there was nothing ascetic about these people when it came to governing their citizens.

The Miami Herald is published and read in Florida, which is 90 miles from Cuba. It is mainly catered to the same community that celebrated the death of Castro: naturally, what gets published in it is quite critical of him. In an op-ed (titled “Red ink: The high human cost of the Cuban revolution”) published therein, Glenn Garvin goes through some compelling statistics, all of which centre on the human cost of Castro’s regime.

Garvin essentially infers that, given the obscurity which shrouds much of that regime even today, it is difficult to get at a proper number for those who were killed, imprisoned, or made to disappear. Castro’s cronies probably took a leaf out of Nazi Germany’s book here, after all the Nuremberg Trials were made possible because of one mistake: the Nazis archived each and every atrocity they committed, a virtual treasure trove for those who wanted to prosecute the likes of Goering and Eichmann after the War.

There are two main sources that enumerate the murdered in Cuba. R. J. Rummel, the late historian from the University of Hawaii, estimated the death toll at anywhere between 35,000 and 141,000, with a median of 73,000. However, the Cuba Archive, a project which documents human rights abuses in that country, placed the toll at somewhere around 7,200, a much lower figure. This is not conclusive, though: Castro is reported to have killed as many as 5,000 immediately after the 1959 Revolution that brought him to power. Clearly, it would be a bit remiss to assume that from 1959 to the 2000s only 2,000 more people were killed.

Statistics can get controversial. In the mid-nineties a collage (drawn up by Cuban Americans) bearing the names of 10,000 countrymen killed by Castro’s regime was challenged when many of those 10,000 proved to be alive or to have died of natural causes. Cuba’s interventions in other countries – most notably in Africa – which helped push to power (at least temporarily) Marxist governments are officially said to have caused 4,000 deaths. But a Cuban Air Force General who defected put the number of those killed in one country alone (Angola) at 10,000. Meanwhile, there still is debate over the death toll of those who tried to escape the regime: the Harvard-trained economist Armando Lago put it (until 2003) at 77,000, but this was soon questioned as a shaky figure. Clearly, there is no consensus here, though not for a lack of trying.

I am wary of dogmatists from both sides of a debate and I am wary of those who pretend to sleep when carefully documented statistics tell a different story. The truth is that Castro, and his (intellectual) forefathers before him, provided an absolution for much of the garb that adorns revolutionaries. There is nothing romantic about dictatorships, nothing idealistic about turncoats. What happened in 1959 in Havana, to put it simply, should not have turned into a bloodbath that survived on propaganda, state terror, and cosmetic nationalism. However, this does not and will not belittle the propaganda of those ideologically opposed to such bloodbaths for less than innocent reasons.

I never get tired of reading Granta, the quarterly literary magazine published in the United Kingdom. Last year I was gifted with two whole boxes of these priceless gems, by a writer I am yet to meet. Just the other day I was reading an issue which centred on Russia, that is, the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Bloc. There were some rather interesting pieces on what revolutions to do the truth and how the truth gets contorted by those who wish to attack revolutions.

One of them caught my attention at once. Orlando Figes, in a feature story titled “Burying the Bones”, encounters members of the clergy and ordinary citizens on the day they buried the remains of Nicholas II (the last Tsar of Russia) in 1998. By that time, soon to close in on a century and a millennium, Boris Yeltsin’s regime was facing acute food shortages, rising poverty and crime, political turbulence, and of course widening economic inequalities. That, however, didn’t ruffle the people of St Petersburg, as they watched the funeral of the man who ruled Russia with an iron fist, who sanctioned anti-Jewish pogroms and authored mass executions of peasants who protested against his regime, with an almost mystical sense of awe.

In his article, Figes talks with those who idolise Nicholas and his family, including a priest from the Orthodox Church that would beatify the Tsar as a saint. When asked about the atrocities perpetrated by the man, the good Father replies that the demonstrations, uprisings, and protests over inequalities were not peaceful and more startlingly, were in fact sinful (try telling that to those starving on the streets today). When asked about the anti-Jewish pogroms authored by him (which continued even after the Revolution), well, the good Father has only one excuse to trot out: that the Tsar did not directly sanction it.

Figes ends his piece with a telling comment: “Most people know very little about Nicholas or any of the Tsars, since the subject was always poorly taught and grossly distorted in Soviet schools. There are just as many gaps in post-Tsarist, Soviet history. The result has been that myths and conspiracy theories are substituted for historical knowledge.”

The point I am trying to get at here is that no matter how repressive a dictatorship may be, that does not and will not absolve the excesses of a dictatorship which existed before it. Those who have an axe to grind with Castro, one can surmise, may be genuinely horrified at his malignant attitude towards dissidents, but I wonder: what of the many among them who belittle if not trivialise the excesses committed by Fulgencio Batista?

Do they not realise that inasmuch as both Batista and Castro were dictators, what divided the one from the other was this: under Castro, strides were made in healthcare, education, and poverty alleviation, strides which as one commentator pointed out to me the other day would take decades for the West to accomplish? What did Batista have to show during his regime? Only the Ugly American.

The mainstream media was always quick to ridicule Castro, sometimes for the gaudiest reasons. Once when Castro visited New York to attend a United Nations summit, an American news agency reported that after his entourage left the hotel they had stayed in, the management had to clean up the chicken bones the Cubans had left behind: a half-truth that certainly contributed to the image of the man as a devilish glutton. “Cuba is where Lucifer lives,” Michael Moore sarcastically says in his documentary on the US healthcare system, Sicko, just as he and a bunch of American patients arrive in Havana for a treatment denied to them in their own country.

In one sense, the attitude of the US government to Cuba, right until the Obama presidency, showed a lot of hypocrisy. Forget their involvement with the Batista regime. Just think of the doublespeak they were enforcing on the rest of the world when they dealt with Castro. "Mr Castro is a tyrant who uses brutal methods to enforce a bankrupt vision and I will use my veto powers to ensure that the four-decade old embargo on Cuba remains in place," George W. Bush once declared, even as his envoys in Sri Lanka were forcing our representatives to negotiate with the LTTE, who by no stretch of the imagination could be called freedom fighters.

The US government cut off international aid to Cuba in 1992, when the dubiously titled and drafted “Cuban Democracy Act” starved a country which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was without a proper international sponsor. The tragedy with today’s system of international sanctions, I have always felt, is its failure to distinguish a tyrant from his or her citizens, a tragedy that has cost the US and us (pun intended) a great many lives and a great many dollars. This came out most discernibly in much of the history of the relations between Washington and Havana.

The world had moved away from Communism when, in 2003, Castro declared that his country was transitioning to it. He said this as a response to the then newly established "Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba", co-chaired by Condoleeza Rice. The wording of that Commission itself was dubious: Bush would argue that his government was not waiting for the day of Cuban freedom (which would have come from within the country, organically), but rather the day of freedom in Cuba (which was doublespeak for intervention from outside).

Barack Obama, always the man of many words, opted for negotiation over conflict. Castro, by then an invalid who had retired as a would-be Elder Statesman, distrusted the Americans and openly criticised what could be considered as a U-turn by his government (led by his brother, Raul). That distrust has, one must admit, less to do with his affirmation of Communism than the history of US intervention in the region. With the election of Donald Trump, who is more Bush than Bush himself, one can’t tell where relations between Cuba and the US will go to. One can only conjecture.

And at the end of the day, conjecture does not help. I will therefore conclude.

People talk of Batista and Castro. The former died in 1973, having taken away more than 30 million dollars from his own country’s Treasury when his government was toppled in 1959. The latter died last week, having survived almost 640 assassination attempts. The former was the West’s playboy, the latter the playboy of those opposed to the West. In the much hyped debate between these two however, there is one name we forget: José Miró Cardona.

Who was José Miró Cardona? He was a member of the anti-Batista Unity Group that tried a peaceful negotiation with the man. In August 1958 he wrote a letter to Dwight D. Eisenhower protesting against American involvement in the Cuban civil war. He joined forces with Castro and was with him right until they seized power. He was Prime Minister for six weeks that year and was appointed as his country’s Ambassador to Spain in May the following year. In July however, he resigned his post and sought refuge in the Argentine Embassy. By 1961, he was in the United States. The Kennedy administration would soon hail him as a liberator.

Cardona was a moderate. Like all moderates, he was sidelined. Revolutions do not end with those who author them: they end only with the institutionalisation of the values those authors are supposed to stand for. Such values can only be enforced by reformists and moderates. Cardona did not live to see them inscribed in the land of his birth.

What else can we say? Fidel Castro (and we must be honest to acknowledge this) needed force. He monopolised it. Along the way, he alienated those who called for reforms. The rest is history. And history, as Regi Siriwardena once wrote, is open. So open that we are yet to determine whether those people on the streets of Havana mourning Castro were forced to lament the death of their former leader.

Written for: Ceylon Today, December 6 2016