No other issue in international politics elicits as much emotion, and controversy, as Fidel Castro’s Cuba. His recent retirement from power for health reasons brought back fond memories for old socialist romantics, as well as stirring the contempt of those who see him for what he was: a ruthless dictator, enamoured with power, accountable only to himself.
As a Latin American-Australian citizen who comments regularly on Australian politics, I always keep a safe distance from the politics of my old backyard. I regard the Latin American political scene as intellectually backward where the discourse is still stuck in the 1970s.
I am in the minority, however. For many Latin Americans, Castro is still the revolutionary hero who, together with my misguided compatriot Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, stood up to the Americans in the 1960s. This rose coloured view remains generally unshakable. As recently as 2006 Castro was given rockstar treatment in Argentina and elsewhere on the continent. Tens of thousands of people gathered to listen to his repetitive monologues. The greatest irony was that the same people who demonstrated ferociously (and rightly) against the despotic South American military dictatorships headed by Augusto Pinochet, Jorge Videla and others, had no qualms about praising a despotic ruler entrenched in power since 1959 (before a great number of his supporters were even born) and with an appalling human rights record.
Interestingly, I have heard similar praise for Castro among Australian intellectuals. This has included many well intentioned and decent people (including a State minister who will remain nameless) praising, to my astonishment, the wonders of the "revolution". Curiously, these people were many of the same people who, quite rightly, criticised John Howard for his stance on immigration, anti-terror legislation, cross media ownership and industrial relations. Talk about double standards.
A number of Australian intellectuals have travelled to Cuba and other parts of Latin America to make documentaries or write reports. They almost invariably conclude that Cuba is a beacon of hope (lately they added, extraordinarily, Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela to this list) and that the chronic poverty in Cuba is the entire responsibility of the United States.
Really? It’s that simple?
Whether Castro’s exit from power will bring any change to the police State he created remains to be seen. But to remind those who still praise the alleged virtues of Castro’s regime, I invite them to reflect on the following:
How would you feel if the State were to tell you that your own house could not be sold to anyone other than the State on the terms and conditions set by the State?
How would you feel if, when charged with any offence by the State, the only lawyer available to defend the charges was a lawyer who was nominated by the State on the terms and conditions set by the State?
How would you feel if, when the Government called for a public meeting, the local Commissar kept a record of those who did not attend for the information of the State? Would you exercise your right to stay at home? Would you risk your job in a society where the State is the only employer? Or would you meekly attend so that the President for Life, aka Castro, could boast that 1 million of "his people" turned out to hear his soporific and interminably long speeches?
How would you feel if the State were to deny you the right of free passage? The right to pack and go? The right to visit a relative abroad? The right to simply travel for pleasure? How would you feel if the State limited your access to the internet and blocked you from using Yahoo and Hotmail?
There is much more, and sadly much worse. I am intrigued by the gullibility of many intellectuals on the left who repeat the official line that Cuba’s abject misery (poverty and decay are everywhere, you cannot avoid them) is the sole consequence of the silly and unnecessary embargo imposed by all US Governments for the past 49 years.
There is no law prohibiting Cubans from buying and selling goods to/from the European Union, China, Australia, Latin America and Asia. Cubans are miserable because their regime and their leaders are rotten to the core and their financial and economic policies are completely unworkable, not because of the US embargo. Pre-1959 Cuba was not the brothel it is painted as by State propaganda. It had the fourth best educated people in Latin America at that time, only behind Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile. Any Atlas printed circa 1960 attests to this.
It would be fantastic if Cuba could become a democracy following the demise of the Castros. Cubans were always far above the norm in Central America, and with the financial assistance and know-how of the Cubans exiled in Florida, the job of rebuilding their destroyed country would be much easier compared to other Caribbean nations.
However, Cuba has more chances of achieving a prosperous democracy if the intellectual left here and elsewhere stops dreaming about a fantasy that never happened, condemns the nightmare before their eyes, and works to clean up the mess left by Castro’s tyranny.
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