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perspective

Castro a devil to some, a saint to others


With Trump ascendant, America must remember its history and never return to past misjudgements

Fidel Castro, who died last Friday at age 90, was a tyrant in the eyes of many around the world, jailing critics, suppressing basic rights, intolerant of diversity. To admirers, if the Cuban former president was a dictator, he was of the benevolent variety. He made sweeping improvements to education, medical care and social welfare, and not incidentally was willing to stand up to the belligerent superpower just to his island-nation’s north. He was the perennial underdog of the sunny Caribbean.
These contrasting views of Castro are embodied in the outgoing and incoming presidents of the United States. Under Barack Obama last year, diplomatic relations between the countries were normalised, a move that progressives applauded as overdue and beneficial to both nations and that conservatives viewed as a reckless bow to socialism. Donald Trump has embraced the latter stance, deriding Castro as a murderous dictator and an enemy of democracy. Castro, he said, was responsible for “firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty, and the denial of fundamental human rights”.
Of course even a cursory knowledge of Castro’s story provides the damning facts of America’s hypocrisy regarding revolutionary Cuba. Castro seized power by overthrowing a leader who accommodated America’s rich and powerful – including the Mafia – at the expense of the impoverished Cuban populace. Washington’s response, ordered by President Eisenhower and carried on by Kennedy, was to try to secretly assassinate the usurper on numerous occasions. 
Had the CIA not bungled its attempts, right up to the military invasion that ended in disaster at the Bay of Pigs, Castro might not have become a heroic Cold War symbol of defiance to American hemispheric hegemony. This was a period when Washington supported (and sometimes illegally installed) ruthless tyrants around the world. Its motivation was not preserving or even exporting democracy but maintaining control of foreign business interests. Communism and socialism never threatened the freedom of American citizens, only American corporate power.
The speech that Obama made when he visited Cuba a year ago might not have been as heartfelt as the one he’d delivered in Cairo in 2009. There, in another bold concession to global realities, he acknowledged the US’ covert 1953 role in ousting Iran’s popular, democratically elected leader Mohammad Mosaddegh, effectively turning the country over to a ruthless but America-friendly monarch, Shah Pahlavi. The long fuse was lit for the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Castro’s revolution did not take place in a vacuum. Where the US failed in Cuba, it was successful in clandestinely removing democratically elected leaders elsewhere in Latin America. Given this fact and the hundreds of CIA-sponsored efforts to murder him, Castro had every reason to believe Washington posed an ever-present threat to his country. It was this menace that drove him into the arms of the Soviet Union, resulting in the terrible nuclear-weapons crisis of October 1962. By then Castro’s mistrust of the superpowers had already led him to embrace the Non-aligned Movement, founded a year earlier. A beneficial force in amplifying the collective voice of its 120 member-nations, the movement for better or worse curtails the progress of globalisation.
Trump and his ilk need to bear such consequences of history in mind when they simplistically condemn Castro as a tyrant. In eulogising the Cuban former president, millions around the world are willing to overlook his authoritarian rule because he was the David standing up to the American Goliath. Trump’s dismissal of the evident good that Castro did on behalf of his people can be characterised as idle pontificating, but once he’s in the Oval Office, his words might well be translated into policy that damages America’s global standing further.

Published : November 30, 2016

By : The Nation