Fidel Castro and Political Rights in Cuba
James Early and Paul Jay discuss the death of Fidel Castro and how corporate media deals with the question of political freedoms and human rights in Cuba
PAUL JAY, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
Fidel Castro died on November 25th at the age of 90. Castro was a leader and icon of the world revolutionary movement. His death has been an occasion to assess his legacy and of course there’s been a matter of great debate. Corporate news, as always, focuses on the question of human rights abuse and political repressioning Cuba under Castro’s leadership. But they refuse to look at two major questions when discussing the issue. First, the choice for Cuba in 1959 was between a pro American mafia narco state/narco dictatorship, and revolution, national sovereignty, and socialism. That choice was made by the Cuban people, not one man.
When we compare economic development and equality to other countries of the Caribbean and Central America, Cubans have faired well. Perhaps not such a bad choice they made. In Guatemala, 5 times more children will die before the age of 5 than in Cuba. 4 times more Jamaicans will die before the age of 40 than in Cuba. Cuba’s health and education far surpasses countries of the Caribbean and Central America that are American client states. Second, there’s no state in the world that does not repress it’s political opposition in one way or the other. That’s what states do. No state is worse than the United States. Domestically, there was the house of Unamerican activities committee and McCarthyism, COINTELPRO, and many other programs to repress domestic dissent. The US has supported regimes throughout the world that have murdered millions of people to repress political opposition. It continues today with US support for states like Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Does this mean the Cuban revolution did not have excesses that were not cases of political repression that were not justified? I expect there must have been. There’s no revolution, no mass uprising, no state that does not go too far to defend the interests of the class forces it represents. The American revolution is not judged by it’s abuses but for it’s historical achievements. The same goes for Cuba and Fidel Castro.
Now joining us to discuss the legacy of Fidel is James Early, former director of cultural heritage policy at the institution and a member at the real news board. Thanks for joining us James.
JAMES EARLY: Thank you.
JAY: So, take on this issue of political repression in Cuba. It’s clearly the primary theme of what we’re reading in mainstream press. What do you make of the issue?
EARLY: Well let’s talk about it through the initial perspective of the figure of Fidel Castro, who as a 30 year old was singular minded about social justice and fighting the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, President of the Country who was tied to then states who owned 75% of the Cuban economy. It was a narco state as you point out with Meyer Lansky and the US mafia dominating that as a playground with rampant prostitution, deep racism, and exploitation. So at 30 years of age on November 25th, 1956, 60 years later Fidel Castro dies on that same date. He leaves Mexico in this small boat, this small yacht called Grandmag with 87 people and he and his singular minded way says we are leaving to enter to conquer to be victorious.
So his singularity matched the singularity of oppression and exploitation that he found. Of course the revolution could not have been done without the Cuban people. Immediately only 12 of those 87 soldiers remained from the first battle, so does the Cuban people across class and racial and gender lines who surround Fidel Castro and they did repress. You are absolutely right. It is the role of the state to uphold certain virtues and to repress those things that go against the common good.
Of course the Cuban revolution picked up the trove. Everything within the revolution and outside of the revolution, nothing meaning that it in philosophy was willing to accept criticisms about how to make it a better revolution based on the ideals that were put forth but that it was not going to abide any attempt to undermine it by going back to the old system of capitalist oppression that it had been living. So I think that is a context for looking at both the virtues of the Cuban revolution and then that context it’s eras and its failures sometimes egregious failures.
JAY: Of course the people in Miami who escaped Cuba, especially people that owned property in Cuba that were not the property was nationalized. At the times of the revolution, a lot of people who were allies of Batista, formed the beginnings of that ex patriot colony in Miami and of course were very much against the revolution. But as years went on, some of the people that made it to Florida, were not property owners. They were people who were looking for a better life and so on and escaped and they also raised the issue of political repression. How do you parse the difference between what you hear from former elites and from people who are more ordinary people who tell somewhat of the same stories?
EARLY: Well Cuba like all societies, is one of mixed religious perspectives, mixed ideological and political perspectives and assertions. So, it was in 1959. Many of those who left, left because they feared communism that was being, they were being told was going to take over. Many who left wanted to take an opportunity to get out of the country and to increase their economic circumstances. They were largely Euro Cubans. Not people of color Cubans. They were largely a class of people who were able to leave. Some of them immediately aligned and were aligned with the central intelligence agency of the United States government, given fat checks every month and set up as an armed opposition. Others just came into the US and went about their lives.
As the generations had rolled around, we have seen that the antagonism towards Cuba among Cuban Americans has really fanned out and been reduced in many ways. Of course, Cubans are still coming. They’re coming for economic reasons, most of them, some of them are coming because they don’t like the socialist government, the policies of the government. But they were not unlike the millions of Americans in this continent called America, south of the United States who if given an opportunity to leave tomorrow would be coming up by the millions, as they do crossing the border of Mexico.
JAY: If the Americans were to provide the same if you hit our shores you will be accepted. If they provide that to all of Central America, a lot of Central America would be showing up on the shores of-
EARLY: Central America and Latin America, this is something that people in the United States, citizens in the United States, no matter what ideological or political outlooks are, we’ve got to use our common sense, our honesty in analyzing in what is going on. Over 11 billion dollars in remittances go from the United States every year to Mexico. That’s an indicator of the bad circumstances for great numbers of people in that country despite very locally rich elites.
Miami is full of Brazilians and Colombians, Guatemalans, who have the where with all to be transnationals, to go back and forth. So that given the opportunity, underdeveloped countries always flee to the industrial countries to the north except on the continent of Africa where the most stable economy is in South Africa, not withstanding the largest economy being in Nigeria. It’s not the most stable country. So Cubans are not unlike these other republics in that regard, no matter what their ideological or political outlook.
JAY: Although the social safety netting Cuba, is generally far surpasses all these other places you just mentioned. I know when I was in Cuba, been there 3 and I know I spent some times just picking up hikers, trying to get a sense of people’s opinions. I would find kind of two categories. One tremendous respect for Fidel Castro. Almost a matter, who you talk to. There was often quite severe critique of various other levels of the Cuban state and Cuban bureaucracy. I think that’s one point that gets missed a lot, the Cuban state was never one guy. It’s a whole numbers of people whom are talented and many of whom are political hacks and mediocres and use the power of the state to advance their own egos and their own careers and their own families. I mean you’re talking about a very complex process when you’re talking about a state and all the agencies, organizations associated with that. So to try to demonize one person in all of this which I did not find when I talked to most people in Cuba. In fact, I found quite a bit of an antagonism towards the Miami community in Cuba. Even some of the people who were the harshest critiques that I would talk to of the Cuban government, they were even harsher critiques of what was coming out of Miami. The other thing I found was comparison about life in the United States to life in Cuba.
Many people weren’t comparing what Cuba was like to other countries in the Caribbean or Central America which is a kind of fair comparison.
EARLY: Well that is the propaganda machine of the United States has suggested. Everything is rosey and merry here in the United States. It is an attraction to draw people, particularly skilled elites from all around the world. In fact, it is the policy of the US State Department to give preferential treatment to highly educated well skilled natives of other counties who might contribute to the economic development project ere in the US. Cuba is no exception to that. One of the ironies of the Cuban revolution is it was 6 million people when the revolution came. Now 11 million people. It has produced more doctors than that can be used inside the island and although it is the largest republic in the Caribbean, it is a small economy by way of comparison to the larger economies of the world and certainly to that, the big [inaud.] at 90 miles north of there. So, it is not unnatural that people would seek to find a better economic circumstance, even if Cuba were not socialist. Even if Fidel Castro were not alive.
Of course again, wet foot, dry foot policy in the united states gives preferential treatment to Cubans while it very prejudicial against black Haitians. Barack Obama continues to deny Haitians who are fleeing for economic circumstance mostly, an opportunity to come to the United States but still leaves the incentive which he could get rid of for Cubans to flee and to come into the United States.
JAY: The hypocrisy of the American position knows no end. Support for the current Honduran government which was a coup and is murdering political opposition and of course other countries have in Central America and who knows what’s coming in the rest of Latin America. But all that being said, what do you make of some of the critique from the left? And the critique goes anywhere from there has been too much attempt over the years, less so recently at a kind of ideological period, that if you disagree with Fidel Castro and the line of the communist party, you could lose your job. You may be get some social ostracization where you live. Critique at that level, and critique in terms of some of the basic economic and political policy and if you speak out against that, you don’t have a place to do so.
EARLY: Well I think a dogmatic ideological perspectives are ultra leftist which are the substitute one’s ideology for the actual engagement in mediation of policies within Cuba has done the Cuban revolution a great disservice and I have been among the self proclaimed leftist in the United States while embracing the Cuban revolution and its principles and certainly acknowledging it’s accomplishments. I’ve tried to be open minded about Cuba’s own errors its own failures and particularly where Cuba has made its own self critiques and it seems to me that much of the left, certainly here in the United States but also the left in the Latin America that I encounter do not address the criticism that Cubans raise among themselves.
When I say, Cubans raising these criticisms among themselves I’m not just talking about ordinary citizens, janitors, teachers, nurses, and so forth, raising it in relationship to their political stewards. But also within the communist party itself. Within the political state, people sharing the same left wing ideology are debating where there could’ve gone wrong and what they might have done better. As Raul Castro said shortly after he was put forth as president of the National Parliament and accepted by the parliament as the new president, not just because Fidel picked up the phone and said my brother’s the new president. He said that this blockade from the US is killing us. But if it were to be removed tomorrow we would still be in desperate straits by the errors that we Cubans have made; we Cuban communists have made.
So there is great debate going on prior to the normalization of relations, the establishment of diplomatic relationships with the US incentives from various sectors of Cuban society and various sectors of the communist party and various sectors of the state of Cuba. They’re debating freedom of press and within Granma, the official news organ, they started criticizing [inaud.]. Nobody’s reading this. We don’t really take up the kinds of issues that people are interested in and we certainly are not opening up t o a variety of voices. But they have opened up to a variety of voices where citizens feel free now to write in and state their criticism. Sometimes with their names. Sometimes without their names. There’ve been all kinds of debates about a socialite-con policy.
But the key thing and this goes back to the issue of repression, the Cuban government has said, we invite these criticisms. Again, an early statement by president Raul Castro that there was too little criticism in the country and a real sharp rebuke of the communist party by saying you must understand that while the communist party is very important and indispensable in this country it is not the people and it is not the state. They have to search for the proper calibration of that triad based centrally around the role of a proactive citizenship. Citizens who score high in academic ability according to the UN, higher in many cases than developed countries like United States and their healthcare and the social security net and so on. So this is a context in which I think we have to see the grand vision of Fidel Castro and the impetus of his personality to push things forward.
But in that context we also see the lessons learned about self-reflection and self-criticism. We have to own up to errors, sometimes egregious errors, that they may have made because they are fallible human beings. As a small country on a large planet, they have left a footprint of extraordinary humanist achievement and in that context, they have also left a footprint of some common failures of humanity.
JAY: I think it’s important to emphasize something you just said here. This is a very small country. People can only accomplish what’s historically possible. When there’s a Soviet Union mind you, it’s quite debatable how much socialism was left in the Soviet Union at the time, but still when you had some greater powers willing to support you, what’s possible’s completely different than when you don’t. If this had been a Brazil, a revolution in Brazil with a socialist revolution it would’ve been a completely different story – what was historically possible in a country with what is it? 90-100 million people.
EARLY: I guess natural resources, the largest oil deposit in the world.
JAY: And the largest economy at 9th or 10th biggest economy in the world. So to be off the shore of Florida, and to be so tiny and have such a small economy, I mean perhaps the fact that Cuba has this much socialism left as it has, seems quite remarkable. Given that its’ really all on it’s own right now and again the kind of unifying factor of Castro was a critical role in this. Though I think if Castro hadn’t been there, somebody would’ve emerged.
Finally this issue of what the legacy and where Cuba’s at right now, it’s a long conversation. But in the context of what’s historically possible, how much socialism can they retain now? Fidel’s been out of it for a few years now so Raul Castro – it’s not like what happened with Chavez to Maduro in Venezuela. Raul Castro has a lot of respect and seems to be quite a unifying figure himself. But what happens next?
EARLY: Well I think it will be a continuation of the last transition program, their term, economic program the communist party which has been roundly discussed and debated in the country on 2 occasions now and I think the stewards of the Cuban government who are quite capable, they may not be the personality of a Fidel Castro. Fidel Castro, a Mandela, Martin Luther King, an Indira Gandhi. They come along every now and then. On the other end of the spectrum, a fascist like Hitler or a right wing like Thatcher who had big influence on the their countries, on their regions, on their world.
They come along every now and then. So, I don’t expect that we’ll see a Fidel like personality emerge. But we will see the same kind of humanistic policies. In that context, we will see sharp debate on how to calibrate that. How much latitude individuals should have in providing for themselves and making a contribution of their country and then they will draw a very hard straight line against monopoly, against excessive wealth. In that regard they will be – they will maintain a socialist orientation. Each according to his or her ability. Each according to his or her needs.
When you work very hard and can’t produce all that you need, then they see it as a principle of the government to assist you. There is a big move against corruption. Cuba has a large corruption which today themselves talk about. That corruption goes against the social good. So, I think we’ll see these principles continue and I think even under a new troublesome presidency to be polite about it in the United States of America, we will see a general continuation of the polices because capital, big capital in the United States has already made its peace with the failed policy overthrow the Cuban socialist revolution in a way that it has gone on for the last half century. They now feel that the flooding of the country with money and goods and consumer attitudes, they will be able to undermine and overturn that revolution. But in the process they want to make money.
The Cubans have always preferred to fight and this new context within the protocols of nations, not having the United States outside as a rogue nation doing whatever it wanted to without anyway to limit it by other state of affairs. So, I think we’ll see a mediation of that. I can envision that that US capital will be pressing the Donald Trump regime to not overturn the fundamental issues that Barack Obama stepped forward with after having been leveraged by Latin American in the Caribbean to actually engage Cuba, a step away from engaging them.
Fidel Castro, his principles, his model, his [humbleness] will loom large in that process and he will continue to be a point of recall. There’s an urgency to get younger generations to understand that principles for which he stood, not looking at him just singularly as an individual. So, it’s going to be tough but Fidel has been off the stage of actual politics for a very, very good while now. He was not running that country. He was not head of the country. He said that himself on any number of occasions and I think we see the change in policies brought forth under the administration of Raul Castro.
We’re much more strategic with dealing with the limitations of the Cuban revolution than we had seen previously. That transition would [inaud.] whether Fidel agreed or not, he was a citizen and he knew that they were trying to uphold the best interests of the independents and self-determination of the country.
JAY: Alright well thanks very much for joining us James. I will obviously be talking about what happens with Cuba after Fidel, many times. Thanks for joining us.
EARLY: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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