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Fidel Castro: the dictator

Credit: bbc.com
Credit: bbc.com
Credit: bbc.com

As the news broke that the world’s longest reigning dictator had died, Barack Obama stated, rather diplomatically, that history would “record and judge” Fidel Castro. He was wrong.

Fidel Castro will always be a polarising figure. Even as a democracy-loving and free-market-leaning writer, I struggle to grapple with how exactly he should be remembered. On paper, there is no doubt that Castro was a despicable leader. He was a dictator and nearly 20% of his population fled the country. However, in reality there are aspects of his reign we can reconsider.

A couple years ago, I was wandering around Havana. I went into a very popular and famous bar and as I read the drinks menu on the board, a tour guide came and spoke to me. “Ah yes, we do very good drinks here,” he chuckled. “The famous one is the Cuba Libre – which is funny, because Cuba isn’t free.”

While this is merely an anecdote, it is no doubt a feeling with which many Cubans agreed. While they were too scared to explicitly tell me of their unhappiness, they signalled their problems in other  ways: their long working hours, the lack of food, and their problems with the education system.

It is interesting, however, to really think about my friend from the bar. He suggested that he wasn’t free. Freedom is an interesting concept. Very few people would argue that Cubans had it good during the reign of Batista. Castro and other revolutionaries enabled the Cuban people to be ‘free’ of American capitalism.  I noticed that there were no billboards in Havana. People did not rely on their telephones.  Everyone was  generally kind and neighbourly to each other. In many ways, Cuba was free from the dangers of  over-consumption, conformity and other imperfections of modern Western society.

This perspective of  Cuba will make no appearance in future textbooks. As the US and Cuba grow closer and the communist regime falters, American finance will flood the untapped Cuban market and envelop the local economy. Eventually, the US economy will dominate the Cuban market. Much like what happened in East Germany, much of the elder generations will fail to adapt and will fall into poverty. However, textbooks will focus on the increase in GDP and how much more money people have to spend.

Life will be free in many ways. However, the values that Fidel Castro promoted (whether it was through his regime or through the reaction to his regime) are values which have been forgotten in today’s societies. There is a certain togetherness and helpfulness in Cuban society which we miss. People aren’t constantly concerned about personal gain but are focused on community. These are values that our own politicians tried to promote. David Cameron was a big advocate of them and used to refer to them as the Big Society.

For everything that Castro’s regime did to benefit the Cuban people, he fact is that Castro oppressed his people . Regardless of what I thought in Havana, he was ultimately a dictator.

This is why I am so shocked at seeing political figures come out and offer positive obituaries to Castro. These have been offered not just by old friends or fans of the late revolutionary, but from the likes of Justin Trudeau Prime Minister of a large liberal democracy (Canada),  or Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in one of the world’s  oldest democracies. Do they hold our democracy in such disdain that they are willing to publicly compliment a dictator and gloss over the interrogations, imprisonments and evil that occurred on his watch?

Jeremy Corbyn has offered more praise publicly for Castro than he has our own former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. While I understand he holds a particular disdain for Thatcher, surely a bad democratically-elected leader is better than a dictator?

No  matter what people tell you, there is no such thing as a good dictator. Unless you truly hold democratic values in contempt, we must remember Castro has a menace of history. Why? Because he was a dictator who actively stopped the common man and woman from having their voice heard.

A dangerous plague is creeping into liberal democracies, whereby our democratically elected leaders find it acceptable to talk about dictators in a positive fashion. For example, John McDonnell has referred to Chairman Mao when talking about economic policy and Diane Abbott publicly stated that Mao did more good than harm. If we are to preserve this brilliant experiment of government, we must always remember that a good dictator does not exist.