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In the balance: Why it's wrong to call Fidel Castro a ruthless dictator

The Cuban leader’s legacy and the polarised responses to his passing are best understood by invoking the concept of positive and negative rights.

Had I been Cuban during the reign of Fidel Castro, I’d probably have been jailed for my writing. Any regard I might have for him is necessarily diminished by this fact. Yet, I reject the notion, advanced by the American media and politicians on both Right and Left, that he was a ruthless dictator whose rule was defined primarily by the oppression and suffering of his subjects.

The words “dictator” and “tyrant” legitimately describe a wide variety of leaders, from genocidal maniacs like Idi Amin to benign autocrats like Pervez Musharraf, from mind-bogglingly corrupt individuals like Suharto to visionaries like Lee Kuan Yew, from incompetent adventurists like Saddam Hussein to military heroes like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Of the hundreds of authoritarian leaders to have flourished since the World War II, few matched the aura and influence of Fidel Castro. Yet, by the time of his death, he seemed irrelevant, as anachronistic as the Studebakers still running on Havana’s streets.

Castro’s legacy and the polarised responses to his passing are best understood by invoking the concept of positive and negative rights. Negative rights, such as the rights to life, movement, and expression, require for their actualisation no action on the part of any person or organisation outside the individual who possesses those rights. Positive rights, such as rights to food, education, health care and housing, mandate the state to provide goods or services, funding these activities by taxing those deemed able to afford it. Most people, aside from right-wing extremists who deride positive rights and left-wing and religious extremists who consider negative rights expendable, believe the state should secure both negative and positive rights to the extent possible.

Displacing a dictator

Fidel Castro’s greatest achievement was to create a society that provided even its poorest citizens adequate nutrition, health care, and education. India isn’t close to doing so even today, although it has had the resources for at least the last decade. In the context of the 1960s, when authoritarian and colonial regimes were common, the absence of negative rights seemed a minor cost to pay for Cuba’s achievement in positive rights. This was particularly true since Castro’s forces overthrew and replaced the harsh and corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

Revolutionary Cuba proved that a small nation could stand up to its bullying giant neighbour, gaining for its citizens the dignity they had been denied, and inspiring activists and revolutionaries across the globe. Among these were three who went on to head governments in Latin America in the twenty-first century: Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Michele Bachelet of Chile, and José Mujica of Uruguay were all imprisoned and tortured in their youth by the military junta of the time. In Argentina in that period, 30,000 activists were disappeared.

Torture, like dictatorship, is not an absolute. It is routine in Indian detention centres, and neither the courts nor any political leaders have taken due cognisance of it. Yet, there are undoubtedly countries that have it worse than India. Cuba’s record of torture in the reign of Castro was bad, but not as awful as its peers in Latin America. And it improved over time, with some sections of the population that were persecuted early on gaining acceptance by the ruling Communists. Fidel Castro even issued a mea culpa for his attitude to gays for much of his rule, one of few expressions of regret we ever heard from him.

The benefit of hindsight

At the end of the eighties, Cuba’s record was very good on positive rights, and very bad but not as awful as many of its peers on negative rights. In standing up to the United States, the country had been forced into the orbit of the USSR, and become part of an organisation called COMECON, or the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Within COMECON, Cuba’s role was mainly restricted to supplying sugar to Eastern Europe. When COMECON broke down along with the Soviet Union, the Cuban economy was left in limbo, a monoculture without a market. This was a crisis that could have inspired Cuba to reinvent itself. Cuba had an educated workforce, an excellent climate, a low crime rate, and a stable government. It could have embraced the opportunities provided by globalisation, opportunities that could have been grasped despite the American economic embargo. Instead, the nation made half-hearted adjustments and muddled along, never entirely pulling itself out of the slump caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Vietnam, which had also been a COMECON member, approached globalisation very differently and sped forward while Cuba remained mired in the past. The nations of East Europe transitioned to democracy. Countries like Costa Rica caught up with Cuba and even surpassed it in the provision of positive rights while also ensuring their citizens enjoyed the right of free expression, free movement and universal adult franchise. Virtually every nation in Latin America has become a stable democracy in the course of the past three decades even as Cuba resolutely denies its citizens an exit from single-party rule.

Globalisation made a dinosaur out of Fidel Castro. His most famous early speech, one of many I read eagerly in my teens, ended with the assertion, “History will absolve me.” This would have been true had he died two decades ago, or retired and left his country in the hands of more open-minded leaders. I am not sure it is true today. While I did not rejoice in his passing, I have found it curiously difficult, despite the tug of nostalgia, to mourn it.

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