Anything that moves

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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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.