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.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.