“Fidel Castro was a foul tyrant and his brother Raul is no better. Free Western media outlets ought to have said so right at the top of their news reports, instead of admitting it towards the end like some uncomfortable detail.” – Andrew Roberts
“I regret that this criminal never faced a tribunal for all the crimes he committed against his own people.” – Orlando Gutiérrez
Fidel Castro, Cuba’s former dictator and leader of its 1959 Revolution, has died at the age of 90. Commentators, politicians and millennials sporting Che Guevara t-shirts celebrate the late Castro as a revolutionary icon, a visionary and a liberator. Ken Livingstone hails the late Castro as “a giant of the 20th century”. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro said that “revolutionaries of the world must follow his legacy”. Be under no illusions – Castro was a dictator whose socialist policies doomed the Cuban people to decades of economic plight and, with it, the loss of political freedoms.
Castro, born in 1926 to a wealthy sugar plantation owner, developed his political views whilst studying law at the University of Havana, immersing himself in Marxist texts and becoming passionately anti-imperialist. In 1947 Castro participated in a failed attempt to overthrow the right-wing government of the Dominican Republic. Castro evaded arrest and returned to Cuba, where he engaged in student protests.
Between 1959 and 1980, an estimated 500,000 Cubans left the island for the United States, for both political and economic reasons.
Castro first tried to overthrow General Batista, the-then self-appointed leader of Cuba, in 1953. He was imprisoned, exiled to Mexico where he befriended Che Guevara, and then he returned to Cuba in 1956. Following months of bloody guerrilla warfare, in 1959 Castro and his band of revolutionaries toppled the government of President Batista, an admirer of the United States, establishing in its place a one-party socialist dictatorship. What followed was a programme of extensive nationalisation, political consolidation and foreign intervention in support of Communist insurgencies across the world. The Constitution of 1976 explicitly defined Cuba as a ‘Socialist Republic’.
The Batista Regime was notoriously corrupt and repressive but Castro’s seizure of power in 1959 did not herald some giant leap towards freedom. One could say that Machiavelli predicted that much in the 16th century: “What happens is that men willingly change their ruler, expecting to fare better. This expectation induces them to take up arms against him; but they only deceive themselves, and they learn from experience that they have made matters worse.” Thus it was that under Castro the Cuban people did not find their political liberties any better off. All revolutionaries, of course, become conservatives the day after the revolution.
Those who opposed the new regime were systematically arrested, tortured and, in many cases, executed. High-ranking supporters of the former Batista regime were subjected to ostentatious show trials where their verdicts had already been determined. At least 582 were shot by firing squads over two years. Homosexuals became a regular target of the Castro regime, with labour camps being constructed to ‘correct’ sexual deviancy. Why is it that the human rights violations of right-wing dictators like Pinochet and Francisco Franco are rightly condemned, but those of left-wing dictators like Castro and Stalin are conveniently brushed aside? As Andrew Roberts pointed out in his article for The Spectator, BBC News described Castro as “one of the world’s longest-serving and most iconic leaders”, only mentioning in the fourth paragraph that “Critics saw him as a dictator”.
In 1971 Castro set up the National Cultural Council in order to censor the works of intellectuals and artists in Cuba; a hallmark of dictatorial regimes. One is compelled to ask: if Castro’s socialist state was such a success, why did he feel the need to censor opinion? Characteristically, whilst East Berliners attempted to flee the German Democratic Republic, a socialist polity, for the Federal Republic of Germany, a capitalist polity, so too the Cuban middle classes attempted to flee their homeland for the United States.
Granted, Castro oversaw the implementation of important social reforms which did see improvements in healthcare, infrastructure and education, winning him early support from the rural and urban classes. At the same time, however, his policies of nationalisation compelled thousands of doctors, engineers and businesspeople to flee Cuba for Florida, creating an economic brain drain. Between 1959 and 1980, an estimated 500,000 Cubans left the island for the United States, for both political and economic reasons. 125,000 left in 1980 alone. All those brave enough to flee were labelled as ‘scum’ by the Castro Regime.
During the Cold War, given ideological similarities, Castro sided with the Soviet Union and agreed to host Soviet nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, catalysing the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962; the closest point the world has got to nuclear Armageddon. Castro’s almost total reliance on Moscow, however, was probably his biggest foreign policy blunder. Indeed, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba was left diplomatically isolated, compelling Castro to declare a ‘Special Time for Peace’. As the Cuban economy stagnated, bicycles replaced cars and oxen replaced tractors. Major food shortages, extensive malnutrition and a lack of basic goods were an everyday reality.
In order to appreciate just how disastrously Cuba’s economy was run, comparisons with neighbouring Puerto Rico are apt. To quote Tim Worstall, a Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute: “[Puerto Rico] remained under that American domination, that cruel capitalism and the chaos of markets. It was never enriched by the scientific planning of socialism. And living standards soared by a factor of 4 while those in Cuba stagnated for 5 decades. And the Cuban system justified itself by freeing Cuba from such American hegemony.”
To this day, Cuba’s GDP figures perform conspicuously below that of its neighbours. Supporters of Castro argue that Cuba’s economic woes are the consequence of the US trade embargo that was established in 1960 in response to Castro nationalising American-owned oil refineries in Cuba. This argument, however, conveniently ignores the historical record on socialist economic experiments which, to put it lightly, is quite damning.
The very people making this argument in support of Castro’s economic policies in the same breath celebrate his social reforms, despite the fact that other states succeeded in establishing the very same reforms without recourse to dictatorship. As Worstall puts it: “No, it was not the US, it was not any blockade or embargo, not anything external to Cuba that caused this, it was quite simply the idiocy of the economic policy followed, that socialism, which led to there being near no economic growth at all over the 55 years or so of his rule.” Of course the big contemporary dilemma facing the Cuban government is this: how can it modernise its economy without losing its grip on power?
In July 2006, beset by ill health, Castro handed over the reigns of government to his brother, Raúl Castro, having led Cuba for over four decades. Free and fair elections played no part in any of those decades. Of course, Raúl’s regime was described as ‘provisional’ but it remains in place to this day.
Thus it was that under Castro the Cuban people did not find their political liberties any better off.
As with all the ‘great men’ of history, Castro divides opinion. There are those – predominantly on the Left – who celebrate Castro as a romantic revolutionary who stood up to American imperialism. Then there are those – predominantly on the Right – who decry Castro as a tyrant who trampled over liberties.
For me, Castro’s 49 years in power testifies to the old adage: when one plays fast and loose with economic freedom, political freedom is invariably the next casualty.