November 25th at 10:29 pm Fidel Castro took his last breath, much to the sorrow of those who benefited from his life’s work — the citizens of Cuba. He was 90 years old and had held the responsibility of his citizens in his hands from 1959 until his illness in 2006 when he turned over the presidency to his brother. He was a benevolent dictator.
Justin Trudeau sent condolences to the Cuban nation on behalf of all Canadians, much to the chagrin of some opponents who believe that there is little hypocrisy in our governments making business deals with places like China or Chile while ignoring their human rights practices. But with Cuba, these opponents claim it is all about human rights and democracy.
Back in 1959 Castro made the mistake of kicking out a non-benevolent, mafia-influenced dictator, Batista, who was supported by the US. He also made the mistake of turning to the Russians for economic help during the American paranoia period of anti-communism. But we seem to overlook China, a one-party state that suppresses open political activity, expressing our concerns, maybe, about human rights while we build pipelines heading west, offshore factories and buy Chinese products.
As for non-benevolent dictators, we seem to love them. The US solidly backed Saddam Hussein when he went after Iran, as they also did with the likes of Pinochet, Noreiga, Marcos, Mobutu and Duvalier. I doubt we ever bothered to remind them about human rights.
So bravo, Trudeau for not being a hypocrite. Castro was good to his own people.
Castro’s legacy started when, shortly after taking power, he financially supported women so they could stop prostituting in order to feed and house their children. He gave every citizen a ration book for food. True, the people weren’t offered t-bone steaks every day or even once a week but the homemakers could sufficiently feed their family from the seven pounds of rice, one pound of beans, half a litre of cooking oil, one bread roll per day, plus small quantities of eggs, chicken or fish, spaghetti, and sugar each person was allotted monthly.
Castro also got rid of homelessness, a huge problem in North America today. First he prioritized women with children and then worked his way through his citizens from the most needy to the least until everyone had a place to live. To do this houses and apartments were confiscated from those who owned more than one residence. He also seized homes owned by those who had failed or refused to pay their property taxes. Many of these people were Americans and Castro offered to return the property if they paid the overdue taxes. Most refused to do so.
Starting in the mountains, Castro, in 1961 organized about a million people to be part of the literacy brigade. Their job was to build schools, train teachers and raise literacy, which at that time was between 25-40%. Within two years, 96% of the Cuban citizens could read and write at a functional level. Once basic illiteracy was wiped out, he offered free education to everyone, and anyone could study whatever s/he wanted. This to me seems far more democratic than the system we use with the poor unable to send their children to school and those who manage seldom access the upper class universities such as Harvard or Yale.
Castro also outlawed discrimination, which included permitting black people entry to the Catholic Church which was illegal during Batista’s reign. However, Castro did restrict services for everyone to one day a week. But racially mixed marriages were allowed and it was Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela who fought, demonstrated, lobbied and won rights for the LGBT society in the 1990s even though Castro was a known gay-basher. Although they haven’t obtained the right to legalized marriage, the anti-discrimination laws include gender identity. And Cubans celebrate the National Day Against Homophobia!
Once in power and in order to fulfil his goals of land reform, income redistribution, agricultural diversification and economic independence of the US, Castro took charge but the economic battle with the US exacerbated the home front problems. The oil companies of Texaco, Standard and Royal Dutch refused to process oil from Russia, which Castro had obtained at a lower price than the US. The US urged the companies to refuse. They did and Castro expropriated them. Eisenhower put on the embargo that is still in effect today even though in 1992 the UN condemned it as a violation of the charter. In retaliation to the embargo, Castro expropriated American companies such as Coca Cola.
But the embargo hurt the Cuban people. The Americans disallowed their citizens and companies to do business or spend money in Cuba. Those who broke this law were subjected to prison terms of up to ten years and/or a $250,000 fine. Since the world traded in American currency and in Cuba, there was little to spare, medicine was in short supply as were products such as shampoo, car parts, electronics and building materials. I spoke with a publisher in Havana who said that due to the lack of cash, the government couldn’t print enough books to supply every child in Cuba. They had to share.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. After overthrowing Batista, Castro attempted to form a sound democratic government but hundreds of rich Cubans withdrew money from their bank accounts and escaped to Miami. This included Batista’s entire family and 108 Batista supporters who boarded a plane to avoid the possibility of execution for war crimes.
Castro then imprisoned any Batista followers who hadn’t escaped and on January 12, 1959, 71 men accused of crimes against humanity were shot. This was followed by the execution of numerous Batista loyalists who were attempting to form a counter-revolution in the mountains. In total, 3615 executions have been conducted in Cuba in the 57 years since Castro took power with most of the executions occurring in the first few years of Castro’s rule. On the other hand, 638 CIA sponsored assassination attempts were made on Castro’s life; some of the executions would have been due to these attempts.
Castro’s socialist programs were expensive and when the economy suffered, many tried to leave the country. Some escaped to Mexico or Guatemala and attempted to gain political asylum status in the states.
And some wanting to leave were assisted by Castro. Between 1960-62, 14,000 Cuban children were flown out of Cuba by the Catholic Church. Most never saw their parents again. In 1965 Castro opened the port near Varadero and allowed 3000 people to leave for their “Yankee paradise.” This was followed by another 260,000 people being, with Cuban assistance, transported to the US by boat. Fearing the influx of more migrants with some being undesirable to any country, President Nixon stopped further immigration.
Finally, in 1980 all Cubans were permitted to leave Cuba if they wished, including prisoners. Jimmy Carter, aware of the dangers, closed the border to Cubans. An often-touted event that occurred in 1994 has 72 Cubans escaping by boat who were caught by the Cuban coast guard. Forty-one died. What happened was that their entry to the US had been denied due to the closed border and when they were returning to Cuba the coast guards water bombed them.
As time passed, Canada and Europe recognized that the embargo had no political purpose except for revenge. French, German, Spanish and Italian governments built hotels in Varadero, a beach on the Caribbean. Their guests spent tons of much-needed hard currency and the companies paid their taxes. Sympathetic countries also buoyed up Cuba’s economy. When the Soviet Union collapsed and support was halted, Venezuela and China stepped in.
To counter foreign aide to the Cubans, the Americans passed the Helms-Burton law in 1996, which prohibits any president from lifting the embargo until Cuba has “legalized political activity and made a commitment to free and fair elections.”
The Cubans might not have American styled elections but similar to China or Saudi Arabia that have no embargo and with whom we trade freely, each community in Cuba democratically elects a person by secret ballot to represent them within their district. From these representatives, the provincial assembly is chosen for a two-year period. Finally, the 612 member national assembly is chosen for five-year terms, many from those who were elected to the districts. One deputy is chosen to represent each 20,000 inhabitants. Granted, the Castros are in control and the government follows communist dogma but the representatives have some power to make changes as was shown with gay rights.
What in fact actually happened was that the Cubans showed the Americans that they could survive without American support. That survival for certain was difficult and unfair at times. But today, walking in the streets of Cuba whether in Havana or the outback villages, no one sees beggars without legs on wheeled plywood sheets begging for money or children without repaired cleft pallets or even with decayed teeth. And if you are fortunate enough to speak to the children you will see they know almost as much as you about your country and politics. They are polite and reserved and display a keen sense of humour.
So, rest in peace Fidel. May your legacy continue for as long as we have a Cuba.
Published in the Prince George Citizen November, 2016
Keen and Wasserman wrote in A Short History of Latin America, “what began as a program of social and political reform within a framework of constitutional democracy and capitalism, evolved into a Marxist revolution.”