Trump’s Cuban Freeze Will Strengthen Castro’s Legacy, Good and Bad
In late 2014, Barack Obama reached out to Raul Castro, the brother and successor to revolutionary leader Fidel, to begin the “Cuban thaw” - an effort to open up diplomatic and economic ties between the two countries.
Obama argued that freeing travel and trade would naturally loosen the grip of authoritarianism in Cuba. The death of Fidel, dictator from 1959 to 2008, seemed to further mark a new era of US-Cuban relations.
Now President Trump is threatening to re-impose sanctions on Cuba on the basis of the need for reforms to improve human rights. Obama’s thaw seems certain to be re-frozen.
His hard-line approach gained Trump approval from the Cuban exiles who lined the streets of Florida to celebrate Castro’s death. Cuban-Americans are demographically unique in US politics for their support of the Republican Party, driven by hatred for Castro. For them there can be no negotiation with the Communist Party.
In contrast to Trump, Justin Trudeau, whose father Pierre cultivated close links with the Cuban government, praised Fidel as a “remarkable leader” who would be remembered with “deep and lasting affection” from the Cuban people.
Trudeau’s statement glossed over human rights abuses in Cuba, prevalent during and since Castro’s rule. The left shouldn’t pretend that Cuba is a socialist utopia: Human Rights Watch describes it as a country where repression of free-thought and dissent against the state, and brutal abuses and injustices in the penal system, are endemic.
But nonetheless, tens of thousands of Cubans rallied over nine days of national mourning for Castro. Also undeniable, as noted by Trudeau, is that the Cuban Revolution led to remarkable advancements in the country’s social welfare - especially in education and healthcare.
The icon of the 1959 Revolution, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, was placed in charge of its agricultural policy, and in 1961 he instituted a massive literacy campaign that sent a million educators into rural Cuba to teach its mostly illiterate peasantry to read and write.
As a result the national literary rate, at 76% already the fourth highest in Latin America, rapidly rose to over 90%, and is reported by UNESCO to be roughly 100% - above that of most Western nations.
As Thair Shaik writes, the children of the same rural peasants - despite being born into crushing poverty - have become consultant surgeons and airline pilots thanks to an education system which is free from nursery to university level.
Cuba’s 90,000 doctors - more per capita than the US and UK - work in a universal healthcare that spends 11.1% (as a percentage of GDP) compared to the market-driven American healthcare system’s 17.9%.
Although poverty remains widespread in Cuba, it has also effectively eliminated homelessness and child hunger, and since the Revolution the average Cuban life expectancy has increased, roughly in line with global trends, by 20 years.
Cuba has an infant mortality rate lower than that of the US - an industrial superpower where 28 million people lack health insurance.
Cuba’s medics also serve worldwide, sponsored by the state to respond to natural disasters, provide vaccinations and combat disease. Cuba’s effort against the Ebola crisis in West Africa dwarfed that of the West.
they can only feel frustrated by their fortressing from the modern world
Cuba has managed these feats while being only the 81st wealthiest global economy, and being battered by the US trade embargo for nearly six decades.
The dark side of Castro’s regime was that thousands were incarcerated, thousands more were harassed and intimidated, entire generations were denied basic political freedoms, LGBT people were persecuted; Castro refused to recognise human rights organisations, political parties, independent unions, or a free press. Due to the regime’s secrecy the totality of the number of political prisoners executed is impossible to estimate.
Castro’s abusive tactics developed - including surveillance, beatings, arbitrary detention, and public acts of repudiation - are still still used by the Cuban government, who continue to repress dissent with activists subject to short-term arbitrary arrests and detention.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 cut off Cuba’s Comintern subsidies and key trading partner, plunging the economy into depression. This disaster led to a 35% contraction in GDP, leading to the “Special Period” of the 1990s in which the government was forced to ration food and fuel, and close numerous state-owned factories to stay afloat.
Since then Cuba has grown increasingly dependent on tourism and agriculture, with sugar remaining its staple export. Though the country is believed to have vast oil reserves, it is unable to take advantage of them due to a lack of proper infrastructure. Collapse in manufacturing led to Cubans’ famous reliance on rusty 1950s Cadillacs and horse-drawn carriages for transport.
This resourcefulness continues in the inventive “El Paquete Semanal” (the weekly package), a scheme where Cubans - to bypass the limitations of the US embargo and a slow and censored internet - consume Western media through an exchange of hard drives uploaded with films, music and TV shows.
It’s a phenomenon that demonstrates the dilemma for Cubans. Although they may cherish the socialist values enshrined in their constitution, they can only feel frustrated by their fortressing from the modern world.
Grossly hypocritical Castro framed himself as a lesser evil
A key question is what the Cuban brand of socialism could achieve if they were able to utilise the wealth gained from trade and foreign investment - especially from the US - rather than having to rely on a primarily controlled economy, an insecurity which assisted in Castro in his grip on power.
In 2010, Castro took personal responsibility for the Revolutionary-era discrimination against LGBT people. Raul Castro's daughter Mariela heads the National Centre for Sex Education, which is supported by the state to promote LGBT health awareness. The progress exemplifies the complexity and evolution of Cuban society.
According to José Manuel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch, the embargo allowed Castro “to play the victim and discouraged other governments from condemning his repressive policies”, with Obama’s thaw “depriving the Cuban government of its main pretext for repressing dissent on the island.”
Carlos Lauría of the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that, while persecution of Cuban journalists is common, a new generation of bloggers and independent reporters are defiantly criticising the government while also standing up for the ideals of the Revolution.
The path for positive change in Cuba lies in this middle ground: retaining the Revolution’s social justice, while relegating its oppression and dictatorship to history. This approach would have been advocated by another Democratic president continuing Obama’s thaw, but this chance is being torpedoed by Trump.
Castro’s secondary pretext for repressing dissent were the human rights violations aided and abetted across Latin America by the US government, including the war crimes perpetrated by the military coup of Fulgenico Batista which Castro’s ragtag army overthrew.
By citing American foreign policy favourable to regimes such as the “banana republics” of Central America, the mass-murdering junta of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and the genocidal Contras in Nicaragua, Castro excused his own brutality. Grossly hypocritical Castro framed himself as a lesser evil when compared to the dangers of US power.
In the post-Cold War conclusion of his rule, Castro was able to point to Guantanamo Bay - the US military outpost on Cuba which stands as an emblem of the tortures and untried detentions of America’s War on Terror - as a reason to reject cooperation with the West. Obama failed to close Gitmo despite eight years of lobbying, and it will remain open on Trump’s watch.
The aggression and vitriol of the illiberal US president - whose posturing matches his incompetence - will surely strengthen the commendable aspects of the Cuban Revolution. But it also risks the murky spirit of Fidel Castro living on in an island still on lockdown.
About the author
Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.
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