So in the end, he didn’t die in harness. But nor did he leave with a cigar in his hand, having given them up for health reasons a few years ago. He did however announce his retirement, after a half century, to make way for younger people, wearing not military fatigues, but an Adidas jacket, the label clearly showing. He looked pretty relaxed. He looked less like El Commander than he did like Cosmo Kramer.

So now the war of words will begin – though the whole thing is somewhat muted given the so far peaceful handover to his brother, Raul. The points will be pretty predictable and can be summed up by the following two word strands, which are most effective if they are shouted simultaneously by parties on both sides of the room:

PRO: Batista mafia revolution Bay of Pigs Blockade Che third world solidarity revolution in the revolution G77 group Brigades Namibia apartheid Mandela anti-globalisation doctors Africa Venezuela
CON: Firing squads communism exiles Isle of Pines homophobia Mariel boat lift stagnation dictatorship relic backwater Michael Moore chafing?

Repeat.

My sympathies are obviously with the pro side, but defending Cuba as it is, with the added virtue of never having visited it, is not the same as advancing it as a model for a social system in the future, anymore than Hugo Chavez’s increasingly erratic rule – though who can tell really through the ludicrous right propaganda – is hardly a model for liberation from neo-liberalism.

Those who support Castro, the Cuban revolution have to deal with quite a few negatives, from the execution and imprisonment not only of Batista’s thugs, to the same treatment meted out to not a few revolutionaries, and then to dissidents. The imprisonment of homosexuals and prostitutes in camps, the 20 year sentences etc etc.

Then there has been the wilfully harebrained insistence on an economic model that – whatever the results of the blockade – couldn’t really deliver results on its own, and which was in part the insistence on trying to develop a new human ethic by sheer revolutionary will.

But it was also forced on the Cubans by the great gringo to the north.

For Castro, Guevera, and anyone else south of the Rio Grande, politics has to be understood in terms of three key events – 1954 when the CIA overthrew the elected and moderately left Arbenz government of Guatemala, plunging that country into decades of dictatorship and civil war, leaving a quarter of a million dead, 1961 when Kennedy backed a bunch of gangsters to take back Havana – and the other september 11, 1973, when the Allende government met the same fate.

The implications were obvious – the Americans would subvert any of the internal affairs of any Latin American nation no matter how moderate its policies, and especially if it opened its borders. (Ariel Dorfman’s ‘How To Read Donald Duck’ showed how this had happened in Chile- it was championed in Australia by media studies teacher Keith Windschuttle, who noted in the Nation Review that it was an essential tool for the coming peasant revolution of the unemployed and aborigines – of course he might have been on acid at the time).

Thankfully, due to Bush’s incompetence, the US has now lost Latin America pretty decisively, but they were tough times.

In the midst of them Cuba built up a social system with western levels of education, social services and health care – or better than western levels, as life expectancy, infant survival rates and other indicators began to far outstrip those of most states in the US.

In Africa, Cuba sent brigades that were essential to finishing off the remnants of imperialism – the brutal Portuguese colonies, where tens, hundreds of thousands had been slaughtered by Lisbon’s troops. They helped free Namibia and kept pressure on South Africa at a time when people such as Margaret Thatcher and John Howard called Mandela a terrorist.

When the cold war was over they trained thousands of doctors across the world, including offering some to the US after Katrina – which Cuba had survived, evacuating 20% of its population from the projected hurricane path – an offer the refusal of which undoubtedly cost lives. They should really be invited into to run aboriginal health, as they’re clearly the only non-aboriginal group with the will to make a difference.

Where you stand on Castro comes down to what you believe about human freedom. More people have died crossing the seas to the US from Haiti than from Cuba – and Haiti, a sort of control test for Cuba, is a craphole without real freedom that comes from some sort of social solidity.

Those for whom freedom is simply the presence or absence of political prisoners, simply never see the wretched of the earth, never figure them into their calculations, see their misfortunes and suffering as unpolitical – a mass traffic accident, no more. To try and defend anything of Castro to them is like teaching lacrosse to spaniels. They look they nod they bark they don’t get it. If Cuba finds a path to greater political liberalism – and it is hardly a total dictatorship – all the better. But what you can say about Castro is what Mandela said when the US tried to prevent him from being invited to Mandela’s swearing in as president: “he didn’t desert us then – we won’t desert him now”.

Peter Fray

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