Since my first days at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I have argued with a lot of people about a lot of things. But I don’t argue about Fidel Castro, who finally died at long last on Saturday. The reason is partly personal; my mother left Cuba at the age of 13 with her family after Castro’s terror unfolded across her happy homeland. But the main reason is that the dictatorship of Fidel Castro does not raise any issue on which reasonable people can disagree.
There are basically three kinds of people who say nice things about Fidel: (1) those too ignorant or too stupid to have the first clue what they’re talking about; (2) cowards for whom everything is morally equivalent; and (3) those who know what Fidel did and are depraved enough to defend it anyway.
People in the first category don’t need my help defeating themselves. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau might as well have been wearing a dunce cap and a “kick me” sign when he claimed in a statement that even Castro’s detractors recognize Fidel’s “tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for ‘el Comandante.’” As a bonus, he hailed Castro as Cuba’s “longest serving president,” as if that were a laudable achievement for a dictator.
In the competition for Maximum Idiot on the subject of Cuba, Irish president Michael Higgins wasn’t far behind Trudeau (Castro believed not only in “freedom for his people but for all the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet”), and Dr. Jill Stein wasn’t far behind that (Castro was a “symbol of the struggle for Justice in the shadow of empire”). These people are like college kids who wear Ché Guevara T-shirts: They have no idea what they’re saying, and nobody expects them to. Some people think that eulogies like these reveal the despotic left-wing tendencies of those who make them. I take a much more charitable view: They’re just stupid. If they knew only 5 percent of the reality of Castro’s dictatorship, they would be horrified.
The same cannot be said of people in the second category, moral cowards such as Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Jimmy Carter’s drivel about “fondly” remembering his visits with Fidel and Fidel’s “love of his country” was thoroughly familiar to anyone who knows Carter, the shining example of Dean Acheson’s observation that moralizing and being moral aren’t the same thing. For those who aren’t familiar, Jimmy Carter is a former American president who thinks that he’s no better than any other sinner, and neither are you, and so we’re all the same as Fidel in God’s eyes. He’s not ignoring Castro’s dictatorship because he’s unaware of its existence. Rather, he doesn’t think he or anyone else is in a moral position to judge Castro’s dictatorship, so he politely declines to mention it.
This moral cowardice was distilled to its purest form in the empty and thoroughly worthless White House statement. As you might expect, Obama’s statement was excessively wordy and mostly about himself. Here’s the bit about Castro:
We know that this moment fills Cubans — in Cuba and in the United States — with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation. History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.
The reference to Fidel’s “enormous impact” in “altering” the lives of millions in “countless ways,” was sterilized of any moral judgement. Cruel dictatorship? Who’s to say? History will judge. The latter was a subtle reference to one of Castro’s favorite phrases, “La historia me absolverá,” but the reference is so subtle, I’m not sure even an expert in reading between the lines could tell what it means, or that it means anything. At the end of the day, the statement tells us nothing about Castro but a great deal about Obama, the intellectual whose congenital narcissism makes it impossible for him to pick any side in a moral argument, except when he is the subject of it. It’s the response you’d expect from someone who thinks he’s being high-minded and even-handed when he blames the Israeli–Palestinian conflict on both sides equally. Such people speak out against violence and human-rights abuses only when their personal political enemies can somehow be blamed, and almost never on principle.
That helps explains the New York Times’ appalling double standard in its obituaries of right-wing Augusto Pinochet (“brutal dictator” and “notorious symbol of human rights abuse and corruption”) and Castro (“fiery apostle of revolution” who “defied the United States for nearly half a century as Cuba’s maximum leader.”) Then again, the New York Times deserves a special place in the pantheon of Cuba’s tormentors, having done more than any other institution to burnish Castro’s image as a romantic democratic revolutionary in the critical early years when Castro might still have been stopped. The shame of New York Times columnist Herbert Mathews’s adoring portraits of Castro hangs over the paper still, but as their obituary of Castro shows, the New York Times is too vain for shame. So much for them.
By far the most poisonous of Castro’s apologists are those in the third category, those who know what Castro did and justify it still. It is the Cuban people’s cross to bear that most people in this third category are compatriots and friends — the Cuban Communists themselves, and their close allies in the dictatorships of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.
By far the most poisonous of Castro’s apologists are those in the third category, those who know what Castro did and justify it still.
These are not to be confused with more well-meaning Castro supporters across Latin America. Castro was a master propagandist, and the David-and-Goliath narrative (with imperialist Yankees in Goliath’s part) is viscerally irresistible. But most Mexicans and Brazilians who sympathize with Castro are really just in love with a Ché Guevara T-shirt. They see the huge crowds that gather for Castro’s funeral and don’t realize that most are there for the free food they have little hope of getting otherwise, many of them afraid of being noticed anywhere else. Most of those Latin Americans fall in the first category: Very few know anything about Castro’s dictatorship, and fewer still defend it.
The dictatorship’s real defenders know what Castro did. They know about the Seguridad del Estado, the pervasive terror police that proudly took its name from Stalinist East Germany’s Staatssicherheit (“Stasi”). They know about the wretched political prisons, from which once healthy men would be released after just a few years on the verge of death. They know about the state-organized mobs that ransack old ladies’ houses because their children dare to criticize the regime. They know about the book clubs that meet in secret by candlelight, to read forbidden texts on pain of indefinite detention. They know that police harass and arrest people for wearing T-shirts that say “Change.” They know the desperate material privations that have pushed tens of thousands of wives to prostitution. They know about how Castro’s megalomaniac insistence on the socialist revolution produced a dystopia of everyone-for-himself. They know about the deprivation of the most basic freedoms of speech and movement. They know Castro was a sadist who delighted in ordering people to arrest their best friends, among many other tortures, humiliations, and crimes. They know that Castro’s Cuba is an island prison. They know all those things, and still they defend Castro.
I don’t talk to those people because they are my enemies. I would vastly prefer to engage them in a venue more appropriate for non-verbal communication — such as a battlefield. All three groups have this in common, however. They can all go to hell as far as I’m concerned.
#related#There were celebrations in Miami after Castro died, but there was precious little to celebrate. Castro died in the comfort of old age, with all his sins on his head, leaving behind a Stalinist dictatorship that has already outlived Stalinism by many decades. As one uncle said to me yesterday, “We lost, and he won.” For the moment, that’s the truth. All I can hope is that the ingenuity and joyful spirit that comes so naturally to Cubans will outlive Castro’s dictatorship in the long run, and bring a future of hope and prosperity and freedom to that long-tormented people.
Meantime, to those Americans and others around the world who stood up to Fidel Castro, who took my family in, protected them, and treated them with dignity, I offer my deepest and sincerest thanks. Only a very few of you can begin to imagine the infinite calamities of Castro’s dictatorship. But you knew that the millions who risked and sacrificed everything to escape Cuba were the victims of one of the 20th century’s great crimes against humanity.
On their behalf, and even more on behalf of all those who suffer under Castro’s dictatorship to this very day, thank you. Let’s keep hoping and working for the day of Cuba’s liberation.