It is difficult to think of a dictator that has had more popular support in the West than Fidel Castro. The president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and the Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn have all today expressed their admiration in one way or another for Castro. This support was never just personal: any number of “revolutionary” governments could vicariously earn themselves similar leniency for their practices via some kind of identification with Castro. This was especially useful for the Soviet Union and its clients during the Cold War, but continued long after. That all of these “experiments” ended in bloodshed and disaster never seemed to matter, so long as the flame of anti-Americanism remained lit. Now, finally, Castro is at an end, even if his ruinous legacy is not.
Castro seized power in Cuba on 1 January 1959. A one-party government was then installed that, as Human Rights Watch put it, “continued to repress virtually all civil and political rights” long after the other states in the region turned away from authoritarianism. “The repression was codified in law,” with many “abusive tactics developed during [Castro’s] time in power”—”including surveillance, beatings, arbitrary detention, and public acts of repudiation,” which “are still used by the Cuban government”—and these “abusive practices generated a pervasive climate of fear in Cuba, which hindered the exercise of fundamental rights,” HRW notes. Castro “refused to recognize the legitimacy of Cuban human rights organizations, alternative political parties, independent labor unions, or a free press,” and denied all international NGOs access to the island to investigate the human rights situation. As in any good Orwellian state, “Detention is often used pre-emptively to prevent people from participating in peaceful marches or political meetings.”
The Castro regime has, at a minimum, murdered 5,600 people by putting them before firing squads, a fair number manned by that other great revolutionary hero Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara, and 1,200 more people have been killed without even the pretence of a trial in “extrajudicial assassinations”. For purposes of comparison, General Augusto Pinochet’s murderous military government in Chile killed 3,200 people. Castro’s dispatch of troops abroad to serve Soviet foreign policy in Africa and elsewhere killed 14,000 Cubans. A quarter of Cuba’s population left their homeland rather than endure life in Castro’s big prison and it is estimated that 78,000 people were killed in the attempt, many drowned or eaten by sharks.
There is much debate about exactly what Castro believed and when. It is often said Castro was not a full-blown Communist at the time he became the Maximum Leader. It could even be true. But to the extent this is used to suggest that the U.S.—through actions like the farcical Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 and the (much exaggerated though now legendary) efforts to assassinate Castro—forced him into alliance with the Soviet Union, this is false.
Months before Castro’s guerrillas entered Havana, Castro had written:
When this war [against the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista] is over, I’ll start a much longer and bigger war of my own: the war I’m going to fight against [the Americans]. I realize that will be my true destiny.
Vasili Mitrokhin had access the largest cache of KGB records yet made available, and he concluded: “While American hostility [after Castro’s takeover] was later to reinforce Castro’s alliance with the Soviet Union, it did not cause it. The initiative for the alliance came from Havana.”
The series of statutes that constitute “the embargo”—the decision by the United States to bar trade with Cuba—are used, by the Castro dynasty and its defenders, to excuse virtually everything that has happened on the island since 1959. Politically the embargo has reached diminishing returns for the West and doubtless the maintenance at this stage is considerably about pride given that Castro outlasted eleven American Presidents. But provoking that embargo is a failure that should be charged to the Castro account; he sought a confrontation with the United States and he got one. It is also hardly the embargo alone that can explain Cuba’s dismal economic record under the Castros. Cuba was, despite its predatory elite, a relatively prosperous country with low infant-mortality and high literacy rates when Castro inherited the country; enforced collectivization and other Communist policies helped squander these advantages and pull Cuba below its neighbours on nearly all indicators.
In one of his many verbose statements, Castro once asked how it was that the United States could accuse him of being a dictator when the U.S. held in its hands the “monstrously undemocratic … ability to order a thermonuclear war”. Castro, of course, recommended to Nikita Khrushchev—”a tireless defender of peace“—that he launch a nuclear first strike on the U.S. and thus destroy the entire world during the October 1962 missile crisis that Castro had caused in the first place.
In August 1968, Castro, now safely in power and the darling of the Sixties radicals with the admiration and sympathy of much of the global Left, backed the Soviet Empire when it crushed the Prague spring, as did Ho Chi Minh, who was then running a savage war that would later be adapted as a model by the Islamic State. Supporting the Soviet tanks running over students in Czechoslovakia didn’t seem to cost either of them any popularity among the Sixties radicals.
Castro’s regime became an extension of Soviet imperialism, both politically and militarily.
Castro immunized Moscow right down to the end in the third world, in international forums, and among significant sections of Western public opinion from the consequences of their actions. A famous case is the Red Army’s conquest of Afghanistan in 1979, one of the most blatant acts of imperial aggression since World War Two. In 1983, at a meeting of the Vancouver Assembly of the World Council of Churches, one of many such clerical “peace” gatherings, Western capitalism was duly condemned as the leading cause of injustice in the world leading to sexism, racism, “cultural captivity” (appropriation, as we would now say), and colonialism. Of the Soviets’ virtual annexation of Afghanistan, the Assembly said only how nice it would be if the Soviets could withdraw, but they need not do so unless it is “in the context of an overall political settlement between Afghanistan [i.e. the government the Soviets had installed] and the U.S.S.R.”
This curious ability to ignore the Soviet Bloc’s betrayal of the Left’s core values occurred in other areas, from feminism to environmentalism to gay rights—all viciously repressed in the Soviet Union, which saw them as bourgeois deviances imported from the West. In Castro’s Cuba there was an especially thoroughgoing campaign against homosexuals, who were rounded up en masse and subjected to torture and concentration camps. Homosexuals were initially deposited with other “counter-revolutionary” elements like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian priests, who had refused to join Communist state organizations (which homosexuals were barred from joining), in forced labour camps called the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), Castro’s answer to the GULAG. Even after the UMAPs were closed in the late 1960s, homosexuals were persecuted as an ideological menace to the regime. “Gays were not treated like human beings, they were treated like beasts,” recorded poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, who had been an early enthusiast for Castro’s revolution, of his time in Morro fortress jail. “[T]he most insignificant incident was an excuse to beat [gays] mercilessly,” and this was accompanied by forced labour, rape, and murder. State’s agents were present in the prisons to detect any sign of political dissidence and liquidate the culprit. In the late 1980s, the Castro government responded to the discovery of HIV/AIDS by confining to sanatoriums anybody who tested positive.
Militarily, Castro would also act as the shock troops of the Soviet campaign in the third world, with his very capable intelligence apparatus and Soviet-equipped military. Many, including the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, will praise Castro for the intervention in Angola that helped hasten the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Fair enough. It might be simultaneously borne in mind that the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), dominated by the South African Communist Party of which Nelson Mandela was a member, attended camps in areas of Angola held by forces the Cubans backed to be trained in bomb-making by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and in torturing suspected spies in its ranks by the East German secret police, the notorious STASI. (Mandela would use his considerable prestige to defend Castro—and Muammar el-Qaddafi and Yasser Arafat, both of whom had extensive KGB links—long after apartheid collapsed and these alliances could be dismissed as a necessary-evil.) It also has to be noted that Communist domination of the leading anti-apartheid institutions considerably delayed the fall of apartheid. And it might be taken into consideration that counter-balancing Red China was a not-insignificant part of the reason the Soviets deployed Cubans in Angola, rather than any humanitarian motive. Still, the Cubans helped inflict on Pretoria a defeat that hastened the downfall of the foul racialist system devised by Hendrik Verwoerd.
That incidental benefit of Castro acting as the tip of the Soviet spear leaves out what this action did in other places, saliently in Ethiopia (now Ethiopia and Eritrea) and Syria. In Ethiopia, 17,000 Cuban troops and a stream of Soviet cash and direction provided the lifeline for the murderous Mengistu Haile Mariam, even during the famines he imposed on that luckless country. The Cubans stationed a tank brigade in the Golan during the 1973 October War and for two years after to help defend the Soviet Union’s premier Middle Eastern base after Anwar al-Sadat put a stop to the Soviet colonization of Egypt. Castro’s affinity for the House of Assad outlasted the Cold War: In August 2013, after the massive chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime, Castro opposed any intervention to punish Assad as an American attempt to perpetrate “a genocide against the Arab people“. Castro had no objection to Assad’s actual and ongoing genocide.
In the Western Hemisphere, Castro functioned as a force multiplier more successfully than the Soviets dared to hope, giving them access to a web of “confidential contacts” and agents that allowed active measures and revolutions in multiple countries. The Soviets were in contact with Salvador Allende for years before he took power in a Soviet-influenced election in Chile. The Soviets capitalized on Allende’s downfall, creating a cult around Allende that survives to this day—along with any number of Soviet disinformation operations. The Khmer Rouge killed 1.5 million out of 7.5 million Cambodians in three years, but in 1976 Cambodia got just four stories in The New York Times, while abuse of human rights in post-Allende Chile got sixty-six. This was reinforced by the intelligence revelations in the U.S. in the mid-1970s, which the Soviets, with Cuban help, weaponized, most famously using Philip Agee—the pre-internet Edward Snowden.
The revival of Personism in Argentina and the nasty government of Omar Torrijos in Panama had Soviet and Cuban fingerprints, but the Soviets were struggling toward the end of the 1970s in Latin America. In Peru, the Soviet foothold collapsed almost completely. But the Cubans were instrumental in the greatest victory for the Soviets in South America since the Cuban revolution itself: the rise to power of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
The brutal, corrupt dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza was overthrown in Managua in July 1979 in a wide-based revolution. Eleven months earlier, the Sandinistas had pulled off a raid into the capital, seizing the Managua National Palace, letting the regime know it was on borrowed time. The Sandinistas had been in contact with the Soviets for twenty years by this point and the raid was conducted by men trained and financed by Moscow Centre, operating at their direction (the mission was codenamed ISKRA by the KGB). It was under the direction of Havana that all the Sandinista factions came together in March 1979, and at the end of May the Sandinistas crossed into Nicaragua from a base in Costa Rice that was run by Cuban intelligence, who also provided arms and tactical advice, providing a “major contribution to the rapid Sandinista victory,” Mitrokhin writes.
In September 1979, riding the Sandinista wave, Castro held the Non-Aligned meeting in Havana and reached the zenith of his symbolic value to the Soviet Union. Castro’s speech praised the Bolshevik coup for having “started a new age in human history” and “united the unselfish struggles of the peoples” against the “hateful colonial system”. In-line with the Soviet active measures that had preceded the meeting, Castro denounced Zionism in the same breath as racism, South African apartheid, and fascism, which Castro said the Soviets had defeated, leaving out that their alliance with Nazism started the Second World War.
The Sandinistas moved swiftly to purge from the transitionary junta all other elements that had any actual power, though the “centrist and bourgeois mini-parties already existing in the country would be kept only because they presented no danger and served as a convenient façade for the outside world,” the KGB files report. Under Cuban guidance, the Sandinistas then set about exporting their revolution, supporting (in collaboration with Col. Qaddafi) the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) in Peru and destabilizing neighbouring El Salvador, specifically trying to veto by violence the 1982 elections. The Cuban tutelage the Sandinista tyranny became was so successful that the Cuban intermediary was no longer required by late 1981 and the Sandinistas received weapons, money, and “advisors” directly from the Soviet Union and the Captive Nations.
An uprising against the Sandinista regime had begun once its exclusivist and Marxist nature became clear, led by the purged anti-Somoza Leftist parties and the Indian tribes. In 1982, the U.S. began to support the insurgency and attached units of Somoza’s National Guard to it. This opposition movement became known by the name its enemies gave it: the Contras. A wider array of volunteers who wished to see the end of Sandinista rule would join the Contras, especially from the tribes and black Creoles, who rejected the radicalism of the Sandinista government. The U.S. would offer repeatedly to end their support for the Contras if the Sandinistas ended the Soviet presence, stopped meddling in El Salvador, and held elections. The Sandinistas consistently refused through the 1980s, and when they were finally forced to hold a reasonably fair election in 1990, they lost.
Even after the end of the Cold War the Castro regime would continue to support authoritarianism in the region. Hugo Chavez failed to bring off his military coup in Venezuela in 1992 but did accede to power by electoral means in 1999. Cuban intelligence was instrumental in keeping in place this most classic of caudillo regimes, which rested on the barons, now remade in Chavista form, plus the military and the drug lords. Chavez’s support for FARC, the narco-terrorist insurgents in Colombia, was the finishing touch to a regime that vocally looked to Cuba as a model.
The defence of Chavez came down to his reduction of poverty—a nostalgic echo of the defences mounted of Castro, which have by no means gone away, that he had advanced “economic rights” like healthcare and education, even if the “civil rights” like not being imprisoned for thinking differently had not quite come to fruition. Chavez’s poverty-reduction programs were wildly inefficient and wholly dependent on high oil prices, but this ended up not mattering: he died in time to avoid the economic catastrophe that is now plain for all to see. Chavez’s salami-slice demolition of democracy in one of the few countries in the area that had held out against it allowed some lexicographical defences of his autocratic government, and he also timed his passing from this mortal coil so as to avoid responsibility when dictatorship became the only way to describe the government in Caracas.
That other countries managed democracy and socialism did not seem to tell against Castro or Chavez and it was curious that the apologetics offered on their behalf never seemed to extend to, say, Augusto Pinochet, who oversaw a boom in prosperity in Chile and the stabilization of a country brought to chaos and collapse by the former government. Quite rightly it was said that Pinochet was a murderer and a tyrant whose interest was in personal power: building autobahns was neither here nor there as compared with those facts. Pinochet had made the mistake of aligning with America, however, and for that there was no forgiveness.
The Obama administration has made bringing rogues in from the cold a hallmark of its foreign policy, from the “reset” with Russia that failed, to the nuclear deal with Iran that is already being violated and showing serious costs in the region, and the re-opening of relations with Cuba.
Though Castro receives a lot of praise for “internationalism” and “solidarity” for his (minimal) role in the end of apartheid, his government has entrenched racism in Cuba, sometimes in the crude form of creating tourist spaces without blacks and other times more subtly in who is targeted for repression. There have been efforts by the Castro dynasty to adjust to a more progressive line on homosexuality, a display of social permissiveness that has gained even so blood-stained a tyrant as Bashar al-Assad some Western defenders. The American opening to Cuba did not include any robust provisions for the improvement of human rights. After an initial batch, the re-opening of relations has done nothing to release of political prisoners. Leaving Cuba is now—theoretically anyway—easier, which might help reduce the numbers of people killed trying to flee the island despotism. A small mercy. But fundamentally the tyranny at home remains the same.
Meanwhile, Havana remains one of the “big four” intelligence threats, having run rings around the U.S. during the Cold War. In 1987, a genuine defector from Cuba revealed that all U.S. sources to that point had really been working for the Castros, and recruitment inside the U.S. has only ever been limited by the number of Cuban case officers. Moreover, even when the Castro regime does not itself use stolen information to damage the West, it gives or sells such information to states that have and continue to pose a threat to the West, namely Russia, China, Iran, Assad’s Syria, and previously Qaddafi’s Libya and Saddam’s Iraq. The re-opening of diplomatic outposts is going to provide a lot more new ways for the Cubans to make mischief abroad.
In short, Castro might be dead, but the dictatorship he built is not.
Post has been updated