Cuba is going through a period, not just a moment, a thrilling period of changes. I think they were changes that reality had been incubating, that were not born like Athena from the head of some god. They were born from the energy accumulated by a society that is capable of changing, and that is the proof that it is alive.
–Eduardo Galeano, visiting Cuba in 2012.
It’s important to stress that Fidel Castro was not a doctor or nurse, nor was he a schoolteacher. So when the Cuban health and education systems are widely -and rightly- praised, it needs to be borne in mind that there is no single figure with whom it originated, nor a single figure maintaining it. These are things built collectively, and we should not fall into the trap of thinking that they begin or end with Fidel (who was well aware of this), and hence that their defence in the here and now is neither here nor there.
One frustrating thing has come to the fore for me in recent days. I’m not sure how best to describe it, but it is something like the luxury people afford themselves of applying universal criteria to a particular situation of which they only have a partial understanding, combined with a refusal to see how that particular situation fits in with a broader whole. It might be summarised and simplified as hypocrisy, but there is more to it than that.
Let us take the example of people of the repressive aspects of Cuba following the Revolution. I agree completely with the idea that you cannot excuse repression simply because it occurs under straitened and dangerous circumstances. But a lot of people, while acknowledging the fact of US imperialism, place it, and its consequences in Cuba, on a plane of equivalence to internal repression by the Cuban authorities.
Thus people say “Yes, US imperialism is terrible but even so…” I get the feeling that this ‘It’s terrible but..’ operates as the same kind of disavowal you hear in “I’m not racist but..” (and more genteel variations). The effect is to say: let’s set aside US imperialism for the moment.
But what justifies your decision to set it aside? What allows you to separate one thing from the other in this way? What actual values and principles underpin your criticism of Cuba at this particular moment?
In his book with Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel Castro talks about witnessing, in the Sierra Maestre, the bombing conducted by the Batista regime with rockets provided by the US. He writes a message saying it will be his destiny to fight against the United States. Then, reflecting on this forty or so years later, he talks about the millions killed and mutilated in Vietnam, the destruction of the Vietnamese jungle with napalm, and:
the tortures in the prison at Abu Ghraib, the use of white phosphorous in Fallujah… Look at the dictatorships they imposed, the torturers educated by tens of thousands in institutions created for that in the US, those who ‘disappeared’ ten or twenty or thirty thousand Argentinians, whose children were stolen from them; I saw those who “disappeared” more than one hundred thousand Guatemalans- “disappear!”. If you add to this the repression in Chile and you add all the horrible things that have happened, a Dominican Republic in tremendous difficulties, with the Trujillo regime supported by the North Americans, created by them, the same as that of Somoza in Nicaragua…
One may be entirely at odds with the way that Cuba is run now, and how it was run with Fidel Castro in command. But I cannot see how an onlooker with little to say otherwise about the events Castro names above -which are all facts- can suspend these facts from view when considering Cuba, and leave it at that.
That is, if Fidel Castro was wrong, what was the right way of confronting this? I should stress: this does not mean Fidel Castro was right. It means that you have to have an alternative in mind, and one that goes beyond abstractions such as ‘movement from below’, or ‘respecting human rights’, and into concrete actions.
If you have no proposal -and I do not have any great solutions myself- then by default, you are saying the alternative is to submit.
This is not a matter of counterfactual history either. These facts are present in the here and now. It will not do to express admiration for Cuba’s health and education system whilst having nothing to say about a global dynamic that seeks to eliminate even the possibility that such achievements can be built or maintained anywhere. It will not do to be concerned about the oppression of LGBTQ people in Cuba -which was real, and horrific for those subjected to it, but major advances have been made- and yet have nothing to say, for example, about the disastrous consequences for LGBTQ people in Honduras following the US-backed coup in 2009. The continuum of life on this planet is not so easily split into discrete parcels. As Sartre said: we are all in the same soup.
In far too many cases, my sense is that this criticism I have described is mere opportunism, and that it has nothing to do with a genuine interest in what Cubans actually think, what they have fought for and indeed continue to fight for, or even with a preparedness to try and reach the facts of the matter.
What is interesting for me here, and ironic too, is that when I was in Cuba I spoke with plenty of people about politics, not only in relation to Cuba (and yes, they were often very critical of how things were going there) and the US, but throughout the world.
What I found -and I see no need to claim that this is representative, but it is one of the abiding memories of being there- was that they were better at listening than me, better at asking questions than me, more knowledgeable about the world than me, and better at dialogue. On reflection now it seems to me that people in these parts are far too quick to luxuriate in the criticism of the absence of democracy and democratic culture elsewhere, when they have not even thought about building their own yet.