Recent media coverage of Fidel Castro’s death is decontextualized and not helpful to the Cuban people

The death of Fidel Castro has provoked an outpouring of opprobrium in the US press for the island nation 90 miles from the coast of Florida. The US media has critiqued the words of President Obama, because he did publicly criticize the human rights record of the Cuban dictator on the hour of his death. The blogosphere and people in social media seem to have a binary view of Castro, either castigating him as one of the worst dictators in modern history or widely lauding the social achievements and anti-imperialism of Cuba under Castro.

Frankly, both of these reactions are wrongheaded in my opinion. Cuba under Castro was a much less repressive regime than many of the governments which are allied with the US. When far worse dictators such as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia or Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan died, President Obama didn’t publicly criticize their human rights records either, and the US media didn’t consider it scandalous or even worthy of much commentary. Obama spoke of a “genuine and warm friendship” with King Abdullah. “As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions,” he said. When Karimov died, Obama stated, “At this challenging time of President Isl[a]m Karimov’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the people of Uzbekistan.  This week, I congratulated President Karimov and the people of Uzbekistan on their country’s 25 years of independence.  As Uzbekistan begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to partnership with Uzbekistan, to its sovereignty, security, and to a future based on the rights of all its citizens.”

The real scandal is that that the US would ally itself with dictators such as King Abdullah and Karimov and the US president would not even utter a single criticism of the way King Abdullah tortured and beheaded dissidents or the way Karimov boiled to death his political opponents. Cuba can be criticized for its human right record, but the US media focuses on the human rights record of American enemies, while ignoring the far worse human rights violations of American allies. This hypocritical usage of human rights undermines the credibility of legitimate criticism of Cuba.

Contrary to what the apologists of Cuba may claim, the Cuban government does generally repress its dissidents and often detains them. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) has documented more than 8,600 politically motivated detentions of government opponents and activists in 2015. However, very few of these detentions result in long-term jail sentences. Amnesty International listed 7 prisons of conscience in Cuba in 2015, but all of them were released from prison by January 8, 2016.

This follows a policy in Cuba, which seems to have begun in 2010, whereby the Cuban government will detain dissidents who are involved in activism against the government, but then release them after a number of months when international human rights organizations criticize the imprisonment. Amnesty International released a report on May 28, 2010, listing 55 prisoners of conscience. By November 8, 2010, all 55 of those prisoners had been released.

The Cuban government has repeatedly asserted that that there are no political prisoners in Cuba. In an recent interview, Raul Castro said, “Give me a list of the political prisoners and I will release them immediately … Just mention a list. What political prisoners? Give me a name or names. After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners. And if we have those political prisoners, they will be released before tonight ends.” According to the Cuban government, the people who are jailed have committed crimes aside from the act of peacefully expressing their opposition to the government.

There is some truth to the Cuban government’s claims. Of the 167 people which the CCDHRN listed as political prisoners in 2010, the AP found that roughly 50 of them “were convicted of terrorism, hijacking or other violent crimes, and four are former military or intelligence agents convicted of espionage or revealing state secrets.” Many of the people who the CCDHRN, Human Rights Watch and other groups call “political prisoners” have received money from the US government or Cuban-American groups, which is illegal under Cuban law.

Cuba does jail its outspoken dissidents, but they will be released relatively quickly once international attention is brought to bear, so Cuba can publicly claim that it no longer has any political prisoners. However, most of the repression of dissent takes place on a much lower level. The Cuban government routinely rounds up and detains its political dissidents for short periods of time in order to disrupt their activism. On the Sundays when the Damas de Blanco gather to protest, roughly 50 of them will be detained for 48 hours, before being released. When Pope Francis recently visited the island, the cell phone network was taken down to prevent people from organizing protests and a large number of people were temporarily detained.

In other words, there is repression of dissent in Cuba, but the repression is generally not brutal, and it is mostly characterized by tactics of disruption, short term detention and efforts to prevent it from being publicly demonstrated. People in Cuba can express opposition in private conversations, but they can expect repression if they do it publicly or join opposition groups.

There are a few reports of dissidents being beaten by the police, but it does not appear to be governmental policy to rough up dissidents. The international headlines garnered from the death of jailed dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo in February 2010 appears to have shamed the Cuban government into treating its dissidents better. Zapata had been jailed since 2003 and he died after an 85 day hunger strike in protest against  being abused and beaten by his jailers. In response to the international outcry, Cuba not only released all the people Amnesty international deemed to be “prisoners of conscience,” but also commuted the sentences of the 3 people on its death row in December 2010. The Cuban government, which has not executed anyone since 2003, appears to have abandoned capital punishment as a matter of policy, although it has not outlawed the practice.

What is missing in the coverage of the US press is the nuance to place Cuba’s human rights record in any kind of historical context or to critically evaluate both the failings and accomplishment of the Cuban state. It has to be remembered that Fidel Castro and the revolution he led arose in response to the 6 years of brutal dictatorship under Fulgencio Batista and it was the denouement of 6 decades of anti-imperialist struggle against the US in Cuba.

Revolutionaries like Castro felt that Cuban independence would be utterly impossible without removing foreign control over their land.  At the time of the revolution in 1959, US interests controlled 80% of Cuba’s railroads and 90% of its electrical and telephone services. Foreigners held 75% of Cuba’s arable land and five American sugar companies owned or controlled more than two million acres on the island. One of these companies was United Fruit, which owned 270,000 acres in Cuba, plus sugar mills in the Oriente region. The company’s former general council, John Foster Dulles, was then the US secretary of State. His brother, CIA director Allen Dulles, had gone to Havana in 1955 and helped Batista open an intelligence bureau, which was funded and supervised by the CIA. Dulles’ predecessor as CIA head, Walter Bedell Smith, was the president of United Fruit at the time of the revolution.  The US had helped train and arm Batista’s military and police forces and even given the Cuban military 7 tanks in 1957 at a time when it was battling the rebel forces led by Castro in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Castro felt that Cuba had to break free from American economic and political control over the island in order to be able to carry the social and economic reforms promised by the revolutionaries.

When Castro first came to power in 1959, he tried to carry out agrarian reform in a way that would compensate large land holders. The first Agrarian Reform law passed in May 1959 outlawed landed estates larger than 3,333 acres for livestock, sugar, or rice production, and expropriated the remaining lands on these estates to be converted into state-owned agricultural cooperatives. The law promised compensation in 20-year fixed-term government bonds paying an annual interest rate of 4.5%. (US investment-grade corporate bonds paid an average of 3.8% in 1958.)

Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Mexico, Spain and Sweden accepted the compensation offered by Cuba, but the US did not. Rather than trying to negotiate with new Cuban government to get better compensation for US businesses and landholders invested in Cuba, the US embarked on a policy of obstructionism and demands to stop any expropriation of property. In June 1959, Cuba broke off relations with the Dominican Republic, due to plotting by its dictator, Rafael Trujillo to overthrow the Cuban government. A month later a plot organized by Trujillo and Batista was exposed to carry out that overthrow. Trujillo publicly called on the Cuban people to set fires and engage in killing to overthrow the Cuban government. It is inconceivable that Trujillo and Batista engaged in these activities without some level of approval from personnel in the US government. US government officials had recommended that Castro be assassinated since 1957, and Eisenhower’s foreign policy was led by anti-communist ideologues who responded to leftist reform and any threat to US business interests with CIA covert operations and military threats.

From there, the tensions escalated, with every action by the US to undermine the revolution serving as further proof to the revolutionaries that it would be impossible to come to any accommodation with the US. Many of the Cuban revolutionaries decided that armed revolution was the only recourse after witnessing how the CIA had overthrown the democratically-elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1953, after it tried to carry out Agrarian Reform in Guatemala. A number of the Cuban revolutionaries such as Che Guevara were living in exile in Guatemala City when the US carried out its covert action to overthrow Arbenz and that experience helped galvanize their conviction that the US would never allow a democratic leftist revolution to take place on their doorstep. (During my travels through Central America, I stayed for a week in the same hostel in Guatemala City were Che was reported to have stayed while in exile. The room where Che supposedly slept cost a couple bucks more per night.)

It is in this context, that we need to understand the decades of political repression in Cuba. There was a legitimate fear in Cuba that the government would be overthrown if it allowed  Cuban dissidents to operate as paid operatives of the US. A number of the Cuban exiles, such as Orlando Bosch Ávila and Luis Posada Carriles, worked as CIA operatives and carried out acts of terrorism against Cuba. The Cuban government should be criticized for suppressing peaceful dissent, but we also have to admit that the Cuban government did have some justification for suppressing the dissident groups which had ties to the exile Cubans in Florida, who have spent the last 6 decades working to overthrow the Cuban government.

Another thing which needs to be recognized is that Castro would not have stayed in power for so long if he hadn’t answered many of the legitimate needs of his people. For Cubans who remember how Cuba was sold off to US interests and the crushing poverty for the majority during the 1950s, the Cuban Revolution led by Castro was a dramatic improvement. For those Cubans, who recall the roughly 20,000 Cubans murdered by Batista, the repression under Castro did not seem nearly as bad.

What is surprising, however, is the fact that Castro’s regime survived in power after the collapse of the USSR. By the late 1980s, the repression and poverty under Batista would have been a distant memory for most Cubans and the shortages and lack of basic necessities were daily reminders that Communism was not working very well. Cuba is not nearly as cut off from the outside world as its critics like to imagine. 13.7% of the Cuban population currently resides in the US, and a sizable percentage of Cubans were in contact with relatives and friends living in the US. With the Cuban state unable to provide enough food, fuel, chemicals and industrial goods to provide basic necessities during the late 80s and early 90s, the conditions were ripe for the Cuban people to have risen up in a counter-revolution.

Instead of rebelling, however, there was a collective effort to make Cuba self sufficient. Organic agriculture and local food production was developed. Many Cubans learned how to garden. The critics of Cuba generally regard the people’s tacit acceptance of the Communist regime as evidence of how much the state has repressed the people and the pervasive brainwashing and indoctrination carried out by the state. The level of indoctrination is evident, but the circulation of black-market media from outside Cuba is also rampant on the island. Cubans are seeing American movies and listening to American music. The idea that Castro stayed in power for 57 years through repression and indoctrination alone  does not hold up when we examine how few resources the Cuban state has. It does not have a China on its doorstep to back it up like North Korea. It does not have a Russia to back it up like many of the dictatorships in the former Soviet states. It does not have oil wealth to bribe its citizens into compliance like Saudi Arabia.

It has to be acknowledged that Castro stayed in power for so long partly because he was able to address the social and economic needs of the Cuban people. It is hard to know what the Cuban people really think, since surveys of public opinion cannot be conducted and all media from the island is censored. Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable that Cubans might have looked at their what has happened to their neighbors in other Caribbean Islands and have decided that life under Communism is not that bad. The average Cuban lives better than the average Haitian or Dominican, by almost any measure, and it even compares favorably to Puerto Rico by some measures. Looking at their neighbors, it is not unreasonable that many Cubans might have concluded that their system of Communism was better than the alternative.

Comparing Cuba to surrounding countries

Country % of population living in the US Avg. life expectancy in years Literacy rate Number incarcerated per 100,000 Greenhouse gas emissions per capita (tonnes CO2-e) GDP per capita (US $)
Dominican Republic 12.3% 73.23 91.8% 323 3.03 $6,494.15
Cuba 13.7% 79.07 99.7% 510 3.09 $6,156.62
Haiti 7.6% 62.70 60.7% 102 0.78 $731.23
USA 78.74 97.9%* 693 18.55 $51,486.00
Puerto Rico
56.6% 78.54 94.1% 349 13.5 $19,801.39
* A US Dept. of Education study concludes 86% are literate, but it measured functional literacy.
Sources: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_incarceration_rate; CIA World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2103.html; Trading Economics, http://www.tradingeconomics.com/cuba/gdp-per-capita; World Resources Institute, CAIT, http://cait.wri.org/historical; US Census 2010, http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-04.pdf; UN, World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision, http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/trends/WPP2010/WPP2010_Volume-I_Comprehensive-Tables.pdf

On the other hand, support for the current regime is certainly not universal. The large number of Cubans who are willing to risk their lives on the rafts to go to the US indicates that some percentage of the people would prefer to live under Capitalism. The large number of Cubans who participate in the black market and trade goods with the tourists shows that Cubans want many of the things that Communism can’t provide. The growing number of Cubans who are willing to get arrested for opposition to the regime indicates that discontent is growing.

In the long run, Cuba will have to open up its economy and accept some kind of democratic reforms, but that will only happen when the Cuban state does not feel threatened and cannot constantly point to the US as the external enemy who would undermine the security of the island. Castro skillfully used anti-imperialist rhetoric for decades to justify the repressive apparatus of the state. Progressives in the US are not helping the Cuban people by ignoring the state repression of dissidents and the lack of civil liberties and freedom of expression on the island.

At the same time, the constant barrage of criticism in the US media of Cuba is also not helping lead Cuba down the path of reform. The kind of rhetoric employed the Cuban exile community in Florida and the threats issued by American militarists and right-wing ideologues all serve to convince Cubans that even a little bit of reform will be an opening for the US to invade Cuba and undo all the progress made under the revolution. Cubans can see what happened to the Communist countries which opened up to Capitalism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and it is not surprising that they are leery of following that route. The best way to help the Cuban people achieve economic and democratic reform is to make clear that outside forces will not be employed to influence the outcome of any reforms. Another huge fear which needs to be addressed is the constant demand by the exile community that their expropriated property to be returned. Giving back what was expropriated would turn Cuban into a third world country with massive levels of inequality and decimate the social services of the state. Most Cubans rightfully fear the demands of the exiles and do not want to return to pre-revolutionary Cuba.

If the US wants Cuba to go down the path of reform, it must negotiate a system of compensation for the exiles, while also making clear to the exiles that it will not support their demands that expropriated property be returned. Once Cubans are assured that they will never be asked to return most of the land and property on the island to the exiles, then reform does not threaten to overturn the last 6 decades of the revolution.  Cubans need to know that they have nothing to fear from experimenting with reforms, before they will start allowing more civil liberties and limited capitalism to enter the island.

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