Much has already been written about Fidel Castro’s passing, but I would like to add a few thoughts in the days left before his funeral. In the summer of 1973, I experienced life under Castro when I went on an extended trip to the island organized by the pro-Castro Center for Cuban Studies. Traveling around the country, I observed close-up what it was like to live in the Communist state and I didn’t like what I saw. Afterwards, I wrote about it for the left-wing magazine Liberation, which consequently was bombarded with angry letters calling me a traitor to the Left. Later, I included the experience in my memoir describing how it contributed to my political transformation.
Like many others of my generation, including my colleague Roger L. Simon, I was at first mesmerized by Castro’s seductive allure and promises of creating a Cuba freed from authoritarian and corrupt rule. I was hopeful when he said that Cuba would have free elections and would be a non-Communist state that would work to bring equality to Cuba’s people.
Many members of the New Left transferred their parents’ idolization of Joseph Stalin to Fidel Castro, whom they saw as the premier revolutionary hero of their generation. They believed that Fidel, unlike Stalin, would bring a humanist revolution to Cuba, in contrast to the failures of the old Cuban Communist Party. Like the Columbia University best-selling sociologist C. Wright Mills, they believed, as Mills wrote, “I am for the Cuban revolution. I do not worry about it. I worry for it and with it.”
However, these admirers of Castro’s regime could have seen his true colors right from the start when scores of so-called followers of Batista were executed by firing squads without trial. Castro rationalized it by saying they deserved such a fate because they had worked for Batista’s authoritarian regime. But soon afterwards, other dissenters and opponents of the turn towards socialism became political prisoners and were regularly tortured to make them confess to imaginary crimes, or simply because Castro saw torture as justified extra punishment.
One follower of Castro was shocked. Carlos Franqui operated Castro’s radio station “Radio Rebelde” from the Sierra Maestra, where Castro and his armed bands were fighting Batista. In his memoir of the revolutionary struggle, Family Portrait With Fidel (1984), Franqui, then the editor of the official revolutionary newspaper Revolucion, noted how surprised he was to hear reports of the torture of counterrevolutionary suspects. Bringing news of this to Fidel Castro, Franqui quickly learned that the torture had the leader’s blessings. When Mr. Franqui raised the issue of the moral degradation torture implies, Castro told him that it ”annihilates the enemy” and hence was necessary. Eventually Franqui left Cuba and moved first to Italy and later to Puerto Rico, where he became one of the leading Cuban opponents of the regime he once served.
In Stalin’s days, Western true believers later made the excuse that they did not know the truth at the time and only learned of it when Nikita Khrushchev gave his famous speech about Stalin’s crimes in 1956. The New Left had no such excuse about Cuba. They simply ignored whatever evidence was presented.
Case in point. When Armando Valladares’s book about his years of torture and imprisonment in Cuba was published in 1986, the late Stalinist journalist Alexander Cockburn waged a campaign against Valladares in the pages of The Village Voice. He accused Valladares of lying about the conditions and his treatment in a Cuban jail, and repeated Cuban allegations that Valladares was “a police officer in the Batista regime.” Cockburn added, for good measure, that “there is no institutionalized torture in Cuba.” By that late date, Cockburn had no excuse whatsoever for writing those words.
Neither did the left-wing press. In his PJ Media column, Roger Kimball writes about the love affair in those days by Nation magazine writers for Fidel. It’s still going on. On Nov. 26, the magazine promptly ran leftist historian Greg Grandin’s ode to the butcher of Cuba which extolled him as a figure of the “Enlightenment.”
Grandin rationalizes the totalitarian control of Cuba’s people by the Castro brothers as necessary, asking whether “the Cuban Revolution would have survived, had Castro not shut down civil society, and if that survival was worth it.” Answering his own question, Grandin points to the regime’s claim about the great advances in health care, literacy, and “beating back white supremacy in Africa.” I assume he is referring to the Cuban military intervention in Angola in 1974, fought on behalf of the far-left MPLA, and again in 1988, when thousands of Cuban troops fought against the anti-Communist UNITA. All of their aid was described by the Cuban regime as “humanitarian,” and not military. Grandin fails to mention how Cuba was doing the Soviets’ bidding in an attempt to create Soviet client states in Africa.
But Grandin is not completely blind, and he worries if all the “repression” carried out by Castro “was for naught,” since there is still racial and economic inequality, sex tourism, and corruption. Of course, he attributes these continuing problems to the U.S. embargo, not to the failed collectivist utopia that Castro tried to impose. He shows no concern for the perpetuation of oppression by Raul Castro. Rather, he is worried about the coming presidency of Donald Trump, which he refers to as “a new darkness.”
The question now is how the United States will use Fidel Castro’s death to advance the Cuban transition to democracy and in time help to bring about the end of the oppressive regime. How much of the modest and token reforms that have taken place in Cuba can be expanded? What measures instituted by President Barack Obama, made through executive action, can be modified or rescinded, without damage to the innocent and brave people of Cuba? I wish President-elect Trump, whose statement after Castro’s passing shows he understands fully the horrendous nature of the Castro regime, success in bringing about these ends.