I had no intention of writing about Cuba or Castro following the recent death of “Fidel”. However, the public and mass media reaction, much of it an outpouring of adulation and “me-too” faux-liberal compromise, has impelled me to write.
There is no doubt that Cuba before Castro was corrupt and, for many, poor. Before Castro there was Batista and before Batista, Prio (Carlos Prio Socarras), of whom the British historian Hugh Thomas wrote, memorably, in his mammoth history of the country, that he “fell like a rotten fruit, full of its own corruption.” Prío himself later said of his presidency: “They say that I was a terrible president of Cuba. That may be true. But I was the best president Cuba ever had.”[see Arthur M. Schlesinger, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. New York: Houghton Mifflin (2002) p 216].
Prio was in fact someone who tried to keep to constitutional proprieties and it was his decision not to act extra-judicially which allowed the harsher figure of Batista to seize power in 1952, Prio himself having been elected (by free and contested election) in 1948.
Cuba in the 1950s was sometimes described as somewhere between a Latin American country and a detached, poorer, part of the United States, the latter for long its effective suzerain.
It would be easier to make a quick judgment of Castro’s rule had the United States not (and typically) engaged in ham-fisted great-power and quasi-colonialist geopolitics over the island. Those American interventions continue to muddy the waters: attempts to assassinate Castro, the Bay of Pigs “invasion” of 1961; above all, the partial embargo (which Cuba called a “blockade”) imposed initially in 1960.
No-one can say for sure whether Cuba would be much different had it had the chance to trade freely with the USA, its neighbour and natural main trading partner. Probably not much. Venezuela is another and more recent example of the inability of a Latin American socialist economy to perform adequately for long.
The bien-pensant “usual suspects” in the UK (the absurd Tariq Ali, Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn etc) are now saying that the Castro dictatorship was sort-of acceptable because Cuba had good education and good medical services. On that basis, they should be very kind indeed to German National Socialism, which provided the same and in fact far more (and with far less repression, in reality).
In fact, long before the Soviet subsidy disappeared, Havana was falling to pieces, as were the Cuban roads and railways. I myself had fleeting and peripheral contact with Cuba, otherwise seen by me only from the sea (between Cuba and the Bahamas) and the air (flying over Cuba between Tampa, Florida and Grand Cayman).
I was asked, when a practising barrister in London circa 1995, to help a scientific start-up based at Porton Down, Wiltshire, the high-security biological warfare facility, then recently partly-privatized. A small company of scientists had a bacterium which turned biomass into fuel (unscientific me calling it the turning of straw into gold). I thought of Cuba with its sugar-cane detritus, lack of fuel and high technical-education levels. Unfortunately, the Cuban Embassy in London did not respond, unlike the Ukrainian: I visited Porton Down with the then Ukrainian Ambassador, Mr. Komisarenko [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serhiy_Komisarenko]. Nothing came of that in the end, but it seems that, in more recent years, a company called Havana Energy, headed by ex-Labour Party MP Brian Wilson, has been producing energy that way in Cuba. The Cuban Embassy’s unresponsiveness told me all I needed to know about the Cuban bureaucracy: unalert, lethargic, useless, bearing in mind the country’s crying need for fuel.
Since the early 1990s, Cuba has gradually been moving towards a capitalist economy. No doubt that process will continue. Eventually, some kind of greater rapprochement with the USA will happen.
In this blog post, I am more interested in the puerile reaction of the kind of people in the UK who are letting off Castro on human rights and economic efficiency because Cubans have a health service and a school system. Jeremy Corbyn has excelled himself in ignorant misunderstanding. He just digs himself deeper with every statement.
The mass media and in particular the BBC is, as one might expect, doing its bit to eulogize about Castro, saying that he “turned a small island into a major force in world affairs.” Where does one start in unpacking such nonsense?
The reaction to Castro’s death tells me something else: those in the UK who think themselves “socialist” are willing to turn a blind eye to historical, political and economic realities so long as the label is right.
Update, 5 January 2019