Hero or villain? We don’t have to agree with Castro’s Cuba to learn something from it.

This week saw the passing of a political giant. Unsurprisingly, Fidel Castro’s death prompted an outpouring of commemoration and condemnation emblematic of the divisive legacy of the firebrand revolutionary leader. Western observers, from Donald Trump to Francois Hollande were quick to taper their statements with sharp criticism of the Castro. Others, like Barack Obama and Jean Claude Juncker, issued diplomatically bland statements devoid of emotion, or any kind of opinion at all. Predictably, former communist countries, noted anti-US imperialists and revolutionary Latin American regimes voiced much stronger support. Commentators lined up to criticise left-wing voices who offered cautious praise to the socially conscious aspects of Castro’s regime, while criticising his authoritarian tendencies.

They say history is told by the victors. It follows that the polarised eulogies dished out by global leaders and commentators is symptomatic of a 20th century battle of ideology that isn’t quite a closed as we think. Throughout the Cold War, two deeply flawed ideologies – communism and capitalism – brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction. Even as the former communist powerhouses, the Soviet Union and China, either collapsed or converted, Cuba remained a stalwart of an ideology that had been broadly confined to the political dustbin. As right-wing and left-wing populists reignite ideas thought long abandoned, the transformation of Western society has become inevitable, with only the outcome still up for question. As our very culture – democratic, capitalist, diverse – creaks at the seams, Castro’s death prompts a deeper questioning of what Western opposition to his regime really stood for, and what lessons we may have failed to learn along the way.

In the hours following the announcement of Castro’s death, my Facebook wall became a battleground among supporters and detractors. Castro’s impressive commitment to social justice and resistance to US imperialism has certainly won him many admirers, while his authoritarian and repressive regime has clearly earned him as many detractors. But the hero or villain debate misses the crucial conversation that we should be having. The relationship between the West and communist Cuba has a lot to tell us about our own flawed society.

Nobody would be wrong to denounce Castro as a tyrant and human rights abuser. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both documented the systematic denial of political freedoms that has characterised revolutionary Castro’s political project. Post-revolutionary Cuba has overseen a systematic crackdown of freedom of speech and expression, characterised by the harassment of political opponents and activists, sham trials, summary executions and arbitrary imprisonment. Those held as prisoners of conscious face torture, solitary confinement and the denial of vital medical treatment. The regime has refused to recognise the legitimacy of human rights organisations, alternative political parties, independent labour unions, or press organisations, and international travel and access to the internet are heavily curtailed. This is not an image of a free and happy society.

Yet none of these appalling human rights abuses are unique to Castro’s Cuba. Certainly the situation is just as bleak for political activists in a diverse range of staunch US allies. Saudi Arabia’s execution of political opponents and apartheid against women; Israel’s military dictatorship in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; Egypt’s successive authoritarian regimes; Turkey’s detention of journalists and closure of critical media outlets; Thailand’s ongoing military government. These regimes barely receive criticism from the US, let alone crippling economic sanctions and repeated assassination attempts carried out against their leader.

This is not to excuse Castro’s regime. Far from it. But given this massive contradiction in foreign policy, it is impossible to conceive that Cuba’s poor human rights record is the sole justification for crippling economic sanctions and sustained US ire. Lest we forget, it is difficult for the US to moralise too strongly about the human rights record of Cuba while they continue to run an extrajudicial prison and torture camp on occupied Cuban soil, in blatant violation of international law and human rights standards.

Of course, the frosty relationship between the US and Cuba has its roots in the ideological stalemate of the Cold War. The lasting presence of this conflict, characterised by paranoia and hysteria, existed precisely because of the strength of the two ideological systems that faced off against each other. Problematically for America and her allies wasn’t the authoritarian cruelty of the Soviet regime, but the economic and social successes it bred, which embarrassed an ideology convinced that democracy and free market capitalism were the only route to social epiphany. Many scholars have noted that the Cold War oversaw some of the best social development gains in the US, as the American government fought for the ideological support of its citizens by proving to them the merits of free market capitalism through social welfare provision.

The collapse of communism at the end of the 20th century certainly discredited its economic ideology, but the world’s belief that the failure of communism vindicated the triumph of capitalism has led to a globe paralysed by economic crisis, rampant inequality and grotesque social division.

Like the now defunct Soviet Union, Castro’s Cuba challenged the typically American notion that artificially conflates freedom and democracy with free market ideology and capitalism. Cuban development gains speak for themselves. In fifty years, the communist country has succeeded where many other developing world economies have failed; with virtually 100% literacy rates and remarkable health indicators. Cuba is on course to achieve every single one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This stands in marked contrast to comparable Latin American neighbours who have experienced similar income growth but are still marred by poverty and social conflict. Humiliatingly, it also compares favourably with development indicators in the United States, a vastly wealthier country. In particular, America’s bleak, expensive and dismal healthcare system shows that rampant free marketeering is certainly not the necessary solution to social justice that many US politicians would have you believe. If the USA’s bleak social deprivation teaches us anything, it’s that freedom and democracy are not an automatic pathway to social justice.

The Western world is in crisis. Centre-left social democracy faces a grave challenge from right-wing populism which threatens the very bedrock of our society and its place in the world. Not since the Second World War has Western democracy looked so fragile. To adapt and survive, it’s long overdue that we took a long hard look at our culture, and the regimes that we have long considered anathema to our own. There is no justification for the horrors of Castro’s brutal regime, but we must ask ourselves why the ‘freedom’ we hold dear has left many communities deprived, desperate and angry, even in the wealthiest countries on earth.

The timing is critical. Brexit and the shocking election of Donald Trump show that these communities are biting back, and their rightful anger threatens the very stability of our world. If we do not reach out to these communities and allow them to share in our collective wealth, they will go elsewhere for answers, and we may not like where they find them. Castro understood this. It’s how his ‘people’s revolutions’ sustained a system of repression for sixty years. Ignoring those development gains because we don’t want them to fit our worldview would be pig-headed and stupid.

American politicians are not wrong to reject Castro’s authoritarianism, but they would do well to question how the freedom supposedly provided by America’s libertarian capitalism has failed America’s working class communities. We would do well to see the world in less black and white terms. There are no perfect societies, just incomplete and often contradictory bundles of ideas from which there is always something to learn if you’re prepared to look closer.

Was Castro a hero or villain? Nothing is ever that simple. But if we don’t learn something from his commitment to social equality, we may just find ourselves inadvertently adopting his commitment to cruelty and repression instead.

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