FIDEL CASTRO'S DARK LEGACY
Guardian, December 1 -- Fidel Castro’s death has sparked eulogies for a 20th-century giant but also lamentations about the Cuban revolution’s dark side: executions, political prisoners, surveillance, censorship.
The dictator’s security apparatus controlled and cowed his people even while dispensing free healthcare and education, a profoundly mixed legacy which has polarised opinion about Castro in death as in life.
“Over more than five decades documenting the state of human rights in Cuba, Amnesty has recorded a relentless campaign against those who dare to speak out against the Cuban government’s policies and practices,” the advocacy group’s Americas director, Erika Guevara-Rosas, said on Saturday.
Authorities jailed hundreds of prisoners of conscience solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, association and assembly in a campaign of “ruthless suppression”, she said. “The state of freedom of expression in Cuba, where activists continue to face arrest and harassment for speaking out against the government, is Fidel Castro’s darkest legacy.”
Human Rights Watch said thousands were jailed in abysmal prisons, thousands more were harassed and intimidated and that entire generations were denied political freedoms, a system based on abuses which felt increasingly anachronistic.
“As other countries in the region turned away from authoritarian rule, only Fidel Castro’s Cuba continued to repress virtually all civil and political rights,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the group’s Americas director. “Castro’s draconian rule and the harsh punishments he meted out to dissidents kept his repressive system rooted firmly in place for decades.”
The critiques articulated what some admirers of the late “maximum leader” ignored or only elliptically acknowledged: he was a dictator. He hounded critics, scorned elections and ran a police state – facts which impressive statistics about literacy, infant mortality and life expectancy cannot erase.
The newly victorious rebels executed hundreds – some say thousands – after seizing power in 1959. Debate still rages over whether this was a legitimate settling of accounts with Fulgencio Batista’s henchmen or kangaroo court-sanctioned atrocities.
Over ensuing decades Castro used threats, jail and banishment against critics, including intellectuals, journalists and former allies. State media became a mouthpiece for the leader.
Officials heavily censored books, newspapers, radio, television, music and film, stunting discourse even while promoting arts and culture. Only a few Cubans were trusted with full internet access. Havana ranked near the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index.
Peaceful attempts at democratic reform, such as the Varela project, triggered swift crackdowns, including the so-called Black Spring in 2003.
More than a million Cubans took to leaky boats and risked drowning to flee poverty, stagnation and a sense of claustrophobia which most blamed on Castro, not the US embargo.
The revolution’s defenders called the oppression a survival strategy for a small Caribbean island besieged by a hostile superpower which deployed spooks, stooges and would-be assassins. Detractors called it tyranny.
Some tributes to Castro misjudged the balance, said Christopher Sabatini, a Columbia University expert on Cuba who advised Barack Obama’s administration and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“Unfortunately, his human rights record will not get the weight it deserves. You see that in many of the declarations of presidents calling him a revolutionary icon. Let’s be honest: this was a regime which when it came to power lined up its opponents and shot them.”
At times Castro did promote equality and social justice, for instance by combating South Africa’s apartheid forces in Angola, creating a mixed, complex legacy, said Sabatini.
Castro’s romantic appeal became entangled with his record of oppression and Cuba’s legitimate sovereignty, he added. “It has prevented a really honest reckoning of the Cuban revolution and its price.”
Obama offered a cautious, lawyerly response to Castro’s passing, avoiding criticism or praise. Donald Trump, in contrast, made a full-throated condemnation: “Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.”
Castro’s death may be one of the few occasions when Trump, who during the Republican presidential primary advocated torture and killing terrorists’ families, will be in accord with Human Rights Watch.
The watchdog group accused the late comandante of using Orwellian tactics to sow a pervasive climate of fear. “Many of the abusive tactics developed during his time in power – including surveillance, beatings, arbitrary detention, and public acts of repudiation – are still used by the Cuban government.”