Anybody who, like myself, has devoted much of their life to African development, is bound to have acquired a bias towards Fidel Castro. Cuba played a crucial role in sustaining the liberation struggles throughout Southern Africa. If Castro had done nothing else, he would deserve warm remembrance for that. But much less well-known in Europe is Cuba’s extraordinary contribution to healthcare throughout Africa. Ghanaian, Togolese and Beninois villages and hospitals had excellent Cuban doctors, and I know part-Cuban families in each of those countries as a result. I am sure it was widespread across much of Africa, I just highlight that for which I can personally vouch. That a tiny island, itself a victim of colonialism and slavery, should be able to make a contribution to African healthcare that can without a stretch be mentioned in the same sentence as the aid efforts of the major western powers, is an incredible achievement.
It was of course the export of Cuba’s tremendous domestic achievement in healthcare and education, and some of the attempts these last 24 hours to belittle that have been pathetic.
But human rights are an absolute, and here there is no doubt that Castro’s record was not good. That he came to power in bloody revolution was not something for which I believe
Castro deserves blame. Nobody denies the dictator he opposed was vicious, and the organised crime and government nexus in Cuba pre-Castro was abhorrent. That people would die during a violent revolution was inevitable, that the immediate aftermath would be bloody, also inevitable. That a wealthy displaced class backed by the United States would attempt violent reversal, assassination, sanctions and every possible kind of political, economic and personal device to reverse the revolution was an act of political will. But against that background, could Castro have done more to inculcate basic human rights in Cuba? Yes, I believe he could and should have done.
I am open to the idea that revolutionary change requires revolutionary justice for a short period. The example of Egypt, back under an appalling military dictatorship, shows what happens when a decent leader like Morsi is too kind or timid to solidify revolutionary change by a wholesale clean-out of the corrupt justice system. But once things settle down, you have to restore order and proper process and genuine access to justice for ordinary people, even or especially against the ruling party. You have to leave space for people to express opposition and even organise politically against you. You cannot consider yourself as Nietzschean superman and decide that you know best for the people whatever they may think themselves or – and this is most pernicious – that commanding a majority entitles you to trample any minority. That the USA and its allies, by unremitting and extreme pressure and physical threat, played a counter-productive role in getting Castro to reform and respect human rights, is certain. But that still does not justify Castro’s domestic repression. He was wrong there, and another path was open – as demonstrated for example by Jerry Rawlings in Ghana, who seized power militarily and ruled as a revolutionary before he transitioned himself and his country successfully from dictatorship to democracy, without abandoning left-wing values.
So Castro is not faultless by any means. But on any objective measurement of his actions and behaviour against the accepted standards of western democracy, both Castro’s philosophy and his practice were much closer to Western standards than those of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who nobody could ever accuse of respect for democracy and human rights, and on whose death the British government flew its flags at half mast. The kind of armed struggle which King Abdullah covertly promoted was wahabbist jihadism, not African liberation. Yet he was officially honoured.
The highest figure I have seen attributed to Castro for deaths of political opponents is about 9,000, and it appears that includes people killed during the initial revolutionary fighting and in the Bay of Pigs invasion. I am entitled to criticise Castro for arrests, detentions, torture and political murders. Those who supported and assisted other dictatorships in Latin America which killed, tortured and harassed many more people than Castro, are not entitled to criticise Castro. That embraces most of the critics who are currently filling the news bulletins. The Imperialism and neo-Imperialism against which Castro stood, with undoubted personal courage, has been much more deadly than Castro, and infinitely more aggressive.