Extracting Castro from the Demonization

The mainstream U.S. news media often lacks historical perspective, a problem most acute when the subject, like Fidel Castro, has faced Official Washington’s geopolitical demonization, as Lawrence Davidson explains.

By Lawrence Davidson

There was something both sad and disturbing about popular American reactions to the death of Fidel Castro on Nov. 25. According to The New York Times, news of his death caused much of the Cuban American population of south Florida to “fill Miami’s streets with song.” Those were songs of “rejoicing” rather than dirges. We will examine why these celebrations occurred later in this analysis. However, first we want to give Señor Castro his due.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro was the man who led the successful effort to overthrow the brutal and reactionary dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista – a dictatorship that had the backing of the U.S. government. The Castro-led victory of 1959 began a long period of transformation for Cuba, raising the country from a starkly poor Third World condition to a modernizing socialist state. Here are some of that country’s achievements under Castro’s leadership:

— The expansion of nationwide public education, which uplifted the Cuban population from being largely illiterate to being mostly literate.

— The introduction and development of a modern and accessible public health care system, which all but eliminated death from curable diseases and greatly reduced the infant mortality rate.

— The expansion of services, such as the electric grid, sewage systems, and a reliable water supply, into the countryside.

— The establishment of programs of sustainable development as the nation’s economy diversified according to environmentally safe guidelines. This did involve redistribution of large landed estates to over a quarter million peasants.

— A significant reduction of both racism and sexism through education and new laws.

— A considerable reduction of economic disparities.

There was, of course, a price to be paid for these advances. All of this and more was made possible by instituting a socialist economy and a one-party government. This alienated much of the country’s upper and middle classes. Resistance brought varying degrees of repression. Over time many of those whose economic lifestyles were compromised learned to resent and indeed hate Castro. Tens of thousands of them fled to the United States.

If the socialist road was, predictably, going to divide Cuba in such a drastic way, why did Castro decide to go this route? It was not, as popularly believed, because he came to power a convinced communist. His move to the left was in direct reaction to the policies adopted by the U.S. government.

A Fateful Visit

In April 1959, at the invitation of the American Association of Newspaper Editors, Castro paid a visit to the United States. The trip provided an opportunity for consultations with the U.S. government, although U.S. officials only begrudgingly met with Castro. There was a lot of annoyance at his early, if short-lived, declaration of neutrality when it came to the Cold War. President Dwight Eisenhower showed his displeasure with Castro by opting for a game of golf. But Castro did manage to get a three-hour audience with Vice President Richard Nixon.

President Richard Nixon

President Richard Nixon

It seems that the meeting did not go very well. Castro refused to promise swift new elections in Cuba. He was convinced that the nation’s priorities were economic and not political. And although Castro protested that he was not a communist, Nixon was suspicious. After the meeting he concluded that Castro was “either incredibly naive about communism or under communist discipline – my guess is the former.”

Subsequently, the U.S. government refused any economic assistance to the new Cuban regime. Worse yet, a decision was made to institute “punishment politics.” In March 1960, President Eisenhower set up funding for the overthrow of Castro. A year later the Kennedy administration carried out the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion. It was against this background that Castro and his advisers quickly turned to the Soviet Union for the economic and military assistance necessary for their survival.

Rejecting Sacrifice

Do those who jumped for joy in Little Havana on Nov. 25 understand this history? Most of them are the descendants of individuals who rejected Castro’s socialist ideals. Their own loyalties were not to Cuban society as a whole, but rather to family and/or a restricted economic community that was being forced to sacrifice for the greater good. Yet, for many Cubans of means, the notion of the greater good proved too threatening to be identified with their local interests.

Thus, the rejoicers’ immediate ancestors fled to the U.S. with their portable wealth and formed the political lobby (based, by the way, on the strategy and tactics of the Zionist lobby) that kept the U.S. government scheming against Cuba for over 50 years. Is it any wonder that their children should have a biased view of history?

Cuban leader Fidel Castro speaking at the Jose Marti Monument in 2003. (Photo credit: Ricardo Stuckert/ABr.)

Cuban leader Fidel Castro speaking at the Jose Marti Monument in 2003. (Photo credit: Ricardo Stuckert/ABr.)

The Cuban Americans are not the only ones to express a one-sided view of things. Members of the American conservative elite also rejoiced at Castro’s death. Here a representative voice is that of George Will, a political commentator whose columns appear in The Washington Post and other newspapers.

Will’s column on Castro’s death appeared on Nov. 28 under the title “Cuba a Tomb of Utopianism.” It is a historically incorrect judgment by virtue of the fact that Cuba’s achievements under Castro’s leadership, some of which are listed above, are not utopian at all, but rather quite real. But Will cannot see this any more than the celebrants of Little Havana. For him Castro is nothing more than a “charismatic totalitarian” whose life was “nasty” and whose “regime was saturated with sadism.” He goes on to compare Castro to Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini.

What is his evidence for these morbid exaggerations? Well, the Cuban government imprisoned some of its opponents, though they allowed many more of them to emigrate out of the country. Between 500 and 700 of Batista’s henchmen were tried and executed. Over time the regime manifested increasing authoritarian tendencies largely due to relentless U.S. efforts to destroy the country’s economy and overthrow its government.

In other words, the United States created an ongoing wartime situation for Havana. Under such circumstances the historically usual reaction is for a government – any government – to become more controlling. George Will takes no notice of this.

The Cuban American rejoicing at Castro’s death, and George Will’s misreading it as the a sign of a “dead utopianism,” are both disturbing manifestations of historical narrow-mindedness.

In the case of the celebrants, this attitude is no doubt connected to pent-up anger over the fact that something had been taken from them, or from their relatives, as part of an effort to remake a society that, prior to 1959, had only enriched the wealthy and impoverished the poor.

George Will’s attitude is a function of his conservative worldview. He gives no credit at all to the economic and social achievements of Fidel Castro because he can’t get past his ideologically driven interpretation of the political steps taken to realize them.

And neither of the above will admit to the truth that the Cuba policy of the United States over more than 50 years contributed strongly to the road Castro took.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

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21 comments for “Extracting Castro from the Demonization

  1. Peter Loeb
    December 6, 2016 at 7:57 am

    A balanced and excellent analysis by Professor Davidson.

    While it did refer to Cuba under Batista (pre-1959), it would have
    benefited from a paragraph or so about the lives of US gangsters in
    Havanna and the role the Cubans were forced to play for their…
    “entertainment”.,(= name names, give examples etc.—
    it is a few months back to that period and many so easily forget!)

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

    —-

  2. Sam F
    December 6, 2016 at 9:49 am

    In the absence of international and large-state regulation of foreign economic and political manipulations, it is unrealistic to fault small states for what would otherwise be excessive control. And impossible to tell whether they are defending autonomy or autocracy.

    In Cuba and Latin America, it was US failure to address the poverty, malnutrition, disease and injustice there, US support of endless dictatorships there, US training of violent subversives and repressive police, and US aggression to subvert the inevitable socialism, that led inevitably to rejection.

    These are not consistent errors, they are the work of a profoundly corrupt oligarchy that systematically propagandizes its own people to believe that they have a democracy, and somehow act to further democracy elsewhere. Nothing could be further from the truth: US elections and mass media are owned by economic concentrations that have completely destroyed democracy here, leaving an empty suit of armor for its oligarchy.

    Economic force is a primary weapon of modern warfare. Those who use that weapon to control US elections and mass media make war upon these United States, the definition of treason in our Constitution. The economic oligarchy will always be the greatest threat to democracy.

  3. John
    December 6, 2016 at 11:28 am

    If you ever want to understand why non-white people are so disgusted by white privilege, go to Miami sometime, and hang out in a Cuban neighborhood. It will let you experience what people of color experience every day.

    You will quickly see why Cuba is better off without them.

    • Bill Bodden
      December 6, 2016 at 3:04 pm

      Relatives in Florida have already explained to me how insular the inhabitants of Little Havana are. If you don’t speak Spanish forget this area. Come to think of it, the traffic all around Miami is so atrocious there is much to be said for bypassing the whole area.

  4. jimbo
    December 6, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    Would not denying a new election after the Batista overthrow give the US a good enough reason to do what it did? While this site cites the righteousness of the vote in Crimea as good enough to make Russia’s annexation acceptable, an election in Cuba might have gone some way to make 1959 Cuba a better neighbor to the US. Or it might not. Nonetheless, I like elections. Would I have been jailed or exiled for having this opinion? I’m also troubled to read how blithely the author says Castro had executed 500-700 Batista regime members. Did US actions force him to do that? And I wonder if each one was given a fair trial. I have been listening quite a bit recently about how adhering to an ideology has deadly consequences. While Castro’s achievements were considerable he made that bed and with a country as forceful as the US only 90 miles away, lying in it would naturally be uncomfortable. Now if a Bernie Sanders had led the revolution …

    • Sam F
      December 6, 2016 at 2:41 pm

      Several interesting points here (please see my comment above):
      1. The US killed over 2000 in its 1898 Cuba takeover vs. a similar total casualty count in the Castro revolution. The fury that causes revolution usually results in some bloodletting of the obvious cases of exploiters of the poor.
      2. The usual rightwing counter-revolution after Latin America coups necessitated a one-party state.
      3. The move toward more open democracy was prevented by continuous US efforts to overthrow their government.

      Part of the US problem with Latin American politics is its pretended ignorance of the effects of economic oligarchy. This is because US oligarchy does not in fact believe in democracy, but rather a fake democracy controlled by money, which the Repubs claim to be a “republic.” So in fact whenever it can the US replaces democracy with a dictator because he is “our son of a bitch.” So you may prefer what you call elections, but they would have allowed only what they call elections. A communist state was closer to democracy than what the US calls democracy.

      In principle, Cuba could set a good example for the US by implementing a democracy in which economic power is carefully isolated from political power, as I have suggested to them several times. But in fact the US would use every opportunity to overwhelm any such controls and turn it back into an oligarchy. So yes, the US is the problem, all the way, until it too is reformed.

      • Bill Bodden
        December 6, 2016 at 3:11 pm

        Very well said, Sam F

      • Evangelista
        December 6, 2016 at 9:58 pm

        Sam F,

        Republicans calling themselves republican, if they did (they advocate democracy and call themselves democratic), would not make them republican. The Constitutional United States is a republic. It is because the Constitution defines principles for the nation to adhere to, which, if adhered to, would maintain a government system working for and providing for, as specified, The People, meaning the public. Democracy is a means for making decisions. It is not, properly, a system of government, because without external controls democracy is uncontrollable. Without external controls (e.g., via principles, as the Constitution embues with controlling authority) democracy devolves to mob rule, with manipulators manipulating mobs emotionally for the manipulators’ purposes, and invoking divisions to divide deciders into more and more bodies, or camps, to facilitate decision-making with fewer and fewer deciders (two sides require 51% in democracy, three camp decisions require only 34%, and down, with discouraging and impeding, unless interdicted by outside authority, reducing the overall decider numbers advantageously). Thus, democracy is a sham and lends itself to, in fact evolves to, scam. Money, and force, manipulate democracy. Education is a necessity for democracy: To make electorate decision-making work decision-makers must be able to inform themselves, and, to make democracy work for a faction (or for outsiders inserting themselves) the faction (or outsiders) must control education, to bias electorates to impose the faction’s bias.

        In Cuba principles were defined by the revolutionaries, and building a government depended on their implementing, with popular help, those principles. Among the principles was common education. Until the population was commonly educated democratic forms could not be utilized, since uneducated are susceptible to manipulation by biased education. In addition, Cuba was, after the revolution, still at war (has been to today), its adversary sponsored, and financed, by the United States. So for the entire duration of the Castro Era in Cuba the nation has been a nation at war, with wartime economic conditions. Even the U.S., 1941-45, curtailed democracy, and imposed restrictions. It persecuted and even jailed citizens on suspicions, curtailed rights to trial, habeus corpus and other rights (as much as it could, and jailed on bogus suspicions and allegations, even imprisoning a whole ethnicity in concentration-camps. And after, in the Nuremberg Trials the Allies curtailed fair trial rights and suspended legal protections (e.g., ex post facto) to coerce illegal “example” convictions.

        Those who deprecate what Castro, and the other revolutionaries, did in Cuba, and have done in the years since their revolution, because their governing was for the benefit of all, or as much as possible of the population, not a privileged few, show themselves to be selfish, means-spirited, arrogant and elitist, “aristocrats” (in their own self-opinions) who place themselves above others and have no consideration for others, and who would tread others down and would deny others opportunities to achieve more and improve themselves (and their nation). This makes those ones pretty much scum by any measure except their own.

        • Sam F
          December 6, 2016 at 11:51 pm

          We agree on Cuba and Castro. I know that democracy and republic are synonymous, except that the later Roman republic was not democratic. In the early US the business party were the Whigs and denounced their oppsition as “those democratic Republicans.” But the later Repub party replaced the Whigs.

          I may misread your statements about democracy. “Without external controls (…the Constitution …) democracy devolves to mob rule.” I would suggest that a functioning democracy includes structures specified by a Constitution to prevent mob rule, to avoid the tyranny of demagogues against whom Aristotle warned, the Repubs favorite scare of “mob rule.” Those are internal controls, not external.

          I would clarify the idea that “to make democracy work for a faction …the faction …must control education, to bias electorates.” Democracy does not work well for any faction unless it works for all factions: it becomes a war of intransigents that can degenerate into civil war, as in Iraq and Ukraine and in the US Civil War. It is when factions seek to control mass media or education “to bias electorates” that democracy fails. Instead we must seek rational debate and unbiased public information, and that requires getting the influence of factions out of mass media, education, and election funding.

          • Evangelista
            December 7, 2016 at 9:23 pm

            “Democracy” is simply “majority rule”. There are no controls in democracy, the majority decides and the decision, whatever it is, dictates to the minority. It is the “re publica”, the “for the public”, the people as individuals (the people as “a whole”, meaning the majority making a whole, carrying minorities along, willing or unwilling, is socialist, which is democracy in application) that introduces the controls, and so makes a republic a republic. The primary republic control is individual liberty (responsibility) in the individual sphere. Secondary control is the restriction of the individual sphere imposed by the individual’s sphere being among others (thus the responsibility, to keep ones own sphere within ones own sphere).

            The lynch-mob examples democracy at its most near to perfect, since in the mob the majority agreement is 100%, with only the victim(s), the minority in the situation, dissenting, lowering the agreement from the 100% ideal (a lynch-mob with a suicidal victim would example perfect democracy). In a republic legal processes exist to provide control, to safeguard the minority (accused). The jury system is a republican decision-making system, its composition neighbors to those accused, its function to determine, where a conflict has occurred, whose individual sphere interfered, and whose was interfered with.

            The U.S. political parties just adopted the terms, so their names have nothing to do with the concepts the words reference. Jefferson started the Democratic-Republicans and Jackson created the Democrats from it when his group split off after the 1824 “corrupt bargain” fiasco. The Republican Party was created in the late 1850s as a split-off abolitionist party. They became radical and, when they came into money, from the plundering of the South in Reconstruction, became the party of the plundering,hence, the business and money party. Today the Democratic party has evolved to the money party, mostly through becoming the party of the money-elite and war-industry globalizing machine, and the Republican party appears to be evolving into the radicalized remnants of the ex-midle-class. Both seem to be touting ‘democracy’, because both want control, and don’t want to be restricted by self-controls, which the principles republicanism require all to respect, including those in positions of power, who their controls restrict and chafe, instead of protect and make secure.

            Democratic decision-making, kept under control, is the best way to defend against power impositions, by oligarchies and aristocracies, who, as we see today, are always working angles to undermine the principles that restrict them, and their “democratic”, “laissez-faire”, “natural”, “god-given”, etc. ” rights”.

    • Bill Bodden
      December 6, 2016 at 3:10 pm

      Now if a Bernie Sanders had led the revolution …

      He would very likely have surrendered to the US oligarchy. If not then, he would not have fought the CIA at the Bay of Pigs. Bernie talked a good game, but he was no David when it came to tackling Goliath.

    • Bill Bodden
      December 6, 2016 at 3:35 pm

      I’m also troubled to read how blithely the author says Castro had executed 500-700 Batista regime members.

      In the best of all possible worlds violence like that would not occur, but Castro may have seen this as a continuation of his rebellion. Then again, if we fast forward 30-some years there were the sanctions maintained against Iraq by the Bill Clinton administration that cost an estimated half million Iraqi children their lives of which his former secretary of state Madeline Albright said, “We thought it was worth it.” “We” would have included Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, many members of the Clinton administration and Congress supported by mobs of pundits and neocons. How about the Bush-Cheney-Blair war on Iraq that resulted in millions of dead, maimed and displaced Iraqis? Many of the perpetrators of that crime remain among that nation’s “elite” promoting more wars.

      • Bill Bodden
        December 6, 2016 at 6:18 pm

        Before Iraq there were a couple of thousand people killed in Panama when George H W Bush invaded and somewhere between 1.5 and three million Vietnamese killed by American forces.

  5. Drew Hunkins
    December 6, 2016 at 1:45 pm

    Fidel’s one of the greatest humanitarian leaders the Western Hemisphere has ever witnessed. History will indeed absolve him!

  6. Northern Observer
    December 6, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    All the anti-colonial liberations are called into question when one looks at where those nations went, politically and socially after “liberation” Bourgeois freedom is nice to make fun of, but when the next best things brings little but arbitrary state power, death and poverty a life of unequal ironies doesn’t seem so bad. I get why people refuse to see it, life is hard without illusions and religion has become less accessible to most minds, especially intellectuals.

    • Sam F
      December 6, 2016 at 6:28 pm

      It is difficult to compare the immediate results of anti-colonial revolutions with life in the colonial power, which was never the alternative except for the comprador class in the colony. Yes, revolutionists seem to overestimate the immediate gains, even when not plagued with instability for generations, due to
      1. the damage of war: social, physical, demographic, and cultural,
      2. the overestimation of resources to be distributed or economic gains to be made,
      3. adverse circumstances of isolation, regional instability, and other historical problems, and
      4. their delayed progress in building national unity, a coherent economy, professional class, and basic services.
      One cannot blame revolutionaries for the slow results. In modern times the colonial states have also often penalized the newly independent states economically, or deliberately added to the instability to create a bogus argument against their effectiveness.

      Most revolutions must use techniques almost as bad as their oppressors in order to win, producing a result only somewhat better than what it replaced. Things were better for England, the US, and even India, in that the powers thrown off by revolution were not so terrible. Many had a measure of “bourgeois freedom” immediately, whereas Russia and Latin America still had generations to go. They were not rebelling against mere “unequal ironies.”

  7. jimbo
    December 7, 2016 at 1:14 am

    All I’m getting from you is that the US compelled Castro to act as he did which is reasonable. But the Castro regime, like the US, is not worthy of sainthood as our myths would make us believe and so I’d like to see an evenhandedness, some objectivity in these retrospectives including, of course, Castro’s accomplishments but also his failings. Because while the article above is somewhat factual it is not the truth. I mean, c’mon, how many people were executed, fled, were imprisoned, led okay lives under the Batista regime? A lot. But their lives are painted over, dismissed with a blindness that only a dogmatic following of an ideology can bring.

    • Sam F
      December 7, 2016 at 10:33 am

      Yes, a close look always reveals wrongdoing on all sides. But the similarity of categories of victims does not argue that progress was not made, or that some nicer means to the inevitable progress would have worked. An article contrary to mass media propaganda is not merely contrary propaganda, and can be valuable without exploring the downside simply to find regrettable cases resembling the far more numerous cases against the deposed government.

  8. dhinds
    December 9, 2016 at 4:52 pm

    In other words, Not only has US Foreign Policy created large numbers of terrorists, communist governments have also been created in reaction to it. The hostility directed toward Cuba by the USA drove it to seek shelter in the Socialist Camp.

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