The chorus from the White House and Downing Street was entirely predictable (and so hypocritical). On hearing about the retirement of Fidel Castro as the president of Cuba, those pre-eminent world leaders and exemplary champions of human rights, George Bush and Gordon Brown, said that they hoped that the island state would now move “towards democracy”. It was enough to make you throw up!
Coming from leaders of governments that in recent years have brought us state torture, extraordinary rendition, detention without trial, illegal invasions of other countries, persecution of minorities, a surveillance state and close relations with dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, their statements went way off the double-standards meter.
Castro’s Cuban revolution of 1959 became a thorn in the side of successive American governments in particular. He outlasted nine US presidents in defending the independence of Cuba and its right to choose its own path of development. Castro survived several CIA assassination plots and the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 authorised by President Kennedy. Where the US wanted another client state in the Caribbean fit for American corporate interests, Castro led Cuba in another direction with contradictory results.
What began as a national revolution against the corrupt and criminal Batista US-backed dictatorship developed into an imitation of a Soviet-style regime under which capitalist property became state owned. Castro’s forces merged with the Cuban Communist Party, which was Stalinist in its outlook. Seeing an opportunity to develop its presence in the Caribbean, Moscow backed Castro, supplied the country with oil and Cuba became a pawn in the Cold War to the point where nuclear war was only narrowly avoided in the missiles crisis of October 1962. Moscow’s perfidious influence was a significant factor in Castro’s close comrade Che Guevara’s decision to leave Cuba in 1965 to take part in revolutionary guerrilla struggles in Africa and Latin America until his betrayal and execution in Bolivia in 1967.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Cuba was forced to rely even more on its own resources – human as well as economic. Despite an American economic embargo that has lasted for 45 years, the achievements have been amazing in terms of health, literacy and sport. Cuba has developed one of the most advanced free health systems in the world and actually exports doctors to help developing countries, while its literacy rate is higher than that of the United States. But its enforced isolation from the world economy has also thwarted economic development and the standard of living of the average Cuban is comparatively low.
In politics, Cuba remains an authoritarian state which regularly imprisons dissidents, poets and gays and blocks an open political discussion about the future of the country. But Bush and Brown are not particularly interested in these aspects when they talk of “democracy”. Their “democracy” is the right of global corporations to invest and exploit in Cuba, drawing the country into the market capitalist economy.
Castro’s retirement will almost certainly usher in political changes held back for so long. The challenge facing the Cuban people is to preserve the considerable social gains made since 1959 while undertaking a democratic, political transformation. Isolation makes this task much harder and Cubans urgently need radical change in the US and Europe to the point where support for Cuba’s self-determination becomes a global priority.
AWTW communications editor