The eulogising of Fidel Castro by some members of the Labour Party – some of them very senior ones – is both nauseating and very disturbing.
It indicates a lack of certainty about the ideological and moral distinction between Labour’s own democratic socialism and non-democratic revolutionary and communist distortions and abuses of socialism’s name that are at best intellectually confused or ignorant. It suggests we have senior members who don’t understand what the difference is or, worse, that they may not care about the difference or may see themselves as in the revolutionary tradition not the democratic one.
Democratic socialists believe that liberty and equality need to go hand in hand and be balanced – you can’t have a truly free society when there is excessive inequality of power and wealth, because only those with the wealth and power can exercise their freedoms; and you can’t have an equal society if is not free, as unfree societies see power held un-democratically in the hands of the few not the many.
Democratic socialists believe in achieving social progress through consent, not force, through winning power at the ballot box, and surrendering power when the people withdraw that consent.
Democratic socialists believe in freedom of association and powerful, free civil society organisations including trade unions, local authorities, NGOs and faith and community groups that can freely challenge and hold the state to account.
Democratic socialists believe that as socialism means society having control over or intervening in key public services and in some cases parts of the economy, this is meaningless without democracy. If the people don’t get to democratically decide government policy then it isn’t they that are socially controlling services or parts of the economy, it’s an unelected elite, whether that’s a single dictator or an oligarchy of party apparatchiks.
Democratic socialists believe in human rights – absolutely – not conditionally to be parked if it is temporally politically expedient.
Democratic socialists despise all dictatorships and tyrannies, whether they present themselves honestly, as fascist, or pretend to be left wing by stealing the language of socialism.
Democratic socialists have proven in country after country that you can have good healthcare, good education systems, good housing, a welfare state, and a pluralistic, democratic society.
Fidel Castro’s Cuba was the antithesis of these values.
Not because he took power by force – he had no choice given the Batista dictatorship didn’t hold free elections. But because he then refused to put himself up for election and held power with no popular mandate for 50 years, behaving no differently to the Batista regime he had replaced. The irony was he probably would have won democratic elections if he had held them. The contrast with another Latin American revolutionary movement is instructive. The Sandanistas in Nicaragua also had to use force to overthrow a right wing dictatorship, that of Somoza. They pursued similar social policies to Castro. They had to deal with a Reagan administration sponsored Contra insurgency of greater threat than the various comic opera plots against Castro. But unlike Castro they held elections, gave up power voluntarily, became a democratic opposition party and eventually were democratically returned to power. Why, other than megalomania, didn’t Castro trust the Cuban people to decide if he should remain in power?
Castro’s fan club in the UK includes many passionate trade unionists. But there are no free trade unions in Cuba. Castro jailed union leaders who opposed their organisations being turned into puppets of the state. Workers who were defined as unproductive or troublesome were sent to labour camps. There is no right to strike.
His fan club includes many supporters of nuclear disarmament. Yet Castro brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis by allowing Soviet nuclear bases in Cuba and haranguing the Soviets to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the USA.
His fan club includes many staunch opponents of overseas military intervention. Yet Castro turned his military into a potent expeditionary force which participated for ideological reasons in conflicts around the world which Cuba had no direct interest in. I actually think it was good that Cuba sent troops to help Angola defeat the South Africans and hasten the end of apartheid (other Cuban interventions were for more dubious causes), but it is difficult to see this as any different to a communist version of Tony Blair’s liberal interventionist ideology which underpinned Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Iraq.
His fan club includes many high profile peace campaigners. Yet Castro was a man of political violence and war, who built Cuba into a military power out of all proportion to its small size.
His fan club includes many passionate advocates of global human rights yet Castro had thousands of opponents of his regime shot by firing squads, and many more jailed and tortured, quite aside from holding a whole country in conditions where there was no freedom of expression, religion, association or conscience. I don’t see the moral distinction between his allegedly left-wing regime and Pinochet’s overtly fascist one at the other end of Latin America. They both disgusted me. It wasn’t just Batista supporters that got tortured, repressed or shot, it was liberals and our comrades advocating democratic socialism or social democracy. Most of the people who cheer lead for Castro in the UK would have been rounded up and sent to the gulag by him if they espoused their views in Cuba.
His fan club includes many people who fight for LGBT rights in the UK. Yet Castro sent gays to labour camps and locked up people who were HIV+. His record on abortion and women’s rights was also far from progressive.
His fan club will talk about his achievements in the field of social justice. Yes Cuba has a fine healthcare system. Yes it has a fine education system (as long as the ideas you want to learn about are acceptable to the state). But it’s people live in a situation most would regard as destitution not socialism – food rationing still exists and quality is low (although as Emily Thornberry said Cubans are “not starving”, which sets the bar pretty low), Soviet-style queues and shortages of basic goods, poor and overcrowded housing, poor quality clothing and consumer goods, widespread prostitution to earn dollars from tourists. Ah but this is all the fault of the US blockade they say! But it’s a funny kind of socialism that would function better if it had access to the economy of a free market neighbour. And the “never mind the human rights abuses allegations, look at the good hospitals” line is exactly the same one that was used to defend Stalin. The gross inequalities of all communist regimes, with special privileged access to better housing, food, booze, holidays, and consumer goods for party nomenklatura, sadly exist in Cuba too. The idea that you have to choose between democracy and human rights on the one hand and schools and hospitals on the other is grotesque.
Fidel Castro wasn’t a socialist. He was just another Latin American strongman who dressed his human rights abusing regime up in socialist rhetoric to secure the Soviet Union as an aid donor, arms supplier and geopolitical sponsor, and gave his people just enough social progress to legitimise the regime.
We were rightly disgusted when right-wing Tories whitewashed Pinochet on the grounds his death squads and torture factories were somehow balanced out by bringing political stability, free markets and economic growth to Chile.
We should be equally disgusted when our own comrades whitewash Castro’s labour camps, torture and firing squads as being somehow balanced by his investing in literacy and preventative medicine.
It’s time Labour people celebrated the achievements of other democratic socialists, not communist despots. Our belief that social justice, freedom and democracy are intrinsically linked is universal – we don’t stop arguing for its application because someone has charmed us with fiery rhetoric and a romantic revolutionary image. Rum, cigars and beaches may make dictatorship look more palatable than vodka, cigarettes and snow-covered steppes did, but the Stalinist reality is as far from the freedom and equality Labour is supposed to stand for in Cuba as it was in the USSR. We need to start cheerleading democratic socialism rather than being sycophantic fans of a hostile ideology, and showing solidarity with the people of other countries, not their regimes.