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Khrushchev’s Dupe

November 28, 2016


In October 1962, Fidel Castro nearly killed me, along with most of the population of his country and a good proportion of the rest of us. Not because he particularly wanted to create a near-extinction event of a magnitude last seen when an asteroid crashed into the earth a few hundred miles from his back yard. But his pact with Khrushchev was the price he chose to pay for preserving his revolution from the vengeful superpower next door.

Had he not chosen the Soviet Union as the role model for the new Cuba, there is little doubt that the Yanquis sooner or later would have launched another attempt to return Cuba to its sleazy old ways of oligarchs, money-laundering and mafiosi. The reward for being a client state of the world’s other superpower was three decades of hand-outs from the Soviet Union. And when the USSR went into liquidation, Venezuela happily stepped into the breach and shipped huge quantities of oil to Cuba at cost.

There are plenty of obituaries to choose from, and plenty of comments from politicians. To Donald Trump he was the devil incarnate. To Jeremy Corbyn he was an inspiration. So far we have heard nothing from Nigel Farage, our newly-minted world statesman, not that I care much for his bar-room opinions. But it’s hard not to think of Fidel as anything other than a mirror who reflects our prejudices back to us. An enemy of freedom who tolerated no dissent and ruthlessly suppressed his opponents. The benign leader who gave his people world-class healthcare and education, yet denied them the one thing that would best capitalise on that investment: freedom of speech and thought. An indefatigable supporter of African independence struggles.

What I take from his life is that he exemplifies what seems to me to be an abiding political principle.

Most armed revolutions start with good intentions. If they fail to evolve beyond the control of the original instigators, they end in sour ossification. Thus it was with Fidel’s sponsor, the Soviet Union. New dawns turn rancid, especially if the elites they create entrench themselves. And why wouldn’t they? If you have launched a violent revolution, you of all people would know to make it impossible for a revolution to dispose of you. If a revolution isn’t rapidly followed by evolution, it eventually becomes the plaything of those who brought it about. As in Robert Mugabe, Kim Il Sung and his family, Nicolae Ceaucescu, Enver Hoxha and assorted Baathists in Iraq and Syria.

The only reason that Fidel ended up as an iconic figure of the 20th century was the accident of geography that placed Cuba 90 miles from Florida. Otherwise by now he would be a half-forgotten former tinpot dictator, ranked in importance with Stroessner of Paraguay, Pinochet of Chile, Noriega of Panama and Peron of Argentina, along with all the other generalissimos who over the past century contrived to make South America second only to Africa as the worst-governed continent on the planet.

Castro was neither hero nor devil. He was an intelligent guy with a keenly-developed survival instinct whose ideals transformed themselves into a sense that what was good for Fidel Castro was good for Cuba. Rather like the new leader across the straits, I suspect. The people of Cuba will no doubt thank him for ensuring that his country didn’t become another Haiti, even if generations of exiles will lament the lost opportunity to turn their homeland into something like the neighbour to which they fled.

My abiding memory of him is of Khrushchev’s dupe. The man who nearly killed me. Once the madness passed, he was just another dictator.

From → Politics, USA

  1. John Butler permalink

    Don’t forget: the US missiles in Turkey which, in secret, were dismantled as part of the agreement to not place Russian ones in Cuba. Hundreds of assassination attempts by the CIA or franchises. Support by Cuba for the liberation of Angola & apartheid South Africa: the US on the wrong side of course. Nasty dictator he might have become, but my God it was nothing to what the US was up to. Doctors sent to the Ebola crisis shows Castro never lost his idealism. Cuba, part of worst governed continent? Health care, education etc. I didn’t notice the same in Paraguay, Chile and Panama. Compared with Trump he shines. Just another dictator? I think not. One of the things he did after the fall of the Soviet Union was turn the country over to organic farming to avoid the cost of expensive fertilisers. It wasn’t just Chaves who saved the day. Freedom of speech and thought are two things many Syrians would rather do without at the moment and would rather go back to Assad. Maybe many Americans will be saying the same after they’ve had enough of Trump. Democracy doesn’t always deliver the goods. And certainly not the US kind which it is so intent on delivering to the world. Democracy is complicated: it involves more than freedom of speech. That’s something the US needs to learn (& Britain, being led to oblivion by virtue of a referendum referred to as “the people have spoken” – OMG – virulently supported by a right wing press, at the moment). Sometimes “the people” should shut up and go back to ‘Strictly’.
    Just food for thought!

  2. Food for thought indeed! Great comment as usual John.

    The post wan’t intended to be a measured assessment of Fidel’s achievements. I leave that to others.I was merely trying to point out that without the accident of geography and, I agree, his personal charisma, he would not have been able to have made the impact on the world stage that he did. And he was only able to do so because he was willing to serve as useful proxy in a Cold War that shaped my early life.

    Just a dictator? Yes, because dictators come in all shapes and sizes. Their impact may be seen as positive or negative depending on one’s values and personal experience. Call me cynical, but I believe that most – once ensconced – are driven by the necessities of retaining power. Ideology tends to take second place.

    And yes, you could argue that the same applies to governments in countries identifying as democracies. Except that their ability to remain in power is determined by the robustness of the institutions that support the rule of law. Whether Trump will successfully assault those institutions in the United States remains to be seen.

    Politics, as Che pointed out in Evita, is the art of the possible!

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