The controversial former leader of Cuba died on the 25th of November 2016. The media has since been ablaze of his critics and admirers. Given the nature of what he represented and how he was viewed; his admirers tend to deify him and his critics treat him as Satan incarnate.
So I’m going to sift through the hyperbole and sort the truth from the propaganda. From both sides of the argument; here are the claims examined.
He hated gay people.
This one is mostly true; when he came to power in 1959, he and his administration did little to combat the persecution of Cuba’s LGBT population, a lot of whom fled. Castro himself made derogatory comments towards homosexuals, stating ‘[W]e would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true Revolutionary, a true Communist militant. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant Communist must be.’
However, he was simply a mouthpiece for the pervasive attitude of the general population at the time. To say that Castro hated gay people might be less true than that he was apathetic towards them. In later years, when tolerance towards homosexuality was the popular view, he apologised in his own way, saying that the persecution of them was a mistake, and though he was responsible for letting it happen, didn’t want it to. Of course, it’s a classic politician’s statement – he will only stand up for gay rights when it benefited him politically, which is undoubtedly morally wrong, but makes it disingenuous to say that he hated gay people.
It’s also good to note that the US and UK can’t claim to have been terribly tolerant of the LGBT population at the time either. When Castro came to power in 1959, homosexuality was still illegal in the UK (until 1967) and statewide legalisation of homosexuality in the US was only achieved in 2003, and American Samoa are still yet to legalise it. On top of that, discrimination against LGBT citizens has, and continues to be a huge problem in the US in terms of employment and refusal of service. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell allowed gay people to serve in the US army, but prevented them from expressing their sexuality. This was only overturned in 2011. Same-sex activity has been legal in Cuba since 1979, which is 24 years before this was achieved in the US’s states.
So for the UK and the US to condemn Cuba for their treatment of LGBT citizens is hypocrisy, as was deftly pointed out by Dr Denise Baden in this interview with BBC News following Castro’s death.
He eliminated homelessness.
Pretty much true! Housing costs are kept low and social housing is subsidised. Home ownership is at a rate of 85% (compare that to the US’s 66.9%). Not all of that is down to Castro, though, as Cuban culture has a more inclusive attitude towards extended families, so few people are left without relatives to call upon.
He oppressed his opposition.
He didn’t have a great record on this. Cuban law limits freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of press. Death sentences to his dissidents were carried out throughout his premiership. Amnesty international are concerned about his human rights abuses. Cuban people, however, feel that they can freely criticise his policies, while still maintaining a positive attitude towards him. Dr Denise Baden says in the above interview in response to a statement that Castro ruled with an iron fist, ‘When I talk to the people who live in Cuba and the Cubans who’ve come to live in the UK, that’s not the story that I get.’
The people were poor and starving.
According to UNICEF, severe child malnutrition is at 0%, so that pretty much debunks the starving myth. While Cuba couldn’t be described as a wealthy country, public services are cheap and accessible. The vast majority of the population have access to clean water, education and healthcare. Cuba has the lowest patient to doctor ratio in the world, and the student to teacher ratio is half the Latin American average, which at 12:1 is, again, one of the best in the world.
The health system only benefited wealthy tourists.
False. Cuba has one of the best health systems in the world. UNICEF reports that immunisation has a 99% coverage across the country, to give one example.
His government created four vaccines to combat cancer.
Not really. CIMAvax, which is the only vaccine I can find a trace of, was developed by research scientists working for the state run health system. It’s not really a vaccine, though, it doesn’t immunise the body against cancer, but helps it to fight (specifically) lung cancer. This is all in theory, though, because it’s still in clinical trials. It’s still a landmark achievement, if successful, and could potentially stave of cancer indefinitely if successful. To say that Castro’s regime created an anti-cancer vaccine, however, is sensationalist. The facilities created helped that research, but it’s thanks to the researchers, not Castro himself that this has come about; and it doesn’t necessarily prevent cancer. Misleading sensationalist headlines regarding health breakthroughs exist across the world, so Cuba does no worse here.
Cuba became the first country to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
Yes, but this initiative between Cuba and the World Health Organisation started in 2010 and was validated in 2015 – all of this happened after Castro passed rule of his country to his brother, Raul. Again, you could say that he created the conditions that allowed this to happen, but to credit him directly with this achievement is really rather disingenuous.
He was a dictator.
Yes, but it’s the associations that are a problem. When you say dictator, you think of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot etc, who did far more harm than good. Castro was by no means an ethical hero, he persecuted a lot of people; but unlike a lot of revolutionaries, he actually brought about a lot of progressive change in the nation. Consider ‘democratically’ elected leaders such as Tony Blair and George Bush who are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Castro’s record is in the hundreds – which is still deplorable, but to vilify him as a dictator is ridiculous considering what democratically elected officials have done.
Consider also, how much he has achieved under strict sanctions from the US and negative propaganda from the western Capitalist world.
Amnesty International put it well with this quote, following his death – “There are few more polarizing political figures than Fidel Castro, a progressive but deeply flawed leader.”