The death of Fidel Castro has sparked and supercharged the debate about whether or not he was in fact a bastard. Those who think he was a bastard point to his human rights abuses, especially his treatment of gays, his propensity to lock up political opponents and his distaste for elections. Those who think he wasn’t a bastard point towards his struggle against the imperialism of the U.S.A., his excellent healthcare and educational legacy, and the idea that he was considered to be a father figure to the Cuban citizens. I don’t intend to get into this debate. What I’m interested in here is principles. Specifically the principles of those who consider themselves progressives. More specifically, those progressives who are defending Castro’s legacy. Not because I disagree with them, but because I think their defence of Castro raises an interesting issue.
In his essay, ‘Human Rights and the Age of Inequality’, Samel Moyn asks us to imagine a world that was ruled by one man; a dictator. Now rather than being the power hungry, paranoid, needy, violent type of dictator that we all know and love, this dictator is beneficent. He provides enough food, enough water, enough shelter, enough everything so that people can live happy, fulfilled lives. They have schools, culture, parks, and even freedom of expression. They do not fear violent oppression and can essentially live lives free of worry. The one thing they cannot do is vote and change their leader. Moyn asks if such a reality would satisfy the goals of human rights. People would be free of tangible oppression, and maybe even able to become fulfilled human beings, but nonetheless, they would not be not free. They have no choice over their destiny. They would be nothing more than the pampered pets of the supreme leader.
Now, let us return to Fidel. Let’s ignore his human rights abuses as necessities of the revolution. Let’s assume that he would have been able to give his citizens far better lives if he had been given the chance, and that none of them would have any cause to complain about oppression. Does this excuse him for not giving his people the vote? Does this excuse him for not letting his people be masters of their own destiny? If you are a progressive who believes that Fidel would have done good, and tried to do good, but you also believe that democracy is a fundamental right, does it really matter what he would have done? If you truly believe in democracy, no dictator is a good dictator. Democracy is a fundamental right because it gives humans the chance to be free, the chance to shape their own destiny. Dictators trample on this chance.
Now, it may be that our democracy has been captured and subverted by an ‘elite’, that if Castro granted his citizens the right to vote, imperialist powers would have risen again in Cuba. However, this is only conjecture, it is only based on the hope that a left wing revolutionary always intends good. This was the same mentality of the old leftists in the sixties, who dreamed of defecting to the Soviet Union, despite all the oppression. This mentality fails to see the simple fact that overthrowing an elitist dictatorship with a leftist dictatorship means the citizens remain living under a dictatorship. It is my belief that the only way to improve our damaged democracy is through improving democratic institutions, not removing them. Whatever the legacy of Castro, one thing that is certain is that he was a dictator. If you defend Castro, you are in part defending a dictatorship, albeit a left wing one. Principles should come above sides; does the defence of Castro trump the principle of democracy?
It should not matter that he fought against imperialism, it should not matter that other governments do worse things without criticism, it should not matter that he did some good things. It is possible to be critical of both a communist dictatorship and imperialism. A criticism of one should not affect the criticism of the other. If one of your principles as a progressive is a belief in democracy, you should think hard before arguing on the side of a dictator.