Amid fresh reports that Fidel Castro is at death’s door, Daniel Hannan says that the Cuban dictator was the beneficiary of Western hypocrisy about left-wing tyrants, and of the strategic errors of the 44-year US blockade
Sola mors tyrannicida est, wrote Thomas More: death is the only way to get rid of tyrants. And so it has proved for Fidel Castro. Sixteen years ago, he looked finished. The USSR had collapsed, and the Soviet subsidies that had propped up the Cuban economy for 30 years had been abruptly terminated. Around the world, statues of Lenin were being melted down or sold off to collectors of kitsch. But Castro never wavered in his revolutionary fervour. Unlike the apparatchiks of Eastern Europe, he had not inherited the communist system, nor seen it imposed by a foreign army. The Cuban revolution was his revolution, and he was damned if he was going to give it up.
By sheer force of personality, Castro kept the red flag flying over his muggy Caribbean island. His eyes grew rheumier, and his beard sparser, but his domination of the political machine remained total. The Americans were in no doubt that if they removed the dictator, the dictatorship would collapse. The CIA, acting on St Thomas’s dictum, is supposed to have tried to kill Castro 638 times, sometimes in ways that were pure Inspector Clouseau. On one occasion, agents are said to have persuaded Castro’s former lover to assassinate him with poisoned cold cream; on another, they tried to plant an infected wetsuit on him; on yet another, an exploding cigar. In the event, it has fallen to the Almighty to achieve what the boys from Langley could not.
It will fall to the Almighty, too, to hold Castro to account for his misdeeds — he has escaped any reckoning in this world. Not for him the international court orders that were served on Ariel Sharon and Donald Rumsfeld. Not for him the obloquy heaped on his old foe, Augusto Pinochet, whom he was delighted to survive. On the contrary, Castro’s most famous bit of swanking, the claim after his first failed coup attempt that ‘history will absolve me’, seems to be coming perversely true.
Fifty years almost to the day after the comandante landed on the Cuban coast, his dream of a Latin America united in revolutionary anti-yanquismo is finally being fulfilled. Six weeks ago, Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s caudillo, engineered a landslide re-election, and dedicated his triumph to the man he calls his father. Last week saw the installation of two more of Castro’s allies: Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista commander, in Nicaragua; and, Rafael Correa, who has pledged to close down parliament and rewrite the constitution, in Ecuador. Their victories complete an almost clean sweep of South America by the populist Left; only Colombia stands as an untoppled domino.
‘Why is it that dictators of the Left are not scorned in the same way as those of the Right?’ asks my fellow Peruvian, the Nobel prize-winning novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa. ‘Was General Pinochet, in his 17 years in power, crueller or bloodier than Fidel Castro has been in his four decades ruling Cuba?’
Good question. Both men crushed their opponents, closed down hostile media, suspended parliamentary democracy and filled the administration with their friends and family. The main difference is that, unlike Castro, Pinochet eventually submitted himself to the ballot box, offering Chileans a referendum in 1988 on whether they wanted to keep him. By 57 to 43 per cent, they voted ‘No’, and Pinochet grumpily stomped off the stage. Not that his resignation won him any credit with Lefties. As a Marxist friend told me accusingly at the time, ‘He’s just trying to make Fidel look bad.’
To this day, the slightest connection with right-wing authoritarianism disqualifies a politician from office. Fair enough, you might say. But, at the same time, Europe’s palaces and chancelleries teem with former ‘sandalistas’: youngsters who volunteered to work on collectives in Cuba and Nicaragua. No fewer than seven European commissioners are ex-communists, including Peter Mandelson, who visited Cuba as a student.
Why do we not apply the same standard to them? The idea that Castro’s Cuba was any cuddlier than Pinochet’s Chile simply doesn’t stand up. This is the man who enthusiastically supported the crushing of the Prague Spring, calling the Czech dissidents ‘fascists’. This is the regime that backed the IRA and the FARC. Over 40 years, Castro reduced his country to a pauperism unknown in the rest of the Western hemisphere. Not only did he forbid his people to travel abroad, he also barred them from the segregated tourist resorts on the island.
Even reliable party members are rarely trusted to visit capitalist countries. I once tried to chat up a pretty Cuban student on a long bus journey in Syria. She was a loyal Fidelista, and became quite testy when I asked her whether it was easy for Cubans to travel abroad. ‘Of course we can,’ she snapped. ‘We can go virtually anywhere in the world: Iran, Angola, North Korea….’
There are few sights so degrading as Western lefties arguing that all this is somehow compensated by the fact that Cuba is good at producing ballerinas and doctors. Even in socialist terms, Castro ought to be a disappointment. One of the first things to strike a visitor to the island is the visible ethnic disparity: whites and mestizos run the place, while blacks are in as wretched a condition as anywhere in the Caribbean. Indeed, for a long time, Castro deliberately tried to displace the racial problem by encouraging black Cubans to volunteer for the war in Angola. As a good Leninist, he knew all about countries exporting their internal contradictions.
One thing, and one thing alone, allowed the old monster to get away with it: Washington’s 44-year-old economic blockade. All countries rally round their leaders when they are at war, and Castro’s Cuba has been semi-officially at war since he seized power. The US sanctions allowed him to escape blame for his mismanagement. It’s not communism that has reduced Cuba to this squalor, he could assure his people — it’s the yanqui embargo. The same excuse served to justify his totalitarianism. As he put it in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs debacle, ‘The revolution has no time for elections.’
In his memoirs, José María Aznar, the former prime minister of Spain, recalls meeting Castro in 1998. He told the comandante that if it were up to him, the blockade would be lifted the next day and the regime would fall within three months. Castro ruefully agreed.
The siege didn’t just give Castro a domestic alibi; it gave him international sympathy. A surprising number of people are prepared to ally themselves with any regime, however vile, provided it is sufficiently anti-American. This tendency is especially apparent in the EU. The development commissioner, a pompous Belgian called Louis Michel, horrified dissidents in Havana when, on a recent visit, he proclaimed that Brussels would engage positively with Castro. I don’t imagine for a moment that Mr Michel truly approves of Cuban communism; it’s just that he likes to thumb his nose at Washington. The same unlovely instinct makes Eurocrats want to do business with Tehran’s ayatollahs and with Beijing’s autocrats — but that’s another story.
What will happen after Fidel? In the immediate term, power will pass to his brother Raúl. For a long time, the Vice-President was seen as the more hardline of the two Castros: a doctrinaire Marxist from his youth who maintained an iron grip on the army. More recently, though, Raúl has shown a certain pragmatism, supporting the legalisation of the dollar and encouraging the development of tourism. When the US began to intern terror suspects at Guantanamo, he astonished the American authorities by assuring them
that Cuba’s security forces would round up and return any escapees.
In a sense, though, it doesn’t much matter what Raúl thinks. He won’t be around for long. Few autocracies outlive their strongman. Sometimes the regime staggers on for a while under a nominated relative, while generals and ministers manoeuvre in the background, but they always collapse in the end. This was true even of our own brief flirtation with military dictatorship. Oliver Cromwell was notionally succeeded by his son Richard. But the truth, as a historian put it, was that Old Ironsides ‘ruled England from the urn for eight months’.
Something similar will happen in Cuba. The ruling caste will huddle around Raúl for a while, as senior Communists seek to guarantee that their privileges are retained after the transition. Like their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe, they will doubtless sell themselves party property at knock-down prices, so as to emerge as the first millionaires of their newly capitalist country. But Cuba cannot escape its geography or its history. Sooner or later, the Holiday Inns and Pizza Huts will arrive.
How quickly this happens depends on whether Washington has the gumption to lift its embargo. Many US foreign policy strategists privately concede that the blockade has been a cock-up. But, as long as Florida remains a swing state, neither party wants to offend the Cuban exiles clustered there by seeming to go soft on Castro.
The old brute’s demise may finally give George Bush his moment. This President has more credibility with Hispanic voters than any previous Republican leader. He doesn’t need to worry about his anti-communist credentials. Come to think of it, he doesn’t need to worry about the voters at all. Here, in short, is a splendid opportunity to round off his presidency with an unequivocal foreign policy success. Never mind what they say in Little Havana, George: history will absolve you.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 20, 2007