I came across this unattributed photograph* in The Guardian today and it captures the enigmatic character of Castro. Most Americans have, I think, at best a silhouetted image of Castro. But The Guardian also ran this slide show of images** of Castro and the political company he has kept over the years. And those images too leave one ambivalent. On the one hand, Nelson Mandela, Gabrial Garcia-Marquez, Salvador Allende, and Daniel Ortega. On the other hand, Pope John Paul II, Jimmy Carter, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales. On the third hand, a motley crew of Soviet dictators on whom he relied for economic and political support.
There seems to me little to be gained by either vilifying or canonizing Castro. There are many in the U.S. who find him loathsome. Would those people have preferred the dictator Batista or his political progeny? There are those who consider Castro a hero. Can they do more than rationalize his dictatorial ways? I am not sure what criteria we should use to assess the Cuban experience. Consider this passage from The New York Times today:
The first paragraph seems fair enough. Not effusive, but accurate. The second paragraph raiases some obvious questions - perhaps questions that might illuminate the first paragraph too. Which Carribean economy does the author have in mind that has industrialized, freed itself from economic dependence on agricultural exports and tourism, and so forth? Is Cuba more or less dependent on remittances from abroad than other developing countries? Can we be more specific?
His record has been a mix of great social achievements, but a dismal economic performance that has mired most Cubans in poverty. He succeeded in establishing universal health care, providing free education through college and largely rooting out racism.
But he never broke the island’s dependence on commodities like sugar, tobacco and nickel, nor did he succeed in industrializing the nation so that Cuba could compete in the world market with durable goods. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of its aid to the island, Cuba has limped along economically, relying mostly on tourism and money sent home from exiles to get hard currency.
I guess my question is whether it is possible to have anything like a reasonable conversation about Cuba and Castro.
* The photo credit is: "February 2003: Castro addresses a crowd in Havana." Photograph: STR/Reuters.
** (22 February) The Guardian has changed the slideshow to which I referred; they now have two others up here and here. These contain some but not all of the images they originally posted as well as many others.