Those who celebrate the recent death of Fidel Castro — without the lived experience of being Cuban — risk disregarding the complexity of this historic moment and the lessons it offers. While the human rights violations committed by his government are reprehensible, to consider only these crimes outside of the broader context in which they were committed is to overlook much of Cuban history and the universality of state oppression.
To be sure, Castro is personally responsible for a wide range of indefensible crimes, including public and private extrajudicial murders, arbitrary detentions and the persecution of political dissidents. Under his government, the right to due process has been ignored and the freedoms of expression and assembly have been infringed. To this day political prisoners lie in jail cells, the Ladies in White face arbitrary detention and surveillance and the Cuban family remains irreversibly torn apart.
The crimes most often cited in denouncing Castro as a dictator are not, however, unique to the Cuban Revolution. Those who denounce Castro’s disregard for the rule of law should consider the actions of the United States government in enacting drone strikes against American citizens abroad, as well as police brutality within American borders (even if you believe Anwar al-Awlaki was justifiably killed, you must accept he was denied his Fifth Amendment rights).
Champions of human rights should call for legal prosecution of those responsible for the torture program conducted in the military prison at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay. Those critical of politically motivated detentions in Cuba should be concerned about the fact that scores of people have been held without trial at Guantanamo, not to mention COINTELPRO. Cubans and Puerto Ricans alike endure the injustice of disenfranchisement. While not directly related to Castro’s death, these facts demonstrate the common denominator of state oppression. While the difference in degree can be substantial, to villainize Castro while overlooking the same crimes elsewhere is both illogical and dangerous. At the very least, denouncement of the Castro government’s actions compels us to ask if we are holding our own state to high legal, if not moral, standards.
Statistics about literacy in Cuba, doctored as they may be, reflect a committed literacy campaign that changed Cuba for the better. Castro’s 1961 declaration that racism ended with the revolution, while untrue, reflects real progress made toward racial equality in Cuba. The right to abortion in Cuba has been guaranteed and accessible since 1965. The Cuban Revolution replaced an unpopular and oppressive dictatorship and has in some ways benefited the Cuban public as well as people around the world. This will never justify the authoritarian, violent and oppressive system that emerged from the revolution. It will never fill in the void of hopelessness caused by the lack of opportunity young Cubans face today. It does, however, highlight the complexity of Cuban history. Disregarding this complexity is an injustice to those who suffered under the Batista regime.
Furthermore, such a limited view of the Cuban Revolution is a disservice to the interests of the Cuban people. This reductive view has played an important role in enabling the disastrous U.S. embargo against Cuba — a policy that has been both immoral in its consequences for the Cuban people and counterproductive in its attempt to bring down the Castro government. The oppression the Cuban public has faced has been extended by U.S. policy that (just like the Cuban government) has often been only nominally concerned with the genuine interests of the Cuban public. Those who celebrate Castro’s death without holding U.S. officials accountable for their effort to “starve out Fidel” (and by extension the Cuban public) signal limited commitment to the welfare of Cubans.
When one considers the need to defend human rights in every country, it becomes clear that celebrations of Castro’s death detract from the urgent work at hand. Castro was a revolutionary leader to some and a tyrannical dictator to others, and both sides can praise his achievements and condemn his crimes.
To uncritically accept romanticized histories of Castro’s regime without hearing directly about the pain he caused is ill-informed, since many Cubans around the world have strong feelings following the death of the man who harmed their loved ones. Conversely, non-Cubans who criticize his regime contribute nothing to the cause of universal human rights by celebrating his death. Instead, perhaps the best way to show solidarity with the Cuban people is to work toward a future where human rights are guaranteed for all.
Justin Myles is a senior in Morse College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .