‘Fidel – a revolutionary hero to some, a ruthless tyrant to others.’ That was the initial reaction in the liberal areas of the Western media. It was intended to be a balanced response without fear or favour, allowing each of us to make up our own minds. But when a situation is posed in such terms it invites partisan responses. The result inevitably is conflict when the judgement invited has to be in terms of stark contrast.
Why, we must ask, should the question be posed in terms of such polarity? If you really seek a balanced judgement you must be prepared to consider there will be both success and failure in any honest appraisal. The level of each will depend on subjective factors as well as observable facts.
Some would say that by the standards of the Western liberal, Fidel created an authoritarian system. He stood before the great statue of Lincoln in awe, but he allowed no other political parties than the governing one. The Cuban revolutionary government is astonishingly ready to admit its mistakes. But it does not allow oppositional voices much of a say. Granma is a newspaper of substance. [I have read fuller factual accounts of British political affairs there than in any British newspaper]. But it is the only newspaper. There is only one version of events, even if that version is a decent attempt at the truth. Fidel had some lessons to learn from Lincoln. Western liberals have lessons to learn from Fidel and Cuba about sincerity and openness and sobriety of conduct and purpose.
Fidel undoubtedly possessed great authority. He had, and admitted to having, a special place in Cuban society. It went beyond official titles and constitutional functions. He had instigated and led the revolution. That gave him a position of command that autocrats may try to emulate but only great figures can achieve, and then so rarely. Perhaps the only comparable figure in my lifetime is Mandela.
It is no surprise to see that they respected one another. That much is reported.
What is less reported is Mandela’s clear statement that revolutionary Cuba provided the model for his vision of a liberated South Africa. Did he believe in a one-party state? No, but no doubt he was thinking of the fact, also rarely reported, that any Cuban citizen can stand for election. They cannot form a party, but they can voice a constructive opinion.
Mandela was thinking of many other things also, including of course the undoubted success of health, welfare and educational advances. There are those who say these things have been achieved in the Western social democracies. And that is true, and it is to their credit. But these are societies that have built on generations of industrial development, high living standards and general culture. Cuba in 1959 was unbelievably and needlessly backward. The United Fruit Company could have provided schools and clinics and decent wages and still made fortunes. Workers toiled in near-slavery while in Havana the Cosa Nostra made its own fortunes from industrial levels of prostitution and gambling.
The liberating, life-enhancing energy of the revolution, victorious against all the odds, can be felt even now. Fidel was not perfect. And he did not create the perfect society. Applying standards of perfection to his record is a self-defeating refusal to accept that so much was achieved in so short a span of time. It will take generations, he said, to fulfil the vision.
It was and is a vision shared by many. The authority of the visionary leader was immense. But was he a tyrant? What, he was asked, would happen were he to be voted down in council? He laughed and said, ‘I am often voted down.’ Like Lincoln he could accept defeat as well as victory with a good grace. He had so much life, and he gave it to the world.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall