Criticism of my series (ongoing) of interviews with Fidel Castro has been diverse and enthusiastic. Much of it has come from Cuban-Americans who dislike Castro with a ferocity I haven't seen since the days when I covered the Middle East (which, if memory serves, was three weeks ago).
There are three main criticisms. The first is that I have too benign a view of Fidel Castro. The evidence for this includes the fact that I accompanied him to the Havana Aquarium and portrayed him as an old man who likes dolphins. The second criticism is that I have failed to take adequate note of Fidel's lousy human rights record. The third, related critique, is that I too easily bought the left-wing argument that the American embargo of Cuba, and the travel ban imposed by America to keep its citizens from visiting Cuba, are hypocritical and self-defeating.
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1) In re: The dolphins. I'm a reporter; if Ivan the Terrible had asked me to go bowling with him, I would have gone bowling with him. And I would have gone para-gliding with Pol Pot, and I would have played mini-golf with Saddam Hussein. Our job as reporters is to get as close as physically possible to our subjects, and try to gain whatever insight we can into their character and behavior. Which brings me to point two:
2) Fidel Castro is not Ivan the Terrible, Pol Pot, or Saddam Hussein. I know that in some circles it is forbidden to argue that Fidel Castro is anything other than the most evil dictator in the history of totalitarianism, but the record simply doesn't support this belief. Of course, Cuba is still a one-party state; its people are not free to express themselves; its jails still hold a fair number of dissidents (though their release is currently being negotiated); and Cuban socialism has driven the country's economy into the ground. I've read the reports of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department on the status of human rights in Cuba, and they present a strikingly unpretty picture. I am also largely unmoved by the argument that the Revolution should be lauded because it provides free health care and education for all Cubans. I personally would gladly trade free health care for political freedom. On the other hand, a close reading of the human rights literature suggests to me that the leadership of Cuba is not morally comparable to the leadership of Zimbabwe, Burma, Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea, Eritrea, Venezuela (!) - the list is almost endless. And I would also point out that China's human rights record, in particular, makes Cuba's look like Norway's.
I also try to judge leaders not only against a Utopian ideal of beneficent leadership, but against the leadership that they actually replaced. This is why I don't get quite as exercised as some people do about the chaos and violence in Iraq over the past seven years. Iraq under Saddam was a charnel house, but a charnel house uncovered by the media and ignored by most liberals. It is intellectually dishonest and morally repugnant to suggest, even through omission, that Iraq was a benign place before the invasion. This is true in the case of Fidel Castro, as well. I judge his revolution against what it replaced, namely, the thugocracy of Batista, who was a friend only to a handful of oligarchs and American mafia leaders. Yes, I am mainly unimpressed with the argument that Castro should be credited for innovations in universal health care and education, but many of the poorest Cubans under Batista (which is to say, most Cubans) appreciated these innovations.
3) About the embargo: My objections to American policy toward Cuba are three-fold. One, as my friend Julia Sweig says, if you do the same thing for fifty years and it doesn't work, maybe you should do something else. The American embargo has failed to restore property rights to many of the Cubans who fled Castro; it has alienated much of Latin America from successive American presidents; it has provided a ready-made way for Castro to explain away his own failures of leadership, and it has provided the Cuban government with an excuse to justify its own anti-democratic policies. And of course, it has failed to remove the Castro brothers from power. The second reason: Hypocrisy. As I pointed out above, Cuba, in my opinion, is a second-tier human rights abuser. We do massive business with all sorts of terrible regimes. We even seek dialogue with the heinous leadership of Iran, in order to advance our interests. Well, we have interests in Cuba, and in Latin America, that are not being advanced because we are stuck in a 50-year-old rut.
The third reason is related to the second: Obsolescence: Cuba is changing. I don't know if you've heard this yet, but the Cuban model doesn't even work for Cuba anymore, which is why its government is experimenting with privatization and other previously taboo economic concepts. Cuba will need help making the transition to a form of regulated capitalism. The European Union is ready to help; Brazil and the rest of Latin America are ready to help; the Chinese are always ready to help if there is money to be made. The U.S., however, has benched itself from this game. The American embargo still matters, but less and less. Soon, it won't matter at all. If we want to have influence in the way Cuba is governed in the 21st century, it would be smart to actually talk to Cuba.
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