Returning to Castro

Luke Warner is the co-Director of Communications for King’s Politics. He is a third year history student at King’s with an interest in elections, international relations, and the topic of social policy in political debate. In the following article, he responds to the rebuttal provided by Tom Owolade to his earlier piece on King’s Debates.


I’m not only delighted that Tom Owolade’s article marks the first venture of King’s Debates outside the Cambridge bubble but also that it is the first published response to a piece we have hosted. Our hope with this project is to expand stimulating debate widely through interaction – I want to want to extend a warm thanks to Tom for helping us do this. Not least it means a lot that an old friend from many years ago should take the time to engage to liven up what has, within the media, been a rather stale exchange of platitudes.

The rebuttal is a welcome change from much of the coverage of Castro’s death, not least because it actually attempts to use quantitative data to tackle the claims made by apologists along with a very justified moral argument. Plainly, if a regime states that its desire is to create equality and yet allows its leaders to amass fortunes through patron-client relations, it is at best inept and at worst dishonest. That said, a valid argument on Cuba requires not a cherry-picking of evidence or oversimplification but the evaluation of the regime on its own terms as well as within its context. The aim of my article was essentially to bring together what I consider to be the most interesting and salient points on the Castro debate; the aim of this one is to set right some of the slightly misleading claims made in the response.

Tom posits three core points: first, living standards were relatively acceptable in 1950s Cuba; second, little improved under Castro which could otherwise have been achieved under a moderate ideology; third, praise for the regime comes from a category of middle-class, left-wing students or out-of-touch politicians.

On the last point, it is hard to argue – much of the debate in the UK and America has indeed been dominated by highly selective accounts from stereotypical ‘liberal left’ politicos with little regard for truth. I remember one particularly amusing argument I had with an unreconstructed Marxist who asserted that, because Cuba holds official elections, it is as democratic as Britain. To some in this debate as so many more broadly in the political arena, reality is little more than a useful tool for certain circumstances and an irrelevance to others. Be under no illusions: Castro was a dictator.

On the earlier two points, however, there are a few things to be said. Tom writes:

“Cuba was an impressive country in the 1950s in terms of the very same metrics often used to praise Castro […] The impression that Cuba in the 1950s was a backward country in terms of the metrics often used to praise Castro is thus highly disingenuous.”

He asserts – quite rightly – that one should consider the same categories often considered when describing Castro’s successes. Regardless, I do have a few issues, namely on statistics such as ‘doctors per capita’ and ‘consumption of meat and fruits’, both of which being misleading, as well as the reference to citizens’ rights.

As with many methods used to study medical development, it is difficult to get a particularly accurate picture of the exact situation from a statistic like doctors per capita. This is because the definition of ‘doctor’ in such measures (especially when referring to the past) is often highly varied and inclusive in nature; it could include university junior clinicians, hospital consultants, dentists, nurses, or, as the concerned statistic in the case of Cuba would incorporate, a village herbal apothecary. When we talk about doctor per capita today we consider this and define doctor in more rigid terms: in other words, Tom ignores Castro’s professionalisation and standardisation of healthcare, providing it with a greater share of GDP (up to 12% of GDP) by the end of his tenure. There was a very rational explanation for why Cuba’s life expectancy grew so greatly by both regional and worldwide standards after 1959.

Similarly, meat and fruit consumption statistics are also misleading: I would speculate that this type of consumption in the regional was, by western standards, poor. If we argue that Cuba fared worse in this regard under Castro at the same time as capitalist states enjoyed higher consumption, we need also to consider both why this is the case and who this affected. Access to food and meat are still today certainly limited but, as with the other shortages in the economy, this can largely be attributed to the US embargo. The prohibition of trade with Cuba has meant that procuring basic foodstuffs alongside other goods has been difficult for the country, yet, despite these conditions, Cuba has impressively staved off child malnutrition. Notable also are the high levels of equality regarding access unlike similarly impoverished states where divisions in nourishment are starker. While consumption was negatively affected by the political developments under Castro’s regime, to assert that this was entirely down to the ideology of the state, its ineptitude, or its ill will is fundamentally dishonest.

Of course, one can blame the embargo on the Cuban regime’s unwillingness to comply with western standards for how to treat its people. The US openly claims that it opposes what it considers to be a hostile dictatorship through a system of sanctions as part of a scheme of liberal intervention. The underlying hypocrisy of such claims aside (where are the sanctions on Gulf states, for instance?), this segues onto Tom’s final point mentioned above. For, democratic issues aside, he tells us:

workers had one-month paid holiday, eight-hour workdays, and women were entitled to six-weeks leave before and after childbirth.”

As appealing such evidence appears to be to the Castro critic narrating a story of decline , it ignores historical reality – at least from 1952-onwards.

It is true that the Prío government enacted social reforms which implemented such changes and was renowned for upholding constitutional rights to a greater extent than other geographic neighbours, such as punishing 45 enterprises for breaking regulations from 1949-1951. But, in 1952, Fulgencio Batista ushered in a new era of kleptocracy following his coup d’état.

What followed were seven years where the Cuban state systematically unwound the very policies Tom highlights. Batista immediately released four major companies seized for breaking workers’ rights and refused to involve the state in any significant labour disputes at least for the next three years. Moreover, the regime promptly implemented a barrage of free-market reforms to strengthen the position of (mostly American) businesses: tax exemptions were introduced, as well as the abolition of custom duties, taxes on imported industrial machinery, consular taxes, profit taxes, and other punitive financial obligations. Foreign and state investment in Cuba rose in the 1950s but where this money went and its side effects are entirely unrepresented in Tom’s account. ‘Alien’ investors – many of whom were notorious American mob families – pocketed the benefits as tourism (including the kind of despicable ‘sex tourism’ Tom highlights that is ongoing) exploded and the economic arrangements meant that goods and services were provided at extortionately low rates because employers were unpunished for abusing labour rights.

The Batista state demonstrated that legal and constitutional rights can easily be ignored and actively undermined by an over-powerful state. It also showed that, when one US businessman claimed that “all you needed was to find a way to get a phone call into Batista and he could fix it”, experience of unbridled Cuban capitalism was far from idyllic.

But that is not necessarily the point. Rather, it is that we are told that Castro was just as bad or comparable to his predecessor. Many of the benefits enjoyed under his regime, we are told, were in existence before, even if reality did not align with the official story. Critics often (rightly) attack Communist Cuba’s record on LGBT rights and workers’ conditions, but this belies the true complexity at the heart of the regime. As mentioned above, Cuba is a poor country both by regional and world standards, ranking 137th worldwide for GDP per capita. This lack of economic capacity prevents the regime from fully pursuing its social and economic policy aims; it simply cannot afford to do so. As an economic model, the state is clearly flawed and it is hard to imagine how people can deny this, but to claim the government simply does not care about inequality is to ignore its genuine belief in a specific socialist ideology.

On LGBT rights, Castro is complicated. Legislation in 1939 forbade homosexual relations in line with regional norms; as morally objectionable as this is, it is important to note that to many Latin American cultures, such homophobic policies are more acceptable than in Europe or North America. But it is also wrong to forget that Cuba also took steps to remedy this: from 1975, limits on the employment of homosexual individuals were lifted and, four years later, homosexual private relations were legalised. It took until as late as 1987 to remove all laws on homosexual acts from the penal code and release those incarcerated under this clause, but it is also important to note that the state had been implementing non-legislative approaches to encouraging tolerance, such as in 1975 creating a commission for the study of homosexuality while in 1981 publishing through the Ministry of Culture the pro-LGBT Are you beginning to think about love. Of course, this is not good enough. For a regime claiming to be egalitarian, it is profoundly unfair that it continued the homophobic and transphobic policies it inherited, but to suppose this is either unique to Cuba or to ignore that the government was highly ambitious in overturning social prejudices is wrong.

The overriding implication of Tom’s well-argued and reasoned response is that Communism was not necessary for positive aspects to Cuba and instead it caused more harm than good. It is hard to argue other than to posit that Communism won for a reason. Castro did not emerge spontaneously in a bubble, but inside an environment where there was a clear divergence between official rhetoric of legal rights and the reality of mounting exploitation of state violence and powers. There is little reason to ignore their conscious attempts to address gender inequality in the same way that we should not forget their failures in other areas.

Castro deserves both credit and criticism: he was violent against opponents and upheld for a long time discriminatory laws which preceded his tenure, but did attempt to address this alongside many other social ills which plagued Cuba.

To blame him alone for his failures or to reduce his record to them alone is equally as senseless as to turn a blind eye to them.


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