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Cuba and Castro: Liberation, Oppression and Socialist Ideals

It's been two years since I have written a post because I write when I have something I need to say and not to keep the blog gods happy. So today, I decided to comment on the death of Fidel Castro from a policy perspective. 

Why Comment
I am inspired to write on Cuba and Castro because as a young Jamaican girl on the island during the 1970's, Castro had a featuring role. In many ways he was the reason my parents left Jamaica. During the worldwide recession due to the oil crisis in the 1970's, Jamaica was led by Michael Manley - a friend to Castro who loved democracy but wanted the social gains of Cuba. Cuban doctors came to Jamaica. Cubans built schools including Jose Martí Technical High School in Spanish Town. Manley nationalized hotels and my family could afford a nice holiday at a hotel for the first time. Prior to that, tourism catered to whites from abroad, not the brown people of the island. 

Manley also nationalized other industries and promoted education with a liberation theme and an Afrocentric focus. I learned about liberation movements all over the world from Angola to the Mau Maus and the Irish Republicans. I studied the kingdoms of Kush and Sumeria. I performed for Julius Nyrere on his state visit. 

Of course, the USA was not happy about the 'encroachment' of Cuban ideals on their neighbor to the south and they reacted as they would to all socialist-leaning governments in the Caribbean and the Americas. (Though there were rumors of CIA-backed interventions, there was no confirmation from the USA nor was there denial). Violence broke out in the streets, states of emergency were declared and Bob Marley performed his peace concert. In search of loans for Jamaica, Manley was asked to pay Jamaica's firstborns in interest so he was happy to get help from Castro. Michael Manley told the nation that if they didn't like the new Jamaica they could take one of the five daily flights to Miami. Though I come from a family of lefties that include Jamaican politicians, my parents reacted to the political instability by leaving with the very few dollars with which we were allowed to leave (due to devaluation and a desperate need for US dollars). We didn't go to Miami like a couple of my mom's siblings, but late in December 1977, we ended up in Ottawa with one of my mom's sisters. We never returned to Jamaica to live as a family but my parents retired there soon after 9/11 in 2001.

Social Equality and The Protection of Rights
I have always been a bit of a socialist. I like the idea of government owning key resources for the benefit of all. I like collectivism. I like the idea of providing free education and healthcare. I like the idea of equality. I like the idea of everyone having food in their bellies. 

But coming from an island (and family) of wanderers and big mouths that freely spew and are passionate about political debate, the concepts of freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and freedom of political choice are also near and dear to my heart. I hover between being agnostic and atheist but I also believe in the right to worship as one pleases.

have yet to read any political, philosophical, theological, or moral proposition that would argue that the cost of health, education and food be the surrender of the right to speak, the right to move, the right to worship, and the right to choose a leader. (Being forced to listen to 5-hr speeches is a mere annoyance). What I love about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - which I consider the most significant and powerful policy statement ever written on the global stage - is that it doesn't force a choice between rights, nor are the rights conditional. Surrendering one for another is somewhat of a Solomonic choice.

Resistance Abroad But Not At Home
Castro put to good use the cash, wheat, arms and technology from the USSR, but he also chose the path of narcissism and despotism for which they are also known. Being held hostage in paradise for social benefits is quite the dilemma. And benevolent dictators are dictators nonetheless. As the successful leader of a resistance movement, he supported resistance abroad - with soldiers and weapons backed with Soviet cash - and yet he squashed it at home. He ironically portrayed his oppression of Cubans as the cost of liberation, and a blameless consequence of being caught in the middle of the Cold War.

My Experience of Cuba
I've lived in two countries under leaders who considered him friend - Pierre Trudeau in Canada and Michael Manley in Jamaica, and I've lived in the USA for more than two decades. I also visited Cuba in 1991 (as a Canadian tourist with no restrictions) when tourism just opened up. (A really cheap spring break from McGill on a smelly Russian plane from Montreal). So I've seen Cuba and I've been exposed to very contrasting and polarized views of Castro and what he and the people of Cuba represent. My experience - as one half of an interracial couple when I visited - was that racial equality wasn't what it was portrayed to be. People found an interracial couple so novel that we were fawned over, and it clearly wasn't something they saw very often. In our 10-day stay we didn't see any others. We also saw that there was a segregation related to roles in society. People seemed to be equally poor, but healthy, literate and fed. (It was interesting to note that at that time you could only use USD but all the beer was Canadian). Military presence was strong and though we could wander without 'supervision' and did so throughout Havana, Playa del Este, where we stayed, and along the northern coast, there were places we did not venture because the AK-carrying armed forces made us think twice. 

My then bf was befriended by a member of the national baseball team he met while out for a run and they hit and caught balls on a nearby field. One night we had an interesting - and really scary - talk with him about his desire to defect to Canada, when a plane the team was to take to the Netherlands landed in Canada for refuelling. (That conversation had me sooo paranoid and it took a while for me to trust my Spanish that it was really what he was saying). He gave my boyfriend a parting gift of a baseball jersey signed by the national team. 

Rebels and Freedom Fighters, Despots and Dictators
So though I am somewhat of a pinko, the glasses through which I view Fidel and Cuba are far from rose-colored. I have a love for rebels and freedom fighters but I have disdain for dictators and despots. Thus despite acknowledging that the social goals of literacy, public health and equality that Castro achieved in Cuba are a shining example of what is possible when states commit to them, I cannot deny that the accompanying suppression of rights did not seem to be a necessary requirement and tainted what could have been a real socialist ideal. 


  1. At a corner’s inquest following that tragic death, Nurse Brenda Hooper testified . h&s london

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