Cuba: Fidel Castro’s Record of Repression
Misguided US Embargo Provided Pretext for Abuse
(Washington, DC) – During his nearly five decades of rule in Cuba, Fidel Castro built a repressive system that punished virtually all forms of dissent, a dark legacy that lives on even after his death.
During Castro’s rule, thousands of Cubans were incarcerated in abysmal prisons, thousands more were harassed and intimidated, and entire generations were denied basic political freedoms. Cuba made improvements in health and education, though many of these gains were undermined by extended periods of economic hardship and by repressive policies.
“As other countries in the region turned away from authoritarian rule, only Fidel Castro’s Cuba continued to repress virtually all civil and political rights,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Castro’s draconian rule and the harsh punishments he meted out to dissidents kept his repressive system rooted firmly in place for decades.”
The repression was codified in law and enforced by security forces, groups of civilian sympathizers tied to the state, and a judiciary that lacked independence. Such abusive practices generated a pervasive climate of fear in Cuba, which hindered the exercise of fundamental rights, and pressured Cubans to show their allegiance to the state while discouraging criticism.
Many of the abusive tactics developed during his time in power – including surveillance, beatings, arbitrary detention, and public acts of repudiation – are still used by the Cuban government.
Castro came to power in 1959 after leading a revolution that toppled the corrupt and abusive government of Fulgencio Batista. He ruled by decree until 1976, when a new constitution – whose drafting he oversaw – reformed the structure of the government. From that time until he transferred power to his brother Raúl in July 2006, Fidel Castro held all three of the most powerful positions in Cuba’s government: president of the Council of State, president of the Council of Ministers, and first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. Fidel Castro did not officially relinquish his title as president of the councils of state and ministers until February 2008, and stepped down as first secretary on April 19, 2011.
Cuba made important advances under Castro in the progressive realization of some economic, social, and cultural rights such as education and healthcare. For example, UNESCO has concluded that there is near-universal literacy on the island, and the country either met the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that the UN established in 2000, or came close by the 2015 deadline.
The progress on economic, social, and cultural rights was never matched in terms of respect for civil and political rights. The denial of fundamental freedoms throughout Castro’s decades in power was unrelenting, and marked by periods of heightened repression, such as the 2003 crackdown on 75 human rights defenders, journalists, trade unionists, and other critics of the government. Accused of being “mercenaries” of the United States government, the individuals were summarily tried in closed hearings. Many served years in inhumane prisons, where they were subjected to extended solitary confinement and beatings, and denied basic medical care for serious ailments. More than 50 of the remaining prisoners were released after Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother, most on the condition that they accept exile to Spain.
Under Fidel Castro, the Cuban government refused to recognize the legitimacy of Cuban human rights organizations, alternative political parties, independent labor unions, or a free press. He also denied international monitors such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and international nongovernmental organizations like Human Rights Watch access to the island to investigate human rights conditions.
Efforts by the US government during Castro’s rule to press for change in Cuba repeatedly failed. In the 1960s, those efforts took the form of covert military action to unseat Castro, including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and multiple botched assassination attempts. President Dwight Eisenhower established the embargo in 1960, which was later expanded by President John F Kennedy and eventually locked in place by the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act. Also known as “Helms-Burton,” the law prohibits the US president from lifting trade restrictions until Cuba has legalized political activity and made a commitment to free and fair elections. It also prohibits lifting the embargo as long as Fidel or Raúl Castro remains in office.
The embargo imposed indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban population as a whole, and has done nothing to improve the situation of human rights in Cuba. Rather than isolating Cuba, the policy isolated the US. Castro proved especially adept at using the embargo to garner sympathy abroad, while at the same time exploiting it as a pretext to repress legitimate efforts to reform Cuba from within, dismissing them as US-driven and -funded initiatives.
In December 2014, President Barack Obama began a long-overdue shift in US policy, announcing that the US would normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba and ease restrictions on travel and commerce, calling on Congress to consider lifting the embargo. In exchange, the government of Raúl Castro granted conditional release to the 53 political prisoners that it had been holding for between two months and two years.
Nevertheless, the Orwellian laws that allowed their imprisonment – and the imprisonment of thousands before them – remain on the books, and the Cuban government continues to repress individuals and groups who criticize the government or call for basic human rights. Arbitrary arrests and short-term detention routinely prevent human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others from gathering or moving freely. Detention is often used pre-emptively to prevent people from participating in peaceful marches or political meetings.
The two governments restored diplomatic relations in July 2015. In March, President Obama visited Cuba, where he met with President Raúl Castro, as well as with representatives of Cuban civil society. Obama gave a nationally televised address and joint press conference with Castro in which he urged the Cuban government to lift restrictions on political freedoms and reiterated his call for the US Congress to end the economic embargo of the island.
“For decades, Fidel Castro was the chief beneficiary of a misguided US policy that allowed him to play the victim and discouraged other governments from condemning his repressive policies,” Vivanco said. “While the embargo remains in place, the Obama administration’s policy of engagement has changed the equation, depriving the Cuban government of its main pretext for repressing dissent on the island.”
To Justin Trudeau, Canada’s puerile prime minister, he was a “legendary revolutionary” who “made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.” To Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s Labour Party, he “will be remembered both as an internationalist and a champion of social justice.” To Michael Higgins, president of Ireland, he was a tribune “for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet.”
And for Barack Obama, still president of the United States, he was a “singular figure” whose “enormous impact” would be recorded and judged by history.
Global reaction to Fidel Castro’s death has been instructive. Donald Trump minced no words: “Fidel Castro is dead!” he tweeted delightedly. By contrast, the progressive left hailed the dictator as a liberator for the ages, while conventional liberals treated him as complex character whose 57-year reign was less a testament to his brutal methods than to his charismatic appeal.
Castro “held on to power longer than any other living national leader except Queen Elizabeth II,” noted the New York Times in its obituary. It’s an intriguing comparison—except that one of those leaders shot pheasants, while the other shot peasants.
For a different view of Castro’s legacy I turned to José Daniel Ferrer. The 46-year-old leads the Cuban Patriotic Union, one of the island’s largest dissident organizations, which he founded after spending eight years in Castro’s prisons, including a stint in Cuba’s own maximum security prisió n provincial in Guantanamo. He spurned a government offer to exile him to Spain after his 2011 release, and since then he has led a dangerous battle against a regime determined to neutralize him. Václav Havel is one of his moral and political inspirations.
When I first met Mr. Ferrer in person in May, he spent much of the time detailing Cuban prison conditions. Wardens in lower-security prisons use inmates as de facto slave laborers in agriculture or construction gangs. Inmates in maximum-security prisons are stuffed into tiny cells and allowed an hour of sunlight a day. Political prisoners “face constant terrors,” including threats to their families. Beatings and torture are routine. “A prisoner has a bad molar. He complains. He gets beaten up. No medical attention.”
As for the Cuban Guantanamo, I asked Mr. Ferrer how he thought it compared with its better-known counterpart at the nearby U.S. naval station. He dismissed the American Gitmo as un jardín de niños—a kindergarten—next to its Cuban sibling.
On Sunday I followed up with Mr. Ferrer via email. He seems almost amused by the hosannas being showered on his former jailer by the West’s self-styled human-rights champions. “I’d just remind them they aren’t the first democratic leaders to eulogize a tyrant,” he writes, recalling progressive tears for Stalin and Mao. “Oppression, prison, misery and continuous exile was what Castroism brought us. I’m sure neither Corbyn nor Trudeau would ever want a ‘champion’ like Fidel Castro to lead their own people.”
Mr. Ferrer adds that the regime has shown no signs of letting up its repression, never mind Mr. Obama’s diplomatic opening. Ten of his organization’s regional directors have been jailed in the past six months. Fellow activists have grown accustomed to having their homes robbed and their equipment stolen.
“Raúl Castro is going to augment the controls and the repression, for fear of his brother’s absence as the central symbol of tyranny,” he predicts. “Raúl will continue to delay the process of opening up the economy, and the misery will continue.”
That view contradicts the optimistic belief that “modernizers” in the regime will move fast to relax government controls now that Fidel is gone. Like the Kims of North Korea, the Castro family is in the business of staying in power. It won’t tolerate an economic opening that undermines its political grip.
Still, Mr. Ferrer ticks off a list of factors—Fidel’s death, a restive population, an increasingly well-organized dissident movement, economic chaos in Venezuela, the collapse of left-wing governments in Argentina and Brazil—that have left the regime acutely susceptible to external pressure. His advice to President-elect Donald Trump, who on Monday threatened to “terminate the deal” the Obama administration struck with Cuba: Don’t tear it all up, but watch Raúl very closely.
“If [Mr. Castro] takes steps toward reform, encourage them,” he advises. “If he tries to maintain the status quo and foreclose real reform, condemn the dictatorship firmly and take steps so that the regime is made to feel that bad behavior has consequences.
It says something about the degraded state of Western politics that Mr. Castro’s life can still be celebrated by supposedly respectable political figures, while Mr. Ferrer remains a political unknown beyond a tiny group of Cuba watchers. It says something, too, that respectable opinion thinks of Gitmo as the ultimate symbol of moral barbarity, while it remains indifferent to the real hell next door. It’s that indifference that will have to change, if change is ever to come to Cuba.
. It makes me crazy when Trudeau is criticised
It makes me crazy when Trudeau is criticised for speaking the truth about Fidel, while at the same time the Western Governments remain in bed with the Saudi Arabians...
I don't recall the *evil* Castro waging war on anybody's nation, either covertly, or otherwise.
Moderate dissident Miriam Leyva said the death of Fidel Castro could herald the passing of a hardline sector of the old guard.
"I think there is an opportunity here to open up this society even more and progress more quickly with reforms," she told AFP.
Since officially taking over as full president in 2008, Raul Castro has been working discreetly to "de-Fidelize" the leadership, said one Western diplomat who lived for years in Havana.
"He has spent his whole life playing the role of the regime hardliner," said the diplomat, who asked not to be named.
"But in fact, he has long been making an effort to bring about pragmatic developments, against the ideologues whom Fidel relied on."