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Thornberry defends Corbyn over praise for Castro's 'heroism'

Published 27/11/2016

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro who has died aged 90
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro who has died aged 90
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry appears on The Andrew Marr Show (BBC/PA)

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry has said it is "quite difficult" to get past allegations of brutality made against Fidel Castro after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn praised the revolutionary leader for his "heroism".

Nine days of national mourning have been declared in Cuba after Castro's death at the age of 90.

Mr Corbyn said that "for all his flaws" Castro would be remembered as a "champion of social justice".

But his statement prompted widespread outcry as critics highlighted the Castro regime's human rights abuses and its lack of democratic accountability.

Mrs Thornberry told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show that Mr Corbyn had "tried to put forward both sides".

She said: "I think that Castro was a hugely divisive figure and I think that it's quite difficult to get beyond the human rights abuses.

"But my own experience, I went to Cuba in the early 1990s when there was great economic difficulties in that country and I found a country that was egalitarian with a fantastic health service, I had my baby with me, we had to go off and see the doctor and we were really struck by it."

She continued: "It came at a price but it was, in my view, a brave island that stood against a regime that for 50 years would not trade with it and would not let other countries trade with it too.

"Not only did they stand firm and strong they also exported their values across South America and into Africa, producing doctors and nurses and teachers."

She also said she recognised the Castro regime had a dark side.

"I acknowledge that but all I am saying is that from my experience, my experience was visiting a country that was at the time they didn't have enough petrol to be able to drive cars, they were going around on bicycles on the May Day parade," she said.

"But nevertheless there were not people starving and they still had an excellent health and education service.

"I'm not saying any more than that. But it was an enormous achievement for a little Caribbean island."

She added: "I think that Jeremy tried to put forward both sides and I think that it does depend which bit you are quoted on, doesn't it?"

Castro's death was announced on Friday evening by his brother and successor Raul.

His ashes are due to be taken across Cuba from the capital Havana to the city of Santiago along the route taken by his rebel army when he swept to power.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell told the Murnaghan programme on Sky News that revolutionary Cuba was a "beacon of hope".

He said: "There are many flaws in the Cuban regime and many criticisms that many people made including ourselves but for my generation if you look back on this, the immense achievement of the Cuban revolution, this was a country that was controlled by effectively a kleptocrat where there was extremes of wealth and poverty, no education, no health service and the land controlled by landlords while peasants literally starved.

"The revolution took place and it redistributed wealth and the land, it introduced an education service and a health service which was second to none in the world in some instances."

He added: "It was a beacon of hope for many people but, yes of course there were flaws, and you cannot but criticise those - but again in the face of the blockades and the opposition from the US the achievements of the Cuban revolution have to be admired particularly with regard to education, health and redistribution of wealth."

Mr McDonnell also said that "history will judge that this was a force for good".

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