Fidel Castro was hero to many, but Left cannot simply brush over his ruthless reign
The Cuban dictator's death has underlined how he was worshipped and hated in equal measure, says Alban Maginness.
The debate on Fidel Castro continues to rage between those who see him as a political hero and those who see him as a vicious dictator. On the Left in Ireland, as in Britain, some have virtually canonised him as a political saint. Jeremy Corbyn eulogised him as a hero and Irish President Michael D Higgins, with inappropriate hyperbole, called him "a giant among global leaders".
Generally speaking, it is hard for people in the West, in particular in the USA and Britain, to understand the genuine and deep-rooted popularity of Castro in the Third World, especially in Latin America. There is no doubt that Castro was a towering and defining figure in the politics of Latin America. The reason for this was his successful defiance of the mighty United States of America, who very arrogantly treated Latin America with either indifference or contempt.
The USA for decades failed to assist its southern cousins either economically or politically. With its vast economic might, it exploited the economic weakness of South America and asserted an unhealthy military and political dominance over the sub continent. Incredibly, the US actively helped to sustain the many rotten dictatorships in Latin America, instead of advancing the cause of democracy. This was particularly true in Central America, which the US contemptuously treated as its own back yard.
Cuba had been for a long time the playground of the American rich and was left to its own decadent devices so long as it didn't affect US strategic interests. When Castro overthrew the corrupt dictator Batista he was applauded and was thought to be establishing a new democratic Cuba. It was a popular revolution, which for a time boded well for the Cuban people.
Sadly, despite expectations, Castro did not deliver a free and democratic Cuba. Nonetheless, he did restore the dignity and national independence of Cuba, as a self-respecting, independent country.
Castro was, above all, a great nationalist leader, and that is what distinguished him in Latin America. This was not simply a popular revolution against a tin pot dictator, but a great nationalist revolution. He gave back to the people of Cuba and Latin America their pride and self-respect. The US economic blockade of Cuba was a vengeful response that was counterproductive and, ironically, served to bolster Castro and gave justification to his regime.
He stood up to the USA and skilfully outwitted it using the Soviets. Castro was seen as victorious over the imperialist 'gringos' of North America, who had shamefully mistreated their southern neighbours. It was this that inspired the people of Latin America.
But, as the record shows, he became a tyrant, a somewhat daring and charismatic one, but still a 'Caudillo' in the ugly tradition of Latin America.
People weren't too concerned with his strange Communist ideology, but rather fascinated by his capacity to stand up to and diminish the American behemoth. He was seen as David outfoxing the American Goliath.
However, the generality of his popular appeal in Latin America should not be used to disguise the highly structured totalitarian regime that he built. It was a classic Stalinist system based on the dictatorship of the Communist Party with Castro permanently at its head. Free elections were not allowed, although they had been promised. No free Press was permitted. Free trade unions were banned. Religion was suppressed and gays were persecuted.
Many executions took place and thousands were imprisoned for political reasons.
While the initial bloody excesses in the heat of the post-revolutionary period in 1959 may be excused, the continued imprisonment of political opponents and executions over five decades cannot be excused.
Even if one were to forget the first four decades of Castro's communist dictatorship, the abuses of human rights continued steadily until the 2000s.
Amnesty International's Colum O'Gorman has bluntly stated that: "…some people seemed to want to ignore Castro's horrific and monstrous abuse of civilian and political rights for some 50 years. Any suggestion that Castro's delivery on social rights balances out his appalling violations of civilian and political rights is also nonsense."
Even as late as 2003 there took place what is known as the 'Black Spring'. This was the brutal suppression of a dissident political movement of human rights activists and intellectuals. Seventy-five dissidents were arrested and put on trial for various political activities. They were all convicted after brief trials and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. Many were adopted by Amnesty as prisoners of conscience.
Sadly, Castro's crackdown was ultimately successful and since then little change has taken place. The regime still remains totalitarian and we need to honestly and truthfully acknowledge that fact, dismissing all the silly romantic notions about Castro and his revolution.