Fidel Castro, infamous revolutionary and symbol of Cuban Communism, died at the age of 90 just two days ago.
In Miami, Cuban-Americans poured into the streets of Little Havana in celebration. The five blue and white stripes of the Cuban flag fluttered everywhere next to the 13 red and white American ones as people hugged, cheered, and banged pots and pans together in a joyous cacophony.
Ninety miles south in the other Havana, Cubans wept and expressed sorrow for their fallen comrade. Nine days of mourning were declared by the Cuban government. Although an aging Fidel had conceded power to his (only slightly) younger brother Raul in 2006, he remained a powerful symbol of the Cuban Revolution against the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and even as he neared his last day, continued to be a vocal spokesman for the communist cause.
Communist Cuba is, in some ways, ahead of its counterparts around Latin America. The Cuban people are well-educated and generally live long, healthy lives due to the system in place. Cuban doctors are world-renowned for their administration of healthcare.
However, these advances that occurred under communism came at serious prices. Cubans living on the island have extremely limited access to information. Freedom of speech and of the press is non-existent. For fifty-plus years, Cubans have been trying to move to other countries, particularly the United States. Miami is jokingly nicknamed “North Havana” because of the huge and vibrant Cuban community there. While Cubans don’t starve in the streets of Havana, most are forced to live spartan lifestyles, making tiny wages that if not for the communist system, would plunge them into squalor and poverty. Opportunities for advancement on the island are sparse. Repression has remained brutal and unforgiving.
World leaders reacted from all sides of the spectrum. U.S. President Barack Obama and President-Elect Donald Trump both expressed a hope for Cuba to move forward, and Trump was blunt (though not wrong) in describing Castro as a bloodthirsty leader.
A confusing reaction, however, came from north of the United States. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, according to public broadcaster CBC, expressed “deep sorrow” upon hearing about Castro’s death and called Castro a “legendary revolutionary and orator”who his father, the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, “was very proud to call a friend”.
Trudeau’s comments came as a shock and a sharp contrast to other Canadian politicians. They were quickly criticized by opposition Members of Parliament in Canada’s Conservative Party, and Tom Mulcair, the head of the New Democratic Party, had a much more subdued reaction to the news.
Ironically, Mulcair’s NDP is typically farther to the left on economic issues than Trudeau’s Liberals, which only made Trudeau’s remarks more confusing.
Canada, like the United States, has long been an example of democratic success, and for Canada’s head of government to praise the exact opposite of that tradition is unnerving.
Prime Minister Trudeau has yet to comment on the mounting criticism of his remarks, and it isn’t really known whether this was a poorly thought out remark or an honest opinion. If he does truly hold serious admiration for Fidel Castro, however, he is continuing a worrying trend evident on both the left and the right in the free world, the admiration of strongman, authoritarian leaders and their legacies. It especially comes across as ironic considering Trudeau’s very outspoken support of social justice movements such as feminism and public appearances at LGBT Pride events in Canada as LGBT individuals in Cuba were brutally persecuted by the Communists.
President-Elect Donald Trump drew sharp and deserved criticism for similar remarks. He has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, the late Saddam Hussein, and the late Muammar Gaddafi. According to Trump, Putin’s leadership dwarfs Barack Obama, Saddam Hussein was good at stamping out Islamic fundamentalism, and Muammar Gaddafi should not have been deposed by the NATO coalition that aided Libyan rebels in the Libyan revolution of 2011.
Now, President-elect Trump is not completely off base in his remarks on Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi if they are taken by themselves. After Gaddafi’s death, Libya has been stuck in a brutal and confusing civil war between Islamists, various factions of transitional leaders, desert tribes, and lingering loyalists. However, in the grander scheme of things, there are serious problems with his views on these heads of state. While it’s true that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism rarely manifested themselves in Saddam’s Ba’athist Iraq, different and equally grave sins were committed. Iraq’s Kurdish minority, who make up nearly a third of the country and most of the northern provinces, were butchered and gassed in the Al-Anfal Genocide and the Halabja chemical disaster. Hussein also started a war against the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1980 which accomplished nothing and killed hundreds of thousands, a war where the United States assisted Iraq. Hussein also oppressed the Shi’a Muslim community in Iraq.
And for all Putin’s “strong leadership”, the Russian economy has slumped into a serious recession due to sanctions, low oil prices, and military adventures engineered by the Kremlin in Ukraine and Syria. The Donbas remains a not-quite-frozen stalemate where Ukrainians and Russians, brother Slavs, die nearly every day. Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army is exhausted even with Russian support. Much of this “strong leadership” comes from a token opposition in the Duma made up of grey-haired Communists, absurd ultranationalists led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the democratic opposition’s utter failure to resonate with the Russian people at large.
It’s true that comparing Putin to Fidel and Raul Castro is probably unwise. Putin does not employ even close to the same levels of censorship and repression that the Castros do, but it remains that both Prime Minister Trudeau’s lionization of Castro and Trump’s praise of Putin and others is deserving of heavy criticism.
Various Latin American left-wing organizations are also speaking wistfully about Fidel. There’s a little more concrete reason for this considering the United States’ hypocritical and undemocratic actions in Latin American countries such as Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and so forth. At the same time, there’s a startling blind eye turned towards the basket case socialist Venezuela has become. Venezuela’s Chavistas were vocal allies of the Castros in Cuba, and when oil was selling for over US$100 per barrel, their policies looked sound if not entirely democratic. As soon as oil became cheap, however, the Venezuelan economy tanked and the country descended into near-anarchy, a phenomenon many Latin American leftists have remained silent on.
For our own sakes, the countries of the Americas must look towards their inspirational figures with a more honest and objective eye. It is possible to criticize American foreign policy in Latin America and also be aware of the repression that continues in Cuba, and it is possible to criticize things such as the EU’s handling of the Refugee Crisis without defecting to the Kremlin as a role model.