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Daniel Thwaites | Reinventing Fidel Castro

Published:Sunday | December 4, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Comrade Fidel has shuffled off the mortal combat gear, causing a brief resurgence of interest in his ideology. As a friend has helpfully pointed out, "With Fidel, it's either love or hate." That's a shame, as excess emotion isn't quite the friend of dispassionate analysis.

I think Fidel excites extreme reactions in part because his great nemesis, the USA, does as well. The volatile combination leads to unique toxicity, so that every action of his is excusable to some, and no good he accomplished will ever be acknowledged by others.

While growing up, though it was never quite explained in as many words, I was somehow expected to revere him as the archetypal romantic Caribbean revolutionary, boldly going where we shoulda woulda coulda also go, if only things were running right.

Latterly, I have come to feel that defiance, although a deeply satisfying indulgence, is no virtue in its own right, except perhaps for adolescents. But being Fidel's signature, he will long be the romantic hero of those who prize sauciness more than bread.

Even in death, he has utterly balkanised opinion unlike anyone, save and except perhaps for the incoming US president, who the trumpenproletariat have voted in, even after he promised to seize the means of reproduction.

Upon seizing power, Castro enacted broadly popular moderate reforms. But it wasn't long before he exhibited a thirst for punishing rivals, harshly. He taught the illiterate and trained up doctors with Soviet funding. But he shut down the church schools and persecuted the religious.

Famously he resisted Yankee imperialism. But only to become, essentially, a fully paid-up Soviet colony. John Kennedy is no hero, and in my estimation is responsible for the inappropriately named 'Cuban missile crisis'. But Castro was ready to risk atomic war. Thank God for Khrushchev, the adult on that dangerous playground.

He dispersed medical staff worldwide, but the pay was sent to the Cuban government, and the actual doctors got a fraction of it. Don't think of this in the abstract; rather, ask yourself if you would like your Government to post you abroad, then confiscate your pay? There's an unflattering term for that. Let's just say that the world has all kinds of plantations.

So by way of contrarian shorthand, I offer the following: to treat the incensed revolutionary who ousted a corrupt and wicked regime with the same contempt as the later tyrant leader of a corrupt and wicked regime is to self-lobotomise. And vice versa: To treat the tyrant with the respect, perhaps reverence, because of the due to the revolutionary, is romantic slackness.

Can one maintain, without blatant contradiction, that it was wise for Comrade Manley to evolve with the times and lay aside the hardcore socialism, but also maintain that Comrade Fidel's failure to do the same, is a thing of integrity? I don't think so.

Anyway, I've often thought that the history of Caribbean communism could be usefully written through the prism of misapplied Jesuit/Catholic education, with its injunction to "set to the world on fire". One would immediately capture the likes of Fidel and Raul in Cuba, Trevor, Barry, Horace, and Peter in Jamaica, Bishop in Grenada, and many others in the cast of characters.

The priests failed to impart, I speculate, the key lesson that even justice - the queen of the virtues - is terrible in its application if sought to the exclusion of all the other virtues. But that takes us far afield, and into waters deeper than that which drowned Elian Gonzalez's fleeing mom.

Jesuitical reasoning aside, intellectuals have loved Comrade Castro's rule, though few have chosen to live under it. And although I mean that as a criticism, the further scandal is that I'm speaking about good men and women, more deluded than devilish.

This is a conversation I have been having for years with friends and mentors who know way more than I. Consider John Maxwell, a man who I admired tremendously. On this same Cuba issue, John once related to me a story about almost being collared by one of Fidel's Committees for the Defence of the Revolution for merely taking pictures while walking around Havana one day. He wasn't unduly alarmed by that.

I had drawn to John's attention my inability to understand how he could rail against Seaga for purging JBC, but have praise for Fidel who locked up his opposition and sometimes put them in front of firing squads. To me, getting killed is a bit worse than getting fired.

It is either true, or not true, that freedom of speech and association, freedom of the press, and freedom of citizens to criticise their rulers are worth having. The wrinkle, I accept, is there are different kinds of people in the world, from jihadists and Confucians to traditionalists of various sorts that may have no use for certain freedoms, but my interactions with Cubans tell me that deprivations of liberty are keenly felt.

Further to intellectual gymnastics, I recently came across the view of former Education Minister Comrade Thwaites, who writes of Fidel:

Those of contrarian views, like this writer, would probably not have survived under his regime. But his commitment to effective education and health care in Cuba, as well as his support for anti-imperialism and against minority rule internationally, were measures of his greatness.

No bredrin! It's far too efficient a piece of mental acrobatics to praise a regime you admit would likely have killed you. Health and education, while worthy, aren't much use when you're dead.

Shall we be plain? Fidel dealt harshly with sandal-footed Jesus freaks. They rotted away in dank prison, or, if luckier, were dispatched by one of Che's henchmen.

Similarly, as you might imagine, I was quite looking forward to former Comrade Trevor Munroe's obituary to 'El Jeffe'. Sadly, again I was disappointed.

Trevor gave us, in The Gleaner, a reflection in his "professional and personal capacity as a political scientist and as a Jamaican", when what I wanted was a reflection in his capacity as a politician, former communist, and former leader of the Workers Party of Jamaica.

Anything less is taking the easy path and ducking the hard questions. Tell us, Trevor, about the God that failed, and the secular utopias that turned out to be nightmares. What, if anything, did we learn?

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.