By Dr David Laing Dawson
Fidel Castro’s death is being mourned in Cuba, celebrated in Miami. Justin Trudeau is being chastised for his praise of Castro. Putin says Castro was a friend. Trump calls him a brutal dictator and he wants to reset the American/Cuban relationship back to 1962.
It is important we remember the history that gave us the man Fidel Castro, be he hero or villain, or a bit of both.
Here is that history in much abridged form:
Cuba was a colony of Spain until 1898. There had been uprisings against colonial rule before but this time America joined in after the war-mongering of the Hearst papers and the mysterious sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor.
At the Paris treaty (1898) the US paid Spain 20 million dollars for Cuba and the Philippines (400 million in today’s dollars). Cuba became a US colony until 1902. It achieved independence in 1902 but never full and complete independence because the Americans retained veto power over every decision the Cuban government made, the option of military intervention, and, of course, the military base of Guantanamo Bay.
Over the next 50 years Cuba remained feudal in its organization, this time with American landlords and plantation owners. It was transformed into a single crop (not counting tobacco) farming economy depending almost entirely on exports of sugar to the US. American business controlled this one cash crop and American criminals (the mafia) controlled the nightlife in Havana, a playground for the rich and famous. The Cubans themselves, well, they remained poor, without access to education, health care, or stable housing. At least 40 percent were illiterate. The men worked in the fields, the women in the service industries. Batista was the dictator in charge following a military coup in 1952. He was propped up by American politicians, with ties to American business and the Mob. Arthur Miller described Cuba under Batista as “hopelessly corrupt, a Mafia playground, a bordello for Americans and other foreigners.”
Batista was brutal, using torture and executions; he had investments in Florida, greatly enriched himself and his friends before fleeing to the Dominican Republic to join his friend and fellow dictator, Trujillo, as Castro’s small band of revolutionaries approached in 1959.
Peoples, socialist, communist revolutions and insurgencies have occurred throughout Central and South America. Each in response to brutal dictatorships, corruption and poverty. The United States and notably the CIA have managed to undermine, thwart, defeat them all with the exception of Fidel’s revolution in Cuba. Many of these other states returned to military rule, or dictatorships, or seesawed between these and nascent democracies. For some the insurrections have continued for years. On at least two occasions the Americans have overthrown democratically elected governments with socialist leanings to return countries to brutal dictatorships. And they murdered Che Guevera, and another physician trying to redistribute wealth and make education and health care available to all, Salvador Allende.
Today the homicide rate in El Salvador is over 100 per 100,000 people. The same in Guatemala and the Honduras. To put that in perspective that would be over 34,000 murders per year in Canada.
The prison population in Cuba is about 500 per 100,000. In the US it is 700 per 100,000. Canada about 100 per 100,000, The Netherlands, about 50 per 100,000.
The USA tried to undermine and stop the Cuban Revolution many times, notably with the invasion at the Bay of Pigs, and failed.
After the revolution Castro turned to the US to continue buying its one crop, now nationalized. The US said no, broke off relations and trade, embargoed Cuba. With ties suddenly severed with its only market for its one crop, and its source of equipment and medicines gone, Castro turned to Russia. Russia jumped at the opportunity.
Fast forward. There is no question Castro has been brutal in his suppression of dissidents. Cuba is a police state with much surveillance and control. But the literacy rate of Cubans now exceeds that of the rest of the Americas. Cuban people have food, housing, education and medical care guaranteed. They keep their 1950’s era automobiles running. They ride Chinese made bicycles. All the children go to school. Day care is provided. School is mandatory up to grade 9. University is also free. Medical care is of high quality save for the shortage of equipment and supplies and pharmaceuticals otherwise obtained only from the US. The casinos are gone, though private prostitution once again flourishes for the tourists. Private enterprise is creeping back in small ways. Gun violence is almost nonexistent. The crime rate is very low. Far more tourists actually visit the island now than did in the 1950’s.
In Cuba, Mental Health Care is integrated with public health care. Just as we began reforming our mental hospitals, and creating community care in the 1960’s and 1970’s in North America so did Cuba. Only they stayed with the program. Today the Mental Health Care in Cuba is much as we (in the 1970’s) envisioned it should be in Canada.
It is a complex world we live in. Power corrupts. Revolutions don’t usually achieve the high-minded goals expressed in their pamphlets. Our systems of governance are always at odds with the baser instincts and desires of humans.
But here is an interesting question I ask myself: If I were, say, 40 years old and raising a family of three children, and had no delusions of grandeur, fame and wealth, would I rather be (a doctor, labourer, bricklayer, farmer, construction worker, teacher, nurse, child care worker, lawyer, musician, taxi driver, bus driver, shop keeper, butcher, baker, police officer……) in Cuba or the Honduras, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Panama, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia….?
My solution for Cuba many years ago was that it become a Canadian Province. That way as it evolves gradually into a full democracy with a mixed economy, free education and health care, and an independent judiciary we might be able to protect it from American excesses and exploitation.