There’s nothing like the death of Fidel Castro to remind us how many supposed “liberals,” particularly in the elite media, just love a dictator—if he’s of the right sort.
Castro was buried today after nine days of official mourning and enthusiastic tributes, an embarrassing amount of which came, not from Cuban state propaganda or from fellow members of the dictators’ club, but from the politicians and journalists of free nations, most of whom profess to be “liberals.”
Here’s a roundup of responses. The prize for the most toadying elegy to Castro probably goes to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who gushed: “Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.”
The only quibble I have with this article is that it starts by saying “You Wouldn’t Believe Who’s Praising Murderous Dictator Fidel Castro.” Except that I would believe it. The left and the mainstream media have been fawning over Castro like this for decades.
We could multiply the examples, but the interesting question is: why? Why would people who profess to be “liberals” so avidly support and make excuses for a dictator? Why are some of the same people who are warning us that Donald Trump is a dictator praising someone who was actually a dictator?
Paul Bonicelli tries to puzzle this out and comes up with some good answers, including the idea that this is “a knee-jerk reaction to salve their consciences for years of having committed themselves to failed and morally bankrupt ideas.” To admit that Castro was a murderous thug who accomplished nothing but to impoverish his people would require asking themselves where they went wrong when they embraced him in the past. It starts a line of inquiry they are eager to avoid.
Why I think this is close to the truth is that I don’t think anyone can rationally claim that Cuban Communism was a success or that it led to the creation of any kind of actual utopia. They have to know, on some level, that Cuba is poor, that its people are not free, that many of them are so desperate that they will risk their lives to escape. And every country that has followed Castro’s example has achieved similarly disastrous results, down to the exodus of desperate boat people, as is currently happening in Venezuela. That was reported, by the way, in a long and heart-rending story in the New York Times, so you can’t expect the good Times-reading “liberal” to be ignorant about it.
So what keeps them running interference for the Castro regime?
The reasons they cite are a few carefully selected measures according to which Cuba supposedly looks great: literacy and health care.
These measures are selected, not by the fellow-traveling journalists, but by the Cuban regime itself. This is the regime’s long-established propaganda campaign: work hard to manufacture a few favorable statistics, then trumpet them loudly and hope nobody looks behind them to see how comprehensively the Communist system has failed by every other measure.
The most insulting of these statistics is the one about literacy. Yet this is a country in which books are banned and librarians are dissidents, which makes “literacy” into a cruel joke. As one Cuban émigré put it, “I know firsthand what it is not having something interesting to read. I know what it is like to have to hide to read something that the government calls subversive.”
As for its vaunted health-care statistics, I recommend a good, thorough overview by an honest liberal, who concludes that Cuba’s much-heralded statistics are minor gains achieved at great cost for the sake of prestige. He compares them to the Soviet Olympic program: enormous resources spent to achieve narrowly targeted results that are mostly useful as propaganda. The best thing you can do to improve the health of a people is to make them wealthier, yet this is precisely the opposite if what Cuba has done. The overall conclusion is that “Cuba’s social metrics are marginally better than Costa Rica’s, but these were achieved at huge cost in terms of lost output and lost freedoms.” That’s putting it mildly.
(Incidentally, do you know which Latin American dictator left behind a country that is actually free and prosperous today? The answer is Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, the only person who might conceivably fit the left’s view of Castro: a brutal dictator who leaves behind a complex legacy because of all the good he did for his people. Yet Pinochet is famously hated by the same people who praise Castro. That says a lot, doesn’t it?)
So what’s left as the basis for the left’s continued love affair with Fidel Castro? Observe the one consistent line in their eulogies. The Guardian described Castro as a “revolutionary icon,” while the New York Times described him as a “fiery apostle of revolution.” Anybody notice anything wrong with that, aside from the odd borrowing of religious terminology? Castro was absolutely not an advocate of revolution. In fact, he built a vast security apparatus—and exported it to other Latin American dictatorships—designed to prevent the slightest whiff of rebellion against state control.
Ah, but that’s not the revolution American leftists have in mind. The only part of Castro’s legacy that the left is really interested in is his opposition to the United States and its interests. Note the popularity of eulogies declaring him a thorn in the side of the United States.
That is the main root of Castro’s enduring appeal. The last week’s Castro-mania only makes sense if you look at his rule from the perspective, not of what positive things he accomplished for the Cuban people, but of the trouble he caused for the United States.
That is consistent with what the left really stands for these days. They are very short on models for what the ideal socialist society would actually look like. In the past year, Bernie Sanders tried to draft Denmark as his model for a socialist utopia, only to have the Danes reject this role. What the left actually has is a series of failed and mostly abandoned Communist experiments across the world—Russia, China, Vietnam, and so on; a few particularly ugly and retrograde totalitarian regimes that continue to fester (Cuba and North Korea); and a series of semi-socialist European welfare states, which pay for their “ideal” societies with stifling regulations, economic stagnation, and periodic financial crises (in pretty much every Western European country that is not Germany).
But if the left has no clear idea what they want to create, they still know what they want to destroy. They define themselves in terms of what they are against: they are against capitalism, they are against profit, they are against “American imperialism.” That is why they are able to continue their love affair with Castro. They don’t really care what he did for or to his own people. All they care about is that he was against the same system they are against.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.” (Wilde was trying to sell us on an “individualist socialism,” which both logic and history tell us is a utopia in the most literal sense: the word means “no place.”) Yet that is precisely what we now have. After more than a century of trying, there is no country on the globe that we can point to as the socialist utopia—yet socialism persists nonetheless.
The only way it can survive is not in positive form but in negative form. It persists as a wish for the negation of capitalism and of Western political traditions. It exists as a mandate for tearing down, not building up.
Fidel Castro was buried today as a hero of the left because he is a symbol of that negation.