There has a lot of talk about Fidel Castro this week after his death. What you think about him and his legacy seems to depend on which side of the political spectrum you lie… No one is all bad and living in Cuba seems to have its pluses as well as a large number of minuses. I will try to cut across the two in an even handed way.
The first thing to say that Castro was a dictator. He like so many others before (and to come) of the right and left promised to introduce democracy and didn’t. We have to face the fact that if you opposed his regime at the very least you would get in a degree of trouble. More recently his oppression of lesbian and gays has come to light. In addition the economy has never done very well and there is even under communism a lot of poverty in Cuba. Added to this as I remember Castro got involved in a lot of wars in a lot of other places including in Angola where up to 30,000 Cubans came into conflict with amongst others South African troops. For many on the left this is OK since its not yankee imperialism. And of course by accepting nuclear missiles on his territory he brought the world to the brink of nuclear war*. He could not have been ignorant of what he was doing.
However there are some plus points which many on the right also seem to find difficult. Firstly the regime that Castro ousted (that of the aptly named Batista) was a terrible one that oppressed the poor and had links to the mob. Castro at the very least was no worse, just different, or at least no more despotic. Castro also invested heavily in Health and Education. The health service was very good. So good that many other countries drew on it. It also had a pharmaceutical development arm and developed a vaccine against Meningitis B before anyone else. Where I previously worked we had a Cuban on secondment from one the pharmaceutical companies. She was very competent but just didn’t want to talk about politics. A 100% literacy rate is not to be sniffed at either and these services were free, bizarrely in many communist countries they aren’t.
What is of most interest in the transition movement and this blog is what happened in the early 1990’s. Cuba had a peak oil moment. Cuba was massively propped up by the Soviet Union. This included oil of which Cuba has no indigenous production. The taps were turned off almost overnight. Cuba had been given the oil and could not afford to import it. Unfortunately what happened next works best in a dictatorship. Readers of this blog know that almost all of modern life including agriculture is heavily dependent on oil. No oil no food. There was a danger of starvation. So the Cuban government ordered food to be grown everywhere including in cities. BBC “Gardeners World” went to have a look and at least on documentary film has been made about it. Given the ruinous state of the economy many city buildings (many very beautiful) are shells and are being used to grow food in. The food is organic (no pesticides). The Cubans have done a remarkable job in showing it is possible to live without much oil for agriculture and that for all Cuba’s problems and Castro’s shortcomings is a real legacy
* One astounding fact that came to light this week was the tension was diffused by Robert Kennedy and the Soviet ambassador having a meeting at New York restaurant.