Dictators are only wrong some of the time

One of my pet hates when it comes to politics or political commentary is when someone’s opinion is condemned because of who they are rather than what they are actually saying. This sort of behaviour perhaps stems from the simplification process whereby we tend to reduce people to being either “good” or “bad” in our minds. Consider for a moment the following names, and whether you would classify them on the whole as being “good” or “bad”. You might be surprised at what your first instinct is for each one, depending on what your political tendencies are:

  • The Dalai Lama
  • Adolf Hitler
  • John Howard
  • Malcolm Fraser
  • Bob Brown
  • Fidel Castro

Of course, if you are a lefty, you might not like John Howard, but would it really be fair to characterise him as “bad”, alongside, presumably, Adolf Hitler? Realistically speaking, of course not. Any reasonable, rational person who disagrees with the Howard Government’s work would be forced, after some consideration, to place him somewhere in the middle of the scale, perhaps arguably even on the positive side of even steven if you were feeling generous (though I can’t say I am). I would imagine that someone on the conservative side of the fence would have to feel the same way about somebody like Bob Brown. Sure, you might think he is a bit loopy, but compared to some of the names who fall firmly in the “bad” column, any reasonable critic would judge him as relatively unobjectionable.

I think Fidel Castro’s column in the Guardian today strongly brings this little conundrum to mind. The topic of the column, bizarrely enough, is Barack Obama and the Democratic frontrunner’s comments on the trade embargo with Cuba, which would reportedly be continued under an Obama presidency. Now while I think most of us would probably agree that Castro has done the occasional good thing in relation to his country’s health and education systems, I think we would also agree that his militant aversion to criticism and indeed democracy is disturbing and hopelessly out of step with the modern civilised world we live in. Having said that, it is hard to disagree with the central thesis of Castro’s argument here; that perhaps the United States should take a good hard look at its own recent record on foreign policy and hop off its high horse before so harshly judging Cuba and by association the Cuban people:

Is it right for the president of the US to order the assassination of any one person in the world, whatever the pretext? Is it ethical for the president of the US to order the torture of other human beings? Should state terrorism be used by a country as powerful as the US as an instrument to bring peace to the planet?

Is an Adjustment Act, applied as punishment to only one country, Cuba, in order to destabilise it, good and honourable when it costs innocent children and mothers their lives? Are the brain drain and the continuous theft of the best scientific and intellectual minds in poor countries moral and justifiable?

Is it fair to stage pre-emptive attacks? Is it honourable and sane to invest millions and millions of dollars in the military-industrial complex, to produce weapons that can destroy life on earth several times over? Is that the way in which the US expresses its respect for freedom, democracy and human rights?

Of course there are plenty of things that Castro could have done during his lifetime that would have left the country in a much better position than it is today. However, I think in this particular scenario, the United States should have the moral stature to ignoring the ancient ideological squabbles and start engaging with Cuba again. I am disappointed that Obama, of all people, feels the need to perpetuate what seems to be a cold war mentality in an era when the next missile crisis the world is going to face is going to be quite far from this little island off the coast of Miami.

2 thoughts on “Dictators are only wrong some of the time

  1. The state Cuba is in?
    Q: How many countries in the world meet both the minimum standard for human development, and the minimum standard for sustainability?
    A: 1

    Castro would willingly accept responsibility for this. No-one else can take the credit.

    Also, surveys (by pro-private enterprise) have found that Cubans say “yeah, we’d love more money and political freedom, but…. ain’t it great that my kids are alive (infant mortality lower than the US) and are educated!”

    (and he ain’t a theocrat!)

  2. I’m not sure what standards you are talking about there Dave, but methinks possibly the Scandinavian countries would be doing even better on that front from a social democratic perspective than Cuba? Also surely some part of the standard for human development involves having a government that does not lock up dissidents? :)

    On Castro I am very much a pragmatist. I think he has done some good things with respect to public health and education, but in other areas I think he has been appalling. If he really is so confident that he is doing precisely what the people want him to do, he should have open the doors to free elections thirty years ago.

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