PRESIDENT Michael D Higgins yesterday expressed sympathy to the people of Cuba. He was attending the Cuban embassy to sign a book of condolences following the death of Fidel Castro.
Other politicians, including junior ministers John Halligan and Finian McGrath, also mentioned the loss to the people of Cuba over the last few days.
The reality is the Cuban people had no hand, act or part in the reign of Fidel Castro. He seized power from his predecessor — a fellow dictator — in 1959 and never consulted the Cuban people about his reign thereafter.
Castro was not elected by the Cuban people. We do not know how exactly the Cuban people feel about the death of a man who ruled over them with an iron fist. Those who fled the country during his reign — at least 1m — generally have negative opinions on El Presidente.
Those who remain have, over the last 50 years, adapted to a life in which no criticism or opposition towards the ruler or his successor brother was tolerated. How can people subjugated in such a manner be expected to openly express their feelings within their own community, not to mind to outsiders?
So the pious expressions of condolences to the State for the death of a dictator are entirely misplaced. Eamon de Valera expressed sympathy with the German people on the death of Adolf Hitler, but at least Hitler was once elected.
Michael D Higgins’ eulogy was in keeping with an image of Castro that prevails in some quarters which see him as a hero rather than a dictator. To that constituency, it’s a case of “he might be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”.
That quote is attributed to Franklin D Roosevelt in relation to another dictator, Somoza of Nicaragua. But just as US presidents turned a blind eye to brutality abroad once it was in their interests — including that of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein — so those on the left like to gloss over the suppression of human rights that prevailed under Castro.
Higgins pointed to the social advances made under the dictator.
“Cuba achieved 100% literacy many years ago and built up a health system that is one of the most admired in the world. With economic growth rates similar to many other Latin American countries, inequality and poverty are much less pronounced in Cuba than in surrounding nations.”
Cuba has an excellent literary rate, and the health system is also much lauded, but let’s be honest about how that can be achieved.
For instance, any dictator in this country could achieve a world-class health system in a short time. Lock up all trade unionists, shoot a consultant or two to instil some fear, and decree that nurses must work for the minimum wage. Vested interests would disappear, and all focus would be on the quality of healthcare. No problemo.
Castro can be credited for putting emphasis on creating a health system rather than overseeing a kleptocracy, but you only have to look to Assad in Syria or Mussolini in Italy, both of whom oversaw a rise in standards of living in their respective bailiwicks, to know that dictators can make positive contributions also.
Higgins is correct about the level of inequality, but crucially, levels of poverty in Cuba are not much more pronounced than in other surrounding countries. In Cuba, everybody is equally poor, which is better than gross inequality, but not by much.
Higgins’ concluding remark about Castro was alarming. “Fidel Castro will be remembered as a giant among global leaders whose view was not one only of freedom for his people but for all the oppressed and excluded people on the planet.”
Is Michael D for real? Castro did not deliver freedom for his people, not to mind anybody else. He delivered a rule that tolerated no opposition and pre-empted any sign of it by eliminating opponents.
The only hint in our president’s speech that Cuba was not heaven on earth was a line that “the economic and social reforms introduced were at the price of a restriction of civil society, which brought its critics”.
Who are these spoilsport critics? Do they not realise that Fidel was an icon in bedsits throughout the western world in the glorious ‘60s and ‘70s? Can they not see a fine cut of a world leader in fatigues, cigar smoke lingering over his head like a halo?
Once upon a time, a politician called Michael D Higgins was a voracious critic of regimes in Central America which placed “restrictions on civil society”, except back then he called it murder and human rights abuses. Surely he would apply the same standard to a cool dictator in the Caribbean as he did to US-sponsored brutality in Central America?
Yesterday, at the Cuban embassy, President Higgins didn’t elaborate on Saturday’s eulogy but the ambassador expressed the opinion that the press had presented a very negative view of Cuba in relation to human rights and related issues. That’s fair enough, except human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also described it as a country that was ruled with an iron fist.
President Higgins revealed his own prejudices in speaking on behalf of the Irish people with his eulogy of Castro. His long-term interest in Central America meant he was acutely aware of the cynical and brutal policies of successive US governments in the hemisphere.
Like others of a similar view, he succumbed to the glamour of a man who was a hero in the region for defying and taunting what many saw as the “Great Satan”. On a superficial level, that is understandable. However, it does not excuse the craven statement issued on Saturday morning in lightning speed following the first public announcement of Castro’s death. As President, he is charged with speaking on behalf of the nation at such times. It’s highly questionable whether large chunks of this nation shared his narrow view of Castro.
One would have thought that the President would be well able to distinguish between the perfectly crafted image propagated down through the years by the dictator and the reality of his reign. Just because he’s the left’s son of a bitch doesn’t make him any less a son of a bitch.