In the wake of Cuban despot Fidel Castro’s death at the age of 90, media and public response has been decidedly mixed among North American and European personalities. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Irish President Michael Higgins, for instance, both penned effusive eulogies praising the “longest serving president” who advocated a “development path that was unique and determinedly independent.” Yet the nation’s largest community of Cuban-Americans, many of whom are exiles or escapees of the oppressive regime, celebrated in the streets that the man who jailed, murdered and starved thousands of their people was at last dead.
Why this chasm between those in the West who unequivocally condemn the man and those who are paying him post-mortem lip service? His deeds, among them mass murder and incarceration, the criminalization of free speech and homosexuality, and the absolute restriction of emigration from the country, would certainly horrify any person who values a Western society that protects the freedom to pursue one’s own ends.
One must wonder if the hesitation to outright condemn Castro comes in part from Western progressivism’s complex relationship with communism: American and European leftist intellectuals were quick to embrace communist precepts and praise early movements before the extent of the oppression and poverty in the USSR and elsewhere was known. French existentialist and political theorist Jean-Paul Sartre famously renounced communism, after years of intellectual participation in communist politics, when he witnessed first-hand the atrocities of the USSR. He was, as many Western leftists have been, enamored with surface elements of communist thought until familiar with its oppressive application. If this realization is so crucial, then forgetting communism’s violent history can only promote its renewed romantic aura in the eyes of the public and intellectuals alike.
Recent scholarly work such as the extensive Black Book of Communism has shed further light on the devastation associated with 20th Century communist movements, but Americans still show measurable support for communism and socialism. Common equivocation over communism can even be seen in phrases like “those countries weren’t really communist,” or “communism is beautiful in theory!” Ultimately, liberals may find themselves sympathetic with some of communism’s theoretical surface attractions, such as the radical equality of all in the state (and eventual statelessness), justice for laborers, and sufficient food and resources for all, in a way that allows them to practice a certain level of selective critical thinking with its most oppressive regimes. It is also this approach that allows pro-Castro propaganda regarding high literacy rates and universal healthcare to somehow fester uncritically in some liberal circles.
Ultimately, what the death of Castro signifies for many Western liberals is the collapse of the final roadblock to forgetting the absolute poverty, warfare and oppression which universally characterized the communist world in Europe, Asia and South America.
It must be said, of course, that Western liberals are not communists. Most believe in relatively free trade, a mixed economy, and protection of a certain amount of basic rights for all people. But there remains the real threat for radical relativism to paint the catastrophic failures of communism as akin to real policy failures in the United States such as social stratification, poor education and an oppressive criminal justice system. This allows for a person to say “sure, Cuba had some bad stuff, but the United States is just as bad!”, a sentiment that obfuscates the vast differences in prosperity, protection of rights, and general toleration that exist between countries. One can, and should, have the moral courage to both denounce policy and social failures within the United States and be unequivocal about the horrors of Castro’s regime.
As Western liberals become more amenable again to communism and socialism, and populist socialist figures like Bernie Sanders continue to gain steam, it is through remembering the extreme results of combining state power and collectivist ideologies that we may either temper the movements altogether or at least inform them by way of analyzing the routes they must not go. Even the prototypical liberal, concerned with social justice and the wage gap and in favor of nationalized healthcare and education, should understand intimately and unapologetically the failures of communism. The temptation to forget its evils will be immense, and is visible already in the rampant Castro apologism.
But while Castro’s death represents the desire of liberals to forget communism’s great failings and a move toward renewed romanticizing of its ideals, the increased volume of its citizens, exiles and survivors must be listened to, remembered, and immortalized in popular and intellectual thought.
Christopher Machold is a recent graduate from Cornell College with a passion for research and writing. He is a Young Voices Advocate.