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Was Fidel Castro good for the gospel, Africa and the world?
Fidel Castro, the world’s longest ruling leader (1959-2008), passed away recently. While exiled Cubans celebrated jubilantly in Miami, several heads of state and media houses gave glowing tributes to the founder of Cuba’s Communist inspired society with “free healthcare and education for all”. Many African leaders and citizens hailed Fidel as a liberator of Africa. Who is right? What were the driving ideas behind Castro’s rule, and what have been their consequences? And are these good for the gospel of Christ, the common good of Africans and the world at large?
At its heart, Communism argues that the ‘original sin’ was not disobedience to God but the creation of private property, which in turn led to the development of classes, with the ruling classes dominating the working class. The way out of this state of misery was said to be a revolution to overthrow the government and eliminate private property (and with it the rich and poor classes). The government would then redistribute all resources equally.
Communism in practice
How would this be put into practice? As Karl Marx said: “The Communists … openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” Similarly, Lenin wrote: “The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat (working class) is rule won and maintained through the use of violence … rule that is unrestricted by any laws.” When I enrolled at university, I took politics and law as my majors. Despite the avid promotion of Communism by my lecturers, and the fact that I had myself once supported these ideas, there existed two key thoughts of Communism that I could not reconcile with my Christian beliefs: First, the fact that it is impossible to develop a Communist state without violence and the suppression of basic freedoms of belief, and second, the Biblical truth that we are sinful by nature, and no utopian system can do away with greed, envy and every other vice — God alone can.
Of course, ideas, such as Communism, don’t remain ideas — they permeate every area of our lives, for better or worse. How did these Communist ideas play out in Castro’s Cuba? Soon after taking power in the 1959 revolution, the young Fidel and his fellow revolutionaries began to conduct mass executions. Six hundred Batista supporters were summarily executed in five months. Although Castro initially promised to hold free elections, of course this never took place. He also suspended the constitution and its guarantees of fundamental rights, governing by decree until 1976 when he imposed a constitution modelled on that of the USSR.
The road to exile
Independent newspapers soon disappeared, leaving only government-controlled media. All the last remaining political and military opposition leaders were arrested. The first great wave of departures now began. Nearly 50 000 people from the middle classes, many of whom had originally supported the revolution, all took the road to exile. Workers were the next group to suffer repression. David Salvador, head of the Sugar Union, was arrested and spent the next 12 years in prison. As a final blow against the workers, Castro forbade their sole remaining union to stage strikes. In 1960, in a move typical of all dictatorships, the judiciary was forced to surrender its independence and was placed under the control of the central government. The universities suffered a similar fate, exemplified by the arrest and incarceration of student leader Pedro Luis Biotel.
During the repressions of the 1960s, between 7 000 and 10 000 people were killed and 30 000 people imprisoned, all for political reasons. Concentration camps were set up in which everyone who was considered a “potential danger to society” was incarcerated — this included religious prisoners (Catholics, notably Jaime Ortega, the bishop of Havana; Protestants; and Jehovah’s Witnesses), pimps and homosexuals. Many detainees mutilated themselves to escape this hell; others emerged psychologically destroyed by their experiences.
Not surprisingly, under such repression, Cubans soon began to “vote with their oars” and attempted to flee the country. The result of the exodus is that out of 11 million inhabitants, approximately 2 million now live in exile.
Physical freedom or spiritual liberty
Predictably, the church has not been spared either. In 1961 all religious colleges were closed and their buildings confiscated by the government, and the government forced many priests to leave the country. The regime continued to marginalise religious institutions and believers — although it claimed to allow Cubans to profess their faith freely, those who did so were forbidden access to university education, denied jobs or worse. Armando Valladares personifies the impact of Castro’s revolution on the church. Though an early supporter of Castro, all of that changed when he refused to put a communist slogan on his desk. Soon after, Valladares was arrested, charged with terrorism, and given a 30-year sentence. Recounting his incarceration in La Cabaña, he stated: “We could hear each phase of the executions, and during this time, these young men — patriots — would die shouting ‘Long live Christ, the King. Down with Communism!’ And then you would hear the gunshots. Every night there were shootings. Every night. Every night. Every night.” After nearly a decade, prison officials adjusted their terms. If Armando would simply renounce his beliefs and embrace Communism, he could return to his family. The choice was simple: physical freedom or spiritual liberty. “For many people, it wasn’t practical to resist. Better to sign the paper and leave,” Valladares said. “But for me, signing that paper would have been spiritual suicide.”
As for the economy, before Castro came to power, Cuba was one of the richest countries in the Americas. Twenty years later, it was already among the poorest, even with massive Soviet subsidies.
Free education and health care
But wait, you say. What about the wonderful free education and health care? Corrales writes: “There’s no doubt that Cuba has achieved high levels of schooling … but there is much that these statistics fail to reveal. In schools, Cuban students did learn to read, write, and do math — but most importantly, they became indoctrinated [in Communist thought]. Once Cubans left school, the state restricted what they could do with their acquired skills. There was no freedom to choose one’s place of employment and no right to join independent unions or to go on strike. One could not even read freely; censure of libraries, bookstores, and media was total.”
And what of the much trumpeted health care system? Author Joe Carter reveals some little known facts: Cubans endure extreme inequality of healthcare. Effectively, three tiers exist: One for foreigners who pay with hard currency, one for Cuban elites (mostly government), and one for the common people. Cuban doctors are woefully underpaid. While medical care is free, actual medication is rarely available and, when it is, extremely costly. For most people hospitals are little short of horrific.
Castro, apartheid and tyranny
Alright alright, but nothing can take away from how Castro helped to liberate Africa from apartheid and colonialism, right? Yes, Cuba sent thousands of armed forces and other personnel to defeat South Africa’s apartheid era forces in the Angolan civil war. Commenting on Castro’s legacy in Africa, Ghanaian political economist George Ayittey however said: “True, Cuba helped the anti-apartheid struggle, but Cuba’s model of dictatorship failed miserably in Africa.” He points out that Angola, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe all followed the Cuban model to some degree, with more or less disastrous effects — one form of dictatorship was removed only to be replaced with another. Our problem is thus not colonialism or imperialism per se, our problem is tyranny in all its forms, regardless of whether dictators are black or white. While Mandela was unequivocal in his gratitude to Cuba, he and the other architects of our constitution thankfully did not follow in Fidel’s footsteps: we have a President limited to two terms in office, an independent judiciary, a free press, no concentration camps and many freedoms that Castro denied Cubans. Like my politics lecturer who would wax lyrical about the glories of communism and then drive off in his Mercedes, South Africa has the ironic luxury of being able to revere Fidel Castro while choosing to live in exactly the opposite way to the one he forced on Cuba. A fuller picture of Castro’s true “contribution” to Africa can be seen in Ethiopia: Mengistu’s Marxist government, inspired and supported by Cuba and the Soviet Union, rapidly turned Ethiopia into an impoverished and famine ridden nation. The Cuban military participated in the deliberate withholding of food to Mengistu’s opposition, resulting in thousands dying in the famine of the 80’s. In addition, as Ayittey writes: “Thousands were killed by the government, including Emperor Haile Selassie and many of his family, and more than 30 000 were jailed.”
Yes, Castro’s troops fought against the apartheid government, and Africa benefits from the medical and other Cuban personnel serving in Africa. Nevertheless, the ideas and practice of Fidel Castro’s Communism have been fuelled through the use of violence, suppressing every other belief system and denying citizens the God-given freedom to think, work and earn freely in Cuba. Wherever Communism has been practiced, the fruit is essentially the same. Ideas have consequences. Such an idea can only serve to obstruct the gospel and hinder the economic and political freedom of nations in Africa and elsewhere.
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