The recent passing of Fidel Castro at ninety has unleashed torrents of both praise and criticism. The favourable school, led by Canada’s prime minister, was first off the mark. Justin Trudeau termed him “a legendary revolutionary and orator”, but presumably seeking to demonstrate a better tone and some balance, conceded that he was “controversial” and declined to attend his funeral in Havana.
With many others across the democratic world, the Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente was blunt in her response to Trudeau, noting that Castro “lined up his (political opponents) against a wall and shot them.”
She added the he also labelled the LGBT community “faggots” and “worms” and locked them in prisons. Approximately a fifth of the Cuban people attempted to escape the country under his tyranny in homemade boats, with tens of thousands drowning. Wente noted too that in 1966 he executed 166 Cubans, first removing most of their blood for sale to the Viet Cong.
For three decades until about 1991, the Soviet Union provided about $6 billion a year to Castro’s Cuba, including subsidized oil, food, machinery, and other goods needed to keep some Cubans from starvation. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela replaced Moscow as the main life line after 1998. The average official salary today is only in the $25 a month range. After 1961, Cuba became in reality a prison for all but Fidel and his party cronies.
Another lens through which to assess Castro is his relations with the Catholic church in which he was born and educated. Victor Gaeten recently chronicled his manipulations there in the National Catholic Registrar:
- After waging war on the Catholic Church for more than three decades, Castro sought in the 1990s to co-opt its moral authority, but was unable to seek personal forgiveness or reconciliation,
- Within two years of defeating the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, promising to advance freedom against tyranny, Castro became a Communist,
- In 1961, the vast network of Catholic schools across the island was confiscated and seminaries were closed, including the ones he had attended. The same year, approximately a fifth of Cuba’s priests were forced onto a boat and expelled. Later, other priests were sent to labor camps, including Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Havana’s archbishop from 1981 to 2016.
- Castro termed Cubans who continued to attend mass “gusanos” (worms). By 1996, however, since the Catholic church had opposed the United States’ embargo against Cuba, Castro went to Rome with Cardinal Ortega to see Pope John Paul about coming to Cuba, which in fact happened in 1998. The late pope then said in Cuba with Castro present, “Let Cuba open itself to the world and let the world open itself to Cuba.”
- A Catholic-inspired Varela Project later gathered 11,000 signatures calling for elections, but in 2003 Castro dismembered it and 75 of its leaders were imprisoned with sentences up to 28 years.
The overall situation began to improved only when Raul Castro replaced his brother in 2008. He allowed small private restaurants and kiosks, but the former oppression returned in 2012 when democracy advocates Paya and Cepero were murdered in a fake car accident.
In short, the long suffering admirable people of Cuba deserved so much better from their now gone leader. His defenders say he stressed education and free and universal health care, but there was only one Party newspaper, Granma, across the island and few opportunities for fulfilled lives.
Cubans and their many friends around the world can only hope that new leadership in Havana will bring better days and human dignity for all.
David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chretien’s Cabinet, he was secretary of state (Africa and Latin America) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.