Years ago, there used to be a common explanation for why communism didn’t work. It was all nice on paper, people would say; the state would share all the wealth around and make sure everyone had what they needed and worked as they were able; yet human greed made the dream impossible in reality. I heard this from an older boy at school around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall; I also saw it written in an opinion piece in the Sun, by Michael Winner if I remember correctly. It was also commonly claimed that the very early followers of Christ practised a form of communism, foregoing personal possessions and sharing everything they had between them.
It was all wrong, of course. Communism is bad, not just wrong, because it necessarily involves theft on a grand scale from people who have worked all their lives and who have earned what they have fair and square. Once you run out of Romanovs and high-handed aristocrats, those who “by theft and murder … took the land; now everywhere the walls spring up at their command” and still haven’t built your paradise, you are left with those with family farms and businesses that they have built up over generations of hard work and own fair and square, who may treat and pay their employees very well, and who may know how to run those concerns better than a nobody answering to some party bureaucrat hundreds of miles away, hence we get the Stalinist and Maoist purges of “kulaks”, “rich peasants”, “capitalist-roaders” and so on who do not think that being reduced to labourers on their own land much resembles freedom. This explains why communism in Europe always rapidly turned into dictatorship (along with the ideological necessity of a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which of course was not really of the proletariat), why it was nearly always imposed and always maintained by force, and why secret police forces, walls and closed borders were needed to stop the workers fleeing the places they were supposedly the masters of.
In Latin America, however, the story was entirely different; the people really were oppressed by a ruling class of white settlers, mostly allied to American fruit-growing interests, and the US openly favoured these interests, inspired by a top-secret paper by a senior diplomat, George Kennan, who observed that his country had 50% of the world’s wealth and only 6% of its population which “cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment” and advocated that his country “devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this disparity”, dispensing with “unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization”. The US favoured a model whereby poor central Americans supplied wealthy (or at least wealthier) Americans (and Europeans) with cheap luxuries while living in dire poverty without access to healthcare and education. So, as Marxism preaches that human beings are not only all equal but that this should be reflected in terms of power and wealth, it is no surprise that it should be attractive in a part of the world where poverty and powerlessness were being deliberately maintained with force.
Castro and his men succeeded in taking control of Cuba and forcing the white upper class and their friends in the American mafia out, and have maintained power ever since despite numerous ham-fisted attempts by the CIA and its supporters, particularly exiled Cubans in Florida, to get rid of them. Elsewhere, communists or Marxists had briefer periods in power, in the case of Chile being overthrown by the military which set up a right-wing dictatorship, and in Nicaragua being forced to hold elections in which they were defeated. Elsewhere, the military interfered in the political process or seized power so as to “crush communism” or politicians they alleged were communists, used “communism” as an excuse to imprison, torture, rape and murder political activists of any kind who spoke of equality or justice. Some of these were actual communists, many were not, and some allied with communism because there was no other alternative to the kleptocratic and racist Latin American face of capitalism.
In the hours since Fidel Castro’s death on Friday night, we have had people celebrate that “the tyrant” is dead, some of whom have been apologists for the right-wing military dictatorships who used rape and torture to enforce capitalism and keep poor people poor. Yet the comparisons with Pinochet are not the most appropriate, as Chile is at the far end of Latin America from the US border and the majority of its population are of European ancestry, rather than just its elite. Chile never was a banana republic and there never was an attempt to make it into one. Castro’s real contemporaries are the rulers of central America — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador especially — who allowed their countries to be used as plantations for American fruit companies and violently repressed the aspirations of their people. Although most central American countries are today democracies (Honduras excepted), they still have lower literacy, shorter life expectancy and higher infant mortality rates than Cuba (Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than the US’s). As Cuba did not export huge numbers of poor people to the USA, it has not had the explosion of crime caused by the dumping by the USA of foreign criminals (although they were usually not criminals when they went to the USA, usually as children). There has been none of the religious stupidity found elsewhere in the region; a woman who suffers a miscarriage in Cuba is not at risk of being prosecuted for having an abortion, as in much of central America and parts of the USA.
I’m not a partisan or fan of Castro. I’m well aware that his régime has links to the Assads of Syria, for example, and that it has political prisoners, and that it does not allow free trade unions or strikes, unlike many of the former dictatorships that are now democracies. However, by Latin American standards, and northern Latin American standards especially, he has performed well, as his country remained stable while brutal civil wars engulfed much of the rest of the region (and much as they should not be an either/or, a lot of the people who say they’d rather have free speech than free healthcare and education have never had to choose). Nothing better was on offer to Cuba in the 1960s, and it is doubtful whether much better is on offer now — certainly the Cuban exiles, if they ever regain power, do not even promise to maintain what has been achieved during the Castro era in terms of healthcare, education and standards of living. It would be nothing but a tragedy to see the current system replaced with a debt-ridden third-world republic in the name of capitalism or ‘democracy’ — all the more so if the democracy does not last.
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