A familiar image of Castro greeting the crowds – but is that the whole story?lezumbalaberenjena

A story, however unverified it may be, is often told by veteran Indian diplomats: in the early 1960s, the new ambassador of revolutionary Cuba visited the Indian Foreign Services Institute. He delivered an inspiring speech, and then struck up a rousing rendition of Cuban nationalist music. The young men and women of the Institute joined in. The next day, every local paper led with the story “Scandal as Budding Diplomats Chant ‘Cuba sí, Yanquis no’”. Caught up in the fervour and with no knowledge of Spanish they had all condemned the ‘Yankee menace.’

I remembered that anecdote, probably recounted to me by a family member of that generation, as I read at the end of last week that Fidel Castro had died. It has stuck in my mind because that anecdote captures what Castro – and Castro’s Cuba – once meant to many. What drew people to them was their revolutionary promise in a time when the Third World was emerging from the shackles of colonialism and the Cold War raged around it. Fidel Castro deserves to be remembered in that context, but he cannot be absolved by it.

The fact is that El Líder Máximo ran a repressive police-state with no respect for the freedom of the press, political dissent, or free enterprise. The repression was enforced by the Cuban Ministry of the Interior (a ‘carbon copy’ of the East German Stasi), which runs a spider’s web of forced labour camps, torture chambers, and the most comprehensive censorship regime in the Western Hemisphere; the situation continues unabated under his brother, Raúl. Large numbers of ordinary Cubans – teachers, journalists, and erstwhile Castro allies – were subject to mutilation, biological experimentation, and a litany of other abuses to which many of those who escaped have testified.

“It would be the act of a master intellectual contortionist to decry the anti-democracy of Trump and Le Pen while celebrating the Castro brothers’ tyranny”

This may seem alien and bizarre, and indeed it would be if it were not true. Cambridge is far removed in time from the days when ‘Lutheran heretics’ were tortured in the basements of the buildings in which we live, just as we are removed by an ocean and an opaque screen of censorship from the reality of millions of Cubans. We cannot, however, ignore or dismiss the well-documented abuses perpetrated by a system which Fidel Castro set up and operated for half a century.

The need to look at Cuba’s record on human rights square in the face is not just a historical curiosity; it affects the fundamental debates of the here and now. The empires of the Old World are no longer the enemy in the battle for democracy and our shared liberal values; instead, demagogues and ‘movements’ justifying their worst excesses by reference to some amorphous concept of ‘the people’ are. Donald Trump may despise Castro, but the two have about the same level of respect for the institutions of liberal democracy.

It would be the act of a master intellectual contortionist to decry the anti-democracy of Trump and Le Pen while celebrating the Castro brothers’ tyranny. It was no surprise, then, to see consummate performers in the cirque-du-socialisme Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn speak of Castro’s “heroism”. Mr Livingstone dismissed a 2007 report of human rights abuses because Castro was in a “war situation”. It is not entirely clear which war Cuba was involved in at the time. More surprising was Justin Trudeau’s gushing praise of the dictator in terms a 13-year-old would blush to write in a diary (he referred to Castro affectionately as El Comandante). From the man who popularised the phrase “because it’s 2015” – in justifying why his new cabinet was composed equally of men and women – plaudits for such a cruel police-state are surprising.

Referring to the liberal world order, Marine Le Pen recently said that “their world is crumbling, ours is being built”. She is right. Without better defenders, the world of freedom and democracy which seemed imminent in 1989 (‘the end of history’) will crumble, and it will be our fault. We rightfully felt proud that our colleges flew the rainbow flag in celebration of the LGBT community this February, but we cannot then take a week out to defend a regime which sent gay men to forced labour camps en masse. Such rich hypocrisy is not a luxury we can afford in these troubled times.

“Why do we find it so hard to hold other leaders to the same standard as we hold ours?”

There is much talk in India about the government’s dangerous assault on hitherto independent institutions, such as universities and the Central Bank. In the so-called ‘liberal bubble’ many of us, including me, had very harsh words for the Prime Minister and his government. When there was a police crackdown on protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University, we used to the fullest extent possible our guaranteed – if not very effective – right to freedom of expression. I was surprised, then, when one of my friends told me off about my views on Comrade Fidel: apparently, it was all about my ‘one-sided perception’. I was relieved to learn that I was not actually a CIA apparatchik, but just an unwitting victim of American propaganda demonising Castro (“just like they did with Saddam!”).

The level of inconsistency was astounding: why do we find it so hard to hold other leaders to the same standard as we hold ours? Perhaps my shock at this defence was down to the fact that I reject all varieties of the argument that goes ‘some countries aren’t ready for democracy’ and ‘their political culture is different’. Human dignity is just that: a function of our humanity. No one would argue that every country should have identical political institutions. But to say that Cubans, Syrians, or Iraqis have any less right to criticise their leaders or to pursue a livelihood of their choice than American or British citizens is a patronising argument which risks numbing us to the suffering of other peoples.

It is unlikely that Edmund Burke or John Stuart Mill will have replaced Fidel Castro as the graffiti icons on university walls in India, as there is no known portrait of either wearing khaki overalls clutching an assault rifle. But it is their values of respectful tolerant republicanism which should be upheld and defended no matter who defies them.

In a 1953 essay, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided people into two categories: foxes, who are mired in nuance, and hedgehogs, for whom the world can be boiled down to a single defining idea. In more contemplative times, the fox, deliberatively parsing complex ideas, is no doubt the superior state of being. Today, however, the rights and privileges we take for granted are under threat and they merit an outspoken and unequivocal defence. This is a time for hedgehogs

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