An enemy of the people

Published by the ipaper (28th November, 2016)

Shortly after the announcement Fidel Castro had died, state security agents turned up at a house in Havana. It belonged to the mother of Danilo Maldonado, a graffiti artist known as ‘El Sexto’ who has frequently clashed with the Cuban regime. Last year this provocateur was freed after ten months held without charge for trying to release pigs painted with the names of Fidel and his brother Raul in a performance satire called Animal Farm. Now he has been detained again in a crackdown against human rights activists, expected to intensify after the dictator’s death.

While the gorgeous sounds of Son Cubano music wafted round the world, artists that dared challenge the regime have long been targets for Castro’s government. His constitution says creativity is free only ‘so long as its content is not contrary to the revolution.’ This has led even librarians to be locked up, alongside painters, people listening to jazz and men with long hair. ‘Graffiti art is one of the elite’s most feared methods of protest as it exposes their true nature,’ says Thor Halvorssen of the Human Rights Foundation, which gave Maldonado an award last year.

El Sexto shows the genuine face of artistic protest, What a contrast his courageous stance offers to the laughable sight of a luxury underwear salesman and his mother, a rich fashion designer, burning punk artefacts on the Thames in protest at ‘marketing’ and ‘conformity’. Cuba is a country pickled in the past, those crumbling old houses and ancient cars trapped in time by the failures of communism that include a lack of consumerism. Its citizens are hungry for modernity. Yet Castro’s cruel rule is hailed by armchair insurgents in prosperous Western democracies.

The reality is Fidel was far from a romantic hero. He was a selfish tyrant who killed rivals from the start of his reign and crushed dissent over almost five decades in power, throwing thousands into grim prisons and harassing many more. He wrecked the Cuban economy, blaming a foolish United States embargo for pathetic failures of state planning. Yes, he supported free schools and hospitals to his credit – but so many doctors were exported abroad to earn hard currency islanders joked they needed to leave to see one.

Yet look at how fellow travellers laud this dead despot, seduced by his rebel image and strident anti-American stance. Most notable was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who praised Castro for seeing off lots of US presidents – although as others instantly noted, this was because they stand for election and have term limits, while the Cuban leader stopped any challenge to his supremacy. Corbyn added that ‘for all his flaws Castro’s support for Angola played a crucial role in bringing an end to apartheid in South Africa and he will be remembered both as an internationalist and a champion of social justice.’

Consider these words a little closer. Note the brushing aside of tyranny in the glib phrase ‘for all his flaws.’ This ‘champion of social justice’ oversaw show trials, stuffed dissidents in solitary confinement, stopped independent trade unions, prevented a free press and jailed men for being gay. Castro’s military aid for Angola may have hastened apartheid’s end but it also led to one of the world’s most kleptocratic autocracies. And his ‘internationalism’ involved support for some of the planet’s most repellent regimes such as the Derg in Ethiopia, who caused the deaths of huge numbers with their lethal Marxist fanaticism.

Castro was a creature of the Cold War, of course, an opportunistic convert to communism who must be viewed through prism of his time. Yet this does not excuse grotesque human rights abuses. Corbyn’s myopia symbolises how easily Western politicians overlook repression if it suits their tribal instincts. We saw this also with his idolisation of Castro’s acolyte Huge Chavez in Venezuela, an even more corrosive character for his country who also posed as protector of his people against those nasty Yankees. And we have seen similar stupidity on the right with politicians backing a racist regime in South Africa, then cruel military dictatorships in Latin America, and now despotic generals in north Africa and the most appalling feudal monarchies in the Middle East.

There can be no pick-and-mix approach to human rights. As liberal democracies, if we stand for anything then it should be an unwaverable belief in the sanctity of the most basic human freedoms that we enjoy in our home countries. Perhaps there must inevitably be times when criticism must be moderated on the global stage, when realpolitik impinges on high-minded ideals. Yet Corbyn, like so many others on all sides of the political spectrum, shows how casually even the most sanctimonious Western leaders sacrifice the beliefs they purport to represent in their politics.

These are uncertain times, the echo of history creating discomforting parallels. Populism is on the march, challenging our liberal values alongside dominant political forces across the West. Further afield analysts say freedom is falling while disdain for democracy is growing. So it is important politicians of all hues fight to protect core human rights upon which our societies are founded. Otherwise, what on earth are we fighting for? This is why we need to recognise those that are enemies of freedom – even if they are bearded, waving a fat cigar and dressed in the garb of rebel chic.

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