If there is a Latin American nation in which human rights and the rule of law seem to have completely vanished, that nation certainly is Cuba. And yet the recently deceased dictator Fidel Castro remains revered by those who regard him as a revolutionary hero who bravely stood against ‘capitalism’ and ‘American imperialism’.
Amongst these leftist admirers of Castro are the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau and the leader of the Opposition in Australia, Bill Shorten. Mr Shorten has been to Cuba and he deeply admired a notorious six-hour speech delivered by Castro. ‘It was amazing,’ Shorten said. Of course, he is not the only Labor leader to deeply admire the brutal dictator. British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Castro was a ‘champion of social justice’ — a nonsensical statement given all the people Castro brutally murdered and all the human rights he grossly violated.
The fact that so many left-wing leaders have expressed admiration to Castro should be a reason for great concern. After all, since the adoption by Castro of Marxist-Leninism in 1959 the Cuban regime has sanctioned the brutal assassination of dissidents, the introduction of retroactive criminal legislation, the confiscation of property for political reasons, and numerous other ’emergency measures’ against the so-called ‘enemies’ of the communist regime.
The Cuban communist regime created by Castro subjects its citizens to a great number of laws, administrative decrees, and police orders which have entirely swept away basic human rights and freedoms. Harassment and persecution of dissidents is systematic in the country, constituting a pattern of behaviour that has not changed over the years. The Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure are both used as a means to repress political opponents and dissidents. The offences are sometimes vaguely worded so as to include political dissidence as a crime.
Those who are changed under such offences are not provided with the minimum guarantees of due process of law, such as the right to remain silent and to have legal counsel at the time of questioning. Further, the work of lawyers is severely limited since they are subject to harassment due to their defence of political dissidents. According to the Geneva-based Centre for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, ‘lawyers who assume the defence of individuals accused of political offences are harassed and denied the facilities necessary to perform their duties adequately. Many of them are changed with “contempt” or “enemy propaganda” when they speak out criticising the poor human rights record of the country’.
The obliteration of the rule of law in that country began to take place during the period in which army colonel Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar served as dictatorial ruler from 1933–1944, and then from 1952–1959. Although the Communist Party was still illegal, Batista allowed the communists to organise themselves and to publish their own daily newspaper called Hoy. In September 1938, President Batista announced the legality of the Cuban Communist Party for the first time in its 13 years of existence. In 1953, when the party held its tenth general meeting, the communists decided to adopt a positive attitude towards Batista’s dictatorship, endorsing his proposal for a new constitution in exchange of the party’s legal existence and permission to re-organise the working class movement under communist control.
During the election held in July 1940, the communists backed Batista for president of Cuba as part of the ‘Democratic Socialist Coalition’, which ‘remained fiercely opposed to the United States’. At those elections the Communist Party obtained 10 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and over 100 seats in the municipal council. In the election held in 1944 which would choose a successor to Batista, the communists then supported the government’s candidate, who headed the coalition list. Batista’s candidate was defeated by the candidate of the Authentic Party, Dr Grau San Martin.
Batista then staged a coup on 10 March 1952. This coup opened a new chapter in the history of the Cuban Communist Party. In April 1952, Batista issued an Act reforming the 1940 Constitution. However, on 26 July 1953 a young law student called Fidel Castro led an unsuccessful uprising against Batista. Castro was arrested and he remained in jail until May 1955. When Batista’s Congress passed an amnesty law under which 300 exiles came back to Cuba and all political prisoners were released, Castro set up a guerrilla group called the 26 July Movement (M-26).
Castro had been jailed in Mexico only temporarily. He managed to re-enter the island on 2 December 1956, landing with 82 men on the south-east coast of Cuba in his yacht ‘Granma’. During this period Castro’s programme was rather ambiguous and it lacked any ideological foundation.
In July 1957, a political manifesto was signed by Castro and two other revolutionary leaders. It included objectives such as maintaining the armed forces separate from politics, holding general elections within a year after the provisional government, granting a political and military amnesty, re-establishing individual freedom and freedom of communications, and holding free labour union elections. The manifesto also promised that the new regime would support the use of private and foreign capital. It explicitly guaranteed the security of foreign investment in the sugar industry.
The July 1957 manifesto, if sincere, would place Castro in a moderate position with its emphasis on a constitutional government based on the rule of law rather than on personal, arbitrary power.
To further advance the impression of moderation, on 14 December 1957 Castro published an open letter declaring that the first duty of his provisional government was to hold general elections and to recognise the democratic right of all parties to participate in free and fair elections. In February 1958, Castro released another statement called ‘Why We Fight’, in which he stated: ‘I personally have come to feel that nationalization is at best, a cumbersome instrument. It does not seem to make the state any stronger, yet it weakens private enterprise… foreign investments will always be welcome and secure here’.
The Cuban middle class was the backbone of the movement leading to Castro’s successful revolutionary achievement. The original goal of the Cuban Revolution was to overthrown the dictatorship of Batista and to restore the democratic Constitution of 1940. This comparatively large class gave unconditional support to Castro’s programme, which was based on the assertion that Batista held power unconstitutionally, and Castro’s promise that the 1940 Constitution would be restored.
Before becoming the communist leader, Castro advocated the right of the people to resist tyranny, thus quoting thinkers such Althusius, John of Salinsbury, St Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, et cetera. Castro even quoted the American Declaration of Independence of 1776. There was not a single reference in his early speeches to anything linking Castro with Marxism-Leninism. On the contrary, speaking before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, on 15 April 1959, he vehemently denied that he was a communist or that his government would ever confiscate private property.
On 8 January 1959, Castro and his colleagues made a triumphant entry into the capital Havana. As soon as they seized power they began to conduct mass executions of political adversaries. On 22 April 1959, he promised a group of United Nations correspondents in New York to hold democratic elections within four years. In regards to legislative plans, he assured the New York Times journalist, Herbert Matthews, that ‘power does not interest me. After victory I want to go back to my village and just be a lawyer again’. Castro even promised that a law was soon to be passed that would re-enact the 1940 Constitution until such time as the people decided to modify or change it.
On 1 May 1960, however, Castro broke those promises and betrayed the original objectives of the Cuban Revolution. In a public speech at Havana the Marxist-Leninist character of the revolution was declared retrospectively. Castro stated that Cuba had now become a communist state and that there would be no more democratic elections. According to Dr Leslie Munro, the former Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists, ‘during the less than four years of its existence, the government of Fidel Castro moved from a moderate climate of democratic reform into the violent atmosphere of an extremist authoritarian regime’.
‘Freedom with bread and without Terror’ was the original slogan of the Cuban Revolution. ‘Terror without freedom and with insufficient bread’ was the final solution arrived at by Castro’s brutal dictatorship. With the enactment of Act No. 988, on 29 November 1961, ‘revolutionary terror’ was regarded as the official doctrine of the communist regime, which proceeded to establish a totalitarian organisation, with Castro in a televised speech declaring the following about his newly established regime:
It will be a Marxist-Leninist programme adapted to the specific needs of our country. In other words, we shall adopt as our own programme the fundamental principles of Marxism-Leninism’.
In that speech he also made the following confession of faith:
Do I believe in Marxism? I believe absolutely in Marxism… I know I am not satisfied— far from it. Have I any doubts about Marxism and do I think that certain interpretations are wrong and should be revised? I have no doubts whatsoever.
The image of pre-communist Cuba’s social and economic backwardness is a fabrication of the communist regime to legitimise Castro’s political oppression and suppression of basic freedoms. This image of Cuba as an underdeveloped nation which was dominated by a powerful oligarchy while most of the population lived in abject poverty is no more than a false and misleading propaganda.
In fact, a comparative analysis in the 1950s shows that Cuba was one of the most advanced countries in Latin America in terms of social and economic development. Actually, Cuba was surpassed in literacy rate only by Argentina, Uruguay and Costa Rica. In terms of popular diet as expressed in the consumption of calories per capita per day, Cuba ranked third in Latin America with 2,730 calories, after Argentina with 3,110 and Uruguay with 2,990.
With respect to housing, a census taken in 1953 showed that the average number of baths in Cuban homes (42.2%) was much higher than the average for France (10.4%) and Denmark (31.6%). In addition to this, supporters of the regime like to say that Cuba has a low infant mortality rate. While this might be true, since Castro took power it dropped about 20 places in world rankings – from 13th to 31st.
The Cuban National Bank had large reserves of gold and foreign currency prior to the 1959 Revolution. In 1957, Cuba’s dollar reserve was at US$441 million, which was among the highest in Latin America. The Cuban peso remained at par with the U.S. dollar until 1960, when Castro suspended the United States quota for Cuban sugar and his disastrous policies of confiscation of private property had begun.
In stark contrast to the last 50 years of communist rule, in 1958 Cuba had a thriving free media and an efficient communication system. There were 94 radio stations and 900,000 radio receivers on the island. Among Latin American countries, Cuba came second just after Argentina with one receiver for every five inhabitants. Cuba had 11 television stations, 519 cinemas and 58 periodical publications, including daily newspapers and reviews with an average of 129 copies per 1,000 inhabitants. This figure was exceeded in Latin America only by Argentina and Uruguay. By January 1960, thanks to Castro’s brutal suppression of free speech, the only last remaining newspapers were the communist Granma and Hoy.
In the 1950s Cuba had a very strong economy. The country was the world’s leading sugar producer and exporter. Cuba had a large network of roads as well as excellent transport facilities. The Cuban trucking and bus industries had expanded at a remarkable rate after World War II. In 1959, there were more than 100 trucking firms as well as about 200 bus companies running to regular schedules. Cuba also had an extensive railway system, with about 11,000 miles of track as well as 90 public and private airports.
The Cuban judicial system followed a similar process of deterioration. Soon after taking power, Castro and his brother Raul, then Minister of Defence, began to organise military tribunals whereby the firing squad became their major judicial weapon. Inspired by the Soviet model, a formal security body called the Dirección General de Contrainteligencia (DGCI), popularly known as the ‘Red Gestapo’, was created in 1959 to infiltrate and destroy any opposition to Castro. According to Pascal Fontaine, ‘the DGCI promotes the Castro regime’s survival economically by using thousands of detainees as forced labor’.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Castro’s talk about the necessity to ‘cleanse’ the judiciary was the prelude to a great purge of judges. The purge started when two members of the Cuban Supreme Court, Chief Justice Emilio Menendez and Associate Justice Jose Morell Romero, took political asylum in the Argentinean and Mexican Embassies, respectively. Menendez had been appointed to the Supreme Court by Castro himself in January 1959. Other dissenting judges were equally purged within a week and they also went into exile. On 3 February 1961, the purge continued with the summary dismissal, on grounds of ‘counterrevolutionary activities’ and/or ‘manifestly immoral conduct’, of another Supreme Court Justice, six Chief-Justices of Provincial Appeal Courts, 26 appeal judges, and 87 lower-court judges.
On 21 August 1961, the Government Division of the Supreme Court declared the ‘socialist character of the new Cuban revolutionary justice’. Cuban judges were then expected to become ‘active guardians of socialist legality’. To implement this trend, courses on ‘socialism’ were held for all members of the Cuban judiciary. To explain the necessity of such courses, the then Public Prosecutor of the Supreme Court, Santiago Cuba, commented:
The second way of counter-revolutionary activity by the Cuban Judiciary was the support given by most of its members to ancient theories about the separation of powers, and about independence and political neutrality of the judicial branch. This theory is contrary to [the Marxist-Leninist] idea that the power of the [communist] State… must be indivisible.
The Cuban judiciary is called to undertake an active and energetic defence of the political, social and economic policies of the regime. Cuban judges must defend the policies of the regime against any ‘counter-revolutionary attacks’. These judges are expected to educate the masses to embrace socialist values and their judicial decisions must, apart from merely deciding cases, actually inspire a form of political message which is conducive to the ‘socialist education of the masses’.
Within a few years of communist rule, a rather prosperous nation passed from a condition of sustainable economic development to a state of organised inhumanity, wherein a ruthless government began commanding the extermination of thousands of ‘political enemies’. As Humberto Fontova points out, ‘Castro plunged a nation which had double Japan’s per capita income in 1958, plus net immigration from Europe, into a pesthole that repels even half-starved Haitians. He has jailed, tortured and murdered more political prisoners than pre-war Hitler, and about 20 times as many as Mussolini’.
From 1959 through the present day, more than 100,000 Cubans have experienced life in concentration camps. About 17,000 people have been executed by the communist regime, although the true death toll of victims is closer to 112,000 if one adds those who were killed in the anti-Castro resistance of the early 1960s as well as those who drowned at sea fleeing the island.
Castro argued that, in the end, ‘history will absolve me’. In fact, history will condemn Castro for the terrible destruction of a once prosperous and beautiful nation, and for the mass murder and torment of the Cuban people for nearly fifty years, and of his brutal tyranny and complete undermining of basic human rights.