National Post February 1, 2003.
Castro's accomplishments are a hoax; his statistics have been fudged or fabricated; his admirers abroad, from heads of state to movie makers to social activists, have been duped, dazzled by a beard in a military suit. Castro's regime has excelled in only one area, as seen in statistics from independent agencies such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Fidel Castro worked miracles after leading the Revolution that liberated Cuba from the dictator, Batista. The statistics are there, for any fool to see.
Soon after Castro came to power in 1959, he decided to eliminate illiteracy in the island nation. As he stated in an address to the United Nations the following year, "Cuba will be the first country in America that in a few months' time will be able to say that it does not have a single illiterate person." Castro was as good as his word. He launched his Great Campaign for literacy in January of 1961 and ended it in victory in December that same year. Cuba is a "territory free of illiteracy," he declared, triumphantly announcing an end to "four centuries of ignorance."
In a mere 12 months, Cuban government data demonstrated, socialism had given the gift of learning to the Cuban people. This eradication of widespread illiteracy is widely regarded as one of his Revolution's two stupendous social policy successes.
The other stupendous social policy success came in health care, where Castro gave his people the gift of health and a long life. By investing in doctors, hospitals and other medical services geared to the poor, Cuba's official statistics show, Cuba achieved one of the world's best performances in terms of broad statistical indicators such as life expectancy and infant mortality. In controlling AIDS, Cuba also has one of the world's best showings. Among Castro's most celebrated medical successes was the absolute eradication of dengue fever, a dreaded disease transmitted by mosquito that has plagued Cuba and other tropical countries through time immemorial.
To these two stupendous well publicized successes must be added a third, even more stupendous accomplishment, albeit little appreciated outside Cuba. Castro's accomplishments are a hoax; his statistics have been fudged or fabricated; his admirers abroad, from heads of state to movie makers to social activists, have been duped, dazzled by a beard in a military suit.
Castro's regime has excelled in only one area, as seen in statistics from independent agencies such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
The government claims it takes no political prisoners. The numbers provided by human rights agencies – an estimated 500,000 since 1959, with thousands executed – tell a different story. In Castro's Cuba, it is a crime to meet to discuss the economy, to write letters to the government, to report on political developments, to speak to international reporters, to advocate human rights, to visit friends or relatives outside your local area of residence without government permission. Cubans are arrested without warrants and prosecuted for "failing to denounce" fellow citizens, for general "dangerousness," and, should some crime not be covered by these criminal code provisions, for "other acts against state security."
The courts, under Cuba's constitution, are formally subordinate to the governing elite and cannot protect the innocent. Neither can lawyers, who lost their right to work in private firms in 1973 and have been forced to work either for the government or in collectives. Lawyers who had defended dissidents were refused membership in the collectives.
Cubans found guilty under this criminal justice system – and their fate is rarely in doubt – often serve 10 to 20 years in jail for political crimes. But most Cuban criminals are not political. A large proportion of the estimated 180,000 to 200,000 common criminals in Cuba's 500 prisons are people who broke the law by killing their own pigs, cattle and horses and selling the excess meat on the black market.
To maintain discipline inside prisons, prison guards appoint hardened prisoners to "prisoners' councils." Reports Human Rights Watch: "The council members commit some of Cuba's worst prison abuses, including beating fellow prisoners as a disciplinary measure and sexually abusing prisoners, under direct orders from or with the acquiescence of prison officials."
Despite this appalling human rights record, Castro has been courted and condoned by a fawning international intelligentsia that includes Harvard lawyers and statesmen who have made their reputations defending civil liberties. These include former Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau – Castro was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral, no less – former South African prime minister Nelson Mandela, and, more recently, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. One world leader who has not been duped is Czech President Vaclav Havel, himself a political prisoner before the fall of communism in Europe, who sponsored a resolution condemning Cuba at the UN Commission on Human Rights.
Although Castro forbids collective bargaining or even independent unions, Western labour leaders endorse him. Although Castro makes the top 10 "Enemies of the Press" list produced by the Committee to Protect Journalists', journalists such as Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters have covered him uncritically. Although artists in Cuba must toe the government line, Harry Belafonte and others who should understand the importance of artistic freedom hold him up as a paragon.
Those who cavort with Castro forgive him his transgressions, reasoning that his feats outweighed his faults, or that human rights abuses were necessary to achieve his towering accomplishments in literacy and health. But there were no great ends that justified his brutal means. Castro's feats are all modest or non-existent.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of the Urban Renaissance Institute, and a columnist for Canada's National Post.