MARCUS GEE, The Globe and Mail, Canada
Wednesday, March 10, 1999
It's a sure-fire rule. When human rights are trampled in China or Indonesia or Iran, concerned Canadians bombard me with faxes and E-mails denouncing the government involved. When human rights are trampled in Cuba, concerned Canadians bombard me with faxes and E-mails condemning the government of the United States.
Such was the case when Fidel Castro put four Cuban dissidents on trial March 1 for criticizing his regime. After I wrote about the case last week, a host of angry correspondents stepped forward to defend Mr. Castro and explain how it was really all Washington's fault.
Didn't I know that Cuba was facing an all-out assault from the American imperialists? Hadn't I heard about the U.S. economic embargo? Didn't I know that Cuban health care and literacy were the best in the developing world? Wasn't I aware that other Latin American countries had far worse records on human rights?
Canadians have been making these excuses for Mr. Castro for at least a generation. To apologize for the Cuban dictator is as Canadian as ice fishing. In no other Western country does he have such loyal defenders.
Fervent supporters can be found in mainstream Canadian unions such as the Auto Workers, in congregations such as those of the United Church, and in the upper reaches of the Liberal Party of Canada. They can even be found in Nova Scotia.
Searching the Internet yesterday, I came across the Nova Scotia-Cuba Association, "established in 1989 by a group of students, professors and activists." Along with the usual paeans to Cuban health care, it includes the interesting claim that Cuba's democracy is just as robust as Canada's. "The Cuban electoral system is different than ours," it says, "but not any less valid." (Their italics.) Yes, that system happens to have returned Fidel Castro's party in every election since the 1959 revolution, but that is only because "the vast majority of Cubans respect and support Fidel." Cuba, it concludes, has a "one-party democracy."
The ravings of an isolated fringe? Unfortunately not. All sorts of intelligent and influential Canadians seem to believe that Mr. Castro and his dictatorship are simply misunderstood.
Consider Patrick Watson, the broadcaster and former chairman of the CBC. Mr. Watson is the creator of a 1989 television series called The Struggle for Democracy. But just because he made a 10-part, $8-million series on democracy does not necessarily mean he thinks it is a good thing.
When people like me criticized Prime Minister Jean Chrétien for paying a friendly visit to Mr. Castro last spring, Mr. Watson sprang to the Cuban leader's defence. Sure, he conceded in an article on this page, Cuba lacked a free press and "democratic" elections (the sneer quotes apparently indicating his doubts about so-called Western democracy). But then he reminded us that Mr. Castro replaced someone even worse: Fulgencio Batista, the American-backed dictator overthrown by Mr. Castro's revolution. If Mr. Castro went on to become a doctrinaire communist, well, the blame did not lie with him. It lay with (guess who) the Americans, whose hostility made him jump to the Soviet camp.
This sort of apologia may have been understandable in Mr. Watson's heyday, when the Cold War was hot and socialism still had a certain intellectual cachet. It was then that Pierre Trudeau made his famous visit to Cuba. But the Soviet camp collapsed in ruins eight years ago, exposing the communist experiment once and for all as an unmitigated catastrophe that claimed tens of millions of lives and blighted hundreds of millions more.
Mr. Castro is (along with North Korea's Kim Jong-il) the last remaining tribune of that system. He is also the last dictator in the Western Hemisphere. In 40 years in power -- the longest of any living political leader -- he has never once tested his vaunted popularity in a free election. Nor has he dared to face the scrutiny of a free press or the challenge of a free trade union.
Instead, he blames everything on the United States. If Cuba's economy is a shambles, blame the embargo. If Cuba throws dissidents in jail for speaking their minds, blame the CIA. In fact, don't admit they are dissidents at all. Call them "loafers" -- counterrevolutionary criminals who don't "produce anything but intrigues, vain illusions, cheap empty demagoguery." That's the official Cuban line on the four brave Cubans who were put on trial for sedition March 1 for advocating a modest measure of democracy.
Why so many well-informed Canadians are willing to echo this stale propaganda is an abiding mystery. To believe in the year 1999 that Fidel Castro is anything other than a cynical dictator, and to say that his failures are anyone's but his own, is an act of deliberate moral blindness. Mr. Castro's apologists should hang their heads.