The Clean Hands Problem
It has been said both that Fidel Castro was a bad man whose henchmen tortured and sometimes killed dissidents, and that Castro was a good man who gave Cuba a healthcare and literacy programme to rival many in the developed world. The BBC, in its quest for ‘balance’, says that people in Havana and Miami (‘only ninety miles away’), which hosts Trump’s only significant Hispanic constituency, are saying these things.
Philosophers chew over the ‘problem of dirty hands’ – thought to arise when a politician does something morally wrong in the name of securing a public good or preventing a public bad. It's notable that the problem is framed in that way, rather than as one that arises when a politician fails to secure the public good or prevent the bad by avoiding doing something morally wrong – the ‘problem of clean hands’, as it might be called. The notion that actors can acquit themselves of blame often relies on the fantasy that they act in a historical vacuum.
Fidel Castro was responsible for the deaths of many people. Amnesty International counted 216 completed death sentences in Cuba between Castro’s coming to power and 1987; the figure may be much higher when extrajudicial killings are included. It is however a clean-hands fantasy to think that political actors could simply have implemented a liberal democracy in Cuba at the time of the revolution against Batista's kleptocracy, which John F. Kennedy credited with 20,000 political murders during the dictatorship of 1952-59. Castro began as a land reformer, but various forces, US policy not least among them, pushed him towards ideological complicity with Marxism and geopolitical complicity with Moscow. Non-alignment on the Bandung model was hardly an option.
‘It is no wonder,’ Kennedy said in a presidential campaign speech in October 1960, ‘that during these years of American indifference’ – under Batista – ‘the Cuban people began to doubt the sincerity of our dedication to democracy.’ Elsewhere in the speech Kennedy lambasted the Eisenhower administration's record on Cuba, noting that at the start of 1959, US companies owned 40 per cent of Cuban sugar plantations, 80 per cent of the country’s utilities and most of its cattle ranches, mines and oil businesses. US arms funnelled to Batista were ‘justified in the name of hemispheric defence’, Kennedy said, but ‘their only real use was to crush the dictator's opposition.’
Once in office, Kennedy got with the programme, including the black ops and the economic embargo designed to crowbar Castro from office. The likelihood of Castro's moving in a liberal direction wasn't improved by the CIA's various attempts to kill him (eight between 1960 and 1965, according to the committee chaired by Frank Church), or by Kennedy's invasion attempt in 1961, which ended in fiasco. For the US, Castro's great crime wasn’t heading a repressive regime – ‘strong men’ such as Batista, Rafael Trujillo, Saddam Hussein, Mobutu Sese Seko or General Suharto got away with murder as long as they were US clients – or even his professed Marxism (Nixon and Kissinger were happy enough to cosy up to Mao Zedong when interest dictated); but that his regime was a standing rebuff to US might. Kennedy was ready to risk nuclear apocalypse to put paid to it.
It would be pleasing to think that the post-Castro era might herald an end to internment without trial on the island of Cuba, and the release of prisoners who have been tortured while in custody. Unfortunately, Barack Obama's administration has failed to carry out its promise to close Guantánamo.