The Clean Hands Problem

Glen Newey

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.


  • 29 November 2016 at 4:31pm
    Mhljones says:
    The final two sentences of this post borders on parody: they ask readers to believe that Cuba cannot improve its human rights practices so long as the island hosts a US military base granted by treaty before the Castro brothers were even born. Did post-Franco Spain use the UK presence in Gibraltar as an excuse not to change its human rights practices? Ms Newey's would be silly, if it were not so morally and ethically obtuse.

    • 29 November 2016 at 5:12pm
      suetonius says: @ Mhljones
      That is not what the last two sentences say. They merely say that the island of Cuba cannot be free of internment without trial and torture unless the US closes Guantanamo, which it has not (and will not) do. This is certainly true. The closure of Guantanamo is a necessary condition, nowhere in those sentences is it implied it is a sufficient condition.

    • 29 November 2016 at 6:58pm
      SinisaMihajlovic says: @ suetonius

  • 29 November 2016 at 4:35pm
    Joe Morison says:
    It is indeed a ‘clean-hands fantasy to think that political actors could simply have implemented a liberal democracy’. But it’s not a fantasy to think that change could have happened far less viciously; and while it’s a good thing to point out the US’s sins, they don’t justify Castro’s Cuba’s. I’d have more sympathy if he hadn’t made himself and his family so very rich and powerful.

    • 29 November 2016 at 10:14pm says: @ Joe Morison
      The tragic aspect of a popular revolution is that it has to clamp down on personal freedoms in order to survive a counterrevolution. Joe Morison says Castro could have done it less viciously. This is doubtful. His opponents were vicious criminals who understood nothing less than a boot in the face and would have exploited any sign of weakness. Castro had no room for niceties.

    • 30 November 2016 at 1:01am
      Emmryss says: @
      When the Sandinistas, in an act of revolutionary forgiveness, refrained from executing members of Somoza's National Guard, they soon became Reagan's contras, and wreaked havoc on the revolution's proudest accomplishments, deliberately targeting rural schools and health clinics.

    • 30 November 2016 at 7:31am
      Joe Morison says: @
      Counter-factual history is as pointless as it is beguiling. Emmryss can have no more evidence that things would not have gone worse for the Sandinistas if they’d murdered all of Somoza’s National Guard, than I can have that Castro could have been less vicious. It’s possible that in the former case the rage that the National Guards’ murder would have produced in their friends and families would have produced a larger and even nastier Contra army. Or not.

      There is never going to be proof one way or the other, I expect most of the people posting here have fairly similar ideas as to the sort of world they’d like to live in; but there’s complete disagreement about how to get there, in the end it’s a matter of choice. In my life I have found the following (expressed here by the Buddha) to be unfailingly true Hatred cannot be reconciled by hatred. Only love can reconcile hatred. This is an absolute truth.

    • 30 November 2016 at 2:35pm
      Ed W says: @ Joe Morison
      There would have been no question of ‘murder’, though, in this case: the members of the National Guard had been responsible for the most appalling crimes, murder, rape, torture. Even if you don’t believe the death penalty should have been applied for those crimes, lengthy prison sentences would certainly have been well merited. It wasn’t a situation like South Africa, where there was a truth and reconciliation forum as part of a compromise peace agreement; the Sandinistas won, they overthrew the Somoza regime and broke its power over the country, so there was no need to compromise with the agents of that regime. Keeping the core of the National Guard in jail while they were brought before the courts, then keeping them locked up for 10, 20 or 30 years afterwards, would have been an act of justice; if it had prevented the Contras from getting off the ground and launching a full-scale terror campaign, it would also have been an act of mercy.

    • 30 November 2016 at 4:13pm says: @ Joe Morison
      "There is never going to be proof one way or the other"
      Proofs exist only in mathematics, and history teaches useful things. One is that, when you step on the toes of the Capital, the Capital rips your head off. If you're a Castro, it's better to preempt this and rip its head off first. Revolution is war, and war is nasty. But the revolution has a fighting chance of making things better.

    • 1 December 2016 at 5:21am
      Joe Morison says: @
      History does indeed teach many useful things, one of which is that if one knows enough of it one can use it to justify whatever it is one happens to believe.

    • 1 December 2016 at 4:13pm says: @ Joe Morison
      And a kitchen knife can be a murder weapon.

  • 29 November 2016 at 4:37pm
    augustinian says:
    Every word of Newey's critique of U.S. Cuba policy is true. Unfortunately, he commits the usual Leftist error of writing as though that were the entire story--as though U.S. misdeeds left Castro and his regime no choice but adopt repressive political policies and to adopt idiotic Marxist economic policies which have led to a half century of poverty--and, astonishingly, to largely persist in such policies even after the demise of communism in Russia and China. His view effectively denies agency to all parties other than the U.S. government. As to Newey's closing paragraph, it should henceforth be included in logic textbooks as a model example of non sequitur. His argument here assumes Cuba can end internment without trial and release tortured prisoners if and only if the U.S. closing Guantanamo. The latter is surely a desideratum, but it is an entirely separate issue from Cuba's internment policy. Surely the regime doesn't have to wait for the U.S. to do the right thing before doing the right thing itself.

    • 29 November 2016 at 7:06pm
      SinisaMihajlovic says: @ augustinian
      You're wrong on the logic argument, the author is ironically pointing towards the US doing what it criticizes others for doing. However, I certainly think you're right about this almost knee-jerk excusing of anyone other than the most powerful, that is so prevalent on the left. However, I must take you up on the line about Marxist economic policies leading to half a century of poverty. Whilst I'm not trying to defend those policies, I find it extraordinary that someone wouldn't compare similar countries. Apart from a few tax havens, all countries in the Central American region suffer high levels of poverty (Costa Rica, I think, might be better on that front), regardless of the use of Marxist economic policies.

  • 29 November 2016 at 6:16pm
    Blackorpheus7 says:
    Spent a month in Cuba without preconceptions when Fidel Castro was still functioning, and I was mightily impressed overall. Cuban people in and out of Havana seemed in fine fettle, all things considered, and spoke easily and favorably of Fidel. Meanwhile in Havana and elsewhere were fancy large hotels erected by the US, France, the UK, and Spain, waiting impatiently for Fidel to die and the country to relapse into Batista-capital-carnival. Now it's come. Buena suerte.

    • 29 November 2016 at 7:52pm
      augustinian says: @ Blackorpheus7
      At the risk of belaboring the obvious: if Cubans were "in fine fettle" and "spoke easily and favorably of Castro," why were thousands of people attempting to flee the island every year, many of them using desperate measures like building rafts out of old tires and plywood and risking their lives by attempting to sail them to Mexico or Florida? You might want to spend a moment or two pondering how terrible their lives must have been in order to take such risks in order to escape from such an "impressive" country.

    • 1 December 2016 at 3:45am
      RobotBoy says: @ augustinian
      As a Palestinian friend pointed out when I mentioned how many of my grandfather's Maronite fellows had left Lebanon. 'Christians had support in getting out and a much easier path to citizenship in the West. Trust me, the Maronites aren't the only ones who wanted to leave.'
      I wonder how many people around the globe would risk a ninety-mile trip on a rickety raft if putting their feet on U.S. soil meant instant citizenship?

  • 29 November 2016 at 6:36pm
    Diplodoctus says:
    Hear, hear, Augustinian. It has long been the standard Castro propaganda line that all Cuba's woes are due to the US "blockade" (i.e. embargo), while in fact it has been the mainstay of the Castros' grotesquely long hold on power. Without it, the justification for repression would have melted away decades ago.

    Having worked in Cuba for two years at the height of Fidel's power, and even shaken his hand, I am convinced he was a sadistic brute. (Amnesty International, which has never had access to the island, are far from being able to quantify this: 216 verifiable executions over nearly 50+ years makes Fidel sound like a pussycat among dictators and is misleading.) In the '80s we thought that Raul (nicknamed "el Chino" because of his oriental looks and dubious parentage) was the hardliner and Fidel the personable opportunist. I now think we were deceived. Fidel was a narcissistic hoodlum who found himself, almost by fluke, in charge of a country. His famous charisma, when you studied it for hours and hours on end as I did, appeared more and more like method acting: with his knitted brows, Fidel proved early on that, as Katherine Hepburn, put it "once you can act sincerity you can act anything."

    Glen Newey sees Castroism simply as an improvement on the Batista regime. A fairer historical comparison would be between Cuba's position in the 1950s as Latin America's most developed country (booming capital, eight-lane motorways and all) and its current, badly lagging position in terms of regional economic and political development. On the positive side of the balance sheet are an adequate public health system and high literacy rate (not to be confused with education - there's still little to read but propaganda and teachers must beg tourists for pens). On the negative, everything else - from housing, transport, agriculture, industry and consumer goods to human rights. After 67 years of so-called revolution, this is not a good record. And no-one but the Castros are to blame for it.

    • 30 November 2016 at 9:31pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Diplodoctus
      A vote of agreement on the above point concerning literacy. If there's absolutely nothing controversial or interesting available to read, how does an improved rate of literacy actually help people improve their lives? It's a broader issue -- the US has a reasonably good literacy rate, but most people don't read, and when they do they tend to seek sources of information that confirm their interests and biases. The audience for "infotainment" in the US is vast, the audience for both both general-interest and specialized journals is tiny. We have a literate population that is also an ignorant population. The problem is, by the way, world-wide.

    • 6 December 2016 at 6:40pm
      Joe says: @ Diplodoctus
      I don't think you can post images here, so here's a 'text meme':

      [picture of David Roberts]



  • 29 November 2016 at 7:10pm
    Tanvyeboyo says:
    This is a useful reminder of the past and present context of US involvement in Cuba. I don't think Castro tried hard enough in later years, but it is clearly very difficult to implement policies that are hostile to US interests, where such exist. Cuba was America's brothel and casino location under Batista. How was it supposed to morph into another Canada or similar? Early on was not the right time while the Mafia and CIA sought to murder Castro and other Cubans. Later, the Monroe Doctrine closed the door to any trade and cooperation with Europe. Mexico has been relatively pro-Cuba. Will it continue to adopt such a position as Trump sends special forces across the Rio Grande in hot pursuit of various criminals and maybe even modern-day Pancho Villas or Che Guevaras?
    Cuba must move on from Stalinist repression and put the owners of Guantanamo to shame. That is more important than a headlong rush to crony capitalism on the scale seen in Russia. How to avoid the fate of Allende, or the outright failure of Chavism, is another story. Cubans, at least, have kept their pride.

  • 30 November 2016 at 12:48am
    Graucho says:
    The nearest historical parallel one can think of to Castro is Oliver Cromwell, a man who excites passions pro and con with as much fervour and whose hands were anything but clean. With the benefit of a few hundred years of hindsight the case is that the country benefitted enormously from Cromwell's rule, but few of your correspondents would have relished living under him, not this one anyway. The proper way to assess Castro is to write about him warts and all and hopefully some authors who do will emerge.

    • 30 November 2016 at 9:50pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Graucho
      My own belief is that as time goes by Castro will be viewed by most Latin-Americans (and those Caribbean islanders of other ethnic mixtures) as a positive figure to admire, mostly because he was relentless in his resistance to American power and influence. His flaws will not be forgiven, but will be seen as peripheral to his effort to free Cuba from US control of its destiny, as well as to bring about some basic improvements in lives of Cuban's large poor population. On those flaws, he will have to be have be held accountable for his inability to create a "successor" system that does not entail nepotism and reliance on the army as the prop of the regime. His other major flaw was a tendency to sheer paternalism (Father Fidel knows best) implemented in all aspects of life (no one dared contradict his zany opinions about agriculture and cattle-husbandry, for instance, all of which led to failed programs). On the positive side of the ledger, he made heroic efforts to diminish color-based racism in Cuba, though the current Politburo is "old white men" almost exclusively. It's a mixed legacy he leaves behind, and future historians (most importantly, Latin-American historians) will have to sort it out in some judicious, dispassionate fashion, not easy to do.

  • 30 November 2016 at 1:26am
    kynolover says:
    Yes, there were "grotesque" and inhumane elements to Fidel Castro's long hold on power in Cuba. But at the risk of sounding like a Castro apologist, I must say that what his critics here overlook or unfairly minimize is the fact that he was faced with not just a crippling economic blockade, but also the continuing attempt to engineer regime change by the most powerful military and covert interventionist nation in the world. These attempts included an American proxy military invasion and assassination, as well as unrelenting espionage and diplomatic pressure. What is so remarkable about Castro, at least for me, was his cojones in taking on the USA, whether that meant engineering his own proxy wars against American interests and even sending Cuban spies north. He was reportedly even willing to fight "American imperialism" with Soviet nukes launched from his island but was overruled by Khrushchev!

    Say what you will about Fidel's repressive, brutal actions and tendencies, but I find it hard not to admire someone willing to stand up to the world's biggest bully and a bunch of loud mouth whingers in Miami no matter how dangerous that was for him and his "Revolution". His biggest mistake arguably was in predicting once that America would be the last bastion of capitalism. I'd love to know whether he still felt that way the last years of his life, or whether he might have thought that Cuba would be the last bastion of communism--at least of the Soviet kind. In either case I refuse to buy into the Castro hate of Los Guasanos.

    • 30 November 2016 at 11:53am
      Joe Morison says: @ kynolover
      It is hard not to admire someone who stands up to the world's biggest bully, but it's equally hard to admire someone who makes themselves astonishingly wealthy through ruling an impoverished country.

    • 30 November 2016 at 1:35pm
      alexp says: @ Joe Morison
      Your evidence?
      Please don't cite Forbes or the Daily Mail

    • 30 November 2016 at 4:16pm says: @ alexp

    • 30 November 2016 at 6:55pm
      kynolover says: @ Joe Morison
      Castro made himself "astonishingly wealthy"? That's news to me. I too would like to know the details and source(s) for this allegation.

      As I originally indicated, there are other legitimate reasons to criticize Fidel Castro. Do they outweigh his courage in taking on the truly corrupt and brutal Baptista regime and the all-powerful, bullying USA all over the globe? I'll leave that for historians to decide once a clearer, fuller pictures of Castro's rule and the responses to it by the USA and Cuban exiles emerge.

      In the meantime, I can only agree with Nelson Mandela's reflections, as quoted in Mac Maharaj's op-ed in today's NYT, that "there is no passion to be found playing small — in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living," and that "[m]en and women, all over the world, right down the centuries, come and go, Some leave nothing behind, not even their names. It would seem they never existed at all." Maharaj writes that Africans "will never forget [Fidel Castro]" and his "unshakable anticolonial and anti-apartheid beliefs guarantee a revered place for him in the hearts of South Africans." How easy it is for Castro's critics, most of whom have likely "played small" indeed, to forget or minimize such positive contributions to humankind and to maximize and exaggerate his mistakes, misjudgments and foibles.

    • 1 December 2016 at 5:41am
      Joe Morison says: @ kynolover
      I certainly don't take Forbes or the Mail seriously; but even if he has only 1% of the wealth Forbes attributes to him, that would still be obscene. There was a biography of him by a former bodyguard, reviewed sympathetically in the Guardian, which claimed he lived a plutocrat's lifestyle. And there's no denying the nepotism: his brother running the country; his former son-in-law running GAESA (which has been estimated to account for as much a half of Cuban economic activity); his son, Alejandro, a colonel in Interior Ministry, controlling counter-intelligence; and I'm sure it spreads wider than that.

      I don't deny the many great things that Cuba under Castro did, but none of that excuses murder (which, for me, is what capital punishment always is) or feathering the nests of himself and his family. I believe that we on the Left should be doubly critical of our heroes, and unafraid to expose their weaknesses: truth is our standard, we should leave illusion and wishful thinking to the Right (or, at least, keep our wishful thinking to the belief that we can somehow build something better out of this insane world).

  • 30 November 2016 at 7:37am
    buffalo bill says:
    "Kennedy was ready to risk nuclear apocalypse to put paid to [the Castro regime]."


    It wasn't until January, 1992, in a meeting chaired by Castro in Havana, Cuba, that I learned 162 nuclear warheads, including 90 tactical warheads, were on the island at the time of this critical moment of the crisis. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, and Castro got very angry with me because I said, "Mr. President, let's stop this meeting. This is totally new to me, I'm not sure I got the translation right."

    "Mr. President, I have three questions to you. Number one: did you know the nuclear warheads were there? Number two: if you did, would you have recommended to Khrushchev in the face of an U.S. attack that he use them? Number three: if he had used them, what would have happened to Cuba?"

    He said, "Number one, I knew they were there. Number two, I would not have recommended to Khrushchev, I did recommend to Khrushchev that they be used. Number three, 'What would have happened to Cuba?' It would have been totally destroyed." That's how close we were.

    EM: And he was willing to accept that?

    Yes, and he went on to say: "Mr. McNamara, if you and President Kennedy had been in a similar situation, that's what you would have done." I said, "Mr. President, I hope to God we would not have done it. Pull the temple down on our heads? My God!"

    • 30 November 2016 at 12:31pm
      XopherO says: @ buffalo bill
      Can we believe Castro? He was always trying outface the Americans in the propaganda war of words. What actually was agreed between Kennedy and Khrushchev was that US nuclear missiles on Turkey's border with the USSR would be quietly removed (missiles which prompted the USSR to put its own missiles within a few miles of the US in the first place) and the US would not attack Cuba again. Khrushchev was obviously prepared to make it look as if the USSR had backed down - and this probably cost him his job, or at least played big part in his being 'ovethrown'. In fact the development of IBMs carried by subs was already making the need to put nukes on land near the enemy redundant.

      This all highlights the problem for nuclear powers to always say they will push the button regardless. We had Teresa may saying she would, though like Castro she would need the consent of her client power, the USA. Do we have leaders as intelligent as Kennedy and Khrushchev to save us today? I don't think either Putin or Trump would be prepared for it to seem as though they were backing down.

    • 30 November 2016 at 4:44pm says: @ XopherO
      I doubt Castro had access to the button.

  • 1 December 2016 at 12:20am
    trishjw says:
    Kennedy wanted to continue the same old imperial way with or without Batista but he ran into a man that would not kowtow to him. Fidel did many things wrong to his people and to the countries around him. But is the only 20th Century dictator I know of who lived his life much like his people did and made their country better in the process. No other country like Cuba has 100% literacy (not the USA either) nor do many countries have the medical training and facilities he worked on. He turned to Russia since he needed food etc for his people and no one else would offer it. Many of the Cuban Americans that voted for Trump 3 weeks ago did so because they lost the businesses and utilities that they owned or managed before 1960 but since they refused to pass taxes to Cuba, just to USA, Fidel nationalized everything. To avoid jail by him or having to work under him, they fled to Florida where many did exactly the same kind of business there as they had in Cuba. Now, some of them want to go to Cuba and take back those businesses. I hope they lose both the business and the court case. Time and Fidel are gone. Move on!!

  • 2 December 2016 at 5:20am
    Dapa says:
    The Cuban Imprisonment no matter is low and intolerable. We in the USA have a vast Black and Hispanic population imprisoned at notorious Detention Center such as Ryker's Island and many thousands in State and Federal prison across the states. Nothing to be proud of.Because of the high cost of imprisonment the government is beginning to realize that a large segment of this population require drug or mental health treatment and have been wrongly incarcerated by the government. We have a large political prison population that is being improperly detained and not treated for their illness nor are the infamous institutions ever shut down. Shutting down Guantánamo would be keeping a political promise but more important is reducing the population of both State and Federal prisons and ooverhauling them focused on rehabilitation would be preferable prioity.

  • 5 December 2016 at 10:57am
    Gibbon says:
    Ah excellent. The 'clean hands' problem has finally arrived in North London. Now, when can we start discussing this magazine's editorial(ish) stance on Syria?

  • 9 December 2016 at 1:07pm
    jad says:
    Most of the comment about Castro and Cuba fails to compare like with like - ie, Cuba with other Central/South American states. Cuba under Castro has been a peaceful and stable society with excellent educational levels and health care - and that in the teeth of blockage, sabotage and terrorism from the world's most powerful state. Unlike, for instance, Mexicans, Cubans are not faced with a risk of abduction, rape and murder, or of being caught in the middle of gun-battles between narco gangs and out-of-control police or military forces. An article in today's Guardian gives a figure of 200,000 murders and at least 28,000 'disappeared' in Mexico since 2007.

    As for disasterous 'Marxist' economic policies, it's difficult to see in what sense Cuba's policies have been 'Marxist', as opposed to hand-to-mouth efforts to survive a desperate geo-political situation. Marx, after all, envisaged a socialist society as coming into being on the basis of a high level of economic and cultural development, which has hardly been true for Cuba over the last century, any more than it was for the new Soviet Union at the end of the Civil War.

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