Castro and the politics of deification
Since the contemporary world is streaked with political leaders who ruthlessly betray their people’s trust, humanity is not infrequently afflicted with amnesia that compels it to hanker after its torturous past. That was a past when the rule of the strong man was the norm.
Yes, such strong men recorded lofty achievements. Some not only enlarged the territories of their countries through the conquest of other lands, they exceptionally improved the standard of living of their citizens. But in most cases when their caprices became the rules, the regime of brutality that was often manifested in the torture, tears and death of citizens besmeared their glorious interludes of achievements. Through Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, Alexander, Chairman Mao to Adolf Hitler, humanity has witnessed strong men whose single-handed pursuit of their visions led to the development of their nations. But such people saw themselves as the sole repositories of the patriotism and wisdom that could place their nations on a stellar pedestal of development.
But we often dismiss the accompanying brutality as an inevitable upshot of their quest for development of their nations. Thus, for instance, we often refer to how through rarefied leadership, Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore from a third world country to a first world nation. It was the same notion of strong men as better leaders that herded the Nigerian citizens into electing Muhammadu Buhari who is now floundering. As far as we are concerned, the suppression of dissent that accompanies the regime of a strong man pales into insignificance in the face of the miracles of development wrought by astute leadership. Yet, we must insist that something is wrong with the progress that would abridge the rights and claim the lives of a significant proportion of the members of the society.
What is clear as most people look back at the life and times of Fidel Castro is that they swoon over the development he brought to Cuba. There is the linear narrative of his transformation of Cuba, a tiny North American country of about 11million people, to a formidable force that could call the bluff of arrogant powers like the United States that embargoed it. After successfully routing Fulgencio Batista who had trapped Cuba under his military jackboots, Castro opened a new vista of development in his country. His era was that of unprecedented improvement in literacy and medicine. But all this tends to blur Castro’s ruthlessness that bordered on misanthropy that mocked the terror of medieval potentates.
It remains a troubling question whether human progress is not possible without the deracination of a part of humanity that such progress is meant to serve. For Castro’s development in Cuba was mostly at the expense of the fundamental rights of the citizens. Under the guise of development, many Cubans were forced to live like prisoners in their own country where they could not express themselves. Others for decades were forced to become exiles.
Of course, it is easy to be outside the theatre of tyranny and celebrate Castro. If those who are now celebrating Castro were in the grips of the totalitarianism that marred his regime, one wonders if they would ever reckon with his achievements. Man is ineluctably drawn towards freedom and self-expression. This is why when a man is offered the option of living in a prison that has all the good things of life except freedom, he would rather stay outside the prison and struggle for those good things of life himself .
In most cases, people embrace many ideas not because they truly understand and believe them but because they are faddish. This is why in the days socialism was popular many Nigerian academics identified with it. But now that the bulwarks of socialism such as the Soviet Russia have collapsed, how many Nigerians still claim to be socialists?
Despite its many imperfections, liberal democracy guarantees an environment in which people can better express themselves than a totalitarian system. Yes, democracy does not guarantee the citizens feeding from the same pot of soup. There are still many inequalities. Even at the highest level of democracy as envisioned in Greece by Plato in his The Republic, the possibility of equality is remote. The philosopher-kings in Plato’s republic enjoy some privileges that are not accessible to others. For as Plato tells us, the philosopher-kings are to undergo a period of an extensive training before they assume such a position. It naturally follows that these citizens who have undergone such a training cannot be placed on the same social pedestal as others who have not had the privilege of that training.
Nor is a totalitarian system in which only a tiny segment of the population lives better than the rest of the society a better option. The argument that for great development to be achieved there must be a repression of a segment of the citizenry is not valid. It would definitely be a better option if there is development without the abridgement of the rights of others. Any system whether political, educational or religious, that does not reckon with the volition of a person is reprehensible. Slavery, colonialism, communism, socialism and fascism are all totalitarian systems that tend to control the freedom of thought of others. No man has the right to think for another when the latter has not voluntarily given up that right. In a representative government as in a democracy, citizens voluntarily give up part of their right to think for themselves. And if this privilege to think for others is abused by the leaders on whom it is conferred, the citizens also have the right to withdraw it through periodic elections.
It is true that societies need men of strong character to develop. But this is necessary to that extent that this strong character is solely for the development of societies in a way that would not impede the rights of other citizens. There must be rules and institutions to effectively rein in such strong character if it tends to express itself outside the confines of the collective good of the citizens. For humanity has far progressed beyond the stage where it could revert to the bygone era of feudal lords .
Clearly, there is the lesson for third world countries that they do not need to depend on external help to develop. However, it would be a great delusion for Castro’s brother Raul Castro to think that he can continue with the regime of repression and isolation from the rest part of the world. He does not need to make Donald Trump make good his threat to strain the relationship between the two countries before he frees the country from the throes of totalitarianism. Cubans must be allowed to have a say in how they are governed like the citizens of other parts of the modern world. They must be allowed to strive towards developing institutions that conduce to good governance. In the modern world, there is no longer room for the kind of nepotism and cronyism that have made leadership to remain in the Castro family. Over 50 years after the Castro revolution, there should be institutions that guarantee good governance and not the mercurial wishes of one man. For in the long run, living in a police state is a price too much to bear for the development that only aligns with the limited vision of a single strong man.