Fidel's Legacy -- a Dissident's View. Bret Stephens, WSJ
To Justin Trudeau, Canada’s puerile prime minister, he was a “legendary revolutionary” who “made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.” To Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s Labour Party, he “will be remembered both as an internationalist and a champion of social justice.” To Michael Higgins, president of Ireland, he was a tribune “for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet.”
And for Barack Obama, still president of the United States, he was a “singular figure” whose “enormous impact” would be recorded and judged by history. Global reaction to Fidel Castro’s death has been instructive. Donald Trumpminced no words: “Fidel Castro is dead!” he tweeted delightedly. By contrast, the progressive left hailed the dictator as a liberator for the ages, while conventional liberals treated him as complex character whose 57-year reign was less a testament to his brutal methods than to his charismatic appeal.
Castro “held on to power longer than any other living national leader except Queen Elizabeth II,” noted the New York Times in its obituary. It’s an intriguing comparison—except that one of those leaders shot pheasants, while the other shot peasants.
For a different view of Castro’s legacy I turned to José Daniel Ferrer. The 46-year-old leads the Cuban Patriotic Union, one of the island’s largest dissident organizations, which he founded after spending eight years in Castro’s prisons, including a stint in Cuba’s own maximum security prisión provincial in Guantanamo. He spurned a government offer to exile him to Spain after his 2011 release, and since then he has led a dangerous battle against a regime determined to neutralize him. Václav Havel is one of his moral and political inspirations.
When I first met Mr. Ferrer in person in May, he spent much of the time detailing Cuban prison conditions. Wardens in lower-security prisons use inmates as de facto slave laborers in agriculture or construction gangs. Inmates in maximum-security prisons are stuffed into tiny cells and allowed an hour of sunlight a day. Political prisoners “face constant terrors,” including threats to their families. Beatings and torture are routine. “A prisoner has a bad molar. He complains. He gets beaten up. No medical attention.”
As for the Cuban Guantanamo, I asked Mr. Ferrer how he thought it compared with its better-known counterpart at the nearby U.S. naval station. He dismissed the American Gitmo as un jardín de niños—a kindergarten—next to its Cuban sibling.
On Sunday I followed up with Mr. Ferrer via email. He seems almost amused by the hosannas being showered on his former jailer by the West’s self-styled human-rights champions. “I’d just remind them they aren’t the first democratic leaders to eulogize a tyrant,” he writes, recalling progressive tears for Stalin and Mao. “Oppression, prison, misery and continuous exile was what Castroism brought us. I’m sure neither Corbyn nor Trudeau would ever want a ‘champion’ like Fidel Castro to lead their own people.”
Mr. Ferrer adds that the regime has shown no signs of letting up its repression, never mind Mr. Obama’s diplomatic opening. Ten of his organization’s regional directors have been jailed in the past six months. Fellow activists have grown accustomed to having their homes robbed and their equipment stolen.
“Raúl Castro is going to augment the controls and the repression, for fear of his brother’s absence as the central symbol of tyranny,” he predicts. “Raúl will continue to delay the process of opening up the economy, and the misery will continue.”
That view contradicts the optimistic belief that “modernizers” in the regime will move fast to relax government controls now that Fidel is gone. Like the Kims of North Korea, the Castro family is in the business of staying in power. It won’t tolerate an economic opening that undermines its political grip.
Still, Mr. Ferrer ticks off a list of factors—Fidel’s death, a restive population, an increasingly well-organized dissident movement, economic chaos in Venezuela, the collapse of left-wing governments in Argentina and Brazil—that have left the regime acutely susceptible to external pressure. His advice to President-elect Donald Trump, who on Monday threatened to “terminate the deal” the Obama administration struck with Cuba: Don’t tear it all up, but watch Raúl very closely.
“If [Mr. Castro] takes steps toward reform, encourage them,” he advises. “If he tries to maintain the status quo and foreclose real reform, condemn the dictatorship firmly and take steps so that the regime is made to feel that bad behavior has consequences.”
It says something about the degraded state of Western politics that Mr. Castro’s life can still be celebrated by supposedly respectable political figures, while Mr. Ferrer remains a political unknown beyond a tiny group of Cuba watchers. It says something, too, that respectable opinion thinks of Gitmo as the ultimate symbol of moral barbarity, while it remains indifferent to the real hell next door. It’s that indifference that will have to change, if change is ever to come to Cuba.