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Globe and Mail Editorial Page Editor Tony Keller.

Globe and Mail Editorial Page Editor Tony Keller.

TONY KELLER

Why do we still romanticize Cuba, the East Berlin of the Caribbean? Add to ...

If the most common sin on the right is cynicism, on the left, it’s self-delusion. People on the right have a habit of talking themselves into refusing to care about somebody else’s pain, but idealists on the left have a history of developing elaborate theories to ensure that they do not see what’s right in front of their eyes. It took a lot of education to believe that the answer to humanity’s problems lay in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Ho’s Vietnam, or Castro’s Cuba. To not see that much blood and suffering required a great deal of effort.

Fidel Castro’s regime was basically East Germany with palm trees. It wasn’t anything more romantic than that. He brought it into being after taking power in 1959, even as Western apologists for Soviet communism were abandoning that ideology, and he kept it going long after the Berlin Wall had fallen. Yet he somehow convinced a lot of Western intellectuals that the Cuban revolution was something different – that it wasn’t just Karl Marx Stadt with better weather, and that he wasn’t just the Erich Honecker of Havana.

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When the last general secretary of the German Democratic Republic died, a few years after the Wall came down, there were no glowing eulogies to his “tremendous dedication and love for the German people.” No one claimed that his people had a “deep and lasting affection” for their dictator.

But Justin Trudeau is not the first person, or the last, to have fallen for the idea that Fidel Castro and his regime were something other than what they were. A decade ago, Mr. Trudeau’s brother, Alexandre, penned an essay for the Toronto Star in which he heaped praise after praise upon the “superhuman” Castro:

“He lives to learn and to put his knowledge in the service of the revolution,” wrote the future Prime Minister’s brother. “For Fidel, revolution is really a work of reason. In his view, revolution, when rigorously adopted, cannot fail to lead humanity towards ever greater justice, towards an ever more perfect social order.”

And how were Cubans reacting to Fidel Castro’s attempts to achieve this ever more perfect social order? “They do occasionally complain, often as an adolescent might complain about a too strict and demanding father.”

He described the man as having a “herculean physique” to match his “monumental intellect,” and recounted a tale about Pierre Trudeau and Fidel Castro going scuba diving – in which Mr. Trudeau puts on his oxygen tank and descends to a depth of 60 feet underwater, only to discover that Mr. Castro is swimming with him, without need of oxygen, while smilingly prying sea urchins off the sea floor with a knife.

It reads more than a little like the kind of cult of personality nonsense that Soviet propagandists used to put out about Stalin, or that North Korea regularly writes about Kim Jong-un – he scored a hole in one despite never having taken a golf lesson, he climbed the highest mountain without so much as a winter coat, he is an autodidact cinematographer with an innate understanding of the human soul.

These days, it’s hard to understand how anyone can romanticize Mr. Castro, but the 1960s made everyone a bit crazy, and we still feel its after-effects. Revolution was in the air around the globe, including on the streets of Europe and America. Capitalism and Western democracy were seen by many to be failing, unsatisfactory or a straight-up con. And the cynicism of American and European foreign policy, which propped up colonial regimes and right-wing dictators, led many people to think that truth must be on the side of whomever they were fighting against.

And Mr. Castro was cool. Even more so his sidekick, Che Guevara. For Soviet communism, which was run by fat-faced, Eastern European apparatchiks in cheap suits, the arrival of Cuban communists was a welcome rebranding exercise.

It was hard for beat poets and hippies to get all that excited about the five-year plans of Russian agronomists. But communists from a land of sand and sun and music, who wore revolutionary fatigues – real men of action! – while fighting colonialism, imperialism and capitalism? The picture of Che in a beret was quickly turned into a logo as recognizable as Coca-Cola or the Olympic rings, selling a powerful but vague idea of youth and revolution.

The real Che, however, was nihilism dressed up as humanitarianism. The Cuban revolution initially put him in charge of the economy and the central bank, but he had no idea of what to do – overthrowing a government is a lot more fun than running one – so he left Cuba to become a full-time global revolutionary. He became a worshipper of purifying violence, and the idea that humanity could kill its way to a better society.

Mr. Castro was of a different mind, and the world can at least be thankful for that. Che was an otherworldly radical; he would have been happy to start World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or at any other time. Mr. Castro, in contrast, settled comfortably into being a Caribbean version of Leonid Brezhnev. He didn’t want to end the world, or his regime. Since coming to power 57 years ago, he enjoyed the good life. The Cuban people, not so much.

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