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America’s Baffling Life-Support for Castro

Despite the CIA’s repeated, and legendary, attempts at assassination, the Castro era is ending with a whimper rather than an exploding cigar. It’s hard to see quite what socialism has achieved for Cuba. The UN’s Human Development Report for 2007-8 flags up the nation’s much-vaunted strong points – high literacy and educational standards and a life expectancy comparable with many developed nations (though lower than Chile and Costa Rica), but also notes a per capita GDP lower than any of its Caribbean neighbours.

Agricultural yields have stagnated or fallen even as they’ve risen elsewhere in the region, and food production is half that when Castro came to power. Freedom House’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties gives Cuba the lowest possible rating in both categories, one of only seven countries to score the perfect donut; authors from George Orwell to Valcav Havel are banned. Castro has slowly but surely turned Cuba into an impoverished, repressive shithole.

In this context, it is at least arguable that the only thing that has kept him in power for five decades is United States policy. Economic stagnation can be blamed on the yanqui embargo; political repression justified on the grounds of expediency. Castro isn’t the first leader to use his “wartime presidency” as an excuse for curtailing civil liberties, but he’s one of the most egregious, and American administrations from Eisenhower on have played into his hands.

Europeans love to contrast their worldly-wise use of diplomacy and “soft” power with the embarrassing belligerence of their American cousins, recasting their military impotence as a strength and preferring not to dwell on the myriad examples of strongmen who’ve ignored their wheedling entreaties down the years. Starry-eyed leftists have seldom needed much encouragement to lionise the old thug, but Washington’s over-the-top rhetoric and blunt policy tools, like the Helms-Burton Act which threatened sanctions on US friends and allies who dared to permit trade with Cuba, has merely cemented the romantic canard of the bearded revolutionary standing up to the bully.

The double standards on show, most noticeable when compared with the fawning treatment of similarly unpleasant but much richer regimes from Riyadh to Beijing, reinforce the suspicion of hypocrisy. Castro has played his hand skillfully, but he shouldn’t have had as many cards in the first place.

Whingeing Europeans are no reason to revise US policy, God knows, but with Fidel’s departure, the opportunity arises to change the whole tone and substance of American policy towards Cuba, and correct a historic mistake. There should be an immediate promise to lift the embargo and normalize relations with Havana, but carefully and directly linked to political and economic liberalization and free elections.

Economic freedom is no guarantor of political liberty, of course, but if engagement is good enough for the Chinese, it’s hard to see why Cubans should be treated any different. Besides, his successor, brother Raul, is no spring chicken at 76, and revolutions seldom long outlive their makers. At the very least, you won’t have Castro to kick around any more.

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