I love it when people who have never spent significant time in a given country or who know very little about a given country, take the opportunity to speak authoritatively as to what is right and what is wrong with said country.
Enter James Travers’ recent column on Cuba (available here).
This is a great case study in what I’m talking about. While I’m ultimately in agreement with Travers that the US needs to butt-out of Cuba’s business and needs to stop its lusting after the small island as an untapped capitalist paradise, Travers takes this simple (and reasonable) conclusion and sullies it with his patronizing judgements which, in North American punditry, are all-too-common.
Now, Travers is a fairly influential man, so I think it’s important to document what is at best uninformed or at worst disingenuous in some of his comments lest his critical assessment of Cuba be allowed to stand as somehow valid despite its perversity.
Firstly, Travers writes, “Materially poor and culturally rich, Cuba is the worst of travelogue clichés.” What’s important to discuss here is two-fold:
#1) Travers goes on discussing Cuba’s poverty as if it is somehow an inseparable byproduct of its so-called ‘socialism’. In fact he suggests that it’s their backwards system which has left the people poor when he opines that Cuba’s failures are “evident on sparse shop shelves”. Never does it enter into his mind that perhaps the crushing economic sanctions by the world’s superpower against this tiny nation might have more to do with its poverty than any political or economic system that exists. Keep in mind that US economic influence brought down the Soviet Union and emasculated Saddam’s regime from 1991 up until the Iraq War, causing upwards of a million childhood deaths due to poverty – but no, that isn’t worth consideration as a cause of Cuba’s poverty.
#2) It’s also important to question Travers’ contention that Cuba is “materially poor” on philosophical grounds. What determines whether a country is considered poor or rich? Travers obviously considers our system “rich” and Cuba’s system “poor”, but why? Travers uncritically takes the capitalistic assumption that we ought to measure our success by the intoxicating heights reached by the most well-off in our society instead of quantifying it by the measuring stick of the ability of the least amongst us to sustain life. So which way of measuring ‘wealth’ is more valid? Sure, sure some individuals are richer up here in Canada but since all people only have one stomach to feed and one body to clothe & shelter, what does this measure of ‘wealth’ really matter? Which really is more accurate way of measuring wealth: measuring it by how much in excess of biological necessity a certain select few have or by how few fall below biological necessity?
Secondly, Travers wrights that “That transition [the transition from Fidel to Raul] or, to coin a phrase, that “tyrant-sition,” is mostly complete.” Now unlike the last point which was either ignorant at best or disingenuous at worst, this on this point Travers can only be described as disingenuous at best. Even the loosest definition of Tyrant would not encompass Castro.
Using two dictionaries to look up “tyrant” (the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2006 and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language [4th Ed], 2000) I found 7 possible definitions of the word. They were:
1. a sovereign or other ruler who uses power oppressively or unjustly.
2. any person in a position of authority who exercises power oppressively or despotically.
3. a tyrannical or compulsory influence.
4. an absolute ruler, esp. one in ancient Greece or Sicily.
5. An absolute ruler who governs without restrictions.
6. A ruler who exercises power in a harsh, cruel manner.
7. An oppressive, harsh, arbitrary person.
Do any of these describe either (Fidel) Castro or Raul?
#1 doesn’t really apply because:
a) Castro by the official standards of Western governments wherein the current governments of Turkey, Pakistan, Haiti, Lybia and Saudi Arabia don’t qualify as official “tyrannies” it seems odd to suggest that these oppressive regimes aren’t tyrannies while Cuba somehow is.
b) Castro’s power isn’t illegitimate but is actually recognized by the same international legal precept which the Supreme Court of Canada reaffirmed in the Quebec Secession Reference: namely the Principle of Effectiveness. This principle basically states that even a revolutionary government can become legitimate over time (this, obviously, was the same principle which granted the United States legitimacy because, lest we forget, they initiated a revolution for far far less noble reasons than Castro’s revolution yet are nonetheless considered legitimate).
#2 doesn’t apply for the same reasons that #1 doesn’t apply (if we’re going to consider Castro oppressive, then we’ve got to consider some of our closer friends at least more oppressive and tyrannical than he is and that’s not going to happen anytime soon)
#3 doesn’t apply because Castro doesn’t exercise compulsory influence. Not only had he allowed massive numbers of his people to leave (as in the 1990s), his hold on the party isn’t as absolute as people may think. The party decides who becomes president (unlike, for instance, Muammar Gaddafi who is President for Life) and has the power in its constitution to impeach even the Castros.
#4 and 5 have never existed anywhere in history because nobody has ever been an “absolute” ruler. Ever. Not even Hitler. Not even Napoleon. Not even Caesar.
#6 and 7 don’t apply for the same reasons that #1 and 2 didn’t apply
So what do we make of James Travers’ column? A weak attempt at father-knows-best paternalism from a distance? The uneducated ravings of a man who probably had a column deadline looming with no well-researched material available? Or; yet another attempt to remake history with Castro’s silly or tyrannical brand of governance being the cause of all the poverty and evil that has befallen Cuba?
The answer is probably all three