Fidel Castro died on Friday November 25th, 2016 at 90 years old. His death marks the passing of a brutal dictator who violated the basic rights of his citizens throughout his 49 years as self-proclaimed President of Cuba. Castro, the son of Spanish immigrants to Cuba led a five-year revolt against the dictatorial government of President Fulgencio Batista before finally ousting Batista on January 1st, 1959. At first, Castro promised liberal-democratic reforms in line with his 1956 “Five Laws” statements. His appointment of Manuel Urrutia Lleó, a liberal seemed to reflect a desire for open markets and democratic reforms. However, by July 17th the promise of a free and open Cuba evaporated. Castro pushed Urratia out of power and installed authoritarian Marxists in key government positions. From July 17th onwards Castro aligned himself with the Soviet Union while executing and imprisoning thousands without trial. The pattern of repressive and authoritarian governance modeled on Stalin-era Soviet policies continued up until Castro stepped aside as president in 2008 in favour of his brother Raul. Raul has ruled Cuba since then and, while introducing some liberalizing measures, has largely maintained the Castro’s repressive regime.
Upon news of his death statements from global leaders poured in, with many on the left offering tributes to Castro. One of the most infamous was Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s, where he describes Castro as ” …a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.” The only nod to Castro’s brutality was Trudeau’s description of Castro as a “controversial figure.” Alternatively, those on the right, such as Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio and President-Elect Donald Trump, condemned Castro in terms reserved for the most tyrannical of world leaders. Similarly, many conservative pundits both denounced Castro and used his death as an example of the left’s supposed love of dictatorships. Former Brietbart writer Ben Shapiro best demonstrates this trend when he concludes his article on Castro and the left by writing, “This is why the left must be fought at every turn… the left has always supported the worst people on the planet, so long as they’re pledged to destroying individual liberty in the name of collective fairness. ” While an inflammatory rhetorical device to contrast the “liberty loving right” and the “barely veiled communist left”, such a position is the product of historical ignorance and pure hypocrisy. Rather, people’s public positions on abusive leaders such as Castro is largely the product of their stance regarding American/Western strategic interests and the fervency of one’s anti-communist ideology.
While Castro inflicted much suffering on the Cuban people, he was far from the only authoritarian leader of the 20th century. Yet, political expediency, economic factors and/or blind anti-communism has led many on the right to support reprehensible dictators. For a recent example from Canadian history, one only needs to look at the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the Harper government’s reaction. Rather than highlighting the Saudi’s record of violence, sexism, and political repression, the Canadian Prime Minister instead called the deceased monarch “a strong proponent of peace.” Canada also spent over $175 000 to send Governor General David Johnson to Saudi Arabia for the funeral. Similarly, many on the American right, such as Senator John McCain, also praised the Saudi leader. Why? Because Saudi Arabia was – and still is – a critical American ally and trade partner in the oil-rich Middle East. Now, many on the left also praised King Abdullah, but the idea that conservatives make principled stands while the left embraces totalitarianism is a little hard to justify if we expand the scope of our discussion even just to 2015.
Looking back to Cold War history, the trend of the right embracing authoritarian regimes becomes even more pronounced. The Ronald Reagan administration, in particular, lent US support to a variety of unsavory characters around the globe in a bid to fight anything that even resembled communism. The Reagan White House provided arms and support – and Reagan even personally met with Jonas Savimbi, the leader of National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the Angolan guerrilla movement with close ties to the Apartheid Regime of South Africa. At the same time, the Reagan administration also sold weapons to South Africa to secure their support in the Angolan conflict. Similarly, as was revealed through the Iran-Contra scandal, the CIA sold weapons to authoritarian Iran in order to fund right-wing death squads called Contras in Nicaragua, precisely because said squads targetted leftists. Anti-communism trumped even the most basic human rights in Reagan’s world view.
These are simply the most prominent examples as the US also supported the totalitarian military leader of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak who came to power in 1981 and of course, sold weapons to Iraqi dictator Sadam Hussein. US support of Iraq during the brutal Iran-Iraq war was motivated by a combined fear of the Iranian theocracy and the powerful military the Iranian government inherited from the previous regime of the Shah of Iran. Ironically, it was due to the Americans that the Shah, another brutal dictator, had access to the latest US military hardware, as the US supported the Shah’s regime throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s when it jailed, tortured and killed its political opponents. Iran was a strategic ally and a key source of oil imports, if they bathed political dissidents in acid well, that was the price of regional security right?
As the Iran case suggests, US support of authoritarian regimes began well before Ronald Reagan became president. Particularly, but not exclusively, in Africa and Asia, the US government was willing to support kleptocratic strongmen so long as they refused to cooperate with the Soviet Union. While there is a litany of examples I could site, particularly during the Vietnam war, the case of Mobuto Sese Seko and Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo – is possibly the most egregious. After assuming absolute power in 1965, Mobutu, backed by the US, stole from his already impoverished people and saw his country become one of the least-developed in the world while US presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, sat back and propped up his regime. However, it was with Republican Presidents that Mobutu had the best relations, personally befriending Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. During the Reagan administration, Mobuto visited the White House three times and Reagan significantly downplayed the massive human rights abuse in Zaire. Mobutu also had high-profile conservative supporters in the USA, with Pat Robertson openly campaigning in favour of Mobutu. It was only in 1997, after almost 40 years of repressive rule, that Mobuto was finally ousted by the equally authoritarian Laurent Kabila. He had simply outlived his usefulness to the US due to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Finally, those on the right could be remarkably conciliatory of left-wing dictators if it served their economic and strategic interests. While Richard Nixon’s support of right-wing strong man in well known, most famously the CIA’s 1972 supported coup in Chile that removed a democratic-socialist government in favour of the authoritarian Augusto Pinochet, Nixon was also willing to overlook the heinous crimes of communist strongmen if it suited him. The best example is Nixon’s statement upon the death of Chairman Mao of the Chinese People’s Republic; nary a mention of mass starvation, summary executions, political and religious repression and re-education camps.
Rather, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party in the 1970s represented a new frontier for American trade and a possible ally against the Soviet Union after the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s. So, to advance American economic and military interests, Nixon and the White House spoke glowingly of one of, if not the most, murderous dictators in history.
A similar story could be told about the British Conservative Party’s willingness to embrace authoritarian regimes of the right, from Margaret Thatcher’s support of Pinochet and her unwillingness to enforce sanctions on Apartheid Era South Africa through to many British Conservatives’ support of Fransico Franco during the Spanish Civil War. There are also many examples of Conservative Canadian Prime Ministers embracing right-wing authoritarians and while Pierre Trudeau is often vilified on the right for his supposed embrace of Communist China and Fidel Castro, it was Conservative John Diefenbaker who began massive grain sales to both the PRC and the USSR in the early 1960s while Trudeau Sr. cut off development aid to Cuba in response to Castro’s deployment of soldiers to Angola.
The overall point is that sympathy, or outright support of, abusive and anti-democratic regimes is not a characteristic of the right or the left. While conservatives have delighted in highlighting all the embarrassing ways prominent members of the left have supported communist regimes, they overlook the multitude of ways that conservative political leaders have also embraced totalitarian leaders. The examples I’ve provided is merely the tip of the iceberg and only touches on post World War Two history. I haven’t even begun to explore the America First Movement and its indifference (or outright support) of Fascism in Europe during the 1930s and 40s. While I am glad that many people have criticized Justin Trudeau’s statement about Castro and have rightly highlighted Castro’s destructive legacy, using these statements as evidence to make some broadly ahistorical point about the left and authoritarianism is blatant hypocrisy that should rightly embarrass the authors of these polemics.