This article appears in The Times.
"History will absolve me,” declared Fidel Castro from the dock in 1953. At four hours' duration, his famous speech gave an ominous augury of later loquacity. But the voice is now diminished. Last month, in a statement read out on state television, an ailing Castro conceded that the transfer of power to his brother Raúl might not be temporary.
With half a century's hindsight, we can predict that history will withhold the absolution he expected. Cuba's revolution has deformed international relations and subjugated the people in whose name it is implausibly proclaimed. Castro's legacy is a stagnating, dysfunctional one-party state.
The failure is overwhelmingly Castro's. His repressiveness and mismanagement have been exacerbated, however, by self-defeating policies on the part of the US and the EU. Cuba will not again be the focus of international rivalries as it was 45 years ago in the superpowers' nuclear stand-off. Nor is it likely to become a failed state as penurious as Haiti. But it might become a new Panama of the type misruled by Manuel Noriega in the 1980s: an economically crippled gangster regime, marked by crime, corruption and drug trafficking. Western governments would do well to anticipate and forestall this outcome. Easing a transition from autocracy to democracy requires a common diplomacy by the US and Europe
Castro's defenders cite the iniquities of the US economic embargo and the successes of Cuba's welfare policies. There is, in both cases, less than meets the eye. Cuba is literally in ruins: Havana's colonial architecture is in crumbling disrepair. The economy is sclerotic. Production of sugar, once the island's primary industry, has collapsed. National income largely depends on tourism, remittances from families living in the US and subsidies from Venezuela. For the leader who launched a “Great Revolutionary Offensive” in emulation of Mao's Great Leap Forward, it is an ignominious outcome.
The US has not caused this fiasco. Castro was perfectly capable of squandering Soviet subsidies on a massive security apparatus and bizarre ventures in animal husbandry. But America's unilateral sanctions (the Helms-Burton Act) are so obviously punitive to third parties that the US is wary about implementing them. They alienate European governments while doing nothing to promote change in Cuba. The EU is justified in finding this exasperating, but not in tempering the aim of political reform by easing its own diplomatic sanctions. When Raúl Castro assumed power, the EU pitifully responded by claiming a “new situation”. Two years ago the EU Commissioner Louis Michel concluded a visit to Cuba by urging pro-democracy campaigners to avoid provoking Fidel Castro.
Our Government ought to be urging a common approach among the EU, the US and the Organisation of American States. US economic sanctions are discredited and should discreetly be replaced: not by rapprochement and normalised relations with Cuba, as the Spanish Government urges, but by emphasising the political aims that those sanctions are supposed to advance and have not achieved. Pressing for free and fair elections in Cuba is a minimal diplomatic stance.
The EU belatedly reconsidered its relations with Cuba in 2003 after the regime imprisoned 75 dissidents and executed three men who had hijacked a ferry to try to escape from the island. Symbolic sanctions, such as limits on high-level official visits, were imposed. That stance should be turned into explicit support for Cuban democrats. There should be grants to NGOs to monitor human rights in Cuba and support independent media. If we press for the relaxation of an arbitrary US embargo, we must also insist that Castro allow ordinary Cubans to travel abroad. Normal relations should be introduced in stages, depending on political and economic reforms. Under the current regime, these are a remote prospect but we shall at least have marked out a strategy for the introduction of democracy.
As a policy, declaratory support for democrats has its limits. But recall that the Helsinki Agreement of 1975 was much criticised (especially by US conservatives) for supposed ineffectual symbolism, yet in the long term it had a galvanising effect on dissidents in the Communist bloc. There is scant sign that a Cuban succession will liberalise the country. But, in the meantime, there are merits in indicating clearly, to our allies in Europe and both Americas, and to Cubans, which side we are on. And not only to them.
The most perverse aspect of Western attitudes towards Cuba is not a misconceived US embargo, but a widespread romanticism towards its target. Today's antiwar campaigners appear unaware that the historical figure who more nearly than anyone brought the world to nuclear destruction was Fidel Castro. In the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Castro cabled Khrushchev and urged a nuclear first strike in the event of a US invasion of the island. (Khrushchev responded to his volatile ally with understated reason: “Dear Comrade Fidel Castro, I consider this proposal of yours incorrect.”)
When Mikhail Gorbachev visited Cuba in 1989, shortly before the edifice of Soviet Communism imploded, he was greeted with a huge banner unsubtly declaring: “Long live Marxism-Leninism!” Stalinist by ideology, warmonger by inclination, and autocrat by temperament, Fidel Castro will be an easy act to follow.