Understanding the Fidels of the World requires Empathy-based Nuance: Embrace and Teach It

This piece was originally published by ergo

In 2006, during my junior year in high school, I had a research assignment in my honors Spanish class where I was tasked with writing about a topic of my choice involving Cuba. Since even then I was a hopeless history nerd and geo-political addict, I naturally chose to write a paper comparing and contrasting the Batista and Castro governments. I conducted extensive research (i.e. spending a weekend hitting the library instead of playing video games, watching movies, or socializing with friends. It was "extensive" by high school standards) and hashed out a paper that I was quite proud of.

The Human Element of Revolution and Political Violence

My paper skewered Batista's highly repressive "crony-capitalist banana republic" which benefited huge multinational corporations, mafia-run casinos and businesses, and a handful of Havana's politically-connected business elite to the detriment of the vast majority of the population who were disenfranchised and violently repressed. In contrast, my paper explored how Castro's revolutionary government kicked out said crony capitalists and mafiosos and instead nationalized land and industries to re-distribute back to the urban poor and the rural campesinos. This new government slashed infant mortality and achieved near-universal literacy rates. It officially outlawed racism against Afro-Cubans (although my high school paper failed to acknowledge that like all deeply-rooted cultural phenomena, issues still persist). The revolution insisted on providing free education, healthcare, and "even free childcare!" to all. The latter is a direct quote from my paper, and the exclamation point captured my astonishment and pure excitement at this concept as a high school junior.

Immensely proud of my paper, I triumphantly turned it in and received a superior grade--complete with glowing remarks from my Chilean-American professor. However, within the week two of our school's other teachers gently pulled me aside in the hallway. They shared with me shocking stories of life in "re-education camps" for dissidents, the stifling of political dissent, and their harrowing journey on the open seas with nothing but hopes for a better future for themselves and their children.

They were of course both Cuban-Americans, and to my horror I realized that in my "extensive" desk research I had completely missed an entire side to the story. The human element is always critical foundation of any story, and in the era before extensive blogging and social media, exploring it was certainly considerably harder. Yet I was deeply ashamed and embarrassed at my failure to do so--and could only promise my teachers that if I knew the information they shared with me, I would certainly have written a far more balanced paper.

The Developing World's Adoration of Comrade Fidel

Almost ten years later, I had the opportunity to learn about yet another dimension to the saga of Cuban revolution. Last year I was given the life-changing opportunity to work on a rule of law project in East Timor for six months. In the world's fourth youngest nation, Cuba is virtually universally loved by everyone. Thus when Fidel Castro finally passed away, virtually all of my Timorese friends shared gushing tributes on social media. They expressed their profound sorrow for and gratitude towards a 90 year old man who ruled another small island nation on the other side of the world for 32 years.

Why?

There are several reasons why people in East Timor, like the publics of many developing nations adored "Comrade Fidel" and revolutionary Cuba. One of the most important and emotion-laden is the fact that Cuba frequently expressed solidarity and gave diplomatic and political support to countries which waged anti-colonial struggles or wars of independence. This included Cuba's robust support to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa as well as the brutal liberation war struggle in my native Bangladesh. Beyond such support, Cuba sometimes extended military support and even direct military action to directly assist these struggles, shedding blood and treasure in the process.

Indeed despite being a small island nation at America's doorstep and subject to one of the most comprehensive embargoes in modern history, Cuba was frequently able and willing to exert political and military clout well above its weight. Such bold assertiveness was often heartening and inspiring to many developing nations, whose publics felt their own governments often had no choice but to chafe to colonial and neo-colonial pressures. The brutalized masses of East Timor found encouragement, solidarity, and support from Cuba in support of their horrific decades-long liberation struggle. When so much of the international community turned a blind eye or outright sanctioned and assisted the horrific Indonesian occupation, a peoples yearning to form a free, independent nation found a reliable friend in Cuba.

2016-12-04-1480827130-2982076-NicolauLobato.JPG

Statue in honor of slain independence hero Nocolau Lobato

Yet this support was not merely limited to the independence struggle. After Timor's independence, Cuba continues to extend significant medical and educational support to the young nation. In 2003 Cuba educated the first batches of Timorese medical students free of charge in Cuba. Cuba also began sent doctors to work throughout Timor with a particular focus on rural areas. After the Timorese government decided to establish its own medical school capable of training 1000 doctors, Cuba lent its educational and organizational expertise. As East Timor's first Prime Minister revealed in his address to Timor's first graduating medical class, this aid far outstripped the aid offered by many developed nations. I saw the work of Cuban doctors firsthand in Timor, and my own doctor was Cuban. Together with internationally funded community health care clinics like Bairo Pite, they serve as a vital foundation to Timor's healthcare system and serve countless patients from some of Timor's most destitute communities who otherwise simply would not have access to healthcare.

Havana's "Cuban medical internationalism", which essentially exports medical professionals and services, is a fascinating example of both "soft power" diplomacy as well as a service-based export. Such robust medical aid remains deeply appreciated not only by the Timorese government, but by the Timorese populace on a grassroots level. With both revolutionary political and military support and robust post-revolutionary medical and educational assistance, it's little wonder why so many publics in developing countries around the world deeply respect Cuba--and mourned the loss of their dear Comrade.

Comrade Fidel versus Communist Strongman Castro

When news of Fidel Castro's death first broke out, I didn't quite know how to feel--much less what to write. Indeed I was originally not going to write anything about such a divisive issue, especially since taking any kind of definitive position seems to be a guaranteed way of upsetting at least half of friends and peers in human rights and international relations circles.

Yet as I shared my experiences in Timor in an attempt to encourage my fellow Americans and Westerners to be open minded, I soon realized that not writing about such a momentous yet complicated occasion would be a disservice, if not an outright cop-out. How could I expect others to embrace nuance and open-mindedness if I myself was unable or unwilling to try and tackle this issue myself?

Thus in addition to briefly sharing my experience in Timor, I began seeking out as many different voices and perspectives as possible. One of the most insightful and thought-provoking pieces I've come across is a thought-provoking Law at the Margins article by Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, a human rights advocate who has long worked on a number of human rights issues in Cuba. In her piece, Esquire Bannan discusses the unique challenges facing the human rights struggle in Cuba as well as how the US embargo has added to those challenges. For starters, the author certainly has far more moral standing that the US government. Indeed while various officials lecture Cuba on human rights and democratization, it must be acknowledged that they do so from an extremely awkward position while the US continues to operate a veritable torture dungeon in their country. Any exhortations for democratization are now somewhat complicated with the rise of a fear-mongering proto-fascist, whose astounding litany of disgraceful rhetoric and actions have been rewarded with the most important and powerful position of political office. Awkward, to say the least.

Flipping the Narrative: Human Rights as Revolutionary Commitments

Beyond such insightful political analysis, what I found most fascinating was the article's re-framing of the issue of human rights in revolutionary states:

"The revolution didn't just happen 57 years ago - it is defended and fought for every day by all of us, but especially by those in Cuba, who actively mold their revolution and government through the many means of actual democratic participation."

It seems brilliantly provocative and subversive to re-frame the fight for human rights in Cuba as actually part of the country's revolutionary process. Reshaping the narrative in such a manner is a remarkably innovative and savvy approach that turns the narrative in favor of the citizenry and places the onus back on the authorities. Indeed this struggle for framing--or "propaganda war" if you must--is actually a very important front in the struggle for human rights in post-conflict states i.e. who gets to frame the narrative, and how it's framed. Esquire Bannan poignantly shows how re-framing human rights as a revolutionary commitment that the authorities must live up to is a smarter play than simply allowing yourself and your allies to be painted as "anti-revolutionary" agitators and outsiders without having a compelling counter-narrative. Thus instead of basing opposition to human rights abuses on selective memory-based nostalgia which tapers over the tyrannies of past regimes, it strikes me a far smarter move to use the revolutionary playbook to your advantage. Citizens demanding accountability for the actions of those aspiring to lofty revolutionary ideals--rather than simply allowing them to monopolize the revolutionary narrative--seems to be a superior strategic, pragmatic, and moral option. Complexity and Nuance-based Advocacy

Revolutions are inherently complicated, complex, messy affairs with many different competing interests and groups. Perhaps the most important fault lines is the timeless struggle between the elite and the upper class versus the middle class and the poor (the latter two groups not always the closest of allies), as well as the ubiquitous urban vs rural divide. In the case of Cuba, opinions are divided even among Cubans living in Cuba. The plight of political dissidents from all backgrounds who have been imprisoned, tortured, and/or murdered by the regime certainly bears strong weight, but so do the views of rural campesinos and their descendants who may have benefited from certain programs. Both perspectives deserve to be heard, because both sets of lives and lived experiences matter.

Here is where I believe historical perspective, clarity and honestly is key. With Batista's regime, there was brutal repression and severe economic deprivation which benefited almost nobody except for a select group of urban elites. The revolutionary government which replaced it certainly features repression and economic woes. Yet it also introduced free education, free childcare, a robust healthcare system, and a deeply popular anti-colonial foreign policy both at home and around the world. There are redeeming qualities in revolutionary Cuba, or at least remarkable accomplishments. While one many certainly conclude that these accomplishments do not outweigh or offset the negatives, they should not be minimized or ignored for the sake of political convenience.

In a world that can be so Western-centric, transformative figures like Fidel Castro need to be studied, and to draw lessons from their lives and actions. We must endeavor to fully understand the lives and motivations of leaders like Salvador Allende, Jacobo Arbenz, Mohammed Mossadegh, Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Jean-Bertrand Aristide to explore and teach their stories--not just to contextualize the history of their nations and peoples, but also our own.

Humanitarian Cooperation over Geo-political Differences

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iran and the United States have long been at odds. Both nations have completely different political systems with complex geo-political interests that both conflict and converge. What's more, American President Barack Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are as different world leaders in substance and style as imaginable. Yet at the height of US-Iran tensions in 2012, a remarkable New York Times article came out: "What can Mississippi learn from Iran?" To my complete ignorance, I learned that Iran has an "excellent" and robust community-based health system in which local health care workers serve as preventative care providers:

"The Iranians built "health houses" to minister to 1,500 people who lived within at most an hour's walking distance. Each house is a 1,000-square-foot hut equipped with examination rooms and sleeping quarters and staffed by community health workers -- one man and one or more women who have been given basic training in preventive health care. They advise on nutrition and family planning, take blood pressure, keep track of who needs prenatal care, provide immunization and monitor environmental conditions like water quality. Crucially, in order to gain trust, the health workers come from the villages they serve. People who become very sick, or require surgical procedures, are referred up through a single, multitiered system: from health house to rural health center to district hospital."

The cost-effectiveness of this integrated system, its expansiveness, and the results it has produced have been quite impressive:

"Today, 17,000 health houses serve 23 million rural Iranians. Health disparities between rural and urban Iranians have narrowed; the Iranians have reduced rural infant mortality by 75 percent and lowered the birthrate. Iran's reforms won praise from the World Health Organization, which has long advocated preventive, primary care."

With rural-urban disparities that mirrors those Iran has grappled with, a group of American health professionals hoped to learn from Iran's primary care system. A delegation of Iranian doctors and health care administrators visited the Mississippi delta and worked with patients who previously knew little or nothing about Iran. Together, they collaborated with a group of American physicians, public health officials, and healthcare workers on designing a system capable of addressing the disparities in rural Mississippi.

Even under Ahmadinejad's presidency, such small-scale yet novel cooperation was possible. Now that US-Iran relations are improving (barring any short-sighted and reckless Congressional or Presidential actions), why can such collaborations not only continue but expand? Indeed Cuba also has a dynamic community-based healthcare system which has achieved remarkable progress in a number of health indicators. Why can the US not also take advantage of this historic thawing in relations to work with Cuba in a variety of areas? What is stopping the US from putting aside political differences in the interests of improving lives and advancing humanity's prospects?

Whatever one's political beliefs and predilections, it is always crucial to keep an open mind. With regards to "Comrade Fidel" and revolutionary Cuba, go hear what Cuban exiles, people in Cuba, and people around the world have to say. In trying to understand the legacy of such a complex leader, all of these viewpoints matter. Indeed as is the case with all significant historical figures, there are many different sets of truths. There is nothing wrong in exploring, embracing, and teaching nuance--because the key to greater international cooperation and understanding relies upon it.