An “astute political brain” who “inspired a generation of leaders”? Or a “figure from a different era” running a government of “sordid lawless killers”?
Heated discussions dominated the morning at this special event at Canning House, the UK-Iberia & Latin America foundation, looking backwards and forwards at the legacy of the former leader of Cuba.
There were three sections to be debated: Castro’s domestic, regional and global legacies.
The first one saw Antoni Kapcia, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Nottingham, put forward the point of view that the Cuban revolutionary acted and made “decisions within the realm of the possible”, carefully calculating what was achievable and loth to outreach himself on domestic policy.
Helen Yaffe, author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, described the US embargo as “devastating and suffocating”. She also looked to the island’s Soviet sponsor giant, saying that “constraints were placed on Cuba’s room for manoeuvre from the collapse of the USSR”, not just through the American trade ban.
The final speaker in this section was Cuban-born Alina Garcia-Lapuerta. She argued that there was still a “sense of uncertainty” surrounding the future after Castro’s death. Having said that, she did try to look to what might be ahead: “there could be no political change while Castro was still alive…he was too big a figure in Cuban life and Cuban history.”
In the second part of the event, for the discussion on regional legacy, Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba, called in on conference from the United States. He discussed how Latin nations’ friendships and ties with Cuba had come and gone. While at some point in recent history, most neighbour countries had “broken diplomatic relations with the US”, many states had gone on to thrive economically following different models than that espoused by Castro.
The former diplomat raised the issue of the “economic mismanagement and social turmoil” currently afflicting Venezuela, noting that Havana stands by Caracas due to their traditional links. Yet those regional links are weakening, according to Webster Hare, who said that young Latin Americans are today more distant in their political views from what is increasingly seen as the outdated outlook of Fidel Castro.
Steve Ludlam came to the regime’s defence.
The lecturer and member of the Cuba Research Forum drew a picture for the Britons in the audience of Fidel Castro as a mix of “Winston Churchill, Aneurin Bevan (the founder of the NHS) and the Queen Mother”. He went on to stand up for the “audacious revolutionary” whose radicalism had “strong anti-imperialist and anti-racist” elements to it. He also saw one of Castro’s legacies as the “success of social welfare programmes across Latin America”.
The final section was on the former leader of Cuba’s global legacy. For this, Canning House invited the Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens and the ex-Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.
The politician put forward an appraisal of the revolutionary, calling him a “giant” and an “icon to those who want to live in a better country”.
Peter Hitchens delivered the opposite. He described the Castro regime as being treated in a “rock-star way” when it was really a “government of torture”. Hitchens saw Castro’s “boasts of social advances go unchecked” and argued that “people should grow up about Castro…this cult of Fidel should be dropped.”
Questions were taken after each section and there was a notable intervention during the regional legacy part of the morning. The “Ambassador from the British Empire” was lambasted for challenging the fading policies of the Castros by a book publisher and socialist apologist who offered a vehement defence the Cuban leftist model. There were other questions, too, from exiled Cubans, criticising divisions in society created by the lack of a free press and the fact that Castro never held an election.