What Castro’s Death Revealed

The hypocritical outrage surrounding Fidel Castro’s death and what it says about North America’s political elite
Ted Cruz at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition 2015 (Scott Olson/Getty Images).

Ted Cruz at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition 2015 (Scott Olson/Getty Images).

Fidel Castro Ruz, the leader of the Cuban revolution, died on November 25th, 2016. As news of the former dictator’s death spread across the globe, many North American politicians passionately threw themselves into a competition of overwrought, self-serving condemnations. And they still haven’t stopped.

Before I go on, let me be clear — it is not my intention to minimize the Castro government’s serious human rights violations. The Cuban dictatorship was — and still is — harsh and often excessive in its repression of political opposition. Human Rights Watch has reported torture in Cuban prisons as recently as 1999. Castro’s Cuba has a history of discriminatory policies, and it still restricts freedom of expression and religious liberty. But this article is not about that. It is about the North American politicians whose disproportionate reaction to Castro’s death revealed their own hypocrisy and ideological priorities. Castro’s death confirmed again that much of North America’s political elite hate Castro with a passion. And it showed why they hate him so much. Hint: It has nothing to do with Castro’s human rights record.

Unsurprisingly, at the forefront of the exercise in Castro-hating hyperbole was the US president-elect Donald Trump. After initially posting a tweet that merely stated the obvious, Trump released a longer statement that declared in typical Trumpian style:

Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades. Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.

While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve.

Not only is the statement an unsurprising example of Trump bombastic rhetoric, it is an example of Trump’s gross hypocrisy.

Trump’s disdain for Castro and sudden concern for “fundamental human rights” is disingenuous to say the least. This is a man who has repeatedly praised Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and once even seemingly justified Putin killing journalists by saying “at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.” He has also spoken positively of the literally genocidal former president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and the supreme leader/cult leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un.

Beyond his chronically unreliable words, Trump’s actions show what he really thinks about both Castro’s Cuba and dictators in general.

In 1999, in violation of the United States’ embargo against Cuba and federal trade law, Trump did business in Castro’s Cuba. Trump’s company funneled at least $68,000 through an investment firm which used a charity as a front for its illegal actives. Trump’s people reportedly “met with Cuban officials to explore opportunities for his casinos.” The following year, Donald Trump told a crowd in Miami that he would “never” spend money in Cuba.

This is not the only documented example of Trump turning a blind eye to the human rights he now claims to care about. Two years before the 2011 uprising that overthrew Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Trump courted Gaddafi and his government officials in an apparent attempt to explore a business partnership.

Trump’s attempts to woo the Libyan colonel were on display in September 2009 when Gaddafi came to New York to give a speech at the UN. At first Gaddafi had trouble finding somewhere to stay. Because of Gaddafi’s connection to the Lockerbie bombing (which killed 270 people), real estate agent Jason Haber barred him from a Eastside penthouse he had attempted to rent — but Gaddafi found a friend in Trump. The New York real estate tycoon kindly offered Gaddafi his Westchester palace property.

This was not Trump’s first foray into providing housing for embattled dictators either. The former dictator of Haiti Jean-Claude Duvalier — perhaps most infamous for selling body parts to supplement the already comfortable income he earned from impoverishing his people — owned a condo in Trump Tower.

Although Trump is the most prominent hypocrite to participate in the Two Minutes Hate-like tirades against Castro, he is certainly not alone. He was joined and soon surpassed by many politicians on both sides of the US — Canada border whose self-righteous wrath grew to encompass anyone who dared to question the apparently self-evident truth that Castro was worse than the devil.

It began with the usual suspects. Republican politicians from Florida and/or of Cuban descent publicized their hatred of the “evil” Castro and their love of Cuba.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s statement which claimed to speak for history was a one-sided oversimplification of Castro’s legacy that conveniently ignores any US complicity in Cubans’ suffering. To be fair to Rubio, considering his family’s history in Cuba, his hatred is no doubt genuine. And Rubio’s initial reaction was positively subdued compared to the right-wing hysteria that ensued after the White House released the US President’s official statement — and especially after the Canadian Prime Minister released his.

Barrack Obama’s official response to Castro’s death was neutral to the extreme. It was a bland, carefully worded diplomatic message that succeeded in its likely intention of saying nothing subjective. Except for Rubio who called Obama’s statement “pathetic” and Republican presidential runner-up Ted Cruz’s who agreed and somehow twisted Obama’s painfully un-passionate words into Obama “ showering love on our enemies,” it didn’t seem to illicit much of a reaction.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement was another story. Aside from briefly noting that Castro was a “controversial figure,” Trudeau had nothing but good things to say about Cuba’s “remarkable leader.”

“It is with deep sorrow that I learned today of the death of Cuba’s longest serving President.

“Fidel Castro was 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.

“While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for “el Comandante”.

“I know my father was very proud to call him a friend and I had the opportunity to meet Fidel when my father passed away. It was also a real honour to meet his three sons and his brother President Raúl Castro during my recent visit to Cuba.

“On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to the family, friends and many, many supporters of Mr. Castro. We join the people of Cuba today in mourning the loss of this remarkable leader.”

Considering the serious human rights abuses that were perpetrated under Fidel Castro’s government, it is understandable and legitimate that Trudeau’s glowing assessment of the man would elicit anger and criticism. However, any legitimate criticisms of Trudeau’s puff piece were soon lost in the absurd levels of hypocritical moral outrage that enveloped social media as Republican and Canadian Conservative Party politicians tried to one-up each other.

Predictably, Rubio and Cruz were the most vocal in their condemnation of Trudeau. Cruz lamented that “young socialists idolize” all the worst Communists he could think of the top of his head (Cruz is apparently unaware that Trudeau is only one year younger than he is and not a socialist).

Not content to confine his rantings to Twitter, Cruz wrote an over 1000-word op-ed for the National Review called “The Truth about Fidel and Raul” which again attacked both Trudeau and Obama, who he claimed were leading the race “to see which world leader can most fulsomely praise Fidel Castro’s legacy.”

The melodrama was even worse in Canada. In response to Cruz, Conservative senator Leo Housakos lamented that Trudeau has “no respect for our democratic way of life and basic human rights and freedom.”

Conservative Party interim leader Rona Ambrose and candidates in the party’s ongoing leadership race (to replace their former leader and Trudeau’s prime ministerial predecessor Stephen Harper) tweeted their horrified responses to the Prime Minister’s statement complete with meme-like graphics in both of Canada’s official languages. They took turns demanding Trudeau retract his statement and apologize, comparing Castro to all the worst people from fact and fiction, and crying about Trudeau being a national embarrassment. Parodies skewering Trudeau’s statement pushed #TrudeauEuologies into Twitter’s trending topics.

Anger and demands for an apology soon escalated into calls for a full-blown boycott of Castro’s funeral. Similar demands were made in the US, but in Canada such demands are more obviously disingenuous considering that, unlike the US, Canada has maintained uninterrupted diplomatic ties with Castro’s Cuba under both Liberal and Conservative governments. In the context of the Conservative leadership race, however, it seems that no one wanted to be labeled the “soft-on-Castro” candidate.

The anti-Castro funeral crusade was taken to perhaps its most openly self-serving extreme by former speaker of House of Commons Andrew Scheer who even created a petition for his campaign website. Not only does the petition demand Trudeau boycott the funeral, it demands that the entire Canadian government boycott it.

Considering Canada’s long-standing diplomatic ties with Cuba, such a boycott would be unprecedented. As pointed out by Deepak Obhrai (one of the few Conservative leadership candidates not to hyperventilate about Castro’s death), Canadian government officials attend the funeral’s of foreign heads of states — essentially no matter what the state’s human rights record. Obhrai even claimed that when he served in the last Conservative government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he attended such funerals when the government “ wanted to make [a] strong statement” on human rights.

Case in point is the funeral of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in January 2015. A Canadian delegation, led by Governor General David Johnston, attended that funeral at a $175,000 cost to Canadian taxpayers.

Despite the theocratic Saudi kingdom’s horrible and/or medieval human rights record and its ties to Wahhabi terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, there was no uproar — or even a whisper — from the self-righteous Canadian politicians now so loudly demanding a funeral boycott for the sake of human rights.

Nor did these supposed human rights activists have any objection whatsoever to Prime Minster Stephen Harper’s statement on the day the Saudi Arabian dictator died. Harper’s statement on King Abdullah was almost exactly the same as Trudeau statement on Castro. Without even throwing in a weak Trudeau-like caveat about Abdullah being a “controversial figure,” Harper characterized the late king as a “strong proponent of peace” who was “passionate about his country.”

Here’s Harper’s statement in full (you’d be excused if you mistook this for another #TrudeauEulogy parody):

“On behalf of all Canadians, Laureen and I offer our sincere condolences to the family of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and the people of Saudi Arabia.

“King Abdullah was recognized as a strong proponent of peace in the Middle East. He also undertook a range of important economic, social, education, health, and infrastructure initiatives in his country.

“I had the pleasure of meeting King Abdullah in Toronto when Canada hosted the G-20 and found him to be passionate about his country, development and the global economy.

“We join the people of Saudi Arabia in mourning his passing.”

Barrack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden both released similar statements that made the Saudi dictator seem like a really great guy.

The Saudi dictator’s death on January 23, 2015, and the disgustingly sugar-coated eulogizes that followed came less than two weeks after blogger Raif Badawi was publicly flogged with 50 lashes. This was the first in a series of 1,000 lashes to be carried out every Friday over a 20 week period. Badawi was also fined $266,600 and sentenced to ten years in prison. All this for blog posts that criticized Saudi Arabia’s clerics or, as the authorities called it, “insulting Islam.” After the first day of the flogging, the second installment had to be postponed because Badawi’s body still hadn’t healed from the previous week’s savagery.

Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar, who fled to Canada with the couple’s three children after Badawi’s imprisonment, called on the world’s political leaders to advocate for her husband:

I hope that all the governments in the world will intensify their efforts to pressure the authorities to stop what they intend doing to my husband. I believe they can do it, if they speak directly to the government in Saudi.

And yet none of the politicians leading the current anti-Castro hysteria had anything to say. Ted Cruz didn’t didn’t show his disapproval of Harper with a sad tweet lamenting “middle-aged conservatives who idealize theocratic tyrants.” And Marco Rubio didn’t call Obama or Biden “pathetic.”

Donald Trump was too busy bragging about his TV show and ranking the hotness of the beauty pageant contestants. Meanwhile, the rest of the moral outrage brigade, including the Canadian Conservatives — who were in government at the time and obviously well aware of both Harper’s statement and Ensaf Haidar’s plea for help — pretended they’d never heard of Saudi Arabia.

Arizona Senator John McCain was the only prominent North American politician to even acknowledge Abdullah’s death on social media. McCain, who mostly stayed on the sidelines of the Castro-hating extravaganza but did tweet an article that called Castro “Cuba’s brutal big brother,” had nothing but praise for Saudi Arabia’s dead dictator. In a laudatory statement released on his website, McCain expressed his “deepest condolences to the people of Saudi Arabia” and, much like Harper, called Abdullah a “vocal advocate for peace.” He also claimed that the king was an “important voice for reform.”

The double-standard reveled in the reactions to Castro’s death is just the latest evidence that the official 54 year bi-partisan US consensus to demonize Castro and punish Cuba never had anything to do with human rights. The American and Canadian politicians who continue perpetrate this myth are self-serving hypocrites who only care about human rights when it serves their political agenda. Their primary goal is not the political liberation of the Cuban people anymore than it is the liberation of the Saudi people who they do not even bother paying lip-service to. Rather their goal, in the short-term, is scoring cheap political points and improving their image — this is likely especially true of the Conservative leadership contenders. In the long-term, their goals are geopolitical and economic ones.

They do not seek a “liberated” Cuba because they want Cubans to enjoy political and civil rights or better living conditions (although if this is a side-effect of liberation they will, of course, not object). They seek a “liberated” Cuba for the expansion of the global capitalist system.

The US government did not impose its trade embargo on Cuba until October 19, 1960 —almost two years after Castro came to power and after the bloodiest days of the revolution were over. The embargo did not begin February 1959 after 500 officials from the previous regime were executed in following show trails. The embargo began after Cuba began buying Soviet Union oil and nationalized US-owned oil companies, which were refusing to refine Cuba’s oil.

To much of the North American political-class today, human rights are still secondary to business rights. This may sound cynical but what other conclusion can you draw from the blatant hypocrisy on display in the aftermath of Castro’s death?

This prioritizing of business interests over human rights is, for the most part, not a product of cold, calculated decision making. It is a seemingly natural, internally logical necessity of their ideology. Neoliberals and much of the Right have an ideological, almost religious faith in capitalist market forces. They believe — or at least claim to believe — that the Invisible Hand, if unhindered will always maximize human well-being. Thus the market must be freed to allow the Invisible Hand to work its magic unhindered. Any force that hinders the realization of this dream — like a Communist island that rejects market orthodoxy for a state-run economy — is inherently bad. Any force that advances the dream’s realization is inherently good. The United States, the world leader of capitalism, is especially inherently good.

This means that even when the United States does something that appears bad its not actually bad. Torture, extrajudicial imprisonment, and assassination of political opponents, for example, are only bad when done by one of the US’s official enemies (like Cuba). The US is always good because its ends justify its means. Noam Chomsky has long noted: “When they do it, it’s a crime. When we do it, it’s not.”

This sounds crazy but its the only way to explain the extreme cognitive dissidence on display in the wake of Castro’s death. Take for example, Ted Cruz’s reaction to reporter Casey Lucas calling him out on his hypocrisy on Cuba. Unlike his Castro-hating/Trudeau-bashing peers, Ted Cruz’s hypocrisy did not need to be juxtaposed to King Abdullah’s death to become apparent. For Cruz it played out on Twitter in real-time — in what can best be described as his coronation as king of the hypocrites.

Lucas pointed out that Cruz supports the US military prison (Gitmo) at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — and has even called for its expansion. A position that seriously undercuts Cruz’s attempts to take the moral high ground considering the wide-spread use of torture at Gitmo including psychological, sexual, and physical abuse. To get an idea of how brutal the torture at Gitmo can be, consider that an American GI who was merely posing as a prisoner for a training exercise was beaten so badly that he suffered a traumatic brain injury and seizures. Also, such acts of brutality are not rare. Over 200 FBI agents have reported abuse at Gitmo.

Cruz didn’t take being called out on his moral inconsistencies very well. Instead of ignoring Lucus, Cruz tried to defend himself but, because he holds morally indefensible positions, he only succeeded in proving Lucas’s point.

First, Cruz noted that “US law bans torture.” This is true. As the 1949 Geneva convention makes clear, international law also bans torture. Sadly these facts have not prevented torture from being perpetrated at Gitmo. Under the Obama administration, torture was ended as official US policy. Although Ted Cruz, unlike many of his Republican peers, has claimed to be against “torture as legally defined,” he does not believe waterboarding is torture (he prefers the term “ vigorous interrogation”) and did not rule out bringing back the practice if he became president.

Next, Cruz claimed that “those in Gitmo are vicious terrorists.” This is not true. Some people in Gitmo are terrorists but they are shockingly few and far between. According to ACLU numbers, out of 60 people currently detained there, only one has been convicted of any crime and 20 have been cleared for release. Out of the 779 prisoners (including 21 children) detained at Gitmo since it first opened on January 11, 2002, 714 have been released.

Guantánamo by the Numbers

Prisoners at Gitmo are held without charge and denied a fair trail. Until a 2008 Supreme Court ruling struck down the unconstitutional practice, they were also denied habeas corpus, the long-held principle of English common law that allows prisoners to appeal wrongful detention and imprisonment. A similar principle in some Spanish-speaking countries is called amparo de libertad or “protection of freedom.”

The Pentagon believes that about 200 former Gitmo inmates have been involved in attacks on US forces in Afghanistan. An article in The Hill loyally reiterated White House talking points that claimed these 200 people are “ re-engaging in terrorism” but, because they were held without charge and never convicted of any crime, we actually have no way of knowing if they are “re-engaging” in anything. It is entirely possible that these men were not violently opposed to the US occupation of Afghanistan before their incarceration at Gitmo — and sought revenge only after their inhumane treatment there. And most of the 714 former Gitmo inmates — approximately 500 of them — have not been involved in any attacks on the US since their release.

Only one Gitmo prisoner has been transferred to a federal court for prosecution. Eight prisoners have been convicted by Gitmo military commissions (four of these convictions have been overturned). The validity of military commissions is highly questionable, however. In 2006, the Supreme Court declared the original commissions illegal because they violated both the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Also, seven military prosecutors have resigned or requested a transfer because they believed the Gitmo military commissions were unjust.

Cruz apparently sees nothing wrong with the denial of basic human rights at Gitmo. In his mind it is justifiable because everyone held at Gitmo — people suspected of “terrorism” — are automatically “vicious terrorists.” No doubt this is the same justification the Castro regime used when it denied its prisoners basic rights. There “counter-revolutionaries” likely stood-in for “vicious terrorists” but the result is the same. Suspects are guilty by default and subjected to extrajudicial imprisonment — and worse. For them the concept of innocent until proven guilty does not exist. Instead they are guilty until whenever their indefinite, often brutal, detention ends.

Finally, Cruz claimed “Castro tortures innocents” and stated “Guilt ≠ innocence.” The innocence of people the Cuban government tortured should be beside the point. Torture, no matter the circumstance, is a violation of international law — not to mention human decency. However, given his endorsement of torture at Gitmo, Cruz can only criticize the torture of “innocents.”

Even this morally compromised critique is impossible for Cruz to legitimately argue considering that by his own definition, anyone the state suspects of being a threat to national is automatically guilty. Thus it is impossible for the Cuban state to torture innocents because anyone who is the victim of state imprisonment and torture is rendered guilty.

So, to summarize: “Torture in Cuba = only evil if Castro did it.”

Ted Cruz’s hypocrisy on human rights is extreme — and, considering he seems proud of it. However, Cruz’s views are not unusual. Turning a blind eye to the atrocities of foreign dictatorial, yet allied, regimes like Saudi Arabia is just the tip of the iceberg. Justifying and even supporting human rights violations and war crimes perpetrated by the US is common among North America’s political elites. Cruz’s fellow GOP presidential candidates, including Marco Rubio, support Gitmo. They, like Cruz, also support the drone program, a CIA-run assassination campaign that gives US government the power to execute without trail anyone deemed a national security threat. Outside of war zones alone, between January 20, 2009, to December 31, 2015, drone strikes killed 64–116 “civilians” and about 2,500 so-called “combatants” according to the White House. And this number is far lower than even the most conservative estimates from independent sources which put the number of civilian causalities at least twice as high. The drone program, which was expanded under Barrack Obama, is also supported by many top Democrats including Bernie Sanders.

In Canada, loyalty and subservience to US policy objectives can even outweigh the government’s responsibility to its own citizens. Nothing demonstrates this better than the case of Omar Khadr.

Omar Khadr is a Canadian former child solider who was held in US custody for over a decade. He is one of the 714 people released from Gitmo and one of eight convicted by a Gitmo military commission. Like most former Gitmo inmates, he has not turned to violence since his release. He currently lives in Edmonton, Alberta where he is enrolled at the King’s University, a small Christian liberal arts school. Khadr is engaged to Muna Abougoush, a true human rights advocate and one of the people who helped secure his release.

Welcoming Omar Khadr to The King's University | University Affairs

At Gitmo and Afghanistan’s Bagram prison, where he was held beforehand, Khadr was tortured. At Bagram, Khadr — who was 16 at the time — was physically abused, threatened with rape, and denied medical treatment as a form of punishment. Khadr’s claims he was tied to a door frame and abused for hours. In 2008, Khadr’s main interrogator Joshua Claus was convicted for his involvement in the murder of an innocent Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar. The Toronto Star’s Michelle Shephard reported that “soldiers kicked Dilawar repeatedly on his thighs, chained him to the top of his cell by his wrists and left him hanging for hours.”

While other Western governments worked for the release of their respective citizens from Gitmo, the Canadian government apparently felt no obligation to do the same for Khadr. According to The New York Times, they even eventually worked against US efforts to transfer Khadr to Canadian custody. In 2008, the Canadian foreign minister, well aware of of Khadr’s torture and ongoing mistreatment, said that “discussions about Mr. Khadr’s return to Canada are premature until such time as the legal process, and the appeals process, have been exhausted.” By “legal process” the foreign minister, of course, meant Gitmo’s widely disreputable military commissions. At that time, the foreign minister was recent human rights crusader and current Conservative leadership contender Maxime Bernier. Fellow Conservatives Lisa Raitt and Rona Ambrose were also cabinet ministers during Kadhr’s detention.

In May 2015, less than three years after he was finally repatriated back to Canada, Omar Khadr was freed on bail. The Conservative government appealed the court decision because they falsely claimed that his release would harm Canada’s relationship with the US.

The Wednesday after Castro’s death, Ted Cruz gave a nearly half hour speech in the Senate (yes, he really milked this for all its worth) in which he spoke of his happiness that Castro is now in hell and, yes, again attacked Trudeau and Obama. In Conservative Review, which unironically gives Cruz a 97% “Liberty Score®” rating, Chris Pandolfo called the speech an example of “moral clarity.” Considering Cruz’s own positions, “moral selectivity” is a more accurate description.

Let’s review the facts: Ted Cruz supports extrajudicial imprisonment, extrajudicial killing, and torture. These are the practices that made Castro a dictator — and it is on these practices that Cruz claims his opposition to Castro is based. In his closing statements Cruz made his position clear: “Let there be no mistake — Fidel Castro was evil. Anyone who systematically murders and tortures and oppresses people for nearly six decades embodies evil.”

As noted above, Cruz’s seemingly irreconcilable double standard on human rights is inline with many of his contemporaries. It is also in keeping with years of official US policy and ideological belief.

In light of their blatant, hypocritical support for war crimes and terrorism to advance their ideological goals, it would be easy to demonize Cruz and his fellow travelers as “evil” (to borrow Cruz’s favorite word). However, this would be an oversimplification of the forces at play. Although it is impossible to guess with certainty anyone’s true motivations, it seems likely that North America’s war crime apologists do believe in the righteousness of their cause. This does not justify it but does explain how men and women like Cruz can be such horrible hypocrites and still sleep at night. As George Orwell wrote in 1944:

A ruling class has got to have a strict morality, a quasi-religious belief in itself, a mystique…They can only maintain their position while they honestly believe that civilization depends on themselves alone, and therefore in a different way they are just as brave, able and devoted as the revolutionaries who oppose them.

Fidel Castro may have been a “brutal dictator who oppressed his own people.” But he was he was not a brutal dictator because he oppressed his own people.

The official tolerance and praise of King Abdullah, a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people — but also kowtowed to US geopolitical interests, bought military equipment from the West, and sold oil to it — makes this clear. As does the widespread support for the very practices that make brutal dictators brutal dictators as long as the US and its allies do it.

In the eyes of much of North America’s political elite, Fidel Castro was a brutal dictator because he successfully opposed US hegemony and refused to do business with the West.

News // Cuba / Human Rights / Politics / Ted Cruz