Justin Trudeau and Fidel Castro

Justin Trudeau and Fidel Castro


Howard Adelman

I just cannot leave this alone. Perhaps it is partly a relief valve for my depression at the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. I am reluctant to write this because I generally like and approve of Justin’s efforts to date. But Justin Trudeau’s statement on Fidel Castro’s death has so appalled me that it keeps going over and over in my head.

Here is what Justin said:

“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.”

Why deep regret? Why did Justin say that Castro had served his people when he was such a disservice to them? He certainly gave extraordinarily long speeches, but his public effusions were manipulative and full of lies and deceit. To call Castro a controversial figure is a euphemism of the worst type. He was ruthless. Clearly all the people did not have a “deep and abiding affection” for “El Comandante”. His opponents did not recognize that Fidel Castro had a deep and abiding love for the Cuban people. Neither do I. So why did Justin subscribe to that propaganda? And why was Justin’s father proud to call Fidel a friend? Did he have such unworthy choices of friends? Pierre visited Cuba in the very same year that Fidel Castro went on a rampage of locking up civil rights leaders and instigating “disappearances”. In any case, if Justin wants not only to acknowledge but eulogize Fidel when he did, he has no right to do so on behalf of all Canadians. Justin did not speak for many and possibly most Canadians when he misspoke.

If Stalin was remarkable, if Hitler was remarkable, if Mussolini was remarkable, if Putin remains remarkable, so too is Castro. If remarkable means worthy of attention, astonishing and astounding, then certainly. But remarkable has the connotation of being worthy of notice, not only for the outlandish deeds done, but for very positive accomplishments on the scales of worthiness. Castro was conspicuous and larger than life and, thus, extraordinary in some sense. But not to spell out or qualify one’s praise about such a ruthless dictator after his death is to demonstrate great insensitivity to the people who have spent their lives critical of Castro’s oppression. While offering condolences to his supporters, what about his many victims?

When interviewed an hour ago to explain his tribute, Justin was asked whether he thought Castro was a dictator. Justin replied “Yes.” But he added, “Fidel Castro had a deep and lasting effect on the Cuban people but on the passing of his life I expressed my condolences…He was certainly a polarizing figure and I have always been concerned about his human rights abuses. However, a Prime Minster of Canada should show respect.” Respect, maybe. But a eulogy – certainly not. Justin had to know he was stepping on a landline and he certainly could have expressed respect for the Cuban nation without paying tribute and eulogizing a ruthless, manipulative and oppressive dictator.

Now some praise of Castro’s regime is in order, particularly his contribution to universal education and health care and his sending Cuban doctors all over Africa and South America. Canada, and Toronto in particular, has enormously benefited from the rich Cuban cultural tradition, particularly in music and jazz, that flourished under Fidel Castro. Finally, though he could be credited with bringing universal literacy and health care to all Cubans, that in itself has been at significant cost to quality. Further, I have always supported Canada retaining its diplomatic contacts and have applauded Barack Obama’s lifting of the sanctions regime which Fidel used as an excuse to be a brutal dictator; but look at the cost.

1) 1 in 5 Cubans forced into exile – massive class cleansing;
2) Though he opposed anti-Semitism and was protective of the rights of Jews within Cuba to remain Jews, he was homophobic and persecuted gays for many years;
3) As a dictator, he was a leading human rights abuser, not only incarcerating dissidents, but executing many under his draconian rule, not counting the harassment and intimidation that many Cubans experienced; for example, in 1976 Fidel cracked down on a flowering human rights movement and sent journalists, lawyers, trade unionists to jail and solitary confinement where they were beaten and tortured – I lost track of two friends who were arrested and never heard from them again – they were not among the destroyed souls who were released and went into exile in Spain ten years ago, thirty years after they were arrested.
4) The ICC, UN agencies and independent international human rights organizations were not permitted to monitor what happened;
5) Like Donald Trump, Fidel Castro was a populist, but of the left rather than the right. In his abuse of the rule of law and relegation of accountable institutions of governance to the sidelines, Castro left leftists and liberals with a bad brand by contagion; there was neither an independent judiciary nor an independent police force dedicated to serving and protecting civil society in Cuba.
6) The record of abuse, of surveillance, of citizen reporting on other citizens, of civilians organized on a block level to serve as the eyes of the state that would even surprise George Orwell, of arbitrary detentions, of suppression of individual initiative, of public shaming, though attenuated to a degree in recent years, still all remain an integral part of the Cuban polity.
7) Fidel ruled as a dictator, controlling the three most powerful positions of governance – president of the Council of State, president of the Council of Ministers, and first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party – and prevented any steps that might make political rulers accountable.
8) In his foreign policy, he helped export revolution and supported revolutionaries around the world in many countries where there may have been economic inequality, but there was no repression; look at what his support of revolutionaries in Colombia, and a populist repressive government in Venezuela has wrought, not to speak of Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
9) The only time fear of a worldwide apocalypse came near, before the current climate change danger, was in 1962 when Cuba arranged secretly with the U.S.S.R to bring nuclear-armed missiles into Cuba that instigated the Cuban missile crisis.
10) But the greatest damage to Cubans came from Fidel’s insistence on monopolizing and controlling ALL economic power.

I want to elaborate on the latter to show that his opposition was not just restricted to capitalists. When most of my friends, when my own brother, were strong Castro supporters, before Fidel revealed himself to be a Marxist-Leninist, when he had not yet been branded as an enemy of the U.S. and was still being courted by the State Department, Fidel made a speech to the annual meeting of the co-operative farmers of Cuba. Since I was then very active in the co-operative movement, I received a copy of that speech in translation. What he had told the meeting in a typical three-and-a-half hour speech was that Cuba had a shortage of seeds for farmers, and that since co-operative farms only represented the needs and concerns of their members while state collective farms represented all of Cuban society, he regretted that the state would only be able to distribute seeds to collective state farms. The co-operatives voted overwhelmingly to become state farms. Suddenly there were enough seeds for all the farms. But it was clear that Fidel Castro was a bully and would use any means to get total control.

I was not able to convince my brother who headed for Cuba immediately on completing medical school in 1961 before he was to start his internship. He became trapped by the embargo that was soon imposed and was only able to leave Cuba when a Canadian military aircraft flew him back to Canada. In the interim, he had served as part of the Cuban propaganda machine, working as a volunteer in the Cuban broadcasting organization. Of course, a few years later, he turned against the Fidel Castor regime, but not vocally or publicly. For him, it had been the exuberance of youth and a naïve faith.

Luckily, the apocalypse of the Cuban missile crisis was averted. But I could never forgive Castro especially, though also Kennedy and Khrushchev, with playing chicken with the lives of my children. I have never visited Cuba. It has been on my boycott list. One of my sons has been there a number of times. He described both the vibrant life of Cubans and their warmth and hospitality while appalled at the decaying buildings. I flirted with going but always decided not to while the Castros were in power.

I think I will wait until Raȗl leaves power before contemplating a visit, but that may not take place in my lifetime in spite of Raȗl’s advanced age. In the meanwhile, I will gripe loudly at the effusive expression of condolences that Justin Trudeau conveyed to the Castro family.

With the help of Alex Zisman


John F. Kennedy – Redux I

Corporeality XIV: JFK Redux I


Howard Adelman

I received quite a bit of correspondence from readers, especially on my Kennedy piece. Two stand out. One took issue with my contrasting LBJ’s belief in the domino theory with that of JFK. The implication was that LBJ’s beliefs made him prone to greater subservience to the entreaties of the military promoting escalation in Southeast Asia. In contrast, I pointed out that in the last year of his presidency, JFK advocated an unequivocal peace agenda that could have been taken directly from the information sheets provided by the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CUCND). The implication was that JFK, if he ever did, no longer subscribed to the Domino Theory. Victory by one set of communists in one country in Southeast Asia would not necessarily lead to a triumph of communism in the adjacent country.

The reader pointed out that one month after JFK gave his famous “Strategy for Peace” speech at American University in June of 1963, in a press conference he said the following:  “We are not going to withdraw… for us to withdraw would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam, but of Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there.” At the beginning of September, he repeated the same sentiments in an interview with Walter Cronkite. This was an unequivocal expression of an intention to retain troops in Vietnam and a continuing belief in the Domino Theory by JFK as well as LBJ.

A second reader from Florida, himself a Cuban exile who fled Castro’s regime, took issue with my statement that JFK had told the anti-Castro insurgents from the exile community in Miami that he would not be providing air cover when they landed, but they insisted on launching the insurgency operation anyway. There are really two issues. What air cover are we discussing – U.S. government forces, the use of which were expressly forbidden under U.S. policy with respect to covert operations, or the air contingent of the exiles themselves? At what stage of the invasion was the cancellation of air cover determined? Secondly, did JFK inform the Cuban exiles before they launched their mission that he would not authorize an air cover?

“I am very surprised that you would write the sentences below…These are patently not the facts…There was a sequence of decisions and counter-decisions made, ultimately (not always directly) by JFK that took place from Saturday April 15 (D Day minus 2) and Tuesday April 19 (D Day + 2), when it was all over. The key actor (and likely manipulator/hedger of the record as regards JFK’s precise step-by-step involvement during those 4 days, which is not 100% crystal clear) is identified by all as McGeorge Bundy (NSA), closely followed by Dulles (DCIA), Bissel (CIA DDP Plans-Ops) and Gen. Cabell (CIA, Air Force general and military liaison)….also Dean Rusk and Adlai Stevenson. I can give you the sequence of these decisions and center-decisions in that 5-day period, by the day and hour. All this is NSA open, public record, and is mostly consistent with the 2 competing post-mortem reports that JFK, followed by Bissell in his own defense, commissioned and delivered, plus a rebuttal by Tracy Barnes, a CIA Under-secretary.

“JFK approved the landing order at 12:00 noon Sunday 16, with air exile Brigade air cover. US air cover was never ever approved by JFK, the issue was the Brigade’s own air cover, flying from Nicaragua and Guatemala. But Brigade air cover, yes. He rescinded the air cover part at 9:00 PM. The final shot at an “air cover yes” from JFK took place at 10:15 PM Sunday 16th (Cabell and Bissell were offered by Rusk to insist to JFK; they declined to insist), and the landings schedule during the night of 16 to 17 was already activated. Supplies were being landed already and soldiers’ landings started at 11:00 PM – 1:00 AM. JFK “made nothing clear to the exiles” about the planned, approved and last-minute cancellation of Brigade air cover. . I can support at minimum this assertion.”

I had written one paragraph in the whole blog about the event, clearly grossly insufficient for such an important and controversial event in American history. More importantly, I missed an opportunity to zero in with greater precision on the dilemma of the President of the United States being both the political leader of the country as well as the Commander-in-Chief, and this was my main subject. Third, I had omitted my own personal involvement at the time on this issue, which I usually include. Now that President Obama has initiated the American rapprochement with Cuba and is planning a visit on 21 March, let me correct my errors of both omission and commission and, as well, zero in with greater precision on the dilemma I am addressing about reconciling two expressions of presidential power, but beginning with my personal involvement.

When Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista on 1 January 1959, in anticipation of Castro’s victory, I and most of my friends had already turned a New Year’s Eve Party into a celebratory party for the new Cuban regime. Subsequently, when the American government was giving sympathetic consideration to the Castro regime, at least as I erroneously believed then (Eisenhower and Nixon had already by then privately branded Castro a communist), I was very active in the co-operative movement. I learned of a speech Castro had given to an association of Cuban cooperative farmers after the 17 May 1959 Cuban Agrarian Reform Act was passed. In his usual long talks – this one was 3 hours – he told the farmers that the government had a shortage of seeds. Since co-operative farmers represented only the interests of members of the co-operative and not the interests of Cuba as a whole, he could allocate the seeds the government possessed only to farms that operated within the policies and priorities of INRA (the National Institute for Agricultural Reform) as was the case with the collective farms owned and controlled by the state and the co-operative farms initiated by the state.

The “best and largest lands from the U.S. monopolists,” “paid” for (at the low evaluation for tax purposes of the Batista regime) in Cuban bonds and in Cuban currency earning 4.5% in interest for twenty years, were transferred to co-operative farmers (the peasant co-operatives) which sold their products through INRA on the principle that “those who benefit must accept the conditions” that the policy was intended to serve all Cubans and not just the co-operative membership. As Che Guevara had said in 1961, “peasants fought (for the revolution) because they wanted land for themselves and their children, and to manage and sell it and enrich themselves through their labour.” They would soon learn otherwise. The underlying governing principle was social ownership of the basic means of production. What was more basic than growing food?

At that meeting to which I referred above, the “free” co-operative farms voted to subject their policies to the “guidance” of INRA, thereby, making them eligible to receive seeds – which they did. Suddenly, there were enough seeds to go around for the increase in the number of communal and government-initiated farm operations. Indeed, the farmers had sacrificed their autonomy for security. The Cuban government in 2013 finally passed a new agricultural act that restored autonomy to the older cooperatives under a new policy of decentralizing power and “updating” the system.

Incensed by the 1959 blatant act of bullying and open deceit, the betrayal of the cooperative movement and the use of state power to shape Cuban choices towards a collectivist framework, I became an ardent anti-Castro proponent and fell out on this issue with many of my close friends, but particularly with my older brother who had been in the same class in medical school. I had spent the previous year living in Mt. Sinai Hospital and working in the radiology department, but by then, I had left medical school, much to the chagrin of my brother. He became an even more avid Castro supporter whereas I had fallen away. After the Bay of Pigs incident when he finished medical school that spring, he traveled to Cuba, got trapped there by the American blockade and eventually had to be flown back to Canada on a Canadian air force plane. While he was trapped in Cuba, he became for a while a pro-Castro broadcaster in English sending news of the regime’s successes to Miami 90 miles away.

While I had been sympathetic to the expropriation of the American-owned electrical and telephone companies, and even the large land holdings of the American corporations, such as the United Fruit Company, though I admired and praised his health, educational and literacy programs, I was by the fall of 1960 critical of Castro. My friends and especially my brother remained champions of Castro. But I was also at odds with both Kennedy and Nixon who seemed to be trying to outdo one another in recreating Castro as a bogeyman. As JFK said in the Fall of 1960, “we must (my italics) make the Cuban people know that we sympathize with their legitimate economic aspirations, that we know their love of freedom, and that we shall never be happy until democracy is restored in Cuba.” We must not allow the Soviet Union to turn Cuba into its Caribbean base.” Kennedy was a Cold War warrior. Though I had become a critic of Castro, I was not.

Some have erroneously credited my passionate involvement with Cuba in 1959-61with the fact that my oldest son, who was born in 1960 when Kennedy was ending his campaign against Nixon for the presidency of the United States, with his becoming a famous historian of Latin America. I can assure everyone I deserve no such credit. My tensions with my brother and my friends over Cuba had nothing to do with my son’s career. However, credit might be given to Linus Pauling who, with his wife, visited our house when Jeremy was just a few months old just before he won his second Nobel Prize for his anti-nuclear campaigning. He physically blessed Jeremy. If there is any credit to be given, it is to Linus Pauling. With that very important piece of trivia, I will return to the main issue of the events before and during the Bay of Pigs and, subsequently to the implications for the President both being a political leader and a Commander-in-Chief.