Sunday, November 27, 2016

How Fidel Castro Illustrates the Continuing Inclusiveness of Democracy Despite Recent Troubles

It is rather perplexing that so many countries around the world is mourning the death of Fidel Castro.  Yes, it is indeed true that he looms large as a political personality, with an oversized role on the frontline of Cold War-era, pan-Latin American, and even global anti-Americanism disproportionate to the small size of the island country he governed.  But that oversized role cannot compensate for the dismal conditions of modern-day Cuba, a country mired in economic crises despite strong performance on the social welfare, healthcare, and educational fronts.

And it is all the more perplexing when praise for Castro comes from democratically-elected leaders like Justin Trudeau of Canada.  Castro, by all means, was not a friend of democratic values.  Over his five decades in power, he systematically took away Cubans' economic freedoms by expropriating most private properties and businesses, political freedoms by jailing opponents to his vision of the revolution, and freedom of movements by aligning with the Soviet bloc and spurning ties with the West.  None of these are worthy of being overlooked in celebration of Castro's life as a legendary revolutionary.

What is interesting, however, to reconsider these praises showered upon Castro by democratic leaders, in time of troubles in democratic countries.  All the sudden, radical, narrow-minded populism reflected in electoral results, such as the electoral victory of Donald Trump, has made it rather conceivable that the political and economic ills of Castro's Cuba being replicated by it democratic states.  Intolerance for liberal values and a diversity of ideologies among the general populace so characteristic of Castro's totalitarian control is now very much conceivable in Western states that opposed the communist island-state.

The resemblance of convergence between Castro's Cuba and Western democracies is all the more concerning when the content of praises for Castro from Western leaders are parsed.  Many of them focus majority of praise not on the Castro's political and economic legacies, but on he as an individual presence that is capable inspire people into action, for better or worse, through sheer power of will and persuasiveness.  Obviously, Western leaders see Castro's personality looming large,however irrational in outcome, as a positive trait that they themselves ought to emulate to a certain degree.

However, while Western leaders praise Castro for his strength of personality, they seem to forget that what makes institutionalized democracy relatively just is that such personalities can be restrained by legitimate oppositions that can use similar strengths to make themselves heard.  Great orators such as Castro would have been pushed to the spotlight both in the governing and opposition parties, allowing each to display strengths in competition to persuade the common people to support their ideas.  With equally prominent personalities, people would to choose on real ideas, rather than just a man with a booming voice.

In fact, while everyone knows Castro was a highly visible personality on the Cuban political scene, no one knew whether there would have been someone like him with ideas opposite to him that could have been equally, or even more persuasive.  Given Castro's general intolerance for dissidence, if he detected even slightly of such possible candidate, the person in question would have spent years languishing in a political jail or found him/herself on a boat to Miami.  In democratic countries, such political leaders would have risen to prominence, forcing incumbent leaders to be more accountable for failures in governance.

Nothing illustrates this idea better than looking at Castro's own early political career.  As the son of a wealthy Spanish immigrant landowner, he had plenty of opportunities to become educated and succeeded in electoral politics.  But the Batista dictatorship did not give him such a choice.  His only choice was to utilize his larger-than-life personality through armed revolt that bloodily overthrew the Batista regime in the Cuban Revolution.  To succeed at violence, political radicalism had to be introduced, many of which he had hard time backing away from when in power.  Cuba' political isolation in the Western Hemisphere stem from such excesses.

If anything, the political uncertainties of a post-Castro Cuba should make democratic leaders even more confident of their political systems' longevity and relative stability.  Sure, characters like Trump will continue to exist as long as there are underprivileged people with political frustrations that can be exploited.  But it can be assured that such leaders, even in power, will be greatly constrained by equally powerful opposition who can make original supporters change their mind in matter of years.  Castro's personal legacy is only a function of his continuous crackdowns on dissidents, something that can only be said as unfortunate for his people.

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