The Cuban revolution has always been adept at PR. Even in the early days, before the revolution succeeded in overthrowing the American backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, Cuban rebel leader Fidel Castro was a master of propaganda.
When the American journalist Herbert Matthews visited the Sierra Maestra in 1957 and sat down with Castro for an interview, the guerrilla chief fooled Matthews into thinking rebel forces were stronger than they were by marching the same columns of men past at various intervals and by having ‘messengers’ report the existence of non-existent rebel units.
“From the look of things, General Batista cannot possibly hope to suppress the Castro revolt,” wrote The New York Times’ correspondent in his subsequent dispatch.
Over the ensuing half a century, Havana’s propaganda has been equally powerful, fostering an image of Cuba abroad as a besieged outpost against United States aggression; as a beacon of healthcare and education; and as a country in which children are taught to live lives of heroic self-sacrifice in emulation of revolutionary icon Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (who is the subject of a cult of personality in Cuba).
For those living at a great distance from the Cuban reality, it is easy to be fooled by the idealistic penumbra that surrounds the Cuban revolution. The arbitrary arrests, the grinding poverty, the tentacles of the state that reach into every aspect of daily life – all are submerged in the minds of foreign admirers beneath a tide of romantic kitsch.
Yet as thousands of Cubans take to the streets in unprecedented protests against the dictatorship, it is important that Western human rights and free speech organisations do not allow the distorted image of Cuba as a tropical socialist outpost against capitalism to muddy their thinking.
Many, thankfully, have not. Each year Amnesty International produces a detailed and damning report on the human rights situation in Cuba. In its 2020 report, Amnesty noted that the authorities in Havana “continued to repress all forms of dissent, including by imprisoning independent artists, journalists and members of the political opposition”. Since the mass protests began on 11 July 2021, Amnesty has been closely monitoring the situation, publishing regular updates as to the whereabouts of Cuban activists and dissident voices.
Human Rights Watch has produced similarly comprehensive reports in its coverage of the deteriorating situation on the island for opponents of the dictatorship. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned the Cuban government’s repression of citizen protests.
Yet despite the mass of evidence that the government in Havana is an egregious violator of human rights, evidence that is accumulating in real time; and despite the landmark protests by thousands of Cubans who risk imprisonment simply for taking to the streets, one senses that Cuba is unlikely to become a cause célèbre activists in the way that, say, Palestine has become so, or even Belarus or Myanmar.
Worse, some left-wing organisations in the United States and Britain, ostensibly dedicated to human rights and firmly embedded within the social democratic institutions within their countries, have sided openly with the dictatorship. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Young Labour, Black Lives Matter and the Progressive International have all released statements in support of the dictatorship in recent days.
It is vital that organisations dedicated to free speech and human rights continue to draw attention to repressive conditions and abuses inside Cuba. However it is also important that liberals and progressives take the reports that these organisations produce seriously – as seriously as they do when the same accusations are made of less fashionable (or PR-savvy) dictatorships.
During the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, many liberal and progressive voices were quick to jump on news stories featuring battalions of heroic Cuban doctors sent around the world to aid the anti-pandemic efforts. It would be nice if such interest in Cuba wasn’t so fleeting; if it looked beyond Havana’s carefully manufactured PR operation; and if it expressed itself for once by actually listening to the Cuban people and what they want.