The death of longtime Cuban revolutionary dictator Fidel Castro, who outlasted and often outsmarted 10 US presidents, some of whom were actively trying to kill him, has sparked a mixed outpouring of emotions around the globe. For millions of Cubans and people around the world, mostly of the poor and dark-skinned variety, Castro was a champion of socialist resistance and revolution who used his larger-than-life image and influence to bring liberation and social development to long-repressed peoples suffering under the yoke of racist colonialism. For millions of Cubans who fled the brutality of his rule — and for millions more Americans subjected to decades of official and corporate mainstream media demonization — Castro was a wicked tyrant who suffocated his people’s aspirations for freedom for half a century.
There were tears in Havana. There was dancing in the streets of Miami. There were touching tributes from world leaders. There were prayers and condolences for the Cuban people from President Barack Obama, who courageously forged ahead with a recent rapprochement between Washington and Havana after decades of official US animosity, embargo and outright state terrorism.
And from President-elect Donald Trump, there was jubilant, stinging condemnation:
"The world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades," a Trump statement read. "Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights."
True, much of that — although nobody has been executed in Cuba in more than 13 years (a period in which 620 people were put to death in the United States) and of the two countries, the United States is the only one in which convicted criminals are currently awaiting execution by firing squad. There are arguably more political prisoners jailed by the United States today than by Cuba. And for what it’s worth, when pollsters ask people around the globe which country is the greatest danger to world peace, Cuba never shows up in the results. The United States usually ranks as the biggest threat. Cuba is known, outside US borders anyway, as a generous if somewhat rigidly ideological nation whose star shines brightest when it is stepping up to serve the urgent, often unmet needs of others throughout the global South. Like its giant northern nemesis, Cuba is a nation that punches well above its weight — with the notable distinction that those punches have for decades been entirely of the peaceful variety.
In our country, in which socialism is still inexplicably a dirty word, there’s little room for nuance. And so today we saw Republican lawmakers like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, an unapologetic supporter of US-based anti-Castro militants who have committed some of the worst terrorist atrocities in modern history, cheering news of Castro’s death, with exhortations from other leading Republicans to remember the “cruelty” inflicted by the brutal dictator.
A few words about brutal dictators, since Trump went there: If Trump truly cares about freeing people from oppression, ending “unimaginable suffering” and restoring “fundamental human rights,” he should speak out against the brutal dictatorships supported by the United States. Freedom House, the US Government-funded NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights, publishes an annual Freedom In The World index. In this year’s ranking, Cuba ties with China for 16th-least free nation on Earth. Of the 15 most repressed countries, seven enjoy critical or significant levels of US support:
Bahrain: This Sunni Muslim Gulf monarchy has been ruled by the al-Khalifa dynasty since the time of the American Revolution. When Shia Muslims began demanding greater freedom during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, the ruling regime responded by killing dozens of peaceful protesters and arresting, torturing and murdering anyone suspected of opposing it. State security services raided schools, torturing and threatening to rape girls as young as 12. Doctors and other medical personnel who treated wounded protesters were arrested and tortured as well. Female doctors were tortured with electric shocks, beaten with nail-studded boards and threatened with rape. Some were forced to eat feces. All were tortured to elicit false confessions. The Obama administration responded with tepid criticism and tens of millions of dollars in new arms sales to the sadistically murderous regime — which also happens to host the US Navy Fifth Fleet and serve as a bulwark against nearby Iran.
Equatorial Guinea: The US State Department human rights report on this tiny — but oil rich (and fantastically corrupt) — West African nation lists “torture of detainees by security forces, life-threatening conditions in prisons, and arbitrary arrests” as grave concerns. Teodoro Obiang, the deplorable dictator who seized power by ousting his own uncle in a 1979 military coup, periodically holds sham elections which he typically “wins” with 95 percent or more of the vote. Dissent, where there is any, is severely quashed. Yet US dependence on foreign oil led a leading American diplomat to praise Obiang’s “mellowing, benign leadership’’ while advocating “to abandon a moral narrative’’ when dealing with Equatorial Guinea. Obiang was literally embraced by the Obamas at a swank Manhattan reception.
Ethiopia: International human rights groups have condemned extrajudicial executions, widespread torture, violent repression of peaceful protest and severe restrictions on free expression, assembly and association in the East African nation of 94 million people. State security forces have viciously crushed a nonviolent uprising by the marginalized Oromo people, the single largest ethnic group both in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, killing over a hundred peaceful protesters over just one weekend in August alone. The repressive nature of the ruling Hailemariam Desalegn regime — which “won” 100 percent of the nation’s parliamentary seats in a 2015 election that was neither free nor fair — did not stop President Obama from visiting Ethiopia and praising its “democratically elected government” for being a valuable ally in the fight against Islamist terrorism.
Saudi Arabia: Why do successive US administrations continue to count a fundamentalist Islamist monarchy whose members fund the same terrorists the United States has been fighting this entire century as one of its closest Middle Eastern allies? Fifteen of the 19 9/11 hijackers, as well as longtime al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, were Saudis, who hail from a kingdom where arbitrary arrest and torture are commonplace, especially for members of religious minorities or those who advocate any sort of reform. Women cannot drive cars, nor can they travel or even visit a doctor without male permission. Rape victims are publicly punished. Renouncing or insulting Islam, cheating on your spouse, being gay, selling sex and practicing witchcraft are punishable by death, usually by public beheading. Despite the very clear connections between Saudi Arabia and 9/11, President Obama recently vetoed legislation approved by Congress that would have allowed families of September 11th victims to sue the Saudi regime, and the Obama has offered the fundamentalist dictatorship more than $115 billion in US weapons and training, the biggest such offer in the history of US-Saudi relations. American arms are killing thousands of innocent civilians as the Saudi air force indiscriminately bombs Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. Yet the United States remains the kingdom’s most steadfast ally and benefactor. Why? The United States imports more oil from Saudi Arabia than from any other country save Canada, and despite its own history of supporting Islamist extremism, Washington continues to count the kingdom as a valuable ally in its war against terrorism.
South Sudan: The United Nations estimates at least 50,000 people have been killed and another 2.2 million displaced since a civil war erupted largely along ethnic lines in 2013 and pushed millions to the brink of famine. While both sides in the conflict have committed atrocities, a 2015 African Union investigation revealed mass graves and evidence of heinous atrocities committed by US-backed South Sudanese troops, including summary executions, brutal gang rape of women and girls of all ages, torture and forced cannibalism. A March 2016 UN report on the conflict contained “harrowing accounts of civilians suspected of supporting the opposition, including children and the disabled, killed by being burned alive, suffocated in containers, shot, hanged from trees or cut to pieces.” The United States backed predominantly Christian South Sudan's independence from Sudan, which is almost entirely Muslim, in 2011, providing billions of dollars in economic and military assistance to the government of President Salva Kiir despite widespread reports of human rights violations, including the use of child soldiers. After rampaging South Sudanese troops attacked, robbed and gang-raped American and Western aid workers earlier this year, the Obama administration remained silent about the atrocity until it was revealed in the international media more than a month later.
Turkmenistan: President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov rules with absolute authority over one of the world’s most repressed nations, where members of religious and ethnic minorities face particularly severe oppression. Arbitrary arrests, imprisonment and torture, sometimes deadly, have been reported. There is no freedom of expression, press, worship or association. Male homosexual sex is punishable by imprisonment. Despite all this, successive US administrations have cozied up to the regime in pursuit of lucrative oil and natural gas pipeline deals and access to routes to supply troops in Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan: Although Islam Karimov, who ruled with an iron fist since Soviet times and who was prone to medieval tortures like boiling his opponents alive, recently died, there are few signs that life will improve for people living under his repressive regime — or that the United States will alter its stance of friendship and cooperation with the dictatorship. The US has long covered for Uzbekistan’s crimes; after state security forces massacred hundreds of innocent civilians demonstrating for greater freedom in Andijan in 2005, US officials helped block an international investigation of the slaughter. The Obama administration restored military aid to the murderous regime in 2012, with a now-infamous photo of Hillary Clinton shaking hands with Karimov alarming human rights advocates around the world. In addition to its tremendous fossil fuel reserves, Uzbekistan has won US favor by assisting the American-led war in Afghanistan.
These are just the regimes ranked worse than Cuba by Freedom House. China (tied with Cuba) is the United States’ second-largest trading partner despite its horrific human rights record and occupation of Tibet, ranked the least-free place on the planet by Freedom House. Washington funds or tolerates serious human rights violations by allies and others around the world, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Morocco, Somalia, Nigeria, Israel/Palestine, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the United States has been criticized by the United Nations and leading international human rights groups for its own many human rights failures and shortcomings, and the US has been, by far, the world’s leading killer of innocent foreign civilians over the past half century.
It is highly disingenuous at best for Donald Trump or any American to call Fidel Castro a “brutal dictator” without acknowledging the lengthy US record of supporting even worse tyrants — from the fascist Franco in Spain to Pol Pot in Cambodia to Saddam Hussein and the genocidal military rulers of Indonesia and Central America — throughout modern history and right up to the present day. But Americans have always suffered from a seeming inability to hold their own side to the same rules that, if broken by others, often result in crippling sanctions or even military attacks, invasions and occupations that for sheer death, destruction and devastation dwarf Castro’s crimes like the sun overshadows our Earth.