Actions, morality, and defining people

Fidel Castro died last week at the ripe old age of 90, and the world reacted in very different ways. Many people condemned Castro and his regime, while others, like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, had kinder words for the former world leader. Specifically, Mr. Trudeau said:

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.

This obviously upset a great deal of people who saw Castro as a cruel tyrant. Indeed, it seems like the country of Cuba itself was divided by the death of their former leader. Many people celebrated his death, while it seems many also mourned it. And that brings me to a very interesting area I’d like to discuss today.

Human beings in general have a capacity for good and for bad. When it comes to morality, most of us live somewhere on a spectrum. That is to say, not all of us are 100% good, and conversely not all of us are 100% bad. In fact, I’d be willing to say that in my opinion, there have been very few people in history who have lived exclusively on one side of the spectrum or the other.

World leaders are even more heavily scrutinized because of their positions, and as such tend to be demonized or lionized to a much higher degree. Let’s look at Castro to begin with.

Castro did indeed do some truly horrible things, like killing and jailing his political opponents, interning gay people for “re-education,” forced labor camps, and censoring freedom of speech.

I’m not going to try to argue that Castro was some misunderstood saint.

But even so, he did do some good things for Cuba. Healthcare is free for the Cuban people, and the Cuban medical system even produced a vaccine for lung cancer. Education at all levels is also free. In fact, Cuba has a higher literacy rate than the United States (99% to 86%). In the US, women hold ~20% of the seats in congress; in Cuba, 48% of the seats in parliament are held by women. The caveat here is that this came at a high price for many people.

This begs an interesting question, though, and it’s the central one I would like to pose with this post:

Was Fidel Castro a bad man who did good things, or a good man who did bad things?

Many people are quick to write off Casto as “an evil and immoral communist,” but it seems to me like such black and white thinking completely whitewashes a lot of history here. Indeed, world leaders often get remembered in polarizing ways, written into the annals of history as being either exclusively evil or exclusively good.

But there seems to be a tinge of hypocrisy to this. People in the US tend to generally think of communists as evil people, and Castro certainly fits that mold. Again, I’m not trying to argue that Castro didn’t do horrible things to many people.

But I’d be willing to bet that the same people in America who hold Castro in such disdain probably hold Thomas Jefferson in great esteem, being a founding father and former president…despite the fact that the man owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson participated in and promoted a system wherein human beings could actually become property based on their skin color.

The US has a pretty checkered history when it comes to human rights, beyond even slavery, which seems to be the most egregious.

We’re the only country that’s ever dropped a nuclear bomb on another country. That decision killed upward of 250,000 civilians.

Then there was the time we spent 40 YEARS studying the effects of untreated syphilis in black soldiers. We didn’t tell them they were infected and we withheld treatment just to see what would happen. Because again, America has a little problem with racism.

Oh, and that reminds me of that time we tried to infect Native Americans with smallpox. Our treatment of Native Americans has been appalling from the start. We invaded their land, butchered them, and then forced them onto reservations. Oh, and speaking of, forcing people onto reservations…

The Japanese internment during WWII. That was also a pretty horrible thing to do to American citizens.

I think one could argue that the United States has committed its fair share of war crimes and violations of human rights. But the same people who refuse to acknowledge that Castro may have actually done some measure of good for his people also tend to conveniently forget all of the awful things that “the greatest nation on earth” has done.

Which brings me back around to trying to separate people from their actions. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, but he also helped write our constitution, which now affords many freedoms to people. So was he a good guy who happened to own slaves, or was a he bad guy who helped frame the constitution?

Was Castro a man who did bad things to ensure what he thought was a greater good? That is, after all, the logic that  Truman used when he dropped the atomic bombs: sure, it would hurt innocent people, but it would also save innocent people as well.

Right now, we still hold people without due process in Gitmo, and we tortured suspected terrorists after 9/11. We did so under the pretense that it would keep millions of people safe, but a lot of people at home and abroad think that Bush and Cheney are war criminals.

I don’t really know if anyone is truly good, or if doing bad things to protect a greater good is acceptable. It’s the same old question we’ve been wrestling with for ages: do the ends justify the means? Whatever the answer to that question is, I think it means the legacies of all heroes and villains deserve closer scrutiny.

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4 thoughts on “Actions, morality, and defining people

  1. Castro was a friend to the peoples of the Caribbean Region and oppressed peoples in Africa. Given our flawed human nature, I believe we should judge a person’s legacy on the good they brought to their society and the world at large. Even that can be contested.

  2. Good analysis Ryan. I agree with you that we don’t put the same lens on our own leaders or leaders of allies who often have just as many human rights violations against their own people. Saudi Arabia comes to mind.

  3. This is interesting. I think everyone should not trample on someone’s grave as many have already. Hell, I remember when Nancy Reagan recently passed away and I heard some crude remarks along the lines of, “I guess Ron wouldn’t have remembered her anyways on the Pearly Gates.” etc etc.
    Saudi Arabia is not the shining example of human rights. Totally agreed. However, Ryan, most of our oil comes from the our own country and much of the Americas. Of course smaller chunks come from the Middle East with SA being the number one spot. A much smaller amount compared to where we get the rest of our oil.
    As far as Cuba….yes, their literacy is pretty high. In fact, in the top ten. That is something to be applauded for since they have a much higher rate of poverty and lower level of income per capita (adjust for inflation and cost of living). That’s also comparing their neighboring countries. Even more “poorer” countries have better access to media, internet and transportation.
    There are many factors that go into this higher literacy rate. For one, you have hardly anyone moving into Cuba itself. As far as the US, there are several thousands moving here by the year and even more so. That would make a dent into the literacy rate considering that several first generation immigrants (not most of them in recent years though) will likely have trouble with English or not being able to read/write/speak it at all. There are several 1st and even 2nd generation immigrants who don’t need to learn English as their offspring end up working as they take care of kids (many Vietnamese-Americans do this for example, and their kids excel at learning and getting excellent jobs, great credit scores for housing, blue collar jobs, etc).
    The second important factor is bias. Who was largely in charge of rating the literacy rate? The government? An independent research company? Seeing how several countries “cooked the books” when it came to infant mortality rates, I would not be surprised that Cuba has done the same with literacy. China and Cuba have done this. Many of these countries often discounted the ratings of other countries. For example, some of the countries (like ours) will include infant mortality as any infant, regardless of condition, birth difficulty, etc as an infant that dies within one year of birth as in this category. Some countries…..even some with a “higher” number will never include such infants and put them under a category of birthing complications. Stark difference. That also changes the statistics by those that never look at them. Life expectancy is a similar issue with biased statistics that are overlooked.
    As far as human rights violations and comparing our own leaders, I assume people are comparing us to the last several wars?
    When it comes to Iraq, many terrorist organizations would cower down in shelter with women, children and old men. On purpose. All the time. Long story short…they’d pick a fight, go hide in a place that was once not occupied by people, get shot at/bombed….then post videos to Al Jazeera, showing how awful the Coalition Forces were. There are even videos of people recording these activities on Live Leak. I was there but anecdotal evidence doesn’t account for much unless you have video proof.
    What is not discussed is that Castro and his brother supported someone more awful than themselves. Che. I won’t even go into that because it’s entirely relevant to your post/comments. He was an awful person that they both supported during their coup.
    I do agree that Cubans should have deserved better than a Communist thug dictator(s). Comparing Fidel to other dictators is also not entirely difficult if you include death counts. Millennials compared Stalin to Bush, believing that Bush killed more people. Even some idolize people like Chairman Mao. Both of the Castro’s were evil men that believed in an ideology that was once a hot topic here. Now, people wear “Che” shirts likes it’s cool to do or something. I think you’re getting the point.
    The point is that their government has limited transparency, even compared to ours (Snowden comes to mind). They may claim they spend less in prison systems but the also hardly feed their prisoners or protect them with enough guards. Again, probably not the best example I can conjure up. In fact, we have already both agreed our prison system is too large and our justice system is too biased against silly petty crimes. There is not a real reason to celebrate someone’s death or even that of a dictator. It’s more of an issue of noticing someone’s bias in the media as they celebrate someone who has done awful things in their past, ruin their economy and then continually blame the US for their shortcomings. Their government has falsified data and people still go with it like it’s gold. It shouldn’t be. Even a long time economist that has studied the Cuban economy mentioned that many use their statistics in asterisks because their government’s data is hardly accurate. I forgot his/her name though. I read this about a year ago so pardon my knowledge gap.

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