One of the world’s longest serving dictators (albeit semi-retired since 2008) Fidel Castro has died. The reaction to his death proves that imagery is still essential to the exercise of political power.
Castro’s brutal rule saw thousands of political opponents executed and imprisoned, 1.5 million Cubans fled their homeland, hundreds of thousands making the desperate journey in small boats or rafts across the 90 miles of the straits of Florida. Gay people were sent to camps to re-educate them. Even in 2015, as the country opened up new diplomatic relations with America and the wider world, under the rule of his brother Raoul, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation estimated that 8,600 political prisoners. Amnesty international has not been granted access to the country since 1990.
So when I listened to the news of his death on the Today programme yesterday morning I was more than a little surprised to hear Ken Livingstone excuse all his crimes as understandable given the threat of American imperialism. A callous approach whatever the year, but how can this possibly excuse the Castro crimes in 1995? Or 2015?
Even more disturbing was the official leader of the opposition’s statement later on Saturday, praising Castro as a “champion of social justice”, he who imprisoned anyone who disagreed with him and persecuted minorities. The man who trapped the Cuban people on their island and cut it off from the rest of the world was hailed as a “great internationalist”. Corbyn went on to praise Castro for building a “world class health and education system”, this was a man who left his people too poor to afford basic medication and educated them only to refuse them freedom of thought and expression, a peculiarly evil approach to total control. Corbyn did not address the monstrous wrongs of the Castro regime at all apart from an oblique reference to “all his flaws”. One should be wary of hyperbole but has British liberal democracy, and its innate belief in tolerance and live and let live, ever been more in peril than when the leader of the opposition sees a totalitarian and murderous regime as role model because it shares his left-wing politics?
I do not believe in celebrating anyone’s death, when political opponents of Margaret Thatcher protested at her funeral and burnt effigies of her in the days after her death they showed her ultimate moral triumph over them. They were expressing their contempt for British democracy itself. However, one can understand the emotions of those Cubans free to show their real feelings celebrating tearfully in Florida, decades of sadness about their country and fear for families left behind expressing itself in hope for a better future. While the younger Castro remains in power hope for a truly free Cuba is slim, but they may get their wish in the years to come.
Many on the left’s reaction to Castro’s death is a sign of the power of iconography and image in politics, instead of siding with the oppressed, they backed the oppressor. Castro and his contemporary Che Guevara both cultivated a revolutionary image that swept the world in the late 50s and early 60s. They became standard-bearers for anti-American revolutionary socialism at a time when the Soviet Union had finally lost its allure to the majority of the British left, 15 years on from Animal Farm and a few years after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech. That fashionable imagery successfully whitewashed their murderous and vile crimes for generations of political activists who grew up opposing American power.
Imagery has always been important in politics, Richard II unsuccessfully tried to turn himself into a kind of deity in the latter part of the 14th Century, Elizabeth I assiduously cultivated the image of Gloriana to greater success in her long reign. Later, Harold Wilson and his pipe, Margaret Thatcher and her handbag, Merkel’s studiousness and her triangle of power have all shown the persistence of our need to define leadership and its qualities through visual imagery. Today, Donald Trump has deliberately moulded an image of himself seemingly at odds with the facts we have about the man, to great electoral success. People on the left recognise that fallacy, why cannot they display the same critical analysis for their own political icons? Clearly the power of imagery is that it can at times blind our political judgement, and will continue to do so. Only by studying and understanding the history of such manipulation can we lessen its impact and guard against its evils.