Max Fisher is one of the shining stars over at Vox — very possibly the best person they have there. And he wrote a really useful discussion of the history behind Wednesday’s announcement, Nine Questions About Cuba You Were too Embarrassed to Ask. It is very much worth reading. But I want to discuss the small part of it that annoyed me. It was the seventh thing you were embarrassed to ask about, “I hear that Fidel Castro is a monster who did lots of terrible things. Is that true?” I don’t even like the question, which is prejudicial. And the initial answer just makes it worse, “Oh yes.”
Let me be clear what I am not saying. I’m not saying Castro was a great guy. But I’m not keen on the facile dismissal of him either. And that’s especially the case when George Washington, the father of our country, owned hundreds of slaves. And we haven’t exactly done ourselves proud since then. Right up to the present with Bush’s torture program and Obama’s drone attacks, it would not be hard to dismiss our leaders as “monsters.” But I know what many will say, “You are just putting the worst face on this! Washington freed all his slaves at his death; Bush was trying to keep us save; Obama is managing a war. Have some nuance, man!”
None of the Castro’s notable brutality took place early on in his regime. Isn’t it possible that his behavior was shaped by the fact that the United States — just a few hundred miles from his country — was trying to overthrow him and assassinate him? Of all the things I know him to have done, they were all done against people who could be reasonably claimed to be his enemies. That’s at least better than the United States has managed to do over the last couple of decades. So I have no problem claiming that Castro was an authoritarian dictator who oppressed his own people. How that exactly makes him worse than other rulers I can’t say. If the United States were signing a treaty with Saudi Arabia, I doubt very seriously that Vox would spend hundreds of words describing the brutality of that “friendly” regime.
Vox is really pushing this point. I suppose it is because they want to head off the argument that the embargo shouldn’t be lifted because the Cuban government is so terrible. So their argument is, “Cuba is terrible and that is why the embargo is a bad idea.” I get it. I even agree with it. I don’t think there is any doubt at all that if we had tried to befriend Castro (or Ho Chi Minh or many others) the situation would now be far better. But I think it comes off as extremely self-satisfied to run articles (by another great writer Matt Yglesias) like, Cuba’s Human Rights Record Is Terrible, No Matter What You Think of the Embargo.
Going through the list of things that the Cuban government did, what keeps occurring to me is that generally speaking, Cuba comes off as somewhat to much better than Saudi Arabia — our longtime ally. But more than that, the biggest point made in both articles is that there is no press freedom in Cuba. This is something I think about a lot these days. What does it mean to have press freedom if you don’t use it? The Soviet constitution provided press freedom, it just wasn’t available on a practical level. Maybe the only reason that the United States doesn’t need to interfere with the press (not excessively, anyway; yet) is because the government knows it can depend upon our press to treat official enemies to a higher standard than our friends.
 Interesting, both Fisher and Yglesias discussed the treatment of LGBT rights in Cuba. Cuba has indeed been horrible about this. But no mention was made of the fact that the country has made major progress in this regard over the last two decades. The same cannot be said for Saudi Arabia.