Since the darkest night of the 'missile crisis' in 1962 - when I doubted I'd live to see the next dawn - Cuba has lodged somewhere at the back of my mind, as often as not taking the faintly roguish form of Fidel Castro.
He was there, looming behind the Tupamaro 'urban guerrillas' when I lived in Uruguay in 1969. I even caught a glimpse of him in the flesh, in Chile in 1971, telling quite good jokes. Three decades later, there he was again, hovering over Venezuela. And, now that he's almost gone, it is somehow quite fitting that the second verdict of history – courtesy of the internet - should sometimes be passed by the same people who, as journalists, were busy at the time passing the first one as well.
In English, the most readable and informative comes from Richard Gott for OpenDemocracy. With beguiling candour, Gott tells of his initiation into the Cuban Revolution, his disillusionment after the missile crisis, as the Cuban economy fell into the hands of a dysfunctional Soviet 'model'. Gott mentions the racism implicit in a revolution (still) led by whites in a country half populated by the descendants of Africans – expiated only in part by intervention in the liberation wars of Africa. But he has less to say about the persecution of gays and dissidents. His exegesis on the literary merits of Castro's marathon speeches – as worthy as Churchill of a Nobel Prize, he reckons – suggests the viewpoint of a courtier, not a footsoldier.
More disconcerting is a blog from the normally readable Mother Jones in the US. I may be mistaken, but as I recall it this blog appeared first under the title 'Good Riddance', or somesuch. Perhaps in response to the comments that followed, it is now titled 'No Fond Farewells'. But the content is much the same, glibly berating Castro for leaving 'a repressive state and a nation not prepared for the future'. Fair enough; with 24 in prison, Cuba ranks second only to China as a jailer of journalists. But: 'Rather than manage a transformation from one-party (one-man!) communism to a more open system, Castro has set up Cuba for a possible cataclysmic counterrevolution that may not benefit the people of Cuba' - what is that supposed to mean? Stylizing repression in Cuba as a partner in crime with the (illegal) US economic embargo is a neat debating point, but doesn't suggest an intimate acquaintance with Cuba. This is the sort of thing we expect - and for the most part duly get - from the relentless stream of bullshit flowing from the world's corporate media.
Much more useful is some of the stuff coming out of the independent Latin American media, which are beginning to flourish. Among the best of these (in Spanish) is La Agencia Latinoamericana de Información (ALAI).
Frei Betto, writing from Sâo Paulo, Brazil, reckons none of the Cubans he knows wants a return to capitalism – not even the Catholic Church. He reminds us that Cuba has an astonishing ratio of one doctor for every 160 inhabitants; at the same time, Cuban doctors are propping up health services in more than 100 other countries. The infant mortality ratio in Cuba is 5.3 for every 1,000 live births, compared with 7 in the US and 27 in Brazil. Illiteracy has been all but eradicated. So Cubans have something to lose, and they know it.
Which is more than can be said for the average citizen elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean. As Betto suggests, this is the one measure with real meaning. So imagine for a moment that you have been reincarnated a generation or so ago, and can choose which Latin American country to live in as an average citizen (in this you have no choice). Would you seriously have gone to live under the genocidal, US-sponsored, military dictatorships of Guatemala or El Slavador or Chile or Argentina or Bolivia or Brazil, or almost anywhere in Latin America other than Cuba - even supposing that you would not promptly have disappeared?
Exiled Cuban 'dissidents' have, for their part, headed for that hotbed of human rights, Miami, doing their best to lose themselves in conspicuous consumption and neoconservatism, as far from the average Latin American citizen as practicable.
Meanwhile, Cuban residents have, among other things, something serious to teach us all about how to survive and prosper in a post-carbon world.
As things stand, Castro has left us with the familiar paradox of the authoritarian control that a materially more equitable and restrained society often seems to impose. But, compared with the tasks facing the rest of Latin America, in Cuba desisting from the persecution of gays, allowing journalists to do their job and artists to heed their imagination, are all eminently doable.
Whatever the final verdict of history – and, of course, there never is one - on Castro, it can hardly be worse than its verdict on the complete bastards who are just about the only ones with whom he might reasonably be compared.