Fidel Castro's legacy: beyond human rights clichés


AHRCentre PhD Candidate Dorothea Anthoy writes for the Online Opinion: Make no mistake – the language of human rights is a powerful tool of international politics. It can shape the way we think about other countries. We are wide open to suggestion when we hear the words human rights, because they sound so pure and precious. How could any country get away with violating them? Shouldn't we target violators, and stop them?

Cuba is a classic example of a country targeted for its human rights record. Western governments and human rights groups have long charged Cuba with breaching basic liberties. Whether or not evidence can be furnished of any breach is immaterial. The United States used the charges to justify the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, and to justify imposing decades of harsh economic blockades. The charges also underpinned calls by the United Nations Secretary-General for Cuba to open its economy to capitalist enterprise.

But there is a catch: the human rights message needs to be regularly reinforced for Cuba to strain under the pressure. The recent passing of Fidel Castro, an architect of the Cuban Revolution, presented an opportunity for this message to be renewed.

Within a short time of Castro's death, the Western press reacted. News piece after news piece reported that Cuban "state" television had announced the death. Even the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation recited the point that it was not any ordinary television, but state television in particular, that disseminated the information of Castro's death.

Generally, Western media is dismissive of societies in which the media is controlled by the state, where media is not "free". It is ironic, then, that the media sought to add authenticity to their reports of Castro's death by invoking the assumed legitimacy of Cuba's state-controlled television – a conundrum that underlines the challenges of applying blanket human rights charges against a society that does not fit the Western mould.

The press did make some positive comments about Cuba's human rights record. It recognised Cuba's reputation for satisfying rights to health care and education. Few could deny that the state of these rights is particularly advanced for a developing nation.

However, the focus was on the state of civil and political rights in Cuba. Castro was indicted for denying freedom of expression and all manner of individual freedoms to the Cuban people. To support these claims, news outlets drew inspiration from Amnesty International, an organisation established to hold to account countries that do not practise liberal values. The organisation assured anyone with a proclivity to hero-worship Castro that "the control of the state over all the aspects of Cuban life remains a reality".

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Dorothea Anthony is a Sessional Lecturer and PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Law, UNSW Australia.


Photo credit: Angelo Domini via Creative Commons