Tale of Two "Dictators": Fidel Castro’s Cuba // Augusto Pinochet’s Chile

Both of these titles can serve as a caveat to librarians who are likely to purchase poorly-researched and poorly-written cookie-cutter books in order to serve the needs of homework-driven students.

All of the volumes in the Twenty-First Century’s “Dictatorships” series highlight “nondemocratic forms of government.”[1] In each volume, the bold, blocky design consists of jarring red, black and olive graphics that surround mainly black-and-white photos. On the cover of each is a color photo or artistic rendition of the individual “dictator”—except for Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Here, the cover represents Fidel[2] by an ominous black silhouette; the book is, indeed, the shadow of Fidel as seen from the myopic view of the world according to the Cuban exile community in Miami.[3]

The narrow focus of this series is basically on the political actions of a particular individual—the one person who embodies the “dictatorship”—rather than on a particular country’s larger social-historical and economic issues. This limited construction ignores forms in which dictatorships often take place. There are no such books about countries with a succession of faceless military dictators, such as in Argentina (although, who can forget Juan Peron?) or Guatemala; neither are there any about countries with a sham democracy run by an oligarchy that enforces its rule through a violent paramilitary force, such as in El Salvador.

author: Rita J. Markel
Lerner / Twenty-First Century, 2008
grades 8-up 

Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Markel demonizes Fidel, a populist whose government, in effect, changed the lives of almost all of the people for the better. But here, readers see only the repression and not his economic projects, not his literacy projects, and certainly none of the other reasons that make a revolution necessary. And in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, Childress doesn’t discuss the fact that he brought about economic “reforms” by privatizing industry because his international funders sought to use Chile as a laboratory for Milton Friedman’s free-market theories. Pinochet’s military dictatorship controlled the people so this privatization could take place. Neither of these two books strays far beyond the political actions of the “dictators”: emphasized are their violations of civil liberties; deemphasized or left out entirely are their economic policies.

Markel’s conspicuous lack of objectivity paints Fidel as a megalomaniacal tyrant and “Castro’s Cuba” as a harsh and oppressive political system, a police state that follows the every move of the people and imprisons anyone who dares to disagree with anything. It’s the kind of tirade against the Cuban people that could have been written in the big bad Red Scare days, and Markel’s revulsion of Cuba’s political ideology and practice is palpable. She doesn’t stray for a paragraph from the US government’s policy; rather, in every case, she extols it.

For instance, she blames the Cuban leader himself for the crippling economic embargo that has lasted for more than 50 years: 
“[Castro’s] belligerence toward the United States has led to a decades-long U.S. embargo of Cuba, the effect of which has left Cuba in desperate poverty.”

In truth, from the very beginning of the Cuban revolution, Fidel wanted détente with the US. In 1959, favorable articles about him appeared in 
Reader’s Digest, Newsweek, Look, and other print media. It was when he began to nationalize the vast holdings of the US corporations that had been one of the causes of the Cuban people’s impoverishment (the other was the rapacious economic policies of the dictator Fulgencio Batista), and when he announced that the new Cuba was a socialist country, the US struck back with its vindictive embargo.

The corrupt nature of the Batista regime is illustrated in “The Godfather: Part II” (1974), directed by Francis Ford Coppola. In a telling scene that takes place on December 31, 1958, organized crime figure Hyman Roth (based on Meyer Lansky, who oversaw gambling concessions in Cuba) toasts his Mafia partners and prepares to split up their territory in Havana:

These are wonderful things we’ve achieved in Cuba. This government knows how to help business, to encourage it.… Now we have what we have always needed, real partnership with a government.… Gentlemen: Rebels and petty criminals are Cuba’s past. We are its future.

Fidel Castro’s Cuba
 is by no means investigative journalism; it’s not even passably good writing. Rather, it contains:

 irresponsible statements (“Although Castro showed anger in public, some historians believe he was privately pleased at Batista’s military takeover.”)

 innuendo (“Castro studied the speeches of dictators such as Argentina’s Juan Perón, Spain’s Francisco Franco, and Germany’s Adolph Hitler. Like them, he knew how to use his voice, his body, and his rage to capture an audience.”)

 unsubstantiated charges (“Most historians believe that Castro took part in the [university] violence. He is known to have carried a gun and was arrested several times. However, he was never charged with a crime.”)

 nonsensical conclusions (“In 1954 Batista allowed elections. However, no other politicians ran against him, and the dictator was reelected president.”)

Then there are the photos: On page 92 there’s a photo of eight armed men, meeting on a beach. The original Getty Image’s caption, dated March 1, 1963, reads: “Alpha 66, anti-Castro Cuban group.” Yet, Markel’s caption reads: “An anti-Castro group, Alpha 66, meets on a Cuban beach in 1963. Castro quickly cracked down on dissident groups such as this one.” Alpha 66 was not a “dissident” group. It was—and is—a paramilitary organization, financed and trained by the CIA.

On page 104, there’s another Getty Images photo. The Getty caption, dated October 1, 1965, reads: “Cuban exiles, one woman aboard waving to citizens on shore, heading out to sea in small craft destined for US during brief period when Castro permitted departures before port was closed.” Markel’s caption reads: “A group of Cubans flee the island via boat, heading for exile in Florida in 1965.”

In July 1959, US planes napalmed the Cuban sugar-cane fields. In January 1960, two planes coming from Florida bombed Havana suburbs. After a year of bombings, sabotage, and economic aggression against Cuba, the US, while continuing to finance terrorist attacks on the island, declared an embargo on all trade with Cuba.

As a defense against the US’s campaign of sabotage and terror, the Cuban government decided to arm all the people, and promptly did so: the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution was born, and armed lookouts were posted, 24 hours a day, on every block in Havana. This was not a spying organization—it was a defense organization. 
Beginning in 1961, after the failure of the fiasco that was the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion, ordinary Cuban people patrolled the beaches to make sure there would never be a successful attempt to overthrow their government. In a documentary from the 1970s, a young woman with a rifle slung over her shoulder tells a filmmaker, “if they come here in boats, they will go back in boxes.”

Yet, this is how Markel describes the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution:

As early as 1960, Castro felt it necessary to recruit people to watch and report to the government any of their neighbors who did not support the revolution…. The neighborhood-spying network developed into the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). Based on its reports, Castro’s authorities picked up many citizens for questioning by police. Some were imprisoned.

In the few cases where Markel admits there might be something positive about a Cuban policy, she makes sure to cancel it with something negative. For instance,

The 1976 constitution guarantees all citizens the right to freedom of speech, but it also states that the speech must be consistent with a Socialist society…. In addition, the 1976 constitution gives citizens the right to certain social programs, such as free education from kindergarten to college and free medical and dental care. However, all of these rights can be suspended for acts against the government (emphasis mine)

In a sidebar entitled, “Health Care in Cuba,” Markel bases all of her information on an opinion piece in 
The New York Times excoriating both Michael Moore’s POV documentary, “Sicko,” and the Cuban health care system. This piece quotes a doctor who defected in 2000, saying that decent health care is “not available to average citizens” because “most hospitals and clinics lack basic medicines and equipment.” In fact, Cuba has the highest percentage per capita of doctors in the world and thousands of Cuban doctors work for free throughout Latin America and Africa. In the days after the disastrous Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, for instance, Fidel offered to send 1,100 English-speaking doctors and tons of medical supplies to help the victims. The US rejected this generous offer and, of course, Markel fails to mention it.[4]

Years ago, I saw a photo of a slogan painted on a street wall in Havana, a quote from one of Fidel’s speeches. It said, “Todas las noches, de 30 millones de niños duermen en la calle.
Muchos de ellos viven en los Estados Unidos. Ninguno de ellos vive en Cuba.” (“Every night, 30 million children sleep in the streets. Many of them live in the US. None of them live in Cuba.”) In Cuba, everyone has access to free health care. Everyone has access to free education, from grade school through graduate school.[5] Everyone has a place to live. Everyone has enough food. 

Fidel essentially took a US colony and transformed it into a self-sufficient country. Because of the popular support for the social revolution called “Fidelismo,” for more than 50 years, the Cuban people have successfully maintained their independence and sovereignty, repelling the efforts of the US to interfere in their internal affairs.

It’s also interesting that Markel uses parts of Tad Szulc’s work, Fidel: A Critical Portrait, to paint Fidel as a ruthless dictator. What she doesn’t use, from Szulc’s book, is this:

The revolution bestowed on Cuba extraordinary gifts of social justice and equality, advances in public health and education, and an equitable distribution of the national wealth, and Fidel Castro deserves total credit for it.

Although Fidel is a populist[6], Augusto Pinochet was not. 
Rather, he encouraged people to inform on their neighbors; while there was no mob violence, there was certainly military violence, including thousands of tortures, murders and disappearances.

author: Diana Childress
Lerner / Twenty-First Century, 2009
grades 8-up 

When Dr. Salvador Allende campaigned on a socialist platform that included the end to unlimited foreign competition and unequal distribution of wealth, he became the first democratically elected Marxist president of a Latin American country. After Allende’s electoral victory in 1970, he nationalized the banks, mines and strategic industries; broke up large rural estates into smaller communal farms, and instituted strict price controls. The CIA, after having failed to prevent Allende’s election, jumped in to destabilize Chile’s economy. In less than a year, strikes and sabotage by the far-right Patria y Libertad, a paramilitary group funded by the CIA and supported by right-wing students and elements of the middle-class, had created economic and social chaos.

On September 11, 1973, Augusto Pinochet and his armed forces overthrew the government, bringing with them terror, murder, torture, repression, and economist Milton Friedman’s experiments in free-market forces and monetarism. Months before the coup, Pinochet and his team of technocrats, many of whom had studied under Friedman, had put together a plan to overhaul Chile’s economy. The overhaul included removing trade barriers, privatizing state-owned industries, establishing a central bank to control interest and exchange rates, drastically cutting wages, and privatizing the social security system.

The repression, enforced by military terror—including the banning of labor strikes and unions—allowed the free-market policies to take hold in a way that a democratic process never could have. Indeed, the growth of Chile’s gross domestic product came at the cost of the murder, torture, and disappearance of more than 28,000 Chileans.

Allende was no fool. In his last speech to the Chilean people, moments before his death, he laid the responsibility where it belonged: “At this definitive moment,” he said, “the last moment when I can address you, I wish you to take advantage of the lesson: foreign capital, imperialism, together with the reaction, created the climate” for the army to break with tradition and bring about the coup.

My friend and colleague, Judy Zalazar Drummond, told me that she interviewed Salvador Allende’s sister, Laura Allende, shortly before her death in 1981. Judy said:

She wanted everyone to know the CIA’s involvement in her brother’s death. She stood up and placed herself next to a shorter woman. She said that she was six feet tall, half a foot taller than her brother, who was about the size of this woman next to her. She then held up her long arms and asked us to look at them. She held up a toy machine gun and tried to get it into her mouth, but it was impossible because of the distance from the trigger to her mouth. She said, “My brother was short and stout compared to me. And yet, we are to believe that he held this machine gun and put it in his mouth and committed suicide! Do not believe that lie! He was murdered by the CIA! He believed too strongly in our people to betray them!”

On September 15, 1973—just four days after the coup d’état—the Chilean military publicly tortured and then machine-gunned Victor Jara to death in Santiago’s boxing stadium.[7] The 40-year-old Jara, a Chilean teacher, poet, singer-songwriter, and political activist, had been one of the founders of the Nueva Canción Chilena (New Chilean Song) movement; and his music—including the stirring “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz” (“The Right to Live in Peace”)—played and continue to play a powerful role throughout Latin America in the struggle for human rights. Victor Jara’s life and music have been memorialized in recordings, tribute albums, documentaries and films, yet there is no mention of him in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile.

In 1975, a US Senate investigation directly linked Pinochet’s coup to the CIA. It’s well known that, since the early 1950s, covert CIA involvement in military coups throughout Latin America—including training, financing and outright direction—have been proven.[8] Yet both Markel and Childress downplay or rationalize the role of the CIA—or leave it out altogether. 

For example, while it has been documented that the CIA was complicit in the assassination of Orlando Letelier and his assistant Ronni Moffitt—a terrorist act committed on US soil—there is only this:

In September [1976] the murder of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier, and his assistant, Ronni Moffitt, in Washington, D.C., further aroused anti-Pinochet sentiment.

Even in the context of “the [Church] committee’s findings about secret CIA attempts to control Chilean politics between 1963 and 1973,” there is no mention of even the tacit approval of the US in Letelier’s and Moffitt’s murder. 

In 1970, Daniel A. Mitrione was abducted, interrogated and executed by the Tupamaros guerillas in Uruguay—after the US and the Uruguayan military government had refused to trade him for Uruguayan political prisoners. Investigations eventually revealed that Mitrione had overseen the Office of Public Safety of the US Agency for International Development (USAID)[9], for whom he taught torture techniques to military operatives throughout Latin America. In 1972, the French film, “State of Siege”[10], directed by Costa Gavras and starring Yves Montand, fictionalized Mitrione’s and the Tupamaros’ story. Neither Fidel Castro’s Cuba nor Augusto Pinochet’s Chile refers to the US Agency for International Development. And, in fact, here is how Markel rationalizes the CIA’s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba: “President Eisenhower concluded that Castro posed a significant threat to U.S. national security and had to be removed from government.”

For the past 66 years, the School of the Americas (SOA)—located at Ft. Benning, in Columbus, Georgia, and funded with US taxpayer dollars—has been dedicated to educating soldiers from all over the Western Hemisphere on the arts of explosives and sabotage, torture and murder, kidnapping and disappearing innocent civilians, and sometimes wiping out whole villages. Upon graduation, SOA cadets return to their home countries and quickly become members of secret police or death squad units. SOA, which has been renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC)” and still referred to as “School of the Assassins,” has graduated more than 65,000 soldiers from 18 countries, including Chile, El Salvador, Bolivia, Guatemala, Argentina and Colombia.

One out of every seven members of the command staff of DINA[11]—the notorious Chilean intelligence agency responsible for many of the worst atrocities committed during the Pinochet years—was a graduate of the School of the Americas. Yet Childress does not even mention SOA in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile.

The short story is this: Any Latin American leader who goes after the oil companies, the mining companies, the global bankers, and the other vested interests—quickly winds up on the US hit list. In Cuba, Fidel was messing with US economic interests on the island, and the US has been trying to get rid of him for more than 50 years. In Chile, Allende was messing with US economic interests as well, and the US got rid of him and replaced him with Pinochet. This is what both Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Augusto Pinochet’s Chile distort in Lerner’s “Dictatorships” series. Neither is recommended.

 —Beverly Slapin
(published 4/9/13)

[1] The other titles are Than Shwe’s BurmaPol Pot’s Cambodia, Mao Zedong’s ChinaSaddam Hussein’s IraqMuammar Al-Qaddafi’s Libya, Kim Jong Il’s North KoreaSlobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

[2] In cases where the author or other source refers to Fidel Castro by his full or last name, I do the same as well. In other cases, I refer to him as “Fidel,” because that’s what the Cuban people call him.

[3] From the perspectives of her predominantly right-wing sources, Markel tells the story of Fidel’s rise to power and his oppression of the Cuban people.

[4] For an excellent documentary about the Cuban health care system, see “Salud!” (www.saludthefilm.net).

[5] According to UNICEF (http:///www.unicef.org/infobycountry/cuba_statistics.html), Cuba’s literacy rate is 100%.

[6] In a 1983 ABC-TV program including an interview with Barbara Walters, Fidel made an unannounced visit to a high school in Havana, where he received a rock-star welcome, especially from the girls. 

[7] In a chilling demonstration of what they would do to revolutionaries who dared to speak out for the rights of the people, the soldiers broke Victor Jara’s fingers so that he could no longer play his guitar, and then told him to sing. Defiantly, he began to sing “¡Venceremos!” before they killed him. Holly Near memorialized Jara’s death in her song, “It Could Have Been Me”: “The junta broke the fingers on Victor Jara's hands/ They said to the gentle poet, Play your guitar now, if you can./ Victor started singing, til they brought his body down/ You can kill a man, but not his song/ When it’s sung the whole world round.”

[8] CIA involvement includes: Guatemala (1954), Guyana (1953-64), Cuba (1959-present), Ecuador (1960-63), Brazil (1961-64), Dominican Republic (1963-65), Uruguay (1964-70), Chile (1964-73), Bolivia (1964-75), Argentina (1975-83), Nicaragua (1978-90), Honduras (1980s), Grenada (1979-83), El Salvador (1980-92), Haiti (1987-94), Panama (1989), Mexico, Colombia and Peru (1990s-present), and Venezuela (2002). As of this writing, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela have elected leftist governments.

[9] The CIA often operates abroad under USAID cover.

[10] Costa-Gavras filmed “State of Siege” in Allende’s Chile in 1972. Ten years later, he filmed “Missing,” a drama based on the true story of the abduction and murder of American journalist Charles Horman in the bloody aftermath of the Chilean coup. “Missing,” which starred Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, was banned both in Chile and in the US until 2006, when it was re-released.

[11] One of the most notorious of DINA’s “interrogation centers” was at Villa Grimaldi, a mansion in Santiago. An excellent documentary about the savagery practiced there is “Villa Grimaldi: Archeology of Memory” (www.archeologyofmemory.org), by Chilean artist Quique Cruz, one of those tortured who survived.

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