The 6th of March, 1953 was a memorable day for Israel’s kibbutzim. Al-HaMishmar, the daily socialist newspaper, announced the death of a legendary leader. Israel’s United Workers Party declared that it was “horrified to hear about the great disaster that befall the Soviet nations, the world proletariat and all of progressive humanity.” Whole communities expressed the same grief and horror as they gathered to mourn the passing of “the Sun of the Nations.” A friend of mine still remembers standing as a child in his kibbutz‘s grassy center, surrounded by weeping adults and crying along.
The leader my friend shed tears for was Joseph Stalin, the man who sent millions of Soviet citizens to torture, imprisonment and death, and kept many more in a state of perpetual terror.
In Soviet Russia, children shed tears too. One of these children was my father. “A wonderful thing has happened,” my grandfather whispered to his sons that morning, the curtains drawn and the windows shut. My grandmother paced back and forth in the background, worrying about possible retaliatory pogroms and new troubles for the Jews. “A terrible man had died, a man who could have killed us all. Tomorrow, you must do exactly what all the others children do, but in your hearts, remember that this is a wonderful day.”
The next day, my father and uncle cried with their classmates, as did many children around the globe.
Unlike my grandparents, most of Stalin’s mourners around the world knew nothing about their idol’s crimes. The truth of Stalin’s purges and persecutions, the very truth that turned life in the Soviet Union into a living hell, wasn’t known outside of the USSR until Nikita Khrushchev exposed it in February 1956. The Israeli kibbutzim mourned a monster. But they didn’t know it at the time.
Can the people who eulogize Fidel Castro today say the same?
Do we truly need “history,” as President Barack Obama stated, to “record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him?” Don’t we already know by what means he “altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation”? And should we truly feel “deep sorrow,” as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put it, at the passing of a “controversial figure,” who was nonetheless “a remarkable leader”?
We know what Castro did. Yet Prime Minister Trudeau spoke of Fidel Castro’s “tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for ‘el Comandante,'” without mentioning just how Castro ruled these people.Trudeau complimented the Cuban dictator’s contributions to education and health care in his “island nation,” but completely disregarded the bloodshed that accompanied these improvements, the butchery of the very people who supposedly held such a “deep and lasting affection” for their murderer.
In his statement, Prime Minister Trudeau joined the old and illustrious club of Western leaders who glorified and romanticized murderous dictators, from the comfort and security of their free societies. Such leaders are willing, in the name of certain shared ideologies, to disregard the will and liberties of other nations. They are willing to speak of oppressors with awe, and of their relationships with them as “an honor.”
Many Western politicians joined this club when they continued to revere Stalin himself even after Khrushchev’s revelation in 1956. They actively tried to hide the truth, or to dismiss it as irrelevant compared to the Soviet tyrant’s contributions to his people and mankind. Looking back, their actions appear ridiculous. And yet here we are, watching as our leaders follow the same pattern.
Is that truly the club today’s leaders of the free world want to join? Is that truly how they want history to remember them? Or, frankly, the present’s attention, as well, if the #trudeaueulogies campaign trending on Twitter is anything to judge by?
Dear world leaders, and dear fellow private citizens who mourn Castro today on Facebook and Twitter: please check your privilege. We who grew up in freedom don’t know what it’s like to never say what we truly think. We don’t know what it’s truly like to live in fear of our own leaders, aware that the secret police might arrest us at any moment. We don’t know what it’s like to always wonder which seemingly innocent act today will turn us into public enemies tomorrow, or the next year, or even decades away. We don’t know what it’s like to always wait for that knife to fall.
In our privileged ignorance of these things, it’s easy for us to dismiss them as we praise Castro for his values. It’s easy enough for us to lament the passing of a murderer. It’s easy enough for us to tweet about his progressive and socialist ideals, knowing full well that no one will arrest us for expressing such opinions. It’s easy enough for us to do so while we slurp our milkshakes and enjoy the comforts of our capitalist lives.
It’s easy, but it is also dangerous and cruel. It sends a message to dictators everywhere, telling them that if they spout the right slogans we and our elected leaders won’t hold them accountable or stand in their way. It leaves them free to oppress and murder. And it discourages the millions who suffer under their rule from seeking change, by showing that we, their only possible allies, couldn’t care less about their pain.
By eulogizing Castro, we aren’t merely dismissing his people’s suffering. We’re also abandoning people like Raif Badawi, the brave blogger who has been imprisoned and flogged periodically in Saudi Arabia since 2012, to their fate.
“But many Cubans are sad today too,” you might be thinking.” And you may even be right. It could well be that many Cubans shed real tears today, grateful for Castro’s positive contributions to their lives. But that is their prerogative, as people who lived through Castro’s hell themselves. It isn’t our place to do the same.
And besides, if history is anything to judge by, many more Cubans are mourning like my father and uncle did on March 6, 1953. They may be crying, with celebration raging in their hearts.