Cuban dictator Fidel Castro died last weekend, and his defenders made sure to point out all the cool things he brought to the Cuban people in addition to the executions, disappearances, and poverty.
Very few people offered full-throated defenses of Castro given his hair-raising human rights record, but a number of people—including Democratic lawmakers and prominent liberals—praised Castro for the good he supposedly did for his subjects.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued one of the most laudatory statements about the dead communist, whose rule inspired thousands of Cubans to flee their country in unseaworthy vessels.
"Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century," Trudeau's statement read. "A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation."
Trudeau was widely mocked for his statement, which contributed to his decision to skip Castro's state funeral.
President Obama's statement was ambiguous, likely to avoid upsetting the administration's diplomatic relationship with the Cuban regime. The statement did not mention the atrocities that occurred under Castro's rule.
"We know that this moment fills Cubans—in Cuba and in the United States—with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation," Obama's statement read.
Members of the press such as NBC's Andrea Mitchell interpreted Obama's statement as praise of Castro. Two Obama administration officials, including foreign policy architect Ben Rhodes, will attend Castro's funeral.
A number of other world leaders, including the secretary-general of the United Nations, the leader of the British Labour Party, and former President Jimmy Carter, praised Castro in statements.
Castro's defenders fell back on a number of familiar arguments, especially the argument that his reform of Cuban education and health care led to high literacy rates and a healthy population.
These claims rely on self-reported government statistics that are "systematically tampered with," according to World Affairs. The truth is less flattering to the communist regime.
While it is true that Cuba boasts a high literacy rate, it is far from clear that Castro's one-year-long literacy drive was primarily responsible for this achievement. Before the revolution, Cuba's literacy rate stood at 76 percent, the fourth-highest in Latin America. Additionally, as Commentary editor John Podhoretz has pointed out, literacy spreads like a contagion within populations—once individuals learn to read, they teach their children to read. The organic spread of literacy from parent to child cannot be credited to the Castro government, especially since the country started from a high base of literacy.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that the ability to read is not all that valuable for people who live under the thumb of a censorious dictator who restricts access to knowledge. The Cuban regime "has the most restrictive laws on freedom of expression and the press in the Americas," allowing free speech only if it "conform[s] to the aims of a socialist society," according to Freedom House. Cubans who violate these laws can receive prison sentences of three to 10 years.
Castro's defenders also point to the Cuban health care system, which has been endorsed—again, mostly based on self-reported statistics—by the likes of the World Health Organization and Michael Moore. It is true that Cubans have a "universal right" to free health care, but the availability and quality of care is patchy, often poor. Rural clinics located away from inquiring tourists and celebrity filmmakers suffer from severe shortages of basic medical supplies and expertise—the country's doctors have defected by the thousands. Cubans who go to the clinics bring their own linens, towels, and disinfectants. They may also bring bribe money to pay state doctors whose salaries are $25 per month.
Cuba's medical missions to foreign countries are not examples of selfless humanitarianism, as they are often portrayed by international bodies and NGOs. Rather, they are soft-power tools that make the Cuban regime look good, while making it lots of money. The missions send thousands of Cuban doctors across the globe to provide health care. In return, the doctors are paid thousands of dollars by host governments. Almost all of that money is funneled back to the Cuban regime, making the doctors "the highest qualified slave-labor force in the world," according to one doctor who defected after working overseas. The country's medical missionaries include "hundreds" of Cuban spies and soldiers whose real mission is to advance Cuba's revolutionary project.
That project continues to this day, whitewashed and downplayed by those who praise Castro for illusory reforms. Castro's real legacy is not as a reformer, but as the destroyer of a promising island nation.