Romantic but Wrong, Repulsive and Right
Published: Sunday | December 17, 2006

Augusto Pinochet and Fidel Castro both ruled with iron fists. They suppressed all opposition and did not allow freedom of speech or multi-party elections. Pinochet is now dead and the likely terminally-ill Castro's political career is probably over. The obvious question is whether they did more harm than good to their countries.

To fundamentalist liberal democrats such transgressions can never be excused, and both stand condemned as brutal dictators who denied their subjects all human rights. Realpolitic cynics say both broke some, but not that many eggs, and made a considerable number of omelettes. No one can deny the progress Castro's Cuba made in education and health. Similarly, Chile undoubtedly made great economic strides under Pinochet.

Sure, they probably killed and imprisoned a few thousand people, but neither was in the class of a Pol Pot or Saddam, much less a Stalin or Hitler. What are a few broken skulls in the creation of a new society? A single death may be a tragedy, a thousand or million deaths is a statistic - or so the argument goes.

Some consider Castro is less culpable than Pinochet, since he ousted another dictator in Fulgencio Batista, while Pinochet deposed a democratically-elected Salvador Allende. Yet, Allende only got 36 per cent of the vote and his disastrous economic policies made him perhaps as unpopular at the time of his overthrow as Batista was when Castro came to power.

Pinochet's defenders say he at least allowed a plebiscite on his rule and voluntarily stepped down when he lost the vote. Plus, whatever the pains along the way, the Chicago School economics - some called it 'free market facism' - Pinochet forced on Chile has certainly borne more fruit than the Marxist-Leninist principles Castro imposed on Cuba.

Some blame the American economic blockade for Cuba's poverty, but only foolish mice pick fights with their elephant neighbours. Even Hugo 'Bush is the devil' Chavez shuts up when sells oil to the U.S.A.

How much Pinochet contributed is debatable, but the bottom line is that 33 years after he seized power, Chile is a vibrant open democracy with probably the healthiest economy in South America. Forty-eight years after Castro took over, Cuba is still a poor oppressive communist dictatorship - indeed, it is now the only openly non-democratic country in Latin America.

Just this month a human rights demonstration in Havana was brutally broken up by a government-sponsored mob. Chileans can now freely debate the pros and cons of Pinochet. Those who publicly criticise Castro still end up in jail.

My purely rational side can see from a distance the logic of the ends justifies the means arguments, at any rate when things turn out right. But deep down I'm a liberal democrat wimp who cannot conceive of living in any society where people are not allowed to speak as they wish and to freely choose their leaders. So my clichéd verdict on both Pinochet and Castro is a pox on both your houses. Dictatorship of the left or the right is still dictatorship, no matter what London Guardian or Wall Street Journal apologists say.

So why does Castro have so many more defenders than Pinochet? Pinochet's abuses are rightly condemned by nearly all. But the heroic Fidel and his glorious revolution are still widely praised. When Castro dies, will we hear cries of regret - as some now say of Pinochet - that he has escaped punishment for his 'crimes against humanity'?

Now, Castro is probably less revered among the common folk than among writers. A recent Latinobar-metro survey of 18 countries shows that Castro is Latin America's least popular leader. And this is likely the case in Jamaica too. But our University of the West Indies nurtured intelligentsia is largely Castroite. A very smart recent graduate tells me that almost everyone at UWI regards Castro as a revolutionary hero who has faced down the bullying enemy U.S.A., while Pinochet is seen as reactionary American stooge.

Of course, Castro's human rights record is probably at least as bad as Pinochet's, and Cuba depended more on the totalitarian Soviet Union than Chile ever did on America. But to committed Fidelistas such inconvenient facts are propaganda. Why should the Cuban regime not imprison those who spout counter-revolutionary misinformation?

But this young lady also mentioned how 'hot' Fidel was - or at any rate used to be - what with his 'super busha' beard and army fatigues and jutting cigar and booming voice. By contrast Pinochet was a stiff and dried up old man. And though said in jest, she touched on a crucial point. Our views of personalities and movements are often shaped not just by logic and facts but by sheer visual and emotional attractiveness.

The description of the English civil war in '1066 and all that' illustrated this perfectly - "the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right and Repulsive)". Cromwell's bible thumping, close-cropped Puritans were highly unattractive, while the dashing, long-haired defenders of the king were immensely appealing - at least in historical memory. But the roundheads represented a curbing of autocratic power and a vision of the future. While the divine right upholding cavaliers were reactionaries trying to deprive the common man of his rights. Few doubt that the right side won, yet cavalier remains a complimentary term, puritan a derogatory one. History apparently prizes sexiness as much as Hollywood.

Similarly, facts show that Adam Smith's uncomfortable 'invisible hand' premise is the main source of the modern world's unprecedented prosperity. To be sure, all economic theories must be tempered to human realities, as men are not pure monetary constructs and the sufferings of the extreme poor must be alleviated.

Liberal capitalism

But no country has ever conquered poverty without embracing the free market. Since China and India opened their economies in the last decade or so, more people have been lifted above the poverty line than in any comparable period in history. And thanks largely to liberal capitalism the average inhabitant of earth is today better fed and longer lived than at any previous time in history.

Yet, how much more attractive than 'all men are inherently selfish and work mainly for their own benefit' is 'we must put the common good above our own selfish desires and organise society along the principle of not each according to his abilities but each according to his needs'? Bitter experience, alas, teaches that the first outlook is far more likely to create economic growth.

Still, the seductiveness of the latter vision is undeniable, which is why it remains so much more popular among intellectuals in most places, and certainly in Jamaica. A clear example was the reaction to the deaths of John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman. The free market apostle Friedman was widely regarded as the greatest and most influential economist since John Maynard Keynes. The state planning advocate Galbraith, while immensely productive and articulate, was somewhat of a show pony dilettante who made few real intellectual contributions to his field of study. (One joke ran "Most great economists are tall. Two exceptions are the five-foot-three Milton Friedman and the six-foot-eight Ken Galbraith".)

Yet, while Galbraith's death was duly noted here and inspired a laudatory comment or two, I saw no mention of Friedman's passing in the Jamaican press. Call it ignorance or bias. But for the demise of the world's then most prominent living intellectual to go unnoticed by a national press is pretty shameful.

An old saw says that 'He who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart. He who is still a socialist at 40 has no brain'. As a country we are now 44. So maybe it's time for Jamaica to grow up intellectually and start to judge economic theories, not by the appeal of their rhetoric, but by the prosperity they produce.

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