Carlos Eire: “Castro’s literacy campaign and authoritarianism go hand in hand”

Bernie Sanders has taken some heat for praising the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s literacy program.

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Carlos Eire, author of one of the best books I have read in the last decade, Waiting for Snow in Havana, is a Yale historian and native of Castro’s Cuba. He brings some historical context to Sanders’s praise of Castro’s literacy program in a recent piece at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

Unfazed by the howls of indignation — honest or feigned — over his recent praise of communist Cuba, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has reaffirmed his admiration for the Castro regime’s social policies over the past few days. He has done so while simultaneously insisting that he’s “very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba.”

But can the achievements of any monstrous regime ever be praised? Is it really possible to separate the cruelty of any dictatorship from any of its policies? In the case of communist Cuba, a further question arises: Is it possible to believe any of the claims it makes for its own achievements, given that it generates its own statistics and promotes its own version of history?

One has to wonder how accurate the Sanders version of Fidel Castro’s literacy campaign really is — whether it truly was an unalloyed success, good and noble enough to justify the firing squads, torture chambers, gulags and other disagreeable inconveniences that were inseparable from it. And anyone who would care to do some fact-checking, as did The Post’s Glenn Kessler a few years ago, will quickly discover that the Sanders version of Cuban history is far from accurate.

First, consider the issue of literacy in Cuba before Castro came along. Was pre-Castro Cuba a nation of illiterates, and Castro’s literacy campaign as great an accomplishment as Sanders avers? Not at all. A Cuban census from 1953 found that 77.9 percent of the island’s total population was already literate, and that in urban areas the literacy rate was 88.9 percent: among the highest in Latin America and higher than in some benighted rural counties in the United States. Seven years later, in 1960, according to data compiled at Oxford University, the literacy rate for the entire island was 79 percent.

So the scope of Castro’s 1961 literacy campaign, much admired by Sanders, is more myth than reality. Moreover, the image of pre-Castro Cuba as a primitive society rescued from poverty and illiteracy by a so-called revolution is a deceitful caricature, one brilliantly conceived by the Castro regime to make its brutality seem less offensive — merely “authoritarian” rather than monstrous.

Read the entire piece here.