Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What Will They Say? (Part 1)

Fidel Castro's exit from his long-held position in power was expected by some, but the timing surprised them nonetheless when it came yesterday morning. Many were expecting an announcement near the weekend before Sunday's election by the Cuban National Assembly for a new Council President. In preparation for a possible resignation, the Miami Herald published an article by its Ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, on Sunday acknowledging that once Fidel Castro steps down "Herald editors will be faced with the conundrum of deciding what his real powers are. Will he still be the dictator? The former dictator? The half dictator? Or if he dies, what should his obituary say?"

But, despite those very intriguing questions about names we assign to people in power, or names for those who operate within systems of concentrated power at different degrees, Schumacher-Matos is not interested in a long discussion or debate about the topic. His mind is pretty much made up: "A dictator is a dictator for good or ill." And, he thinks Herald reporters are being too "squeamish" when they use other descriptors for Fidel Castro, such as "leader" or "president." He explains:

"Journalists, however, are [squeamish], and usually for good reasons. They avoid tendentious characterizations. A formal title is objective and safe. But calling Castro a dictator is a fact, as much as it is that most contentious of things, a truth. Indeed, he is the world's longest-ruling dictator."

Certainly, Fidel Castro for many decades has been the designated and unyielding leader of Cuba's military oligarchy, a system of power that has extended its control over virtually all of Cuban society. But, would it have made a difference if I had said "dictator" in the last sentence? Not really. Heads of government from across the globe inhabit a space that wields great power and influence. To say whether they commit genocide or bring peace to a region requires that we understand how systems of power operate, not whether we can differentiate between "leader" or "dictator." But, Schumacher-Matos gives a reason why Fidel Castro is a "dictator."

"But whatever [Fidel Castro's] intentions, and some good accomplishments, they do not justify the murder and jailing of political opponents, the massive security state and a brainwashing propaganda machine."

I agree, but Schumacher-Matos does not say who is justifying such acts. And, thus, one is left to assume that perhaps, according to Schumacher-Matos' article, anyone who refuses (or is squeamish) to call Fidel Castro a "dictator" is justifying such acts. Certainly, Schumacher-Matos does not mean this, but his insistence that "a dictator is a dictator" leaves readers with little room to wonder.

Of course, when it comes to Fidel Castro, the label "dictator" seems appropriate. But, one should wonder if the descriptor should be exclusively tied to abuses of power, especially those that create suffering and death. Are "leaders" or "presidents" incapable of committing great abuses of power that lead to suffering and death? Certainly not. (For example, President Musharraf of Pakistan.) Are "leaders" or "presidents" incapable of stretching the reach of their designated powers, or justifying such abuse for the good of a nation? Certainly not.

I think it would have been better stated if Schumacher-Matos had said: "A head of government who abuses his/her powers is a head of government who abuses his/her powers for good or ill."

This better explains how the exercise of power operates. But, of course, the debate now extends to what we define as abuses of power, and providing examples. One good measure examines the degree to which people become affected by the actions of those in power. And, also by how citizens who benefited from or were victimized by such power can look back and justify that system of power.

I think such inquiries will be beneficial as we draw closer to the end of Fidel Castro's life. We can examine and compare similar examples of dictatorial regimes with Fidel's. And, fortunately, we have one example that would be enlightening to compare with: The recent death of "President" Haji Muhammad Suharto.

[Part 2]

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