Was Castro the Leader America Deserved?

February 21, 2008

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Fidel Castro steps down as President of Cuba. He is acknowledged as one of the major revolutionary leaders of the twentieth century. His iconic status presents him as a much-loved transformational figure, or a tyrant in the mould of a Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Another perspective is that Castro’s regime was sustained by a field of situational forces, including the policies of successive American governments

Documentation on Castro’s leadership is extensive, and is now set to increase, following his departure from direct power. Even his sternest critics acknowledge that he has presided over transformational changes in Cuba to social conditions such as literacy and health-care. These achievements are regarded as the products of Castro’s social preoccupations. His critics point to restrictions on individual rights considered among the prized characteristics of democratic regimes. These include the freedom to travel, freedom of information (the internet, a free press) and the freedom to elect political opponents to the regime. For such critics, Cuba is among a diminishing handful of States clinging to an increasingly anachronistic version of Marxism.

The Schubert proposition

The Schubert proposition is that tyrants reproduce a universalistic pattern of repression, which maintains them in power through the brutal and brutalizing methods of the leader.

Along with other commentators, I have found the Schubert Proposition interesting and well-researched historically. It has the additional merit of testability.

Millman’s extension to Schubert’s proposition

The American Psychologist Robert Millman, in Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook, distinguishes between those who are born narcissistic and those who acquire it through the trappings of power. According to The Times

Almost every week we have news of a celebrity, lottery winner or City squillionare behaving badly, and some of them may be victims of what a psychiatrist from Cornell University Medical School has coined “acquired situational narcissism” (ASN).

The case of Fidel Castro, as well as Millman’s analysis of acquired situational narcissism, suggests an extension to Schubert’ s theorizing.

Schubert draws attention to the internal forces around the inner circle of a tyrant, and the emergence of a cadre of puppet-like sycophants. Millman looks to the external context.

Back to Lewin

I find myself going back to a hoary theory of social dynamics proposed by the great Kurt Lewin over half a century ago. Force Field Analysis proposes an equilibrium model of social structures.

We can examine Castro’s political survival in such terms. The no-engagement policies of the USA sustain the support provided from Castro’s supporters. For much of the period, the situation was simplified when there was a so-called balance of power. To the West there was America, pushing for change. To the East, the world-power that was the USSR was pushing back to sustain the regime.

The New York Times this week captured the essence of Lewin’s theory.

It was age and illness, not the free voice of the Cuban people, that finally led Fidel Castro to announce Tuesday [Feb 19th 2008] that he is stepping down as Cuba’s president after a mere 49 years of absolute power…Cuba is a closed, repressive society. The American policy of non-engagement and embargo provided Mr. Castro with a built-in excuse for his own failed economic policies and ruthless political repression. It made it easier for him to wall ordinary Cubans off from American friendships, political ideas and affluent lifestyles. It handed him a propaganda tool to discredit courageous Cubans who openly campaigned for greater democracy. Continuing this policy of isolation will only make it easier for whoever succeeds Mr. Castro to continue the same repressive policies.

Leadership reflections

Fidel Castro is more than a footnote in world history. Maybe his case will also contribute to our understanding of charismatic leaders and theories of narcissism.