Was Castro the Leader America Deserved?

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.

6 Responses to Was Castro the Leader America Deserved?

  1. Tudor,

    I did not include Castro in my book because — despite there being “extensive documentation” at present — people are always more prepared to speak and write truth about (the recent) dead. But, time will solve this problem.

    I am now living in Moscow (again, after first doing so in 1992) and it is now providing another case of “Leaders We Deserve”. This is not to say that Vladimir Putin is having or will have the destructive effect of a Hitler, Stalin or Mao, but the underlying psychology (of him, his executive suite, and much of the population) is much the same.

    Castro was less destructive than the above trio, and I think that Putin may eventually be seen as a sort of (less idealised) Ataturk — although the late Anatoly Sobchak suggested that he might be Russia’s Napoleon. Indeed, Putin may eventually be seen as a combination of Ataturk and Napoleon (with Dimitry Medvedev filling the role of Ismet Inonu to Ataturk).

    And, the “New York Times” article you quote is spot-on. Russia is not as oppressive as Cuba (although I have never been there to be sure of this), but foreign pressures can be (but not always) counter-productive.

    As for narcissism, there can be little doubt that Putin has acquired a significant dose of this “through the trappings of power”. At the end of the day, not being “born narcissistic” may be what ultimately distinguishes Putin from the others. (But, once again, time will tell.)



  2. Tudor says:

    As cogent and insightful as ever. And you have demonstrated that someone can speak openly, (and I trust safely) from Russia, even if relations with the UK are are little on the chilly side in the political exchanges at present.

    PS: Was it you and your doppel ganger who signed the reply?

    PPS: Have you kept up with the amazing demonstrationa of free speech in England within the marathon inquest into Diana and Dodi’s deaths?

  3. Tudor,

    So was Oliver Cromwell born narcissistic or did he acquire it through the trappings of power? My guess is “acquire”, but many of your readers will know much more about him than I do!

    My view of some others: Julius Caesar (“born”); Saddam Hussein (“born”); Indonesia’s Suharto (“acquire” in a similar way to Putin).

    This leaves the likes of Pol Pot, Robert Mugabe, Pervez Musharraf etc

    Any views, ideas?


  4. Houman Kalbasi says:

    I think I have a real example which supports the theory. 30 years ago, following Islamic revolution in Iran, US and Iran have entered a long period of non-engagement and US has established sanctions against Iran for about 20 years. All these years having an external enemy was a tool in hands of cleric regime to convict oppositions betraying and cooperating with US. 10 years ago when reformists came to power, they began some reforms that led to more political freedom and improving relationships between Iran and western world. This coincided with Clinton presidency in US which even led to some steps for making relationships with US. But after changing president in US, and electing Bush and starting war against terrorism, US has began to threat Iran, which again has handed hardliners a good propaganda tool which led to election of Ahmadi Nejad (current Iran president) and also current nuclear dispute and worrying situation. In fact, like Cuba, sanctions against Iran helps government to justify its economic failures and external threat, gives them this opportunity to unite nation with their patriotic emotions against external threat and of course their supporters which are in minority can have a louder voice than majority of people in Iran and oppositions. I’m in agreement with New York Times that “continuing this policy of isolation will only make it easier for whoever succeeds Mr. Castro to continue the same repressive policies” and I think this is the same for current situation in Iran. Continuing current behaviour from west and specially US only helps radical leaders in Iran to crackdown opposition leaders and majority of about 80% who are against them and their internal and foreign policies.

    MBA 2009

  5. Tudor says:

    Thank You Houman,

    We could add President Mugabe to your list. African leaders favour engagement, while the British mood is more toward isolation. I can just remember Mugabe being seen as a more promising leader than his opponents at the start of his regime.

    The great success for ‘keeping engaged’ I believe will be the movement towards a better future in Northern Ireland, which will be increasingly diffiuclt to destroy by more militant factions.

    However, I am struggling to find a great deal of enlightenment from what I’ve been able to find about the methodology of peace. Perhaps the Scandinavian model is the most promising.

  6. Houman,

    Another example! Albert Speer noted that, just as Hitler’s V-rocket attacks strengthened British resolve and patriotism, so did the (war-crime type!) fire-bombing of German cities do the same in Germany — even Goebbels could get applause as he visited bombed cities! And, the July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler was taken by many Germans to be a “terrorist” attack, and strengthened their patriotic resolve.

    The problem US policy makers is their inability to nuanace — it all seems black and white.

    Jeff Schubert

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