Why The Castro Turn Is More Mao Than Gorbachev

The Castro regime's about-face to restore ties with the U.S. signals the communist economic system's shameful failure. But politics is another matter.

The Castro brothers in 2011
The Castro brothers in 2011
Darío Acevedo Carmona

BOGOTA — Cuban President Raúl Castro may hold onto his communist dogmas, but the utter failure of the revolutionary model he (and his brother) sought to impose on the island has become entirely, shamefully clear.

Almost since it declared itself to be communist and severed ties with the United States, the dictatorial Castro regime has blamed "Yankee imperialism" and "decadent capitalism" for all the shortfalls — and shortcomings — of its planned economy.

Historical evidence shows that the Castro polity has always needed foreign aid, first provided by the Soviets then by an oil-pumping, spendthrift Venezuela. But the fracking revolution in the United States, which has taken oil to its lowest price in 10 years, and the Castro brothers' descent into old age, both helped pave the way for the recent accord to renew ties.

The Cuban government, faced with an excessively uncertain economic panorama, had no choice but to seek out Goliath.

The agreement between Castro and President Barack Obama doesn't spell the end of the blockade with which the United States sought in vain to bring down the Castro regime, nor will it suddenly impose capitalism. But it will begin a process of capitalist-type investments and business ventures that will breathe life into the island's economy.

Their agreement does not and will not determine the fate of democracy and freedoms in Cuba. The Cuban exile community, which sees Obama's move as a betrayal, must understand that it's not rare in the world of diplomacy for governments with opposed systems to establish ties, as former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has pointed out. The ideological and political fight against communism in Cuba will continue to be difficult and even heroic, but it seems irrational to expect change to simply be the fruit of U.S. pressure.

Fidel's silence

The Cuban turn is quite unlike the Glasnost reforms of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. It looks more like the path China's communists rulers chose after Mao, opting for capitalism while firmly maintaining their party's grip on power. It's not clear where Fidel Castro stands in all this. Raúl is neither Cuba's Gorbachev nor a dissident or revisionist acting against his brother. Fidel's silence could mean he is too sick, or if he's lucid, that his immense ego won't permit him to recognize his failure.

Obama in turn has made this decision following a spectacular defeat in congressional elections and as his presidency approaches its dusk. The strong Republican majority doesn't look like it intends to simply back his rapprochement with a dictatorial regime. This could plausibly be seen as a gamble ahead of the 2016 presidential election, hoping to feed a groundswell of support for the next Democratic candidate. If only for electoral reasons, reviving U.S. influence on the American continent is of interest to the Democrats.

Obama will perhaps remind the Republicans that it was a president from their party, Richard Nixon, who normalized ties with China under Mao, and that the U.S. has nothing to lose by establishing ties with Cuba. On the contrary, these will provide economic opportunities without forcing the U.S. to renounce its pressures for democratic change.

Mao and Nixon in 1972. Photo: White House archives

Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez aptly describes the situation in terms of a modern David and Goliath relationship, though in this case Goliath takes out his checkbook for David, who is at wits' end.

"Wild West" Yankee capitalism is giving Cuban communism a helping hand.

Yet left-wing intellectuals such as Pablo Gentili and Alfredo Molano, seemingly unable to discard their ideological glasses or end their sycophantic attitude toward the red regime, prefer to declare David's victory over Goliath. They will neither see the calamity of the Cuban economy nor speak about repetitive rights violations there. Wedded to their old communist dogmas, they cannot perceive a simple fact — that communism did not defeat capitalism — and are resorting to verbal and conceptual acrobatics to explain the inexplicable. It may be a consolation for them to observe that the dignity of the weak triumphed over the stronger party.

President Castro gave the continent's most intransigent communists a nasty little Christmas present. Like it or not, the revolutionary lighthouse is fading. Even the puppet government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was left looking foolish when it wasn't even informed of what its great ally was quietly concoting.

As for Colombia, let us not hastily speak of the move's effect on the peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, which has shown before that it will not be moved by such events.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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