When Bernie Sanders doubled down on his old “not everything was bad” defense of Fidel Castro last weekend, citing things like Castro’s literacy programs, I thought of my fellow students from the early 90s. Although society has transformed since I left college, Sanders’ take on Cuba seemed marooned in the past. Cuba’s record on LGBTQ rights has improved in the last 20 years, but Castro was singularly ruthless in his persecution of gay men, lesbians and transgender people. Many of Arena’s friends were either jailed, forced to flee the country, or killed themselves. The rest curried favor with the regime by turning informants. To single out the country’s successes feels dangerously like a form of whitewashing. Just try to imagine a candidate extolling any aspect of Spain under Franco.
Although no one would argue that a literacy program is itself a bad thing, to ignore the indoctrination that went hand-in-hand with that program, the censorship of writers that fell afoul of the state, the blacklisting – and far, far worse – of queer artists like Arenas or Virgilio Piñera, seems more than tin-eared. It seems complicit in normalizing injustice. Literacy is only half useful if all you are allowed to read is communist propaganda. Just last year Reporters without Borders classified Cuba as 168 out of 180 countries in the world ranking of Press Freedom.