Nearing the end of his life, Christopher Hitchens no longer considered himself a Trotskyite, or even a socialist. But he never repudiated his Vietnam-era politics, and to his dying day praised the “heroic” Vietcong, despite Ho Chi Minh’s obvious Stalinist-style politics and how said politics were murderously applied after Saigon fell (Hitchens, like others in the New Left, blamed Minh and Pol Pot’s savagery on America’s relentless bombing campaign).
But Hitchens departed from the New Left from the very beginning by criticizing one of their sacred cows: Fidel Castro.
Like Lee Harvey Oswald (who, as a gun-brandishing Marxist-spouting deadbeat, would have fit easily into the Weathermen), the New Left lauded the Cuban dictator for his scrappy opposition against “fascist” American imperialism and for his “purer” form of Marxism over the Soviet syetem. For them, Castro was worthy to stand beside their other idols, Ho Chi Minh (many of the violence-practicing New Left proclaimed themselves “America’s Vietcong”) and Mao.
But Hitchens kept his head about Castro. Like many of his comrades, Hitchens went to Cuba in the late 60s to witness the “revolution” up close while working in the sugar cane fields alongside the Cuban “proletariat.” Hitchens concluded from his visit that “Castroism might still have a point in Latin America and the Caribbean [in which the regime fought against the] monstrously reactionary dictatorships like those of Brazil and Nicaragua and Haiti were undergirded by cynical American power.”
But that was the only moment of praise. Mere minutes after landing at Cuba’s airport, Hitchens’ alarm bells went off when a Cuban official refused to return his passport until the British writer finished his stay in Cuba. Another incident added to Hitchens’ uncomfortable realization that the regime was hardly democratic, let alone truly Marxist. When Hitchens attempted to leave the Cuban work camp for a simple hike, he was prevented by the guards at the gate whose only explanation for halting him was “Because we say so.” With this, Hitchens realized that the only freedom of movement allowed Cubans was being “expelled from their country of birth and never allowed to return.”
This denial of civil liberties to its citizens was voiced by the Cuban film director Santiago Alvarez during a film seminar Hitchens attended, which ran a movie that predated the crazed Oliver Stone who asserted that LBJ sanctioned the murders of JFK, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; a theory that Hitchens, who hated Johnson, rejected.
Afterwards, when Hitchens asked about the reality of artistic freedom in Cuba, Alvarez asserted that the regime upheld it. But when pressed by the British writer about any exceptions to this policy, Alvarez proudly admitted that artistic freedom was not allowed if it involved criticizing Castro.
As his audience members of international socialists increasing voiced disapproval of Hitchens (which he noted was the first of the many doctrinaire attacks he would proudly experience by his refusal to support politically correct defenses of civil liberties when limited or outright denied if practiced by Communist regimes), Hitchens made the valid and inescapable conclusion that “if one of the most salient figures in the state was immune from critical comment,” then there was no artistic freedom.
But Hitchens’ growing suspicions about the fraudulence of the regime’s claims that their socialism represented a democratic departure from the Soviet model were confirmed when Castro endorsed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia when the latter sought to democratize socialism (the doomed dissidents billed it as “Socialism With A Human Face”). Hitchens had a front-and-center view of Castro championing Soviet brutality against the Czechs.
From that moment on, Hitchens regarded the regime as emulating rather than departing from the Soviet model. The totalitarian behavior of the Cubans in every aspect of a citizen’s life experienced by Hitchens resulted in the most eloquent critic of communist totalitarianism since George Orwell, who never ceased to uncomfortably remind his comrades that Castro did not deserve their praise.
Good article. Hitch may have had something to say about Maduro and Erdogan if he had lived.