A couple of days ago, I went to a faculty-led panel discussion on Fidel Castro, the former president of Cuba who passed away last year. Before the talk, I knew embarrassingly little about this controversial figure, except that he was a socialist. About 15 students showed up, and we formed a circle around the professors and waited intently for them to begin. After chatting with her colleagues in Spanish, Professor Désirée Diáz started reading from a pre-written introduction about her mixed feelings toward the Cuban revolutionary. As she put down her script, it was now Bryn Mawr College Professor Enrique Sacerio-Garí’s turn.
A celebrated scholar on Latin American politics and a commanding speaker, Professor Sacerio-Garí had none of the ambivalence of the previous professor. He prefaced his speech by saying that he supports Fidel Castro. What ensued was a spirited defense of his patriotism and his love for the Cuban people. Professor Sacerio-Garí talked about Castro’s education and literacy campaign, his anti-apartheid and anti-racism beliefs, as well as his courage to stand up to America’s “psychopathic desire” to harm and control the Cuban people. Notably missing, however, was much mention of Castro’s socialism.
Does a country’s ideology actually matter?
This is a question I often think about as a citizen of another socialist country, China. When I was growing up, I heard many stories about Mao’s China. My paternal grandmother told me that during the Great Chinese Famine, she only had carrots and a thin layer of rice for lunch every day. My dad told me he witnessed gangs beating young people to death with bats covered in nails during the Cultural Revolution. My maternal grandmother, a leading expert in cardiology, was humiliated and persecuted by the Red Guards.
However, both of my parents are members of the Communist Party. When I vowed not to join any Communist Party-affiliated organization, my grandparents were concerned. They told me I was being ungrateful. If not for the Communist Party, they said, I would not have the life I have today.
Officially, China is still a Communist country, even though China’s current economic system is closer to capitalism. Many western commentators mark Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform, which embraced privatization and globalization, as the end of Maoism. However, the Communist Party is still the only ruling party in China, and previous attempts at liberalizing the regime all ended in failure.
My father participated in the 1989 Democracy Movement as a protestor. Now, he is no longer a believer. Western style democracy will never work in China, he says, because nobody will care enough to vote and participate any way.
Does a country’s ideology matter? Not to the citizens, based on my experience. Castro defenders need not defend his socialism, just as Chinese Communist Party members like my parents need not be actual Communists. But the purest ideologues can argue all day about whether communism or capitalism is better. A Maoist can pontificate about the evil of money and the downfall of capitalism, while being blissfully ignorant of the pain and sufferings that Mao caused to the Chinese people. A conservative can tell you all about the invisible hand and the importance of deregulation, while neglecting millions of people in America who live in poverty and dejection. We need a new way to think, a way that focuses not so much on ideology, but on policies that make a difference. Calling oneself a communist or a capitalist is intellectual snobbery, because ideology does not help people.