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Fidel was right: Rise of nationalism exposes liberalism's inherent problem

Castro fought the liberal values of the capitalist system until his death. The recent rise of nationalist challenges to liberalism prove his point

As he departs this world, Fidel Castro has the right to look his comrades and critics in the eye and proclaim: “Didn’t I tell you?”

Inspiring thousands of strugglers in Latin America and around the world, the Cuban leader never showed any regrets for the revolutionary path he chose.

In his message to the Cuban Communist Party last April, he spoke about living 90 years and the approach of death. Yet he also expressed confidence that history would do justice to the record and accomplishments of Cuban revolutionaries. 

Castro did not meet US President Barack Obama during his historic visit to Cuba this March.

And it is doubtful that he welcomed or had any sense of jubilation at all over Obama’s decision to open up to the poor and heavily burdened island, which had for nearly six decades posed an ideological and political nuisance to the US.

Throughout those years, the US tried with all its means and methods to topple the revolutionary Cuban regime and assassinate its leader.

Whenever one of its endeavours failed, Washington would tighten the blockade and the sanctions regime against the island sitting 90 miles from southernmost Florida.

But Cuba was not defeated. Even when poverty burdened the shoulders of its people – a poverty that becomes more profound when compared to the extremely rich American neighbourhood so close – its accomplishments in education and healthcare were unparalleled.

The economy, which constituted an enormous challenge for Cuba after the fall of the Batista regime in 1959 and the introduction of the US blockade, however, was not the biggest challenge over the past six decades.

A fight to the death

Castro’s biggest test emanated from the liberal values of the capitalist system, the system that the Cuban leader dedicated his life to fighting, and fighting it until death, as he once remarked. 

To do this, he imposed unprecedented restrictions on Cubans. He adopted a single party rule and employed an iron fist.

In exchange, he had to justify the totalitarian system of governance while facing the challenge of liberal freedoms: freedom of conscience,  freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom of possession, freedom of movement and travel and the freedom to work and self-fulfilment.

In addition, liberalism affirms such values as the rule of law, the equality of citizens before institutions of justice, the right of the people to bring down their governments and rulers and their right to choose who rules them.

In reality, liberalism has not always lived up to its ideal or worked according to its theory. However, and despite its own broken promises, the challenge it posed to totalitarian regimes was significant.

Indeed, several liberal American leftists had in the past extended a hand to Cuba. The most prominent among them was George McGovern, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1972 (who lost against Republican Richard Nixon). Even President Carter tried to normalise his country’s relations with Cuba.

But Castro never abandoned his misgivings about America’s liberalism and its democratic system, not even after abdicating and handing power over to his brother, Raul.

At last, as he saw in the very last moments of his life the decline of liberalism in America and in the Western world, Castro had every right to say to his detractors “Didn’t I warn you?”

The rise of a threat

Liberalism has not achieved the progress that it accomplished after winning the Cold War, when the winds of democracy and the values of freedom swept across the European continent and much of the rest of the world.

Perhaps it can be said that Western liberalism went too far in celebrating this victory. It may have even overreached itself in welcoming immigrants and in embracing cultural diversity while showing little respect for traditional family values that are enshrined in the culture of Christian Western societies.

This is perhaps what led to the huge and extensive reactions witnessed recently in more than one Western state. Yet, it is still unclear, and even uncertain, if this interpretation is accurate.

The scale of change in public inclinations in countries such as Britain, America and France is much bigger than can be explained in terms of the carelessness and obstinacy of liberal circles.

The success of the pro-Brexit camp in Britain, Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections and the victory achieved by Francois Fillon in the French Republican primaries should also be read in the eyes of tens of millions of voters who gave their votes to these candidates’ programmes and pledges - platforms which can only be described as representing a threat to the values of Western liberalism. 

The wave on both sides of the Atlantic

In the name of British independence, under the banner of the "alternative right" and in response to the calls for preserving identity, an extreme rightest current has emerged. This current does not conceal its endeavour to put an end to the advancement of the values of freedom, to equality before the law and to the recognition of pluralism on both sides of the Atlantic.

The supporters of exiting the European Union won because membership has become a losing pact for Britain. However, this victory was achieved by means of a campaign waged against Eastern European immigrants as well as against non-European immigrants, and against cultural diversity, which peaked during the past two decades.

Trump won by calling for the closure of the borders of the US, for banning Muslims and monitoring them, for despising Latin Americans and accusing them of rape and drug trafficking, and for undermining the freedom of the press and the media.

Although Francois Fillon, who won the primaries of the French right, believes he is capable of taking on and defeating the National Front – the most racist of all the French parties - the discourse of the French right’s candidate does not seem to be any more moderate than the crude discourse that is represented by Marine Le Pen’s far-right party.

This French presidential candidate does not believe that colonialism is an evil and describes it as a mere historic dynamic of cultural exchange. He completely ignores his country’s responsibility for the millions who were annihilated in France’s African and Asian colonies.

“France is not a multi-cultural country,” says Fillon. He believes that new arrivals must assimilate in the imagined Republic’s crucible and that Islam’s endeavour to establish itself in France represents a sweeping danger to the daily lives of the French. 

Liberalism's nation state problem

Western liberalism lived, and is still living, with a historic and genuine problem.

That’s not just because it has not been truly liberal in its treatment of the colonised peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America, but also because it has not, on any one day, been able to find for itself a vessel or a vehicle or pillar outside the realm of the nation state.

During the past two centuries, not a single Western state has been able to escape periods of repudiation of liberal values

Western liberalism was born at the same time as the idea of the nation state and its nationalistic discourse was born in the late 18th and 19th century. Without the nation state, Western liberal values become a mere individual exercise or a mutiny by small groups on the periphery of the state and society.

This has always been the problem of the anarchist current whose inclination of hostility toward the nation state turned it into a secondary protest movement or into violent organisations on the run or into isolated mystic ghettos.

Western liberalism was cleverer and more practical as it embraced the nation state and functioned within its conditions. Because freedom was always the justification for a more muscular model of liberalism, Western liberalism provided freedom not just for the purpose of bolstering its values and standing by them but also for rejecting it.

On the other hand, the mission of nationalism, with all its currents, represented a justification for the existence of the more vivid and more meaningful nation state. This is what made the liberal victory quite brittle and reversible. During the past two centuries, not a single Western state has been able to escape periods of repudiation of liberal values: neither Britain, nor France, nor America and nor, of course, Germany.

The legacy of the Catholic revival and imperialist nationalism in 19th century France; the British industrial enslavement and imperial expansion; the German Holocaust; and American McCarthyism and segregation are all still fresh in people’s memories.

Today, the nationalist idea returns to rebel once again against its liberal partner in more than just one Western country. Wasn’t Castro right then in believing that it would be naive to take the promises of Western liberalism of freedom and equality and its celebration of pluralism at face value? 

- Basheer Nafi is a senior research fellow at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A man waits to see the convoy carrying the urn with the ashes of late Cuban leader Fidel Castro as it drives through Contramaestre on 2 December 2016 (AFP).

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.