2015-08-17

Different Perspectives

Last week, I noticed that someone on Facebook had written a "happy birthday" message to, of all people, Fidel Castro. This came as a big surprise to me because I am acquainted with this person as part of a broadly "libertarian" circle of friends, and we libertarians seldom say anything nice about communist dictators, as you can well imagine.

Predictably, this birthday message sparked extensive commentary, debate, and follow-up statuses. For the most part, I tried to stay out of it, although I did take the time to point out that, given Castro's record of bad deeds (despite whatever the list of good deeds might be), the original well-wisher shouldn't have been surprised to discover that the Facebook status updates were controversial. Of course they would be!

Unlike many of the folks in my libertarian circle, however, I was less surprised to see the post. The reason is because I've had the opportunity to meet a fair number of Baby Boomers from the developing world.

One of them once explained to me that, whatever the shortcomings of communism, the communist countries offered aid to countries in Africa and South Asia when no one else would. It was on this foreign aid that this man - and many others like him - was able to obtain a scholarship to attend graduate school. (He himself studied in Ukraine, when it was still part of the USSR.) And of course, the PhD he earned in Economics was largely responsible for his career success later in life.

We in the United States are accustomed to seeing a man like Nikita Khrushchev as a horrible dictator, responsible for the suffering of millions of innocent people - and, indeed, he was. But he was also a man responsible for the kind of foreign aid that made a true positive impact on the lives of millions of others.

We Americans don't really have a good feel for the level poverty and suffering that exists in other parts of the world. People who experience it on a daily basis know that the solution is resources - money, aid, help in whatever form. They just need it. They are not always in a position to say, "No, I will not accept your offer to give me a better life because I read in The New York Times that you do not have a spotless human rights record."

Moreover, considering the number of bombs dropped by the United States government on starving people every year, it simply cannot be said that US foreign aid is more ethically sound to accept than Cuban aid.

So, while I won't be wishing Fidel Castro a happy birthday any time soon, I understand why someone else would.