Why does the left still back Castro?

Observations on Cuba

In 1968 when Fidel Castro backed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he condemned the leaders of the Prague Spring as a "fascist reactionary rabble". This summer, Vaclav Havel and other "fascist reactionaries" from Europe's new democracies are attempting to return the compliment: they have been appealing to British MPs to join their campaign for democracy in Cuba.

It is a campaign that should discomfort a dictator who has ruled his country for 46 years. But he is not the only one who won't like it. Many on the left here and across "old Europe" who have been apologists for the Cuban regime may want to consider why opposition outside the US to Castro is now led by politicians who have themselves known life under totalitarian rule.

In 2003, Havel was driven to found the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba not by Castro's gibes but by his brutal crackdown on the island's democratic opposition. In the purge that year, the dictator imprisoned 75 activists, mainly independent journalists, librarians and artists. And the response of the British left? The TUC passed a unanimous motion opposing any diplomatic action against Cuba.

Cuba's repressive machinery is well developed, yet, whether because of the Romantic character of the 1959 revolution or of the island itself, the regime is not held to common standards. It is hard to imagine that supporters of any other dictator would be welcomed at the Labour conference, but that is just what will happen to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign this year.

As catalogued by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, right up to the arrests of 50 non-violent dissidents this summer, the regime has a long record of subjecting its enemies to torture, sexual abuse, forced re-education and even the death penalty. One prisoner, Jesus Chamber RamIrez, was subjected to such severe beatings that he sustained fractures to his skull and legs. Sentenced to ten years' imprisonment and eventually exiled to Spain, his crime was "enemy propaganda". Convictions of this kind can be triggered by nothing more than possessing a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (of which Cuba is a signatory). Homosexual Cubans have long been persecuted here and many attempt the hazardous 90-mile crossing to the US. A tugboat making this voyage in 1994 was rammed and sunk by government boats, with the loss of 41 lives.

The problem is not just that the nature of the Castro regime is ignored (we take the same approach to many other foreign governments). Rather, it is that Cuba is idealised - and Castro idolised. While Cuban opposition activists suffer, the mainstream left across the Atlantic expresses solidarity with their oppressors. On a recent visit to Cuba, the EU development commissioner, Louis Michel, even instructed pro-democracy activists to avoid "provoking" Castro.

In recognising and rejecting Castro's totalitarianism, the left should learn a lesson from Europe's new democracies. We should defer to those who know what it is like to feel the heavy hand on their shoulder and hear the Orwellian words: "May I see your papers, Comrade?"

The author was Labour candidate for Montgomeryshire at the 2005 election