I wanted to blog something about Cuba last week, but frankly, I was too stunned. “Castro-supporting leftist” is one of those stereotypes that I doubted could be found in the wild any more–until Castro stepped down and the Castro apologists crawled out from under their rocks. “Okay, dictatorship bad, but–universal health care! And he really stood up to Uncle Sam, which is, like, totally awesome!”

Leave aside the extreme dubiousness of the proposition that Castro has, in fact, made his countrymen better off. This is like listening to those conservatives one occasionally encounters in the darker corners of the movement who drop gems such as “Well, I don’t excuse Pinochet, but Chile wouldn’t have a privatized social security system without him.” I’ve never managed a snappy comeback to this because my jaw is always too firmly glued to the floor. Chile’s Social Security system is really pretty great. But it’s not so fantastic that it’s worth purchasing via a reign of terror. Neither is universal health care–particularly when the free clinics are short of medicine and equipment, making them worth about what you pay for their services.

Even more bizarre were arguments along the lines of “Well, Cuba only has about a hundred political prisoners . . . ” Only? That’s a lot of prisoners of conscience for a small island nation. Moreover, it fundamentally misunderstands the problem with dictatorship. The Cuban government doesn’t need to use force to punish any but the most glaring and vocal dissenters, because it has widespread powers of economic coercion. As a Russian co-worker once told me, “Americans have a silly idea about communism. It wasn’t that if you told a joke about Brezhnev, the secret police would arrest you–it was that you’d lose your job. And in Russia, there were no other jobs.” When the government controls your paycheck, your housing, and your ration card, it doesn’t need to put you in jail; you are in jail.

Nor is it much of an excuse that Bautista was awful; dictatorships almost never follow stable governments with sensible leaders who command the support of the majority of the population. Allende was a disaster who was rapidly driving his country down the road to economic ruin–and yet, still not a good reason to staff up the secret police and make his supporters disappear. There are some things for which there is no excuse. Pinochet’s regime was one of them. Castro’s is another.

At any rate, I was reminded to deliver this rant by Mahalanobis, which has a good post on life in Havana.