Fidel Castro’s death exposes divisions in Vietnam

Lines of mainly older citizens paid their respects to the former revolutionary at the Cuban embassy in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre.

Lines of mainly older citizens paid their respects to the former revolutionary at the Cuban embassy in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre.

Vietnam’s call for a day of national mourning for Fidel Castro has exposed ideological divisions in a country that still clings, in name at least, to Marxist-Leninist teaching.

For the Communist party, Fidel Castro was a comrade in arms in the struggle against American “imperialism”, and lines of mainly older Vietnamese lined up at the Cuban embassy to pay their condolences.

But for younger generations, the much tarnished glamour of the once feted revolutionary is at best an irrelevance, and for some, the mandatory mourning for a ruthless dictator is an insult to their struggle for a more open and pluralistic society.

There are already murmurings of discontent at the inconvenience of restrictions on entertainment activities decreed for the day of mourning, December 4.

They include a ban on weddings, forcing couples and their guests into deeply unwelcome rescheduling at a time when the winter wedding “season” is now well underway.

One human rights blogger and activist argued that the Communist party is violating the law by ordering national mourning for a non-Vietnamese national.

Nguyen Anh Tuan said that under a 2012 government decree, national mourning was restricted to the leader of the Vietnam Communist Party, the president, the prime minister, the chairman of the National Assembly, and senior party officials with a major international reputation.

“According to these provisions, Fidel cannot be granted any national mourning,” Tuan wrote.

Other bloggers expressed anger at the VCP’s decision, and their joy at the revolutionary leader’s death.

“Whoever owes something to the guy can kneel down and cry before his dead body; that’s OK. But do not force the citizenry to do like you,” said the independent blogger, Huynh Ngoc Chenh.

The Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, expresses his condolences to the Cuban people. Photo courtesy Tuoi Tre

The Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, expresses his condolences to the Cuban people. Photo courtesy Tuoi Tre

National media, on the other hand, lavished Castro with praise, with Communist party leaders eager to bask in the reflected glory of one of the twentieth century’s most iconic revolutionaries.

“Fidel Castro was a great and close friend, a comrade and brother of the party, state leaders and people of Vietnam during the past 50 years,” wrote President Tran Dai Quang in the condolence book at the Cuban embassy.

Castro endeared himself to the leaders of what was then North Vietnam with his visit, in 1973, to communist occupied areas in embattled Quang Tri province, which was technically still part of the South.

Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969, were by then seen as romantic heroes by leftists around the world.

It was their defiance, and even humiliation, of the United States at the height of its powers, that endeared them to the global Left, regardless of the incalculable sacrifices demanded of their own people.

Vietnam and Cuba, as remote geographically and culturally as it’s possible to be, had became linked in a global ideological struggle, as the Cold War turned hot and Washington encountered the limits of its power.

Both Castro and Ho were as much nationalists as Marxists, at least at the beginning of their careers, and that may explain the longevity of the regimes they founded, surviving long after the collapse of communist rule in Moscow, Eastern Europe and beyond.

Fidel Castro, however, turned out to be a far more stubborn ideologue than the more pragmatic heirs of Ho.

His intransigent resistance to free enterprise in any form left his country impoverished, while Vietnam found new energy through economic reform and, eventually, reconciliation with the United States.

Both, however, resisted any hint of political liberalisation. Government critics, human rights campaigners and democracy activists are still harshly suppressed in both countries.

It is Castro’s repression of freedom that so antagonises his Vietnamese critics.

One activist living in the old quarter of Hanoi talked of holding a party on December 4 to mark the old dictator’s death.

Fidel Castro’s death has sparked sharp disagreements about his legacy around the world, but nowhere is that debate more relevant and close to the bone than in Vietnam.