Friday, September 19, 2008

Cuba Libre

This piece was originally written for Open Democracy.

When writing about Cuba westerners do well to begin - as Fred Halliday did - with their credentials. His are as lamentably inadequate as are those of most people whose comments about Fidel Castro's resignation have found their way into the press. Very few western journalists - or academics - have visited Cuba other than fleetingly, and the majority, like Halliday, base their accounts on conversations they claim to have had with Cuban officials - fortified not infrequently by quotations drawn from the underground river of hostility that runs between Washington and Florida.

To the above, of course, Richard Gott is an honorable exception. He knows the country well - and its history very well - although his historical summary for Open Democracy would have benefited from an attempt to address some of the more well-founded criticisms of post-revolutionary Cuba such as Che Guevara's naive economic policies, and Fidel's reluctance to build a political system independent of his - or anyone else's - personality.

In any case, before adding my two cents to the discussion, I will follow the lead of both contributors and offer a summary of my own experience of Cuba and Latin America.

I have worked in and been a student of the region for roughly thirty years. I lived in Mexico during the 1970s, which was then the only country in Latin America where it was possible to meet and converse with Cubans who supported the revolutionary government. For a time my apartment was one of several where Cuban visitors knew they would find a welcome - and sometimes a bed for the night - during their visits to Mexico's capital city.

At the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económias (CIDE) in Mexico City, where I taught from 1974 - 1977, my colleagues included former government ministers, senior politicians and university professors from Argentina, Chile and Uruguay - all of them refugees from the right-wing military regimes of the 1970s. I was on the editorial team (the only non Latin-American) of CIDE's first serial publication. Its rather clumsy title - Estados Unidos, Perspectiva Latinoamericana - was sufficiently alarming to evoke adverse comment in the US congress - and for several of us to have our telephones tapped (mine among them). My encounter with a good selection of ministers and senior officials of Salvador Allende's government led me to conclusions similar to those of Fidel himself after his visit to Allende's Chile. Looking back over the period from the comfort of his spacious house in a Mexico City suburb, one of those refugee ministers quietly admitted to me over a glass of wine that - "Most of us were armchair revolutionaries. We didn't think it was for real". None of my CIDE colleagues noticed nor cared to hear about the wretched slum, built on a city garbage dump, that stood in all its appalling ugliness and stench just across highway - the old road to Toluca - that ran at the back of the splendid campus that the institution took over when the Universidad de las Americas moved out of town.

Following my years in Mexico, I worked at various times in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and most of Central America. And about twelve years ago, I finally got to know Cuba first hand - not as a tourist or journalist - but as a consultant charged with the task of establishing a joint venture between a Canadian corporation and a Cuban state-owned enterprise. During my several visits to the island, I traveled extensively and met a wide range of Cuban citizens, from government ministers to small farmers, from writers and intellectuals to taxi-drivers, from students to bricklayers, from bureaucrats to laborers, from teachers to waiters. I met and chatted with soldiers and police officers; with engineers and agronomists trained in the Soviet Union and who spoke fluent Russian; and with fans of American baseball.

At no stage, during my sojourns in Cuba, did my movements or conversation come under scrutiny; nor did anyone I spoke to show any unwillingness to discuss even touchy subjects like domestic politics or the economic situation. One of my Cuban friends was a key adviser to Carlos Lage - a powerful, long-serving member of the government. From the hours and days spent with my friend, I learned much about how government really works in Cuba - and also about how readily Cubans criticize political decisions and make fun of bureaucratic procedures. Cuba is not in any meaningful sense a police state. Not, in fact, in any sense at all. And it operates a form of internal democracy that would put some of our own democratic processes to shame.

Certainly Cubans are not well off by our standards. Years of economic embargo have taken their toll. Nor, however, do they suffer the abject poverty so widespread elsewhere in Latin America. The villas miserias, the ciudades perdidas, the favelas are mainland specialties. To be sure, there are disagreeable aspects of Cuba's internal economic arrangements, not the least of which is the dual economy that virtually excludes nationals from tourist hotels and restaurants - though contrary to the misrepresentations of conservative pundits - they are not forbidden to enter such places or barred from accepting invitations from foreigners. Cubans may not enjoy the consumption patterns of middle-class Americans or Europeans, but they are among the healthiest and best educated citizens in Latin America. Readers who doubt this may like to consult the UN's Human Development Report, where they will find that Cubans have a life expectancy similar to that of Americans and higher than that of all the other Latin-American countries except Chile; and Cuba's literacy rate of 96.9% is exceeded in Latin-America solely by Uruguay's 97.2%. This is a remarkable achievement in a country which the most powerful nation on earth has spent considerable time and effort trying to undermine.

Other negatives?

Perhaps the most obvious - and in my view the most inexcusable - are the government's control of the media, and ludicrous over-sensitivity to public criticism. It seems unfortunate that, fifty years after the revolution, the government still has not learned to trust its own citizens. This is, of course, a failing shared by many governments - not least that of the UK where we have a free press but can no longer walk down city streets or drive anywhere without being spied upon by cameras. Were those cameras located in Havana, we would be told that they were the typical hallmark of a police state.

Undoubtedly there are prisoners jailed for their political activities. These so-called "prisoners of conscience" have been convicted in Cuban courts of plotting or encouraging the overthrow of the government. As recent "anti-terrorist" legislation has shown only too clearly, they would also find themselves incarcerated in the UK - and for that matter everywhere else in the western hemisphere. Western journalists make much of Cuba's "political prisoners"; but nothing at all of the Miami five - Cuban patriots jailed in the US on trumped up charges by what effectively amounted to a kangaroo court.

And how easily these commentators slide over the unpalatable fact that, in addition to the innumerable attempts on Fidel's life, the US financed and armed an invasion force to "retake" the island: the infamous Bay of Pigs fiasco. Then, as now, the US government put out the story that their purpose was only " to bring freedom and democracy to the people". But now as then, the Cuban people don't want to be set free by the United States - or indeed by anyone. What is not generally understood in the West is that the Cuban revolution of 1959 was a war of national liberation; and its success marked the first time in the island's modern history that it became truly self-governing. What the US lost in 1959 was, in all but name, a colony - of which the last remnant is the now infamous Guantanamo Bay - land leased against the wishes of the Cuban people by their former colonial master. Independence, and the fact that, for fifty years, Cuba has stood as an example to other Latin-American countries are what stick in the craw of the US body politic. More important still - and equally unpleasant to neo-liberals - Cuba offers a message - some may call it a dream (though a compelling one) - that alternatives to raw, neo-liberal capitalism exist and that, in the end, these alternatives may offer the best hope for the future of mankind and of the planet.

And Cubans do not stop at theory. The island is a movingly generous contributor of aid to other developing countries. Unfriendly commentators like to refer to Cuban "interference" in Africa - by which they usually mean Cuba's assistance in liberating Angola from Jonas Savimba and his US/South-African backed militia. They prefer to pass over the fact that the small island of Cuba was the largest provider of medical aid to Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake. Nor do they mention that over a thousand Cuban doctors are currently providing free medical services to impoverished Bolivians. These doctors are not there to foment revolution or to meddle in local politics, but to demonstrate solidarity with the Bolivian people by helping to improve the lives of the poor. By contrast, far richer countries of the West seem content to stand back, criticize and do little else.

Recent critics of Cuba have become fond of describing the island's economy as "in ruins" thanks to the "failed" economic policies of a "discredited regime" (the references are drawn from the BBC, The Guardian and The Independent).

Every regime makes mistakes - and Cuba's is no exception. Some of its economic policies - particularly during the early years - were nonsensical. But the economy is not in ruins. On the contrary, the regime has survived years of US hostility and the "período especial" following the demise of the Soviet Union for the best of all possible reasons: because on the whole, the people believe in the tenets of the Revolution; and they work to sustain it. The image of Fidel Castro as an evil dictator who oppresses his people is simply false. When he dies the people will not rejoice, they will lament the passing of a man whom many regard as the father of the nation; and they will fear the arrival of McDonalds and what it symbolizes: the wretched social inequalities of the neo-liberal model. They will remember what the Revolution overthrew: the US puppet government of Batista , the slums on the outskirts of Havana, the racial apartheid that forbade blacks to be seen in the elegant suburb of Miramar after 6pm. And this contributor, at least, hopes they will resist any attempt to turn back the clock.

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