Paradise Left


During a recent trip to New York, I spoke with writer, agent and activist Anthony Arnove about his experiences in Cuba. He had visited the communist country only once, with writer Howard Zinn, with whom he co-edited Voices of a People’s History of the United States. ‘Does the Left in Australia have the same problems with Cuba as here?’ Arnove asked. ‘There is no freedom of speech in Cuba,’ he added bluntly. ‘Why do many on the Left ignore this?’

A recent article by Australian academic Tim Anderson proved this very point:

In the US, ‘freedom of speech’ means that a handful of private corporations dominate the mass media.

In Cuba, the media (television, radio, magazines, newspapers) are all run by public bodies or community organisations. No private individual or investment group can capture or dominate public debate in Cuba. Nor is there mind-numbing, commercial advertising.

In the US, mass communications are dominated by consumerism and celebrity trivia; politics is about individuals seeking public office. In Cuba, mass communications are dominated by education and cultural programs; politics is about co-ordinated social responses to social problems Cuba is a democracy and the US is not.

This is embarrassing rhetoric from somebody who ought to know better. Anderson and his fellow travellers should know that pointing out the deficiencies of one system doesn’t automatically mean endorsing the policies of another. The multitude of faults with US-style ‘democracy’ can be addressed in other forums, but nothing should blunt the necessity of critiquing the failings of Castro’s reign.

Cuba is a police State.

After spending time in Cuba, it is clear that revolutionary fervour is virtually non-existent among the younger generation; and that the genuine successes of the country free healthcare and education, as just two examples are compromised by the Castro regime’s repression of its citizens and its isolating them from information that is freely available in the West.

Such truisms do not mean, however, that US-style disaster capitalism is the answer. Indeed, many people I spoke to in Cuba were both wary and highly curious about a wholesale change of their economic system. The young, especially, were already embracing American hip-hop culture listening to Gangsta Rap or wearing signature fashion.

Rather than aspiring towards a Hugo Chávez-style socialism the Venezuelan leader, it should be noted, is not universally loved in Cuba due principally to his undying support for virtually every aspect of Castro’s regime many Cubans’ curiosity about the outside world cannot be restricted indefinitely by paranoid and parochial officials.

One of the key challenges for the Cuban Government is the availability of the internet. Although many young Cubans have access to a Cuban intranet that includes an email service and Government websites, full access to the world wide web is unavailable for most. I spoke to a student in Havana who knew all about the internet because he was studying IT, but he wasn’t allowed to view the net himself. ‘I don’t think it’s very useful to cut off information,’ he said. ‘Many of my friends are frustrated by this. What is the Government afraid of?’

The answer is clear. The regime has consistently said that full access to the internet is impossible due to the US’s immoral and counterproductive embargo of the island, but as Reuters Cuba correspondent, Marc Frank, told me, this was pure propaganda. ‘The two main security issues for the Government are [mobile]phones and the internet,’ he said.

It is, of course, important to remember that the majority of Cubans are not spending their days wishing for internet access. More mundane needs, like food and solid employment, are far more pressing. But how the regime deals with these communications issues in the coming years will determine how fast the country embraces the globalised world.

Independent journalist Miriam Leiva is an intense woman whose husband, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an economist and journalist , has been jailed and abused for opposing the Castro regime. She told me that their lives have often become unbearable because ‘for Fidel, some prisoners are really his own’ and he never forgives or forgets.

Leiva and Chepe were both quiet and determined people and didn’t believe in violently overthrowing the Government. In fact, their requests were modest not unlike their crumbling apartment in outer Havana, a few rooms of clutter and leaking taps and they both articulated a steady move towards a more accountable and democratic system. ‘Corruption here is rife,’ Oscar said, ‘and if you read the newspapers every day, it’s like deja-vu. You can’t find any useful information in them.’

The militant population of Cuban exiles in Miami, Florida, has led the campaign against Castro for decades but like for many on the Left in the West, a profound disconnect exists between propaganda and reality. Even many of the anti-Castro dissidents in Cuba told me that they opposed the tactics of the Miami Cubans. ‘They don’t really know what’s going on here,’ Miriam said, and their brazen support for dissidents only worsened their own lives. A number of dissidents told me that they strongly opposed the Bush Administration’s attempts to unseat Castro and never took financial assistance from the US Government.

Real democratic change must come, if at all, from the people themselves, not via agenda-setting foreign forces reminiscent of clumsy US attempts to support opposition groups in Iran and elsewhere.

Cuba is a beautiful, beguiling and frustrating country on the brink of something. The future of the island depends on many factors, not least the US response to Fidel Castro’s death. I asked Marc Frank how Cubans would react when Castro eventually died. ‘They’ll go to the beach,’ he said, ‘just like they did when he was seriously sick.’

I doubt this it’s clear that Fidel still commands a great deal of respect for leading a nation through decades of change, turmoil, US pressure and Soviet collapse. It was harder to discern much love for him, however. Fidel’s death will probably bring little short-term change unless, of course, Washington decides to embark on a not-so-subtle course of ‘regime change.’

The so-called dissidents in Cuba may not represent a huge proportion of Cuban society, but their voices are vital to truly understanding the rich fabric of Cuban society.

If the international Left wants to do itself any favours and Tariq Ali has already articulated where they could begin they should be calling for reform of the Cuban system.

A truly open media, unfettered freedom of speech, and freedom of association are not merely Western indulgences. They are essential for any country to join the ranks of respectable nations.

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