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Why we should not be fooled by Castro's Cuba

By James Kirkup, The Scotsman

Wed 22 Sep 2004 - IT IS A one-party state that restricts nearly all avenues of political dissent. The government severely curtails basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, movement, and to a fair trial.

It is a small, proud nation struggling to maintain its independence amid threats from a vast and overpoweringly aggressive neighbour bent on colonial dominance. Its iconic leader is an inspirational figure who has fought for decades on behalf of his people, and deserves our support and solidarity in his efforts.

These are, of course, the same nation. Welcome to Cuba.

Havana is a long way from Brighton, and not just in terms of geography, yet it was hard not to muse on the western hemisphereís last Communist state last week at the Trades Union Congress conference in the English resort.

In the hall, the delegates spent four long days debating serious issues of workersí rights and employment law, as well as passing a few motions condemning some of the worldís more flagrant human-rights abuses, especially those committed against the Palestinians and Iraqi civilians.

Some regard such gestures as irrelevant to the TUCís fundamental purpose of standing up for British workers, but that overlooks the role labour unions have played in fighting for basic political freedoms the world over. In scores of countries, countless union activists have won essential freedoms for the masses, sometimes paying a price of torture, imprisonment and death. The Amnesty International stand in the exhibitorsí fair at the TUC is rarely short of visitors.

Yet that very stall this year had a rather curious neighbour. A few feet away were the representatives of the Cuba Solidarity Movement, a group that insists that Fidel Castro, Cubaís leader since 1959, is in fact democratically accountable to his people.

Thatís the same Fidel Castro who last year ordered yet another crack-down on enemies of his regime, some 75 of whom remain in jail. Among these dangerous malcontents are human-rights campaigners, poets, journalists, teachers, doctors and librarians. Oh, and trade unionists.

At the time of writing, it remains unclear if the Cuba Solidarity Movement will be able to return to Brighton next week for the Labour Partyís annual conference. But if they do, they wonít be short of friends. A quick trawl of the House of Commons library reveals Early Day Motion 1247, tabled in May. Among other things, the motion "deplores" American calls for an end to Castroís regime and calls on the British government "to increase collaboration between the UK and Cuba".

So far, the motion has been signed by 71 MPs most of them Labour. Most, but not all. These arenít just the "usual suspects" on the furthest shores of the political Left. Among the signatories are Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat chief Treasury spokesman, and Alex Salmond, whose commitment to political freedom for Scots clearly isnít extended to Cubans.

And political sympathy with the Castro regime reaches higher. At lunch recently, a government minister with a proud record of social-democratic thinking and an undoubted commitment to human rights told me of a delightful family holiday in Cuba. "You should go," I was assured. "Before Castro dies and the Americans turn it into a theme park."

Itís hard to know where to start in explaining how outrageous that statement is. First, to the thousands of tourists flocking there every year, what is Cuba if not a theme park already? Even those who opt out of the ghastly "all-inclusive" camp-style resorts so popular in the Caribbean to visit "the real Cuba" do little more than treat the country as some sort of political museum.

How quaint, the cult of personality around Castro, with its posters and murals. How amusing, the law that obliges anyone with a car to pick up hitchhikers. Letís not think about what happens to people who question the wisdom of Fidel. Donít mention the fact that the same law of the road prohibits "ordinary" Cubans from owning cars. Not that they could afford them anyway, given that the average wage is roughly $10 a month at real market prices.

As for the malign influence of the Great Satan across the Straits, whatís the worst that Uncle Sam and his co-conspirators, the Miami Cubans, can do? Impose an unaccountable, unrepresentative regime that crushes dissent and strangles democracy? Granted, the US hardly has the proudest record in Latin America - and ironically chose its Cuban enclave for the abomination that is the Guantanamo Bay detention centre - but itís hard to see how even the Washington visionaries who brought Iraq to its current low could do a more effective job of suppressing political freedom in Cuba than Castro already has.

Even the well-informed and well-meaning seem to be blinded by some misguided affection for the place. One friend, a card-carrying Liberal Democrat and Amnesty International supporter, recently insisted to me that, actually, the regime isnít really repressive. Young Cubans often say critical things about Castro. And some young Cuban women have taken to wearing skirts with the Stars and Stripes sewn into them. Whatís that, if not freedom of expression?

AS FOR criticisms of Castro, itís all propaganda put about by those right-wing Cuban expats. Never mind that the first paragraph of this column is copied verbatim from a recent report by Human Rights Watch, hardly known as stooges of the conservative establishment.

Cubans canít vote. If they want to get rid of Fidel, they canít. If they want to have a say in who will succeed the old man when he dies, they canít. Raul Castro, vice-president, defence minister and, more importantly, Fidelís brother, is already lined up to succeed. In an open and accountable process, naturally.

To listen to some of Cubaís defenders, the republic is something close to paradise on earth. OK, so people arenít allowed silly little things like the vote, but they do get excellent public services. Public education and healthcare in Cuba, it is true, are first-class and available to all. Except if theyíre in prison, of course.

And if life in Cuba is so splendid, why are so many of its people willing to risk life and limb fleeing the place on ramshackle rafts bound for Florida or, well, anywhere else?

Again, the apologists have an answer. Itís the sanctions, you see. In the best tradition of US foreign policy, Washington is using sledgehammer economic measures to crack the nut who leads Cuba. And as so often before, itís not working. Castro lives on in some splendour while his people suffer.

Is the US doing more harm than good in its treatment of Cuba? Yes. But does that make Castroís dictatorship any more acceptable? No. No more than the blunders and cruelties of the coalition forces in Iraq mean that Saddam Hussein was a benign and humane ruler.

But too many of those who raise reasonable, well-argued and legitimate objections to US foreign policy - especially when itís conducted by a conservative Republican administration - seem all too prone to relinquish their reason when it comes to the targets of that policy. Such are the passions excited by the last superpower that reason and nuance go out the window, replaced by a simple calculus: America bad, Americaís enemies good.

For a century and more, many of those on the left of politics stood for more freedom for more people, yet many left-wingers are in danger of ceding that ground, retreating from the battle for political liberty as an outraged reaction to the sudden and violent rise of the neo-conservative movement in the US.

Itís time for political progressives to rejoin the struggle for an open society. Itís time to admit that those who are wronged by America arenít always right.

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