MY speech at Cuba’s International Policy Research Centre (see last week’s article) seemed reasonably well received by participants,
mostly from across Latin America and the Caribbean. Those remarks encompassed just one of the many learning experiences in Cuba.
Of all the countries I visited this year, Cuba is, by a big margin, the one that had the most preconceptions before arrival. My school textbooks had nary a thing to say about Cyprus (now famous for apparently generous passport issuances), but Cuba made regular appearances, entirely negative, relating to its role in the Cold War.
Having already been taught about the evils of socialism, it followed that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were bad. Soviet domination made it worse, and Cuba got what it deserved.
I was challenged on these assumptions at university when I met left-wing students who idolised the two men, tolerating private property only when it came to communist T-shirts, caps and posters. But I was, and remain, entirely unconvinced.
Attempts to create communist states anywhere have resulted in violence and misery (including in Malaya), and almost every country which has tried socialist economics has either abandoned the experiment explicitly or adopted market economics while maintaining a facade of socialist terminology and symbolism.
As I recently extolled to Wisma Putra, it is impolite to denounce the governmental system of a country to which one has been invited.
However, before going I did tell the Cuban Ambassador – the friendly Ibete Fernandez Hernandez – that I am not a socialist, to which she laughed and said that the Prince of Wales visited Cuba in March (and the King of Spain is there now)!
A fuller look at Cuba’s history reveals a rather tragic five centuries, in which oppression and exploitation was the norm. Early Cubans striving for independence such as Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (a sugar plantation owner who freed his slaves to fight the Spanish in 1868) and José Martí (a political philosopher and writer whose poem became the song Guantanamera) are fully worthy of their heroic status as freedom fighters.
The eventual ejection of Spain saw the arrival of the United States of America, whose early involvement in the island can be encapsulated in the Platt Amendment of 1901 that enabled the US to “intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence”.
Indeed, over the next few decades, the Monroe Doctrine (of opposing European colonialism in the Americas) saw increased US interference instead.
Eventually, in 1959, the US-backed military leader Fulgencio Batista (who also enjoyed lucrative relationships with the American Mafia) was overthrown by Fidel Castro’s revolutionary 26th of July Movement (which, thanks to a charm media offensive and disapproval of Batista’s regime, initially enjoyed some support in the US).
It was only later that Fidel declared himself to be a socialist, a situation that was catalysed by Cold War geopolitics.
US attempts to undermine Castro’s government – both militarily and through assassination attempts – were in contrast with Soviet aid and lavish praise of Castro. The end of the Cold War meant the loss of Cuba’s closest ally, while US embargoes continued. Naturally, supporters of the Cuban government blame ongoing resulting economic difficulties on this embargo, while government critics blame economic policies in which all industries and wages are controlled centrally – until recently, when some private industry has been allowed to operate.
Certainly, I encountered a broad spectrum of views from Cubans themselves, from government officers on one side to an entrepreneur who said he benefited from opportunities created by President Obama’s Cuban thaw (since ended by Trump) by opening up a tour guide business.
Like many, he is torn about the power of the Cuban American vote (especially in Florida) and Washington lobbyists when it comes to shaping US policy towards Cuba.
He is disdainful of the economic system – “much of it is technically illegal, because people provide goods and services beyond what the government allows” and ultimately, he hopes that his country sees a Vietnam-style transition to a market economy.
But whatever views I was able to coax, what was entirely unshakeable was an inspirational love of their own culture. Even humble restaurants have bands, and much dancing punctuates Havana’s streets.
I received a beautiful lesson in Cuban musical history at the National Centre for Arts and Music, while the National Fine Arts Museum contained gems by local artists who deserve international recognition and the largest collection of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman artefacts in Latin America.
There is no substitute to learning about different ways in which human beings can live than by travelling to different countries, and Cuba has been a particularly profound example of this.
I would urge you to cuba, try.
Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.