Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Cuba’

Corbyn and the EU

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd July, 2017

Jeremy Corbyn smallThis morning, on the Andrew Marr show, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, argued that a country had to be a member of the European Union in order to remain part of the European single market. That is, of course, nonsense; Norway is a prime example of a country whose people voted not to join the EU but which enjoys the benefits of being within the single market. Given Corbyn’s more than 30 years as an MP (all the time as a back-bencher, until unexpectedly propelled into the leadership position) he must have learned enough about the EU to understand the difference. Or maybe he didn’t. The kindest interpretation of his remarks on the Marr show is that he believes that Britain must leave the single market as well as the EU (and presumably the Customs Union), presumably because he is implacably opposed to freedom of movement of workers in the EU, which is one of the pillars of the single market. But I fear his objection goes deeper. He knows he cannot build the sort of high-tax, dirigiste socialist Utopia that he and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, dream of. They do not support the European project; they denigrate it as a capitalist club. One should never forget how much Corbyn revered Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. During last year’s EU Referendum campaign, Corbyn in principle sided with the remain camp, but so sotto voce that it made no positive impact. Rather like Theresa May’s position, in fact. And now Britain has the terrible situation in which both the Conservative Prime Minister and the Labour Opposition Leader are essentially arguing for what has been dubbed a Hard Brexit: a future outside the EU, the single market and the Customs Union, with the real possibility of the country crashing out of the EU in March 2019 with no deal in place covering our future relationship with our current 27 EU partners. No wonder the pound sterling has dived and banks and companies are starting to transfer operations out of London and other UK cities to places such as Dublin, Paris and Frankfurt. This is madness and absolutely not what a clear majority of the British public wants. The Leave side won by a tiny margin last year, following a campaign based on lies and false promises. Mrs May bears a terrible responsibility for pressing on with a Hard Brexit since then, but Jeremy Corbyn is now clearly also in the dock, which is why a growing number of Labour MPs and activists are calling for the UK to at least stay in the single market and customs union, if not the EU itself. It was the groundswell of new Labour activists that shot Jeremy Corbyn to where he is now. Perhaps it is time for them to bring him back down to reality.

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Fidel Castro’s Legacy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 26th November, 2016

fidel-castroFidel Castro, who died yesterday at the age of 90, was one of the political giants of the 20th century. That does not mean that I revered him — his record on human rights and curtailing freedoms precluded that — but I did admire the way that he stood up to pressure from successive US Presidents, some of whom wanted to have him assassinated. For decades the island of Cuba was under a strict trade embargo operated not just by the United States but also by many other countries, under pressure from Washington. The Cuban revolution of 1959 led to some truly fine achievements, such as free health care and universal education, putting Cuba way ahead of its regional neighbours in terms of basic services. But that was at a high price in terms of political control, as the system mutated from homegrown socialism to outright Communism as part of the Soviet bloc, and the Argentinian Che Guevara moved to South America to try to foment revolution there. Cuba actually did very well out of a barter deal that it had with the Soviet Union, exchanging sugar for subsidised oil, but the island’s agriculture suffered badly under collectivisation. When the Soviet Union collapsed its aid to Cuba dried up and Cubans went through several extremely difficult years. Though there was so starvation as such there was widespread malnutrition; the state ration of basic products was just about enough to keep people alive but most Cubans literally shrank in size and few earned more than the equivalent of US$10 a month.

che-and-castro When I first went to the island in 1994, flying in from Venezuela, there were power cuts for most of the time, only a few buses were running and I used to smuggle food out of my hotel to give to people loitering outside. I went back six times during the 1990s, culminating in my making a radio documentary for the BBC in 1999, marking the 40th anniversary of the revolution. Many people still felt great affection for Fidel Castro, but for others, especially the young, the socialist utopia had gone sour and they only dreamed of getting away. The cases of political prisoners started to get wider coverage and as the number of European tourists increased so did a greater awareness abroad of the shortages and constraints suffered by ordinary Cubans who did not have relatives overseas sending hem dollars or who did not work in the tourist sector. The first tentative steps towards opening up the economy were made, such as allowing people to run tiny private restaurants in their homes, but often the steps forward were soon countermanded, reportedly at Fiel’s behest, even after his younger brother Raul took over. It is of course grotesque that the top leadership of a so-called Communist state should be in the hands of one family and paradoxically the Castros have almost ensured the overthrow of the system when Raul Castro dies as they failed to train and encourage a new generation of competent politicians. Cuba won’t change immediately now that Fidel Castro is dead, but it is bound to change quite soon and fast, especially after Cuban exiles based in Florida return to the island. They will not be kind about Castro’s legacy, but much of the world will doubtless continue to regard him as a charismatic even unique figure who helped shape the geopolitical landscape of the 20th century, warts and all.

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Obama in Cuba

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st March, 2016

Obama CubaBarack Obama’s visit to Cuba will probably go down in history as a seminal moment, such as Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. I was in Taipei then, taking a year abroad from my Chinese course at Oxford, and I was struck how terrified my host family was. They feared that the United States would then give the green light to Beijing to take over the island, but of course that never happened. But Nixon’s visit did open the door for China to re-enter the global community where, 44 years later, it is firmly in second place in world rankings. The potential rewards for Cuba following President Obama’s visit are unlikely to be so spectacular, but it should put an end to the shameful history of economic sanctions against Cuba by America, which Washington tried to force other countries to abide by too. There will also presumably be an influx of American tourists to the island, which will bring in much needed dollars but may not otherwise be totally beneficial. For all its shortcomings and illiberalism, the Cuban form of socialism did help create a society that had several very positive elements, including good education, plentiful qualified doctors and a remarkably low crime rate. It would be a shame if  the genuine solidarity among Cuban people were to be pushed aside in a headlong rush for modernisation and Americanisation. I went to Cuba seven times in the 1990s, culminating in my making a BBC radio documentary pegged to the 40th anniversary of the Revolution. It is a beautiful country that ought to have been quite prosperous had the Castros not stifled free enterprise. Of course, the American embargo made things worse and enabled the government in Havana to promote a siege mentality. Those days are now over and I can only hope that it won’t just be a well-connected few who will benefit from the inevitable changes, as happened in Russia and other parts of the CIS.

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Puebla

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 8th November, 2015

Templo de Santo DomingoFor many Roman Catholics as well as journalists like myself who covered the tumultuous political and religious conflicts in Latin America in the 1980s, the name Puebla has great resonance. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Puebla in 1979 raised many issues linked to what was known as Liberation Theology, espoused by several leading clerics in Brazil and Central America. All too often, the Catholic Church had been on the side of the right-wing dictators and the moneyed élites who ruled most of Latin America in those days and not enough on the side of the poor. Of course, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then and most of the right-wing dictatorships are but a fading memory. Paradoxically, the most oppressive regimes these days tend to be on the left, including Venezuela, Nicaragua and that old chestnut Cuba. Anyway, Puebla has meanwhile grown into a city of five million souls, but I was delighted to see on a day trip there today that the centre has preserved most of its colonial architecture, complete with remarkable exterior tile work, and the city has a delightfully provincial atmosphere compared with that of Mexico City. There are, of course, churches galore, of which the most sumptuous is the Templo de Santo Domingo, whose golden chapel under a giant cupola is breath/taking, if distinctly disconcerting for someone of my Quaker tastes.

Pueblo ZocaloBut Puebla is also a city of museums, including the fascinating collection of 19th century interior decoration at the Museo Bello and a remarkable 17th century library on the first floor of the Casa de Cultura, containing thousands of rare old theological texts, not least relating to the Jewish Old Testament and its Christian interpretation. It was interesting to see that all of the churches we passed had plenty of people inside, but the real place to catch the population of Puebla, especially at the weekend, is the Zócalo, or main square, dominated by the cathedral but surounded on the other three sides by cafés and shaded galleries. This afternoon there was street theatre, several small musical bands, people in costume as everything from a clown to Tutankhamun, vendors selling helium balloons and candy as well as hordes of small children with their parents, in a joyous, celebratory mass.

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US-Cuba Thaw

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 17th December, 2014

imageLike many people I was caught unawares by the announcement today that the United States and Cuba are planning to normalise relations after half a century of the grotesque US trade and travel embargo. Apparently Pope Francis has been key to this rapprochement and several series of secret bilateral talks have been held, courtesy of the Vatican. These developments, providing they lead to fruition, should stimulate a rise in the standard of living of many Cubans, as well as giving a boost to tourism and trade. I hope this doesn’t lead to Cuba becoming just like Southern Florida; there is so much of value in Cuban society and culture, even if the Communist system has curtailed the development of free enterprise and civil liberties. I went to Cuba seven times in the 1990s, culminating in making a radio documentary for the BBC World Srrvice, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. So I saw it at the very worst period when subsidised oil from the former Soviet Union dried up and people were on a subsistence diet through to the blossoming of tourism from Europe and Canada. Most of the friends I met on the island were desperate to leave, but I hope that the US-Cuba diplomatic thaw will lead to liberalisation in Cuba and the prospect of a future in which young Cubans can see themselves wanting to stay.

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Slow Train to Guantanamo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th August, 2013

Slow Train to GuantanamoAmerican presidents have come and gone, but the Castro brothers have hung on to power in Cuba for 54 years; there’s a delicious irony in that. I first visited the island nearly 20 years ago, when its economy was flat on the floor following the withdrawal of Russian subsidies, exacerbating the effects of the unjustifiable US trade embargo and, let’s be frank, the inbuilt incompetence of a centrally-planned economy. Six visits later, in 1999, I made a radio documentary for BBC World Service at the time of the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, but I haven’t been back since. So I was particularly interested to read Peter Millar’s new book, Slow Train to Guantanamo (Arcadia, £11.99), to see how much has changed. Not that much, it transpires. US dollars no longer operate as a parallel currency, giving enormous privileges to those with access to them; instead they have been replaced by a mickey mouse “convertible peso”, compulsory for foreign tourists, while most Cubans subsist on the national peso one 25th its value, and their ration cards. At least health care and education and in some instances housing are free. There are now more small private businesses, including tiny guesthouses and restaurants, though Peter Millar’s experience of the latter was mainly dire. However, the main curiosity in his book is that he set himself the challenge of travelling from Havana to Guantanamo (the town, not the nearby US base and notorious prison camp) by train. In Cuba that is more of a challenge than one might imagine. And some of the trains are barely holding together, even when they run. But as many other writers such as Paul Theroux have shown, train journeys are a great way of meeting and observing local people, as well as the passing scenery. Alas, Peter Millar’s Spanish was rather basic when he arrived, though it improved during what was actually quite a short stay on the island. So his contacts and the conversations he has with them inevitably remain somewhat superficial, and he not surprisingly focuses on those who Cubans he encounters who are eccentric or physically striking. What saves the book from a certain triteness, however, is the fact that the author can draw on his experiences in central and eastern Europe during the twilight of Communism, especially in East Germany, and therefore make some interesting comparisons. So even if Millar in Cuba isn’t quite the “expert” he was in his earlier book, 1989 The Berlin Wall (which I reviewed when it came out), he is an entertaining companion and at times endearingly self-deprecating in highlighting instances of his cultural naivety.

Link: http://www.petermillar.eu

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Reaching Out to Latin America

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th June, 2012

Latin America has been the Cinderella of British diplomacty in recent decades, though that situation has mercifully been changing since the Coalition Government came into office twp year ago and Liberal Democrat Jeremy Browne took over responsibility as junior Minister for the region (along with East Asia, Australasia and most recently India). Several new British Embassies have been opened in Central and South America — some resuscitating posts the previous Labour government closed down — and staff beefed up at others. There has been a series of new consulates too, one of the latest being in Recife in North East Brazil, which Jeremy recently opened. This evening he came to talk to the International Relations Committee of the Liberal Democrats to explain the thinking in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There is recognition that as well as the BRIC, Brazil, there are other countries in the region that have been developing economically to a notable degree. Interestingly, he divided the states of Latin America up into three groups, from his point of view: those with liberal economies (the new Pacific Alliance of Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile), the Left-leaning fraternity (Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and to an extent Bolivia) and the rest. Most have undergone profound and in general positive political change over the past three decades, but British companies have by and large not capitalised on new opportunities there. Despite the ongoing difference of views regarding the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands — in which Argentina’s claim to ‘Las Malvinas’ gets widespread support across the region — in general Latin Americans have a fairly positive view of Britain and we are a country that still punches well above our weight. Although Jeremy did not say so, another reason we are liked in Latin America is because Britain is not the United States, though often the British government — of whatever political colour — finds itself in close partnership with Washington.

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Running, Walking and Writing

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 5th April, 2012

I’ve never had the slightest desire to jog, let alone run, and to be brutally frank have always felt rather sorry for the poor guys and gals trotting past me along the road, attached to their iPod, bound up in their own thoughts and physical discomfort. But after reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running maybe I shouldn’t pity them. The Japanese novelist appears to have been fully conscious of who and what were around him as he did his daily runs, yearly marathons and what sounds like a truly ghastly ultramarathon. Of course he was aware of the protest in his muscles, and he can hardly have failed to notice that essentially he was setting himself tests, again and again. Anyway, it seems to have given him inspiration in his craft as a writer and anything that does that cannot be sneezed at. And when I think about it, I actually do something similar myself — walking long distances, rather slowly, preferably on the flat. I’ve walked along sizeable sections of the coasts of Cuba and Mauritius, to mention just two. Walking by the sea for hours, stopping every so often to take in the view, or have a drink if there is a conveniently located cafe or bar, even chat to some local, certainly helps me clear my head after long hours at my desk, but it also helps me think through what I am working on at the moment. When I leave the office in Ahmadi where I am located now and head off along the road to Kuwait City I’ll be observing and thinking, maybe even dreaming, as usual. So, OK, Mr Murakami, having read your book and thought about it, I don’t think you (or other runners) are mad after all. You just use a speeded-up version of what I do myself: Walking and Writing.

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Sakharov Prize 2011

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 9th December, 2011

Next week, at a formal session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought will be awarded to five representatives of the Arab Spring movement: posthumously to the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation partly triggered the whole new Arab Awakening; Asmaa Mafouz (Egypt), Ahmed al-Zubair Ahmed al-Sanusi (Libya), Razan Zeitouneh and Ali Farzat (both Syria). The Prize is named after the Soviet physicist and political dissdent Andrei Sakharov and has been awarded annually by the European Parliament since 1988 to individuals or organizations who have made an important contribution to the fight for human rights or democracy. Last year’s laureate was Guillermo Farinas from Cuba, whose government refused to allow him to travel to France to collect it. Here in London, the European Parliament representation hosted an event at Europe House on Thursday, to mark the prize, though the subject was not the Arab Spring but rather the broad issue of human rights, and in particular attempts in Britain to get rid of the Human Rights Act and thereby disassociate ourselves from some of the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR, which is a product of the Council or Europe, not the European Union, of course). The Conservative MP Robert Buckland and Conservative MEP Charles Tannock, from slightly different perspectives, argued how they thought Britain would be better off with its own legislative provisions, but Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, fiercely defended the Council of Europe and the ECHR, and from the rumblings in the audience, including from some pro-Euro Tories, the majority were on her side. Incidentally, had we known what David Cameron was going to do at the EU Summit in Brussels subsequently, I suspect the rumbings would have been more like howls of outrage.

Link: www.sakharovprize.europa.eu

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50 Years of the Cuban Revolution

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 15th January, 2009

picture-001    The Cuban Ambassador to London hosted a reception at the Melia White House Hotel near Regent’s Park last night, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. The place was so packed one could hardly move, as the Havana Club rum flowed and guests were served miniature portions of iced gazpacho. The Cuban government can feel a degree of justified self-satisfaction at having survived half a century, despite US economic sanctions, an attempted invasion (the Bay of Pigs) and the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. But that should not lull them into complacency.

I went to Cuba frequently during the 1990s, from the very worst period of belt-tightening follownig the end of Russian subsidies, when even most of the buses stopped running, to the festive celebrations in 1999 of the 40th anniversary of the Revolution. On the last trip, I made a half-hour radio documentary for the BBC World Service during which I interviewed Vilma Espin, the (now deceased) wife of Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother (and now President himself). It was a strange occasion. She was extremely gracious, but talked non-stop for over three hours. By the end, my producer (who was in charge of the tapes) wasn’t even recording. It was all so typical of the leadership in Havana (and these days of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, incidentally): a conviction that they are totally right and that a grateful population should just listen to them for hours and feel reassured.

The Cuban Revolution did achieve some wonderful things, not least free health and education for all. The previous regime of  Fulgencio Batista was hideously corrupt and the gap btween rich and poor was enormous. However, a joke I often heard as I travelled round the island was that the Revolution did indeed get rid of that gap: ‘Now everyone is poor!’ In fact, two classes of people have developed in Cuba over the past 20 years: those who have access to hard currency (through relatives abroad or from tourists) and the majority who have to subsist on tiny salaries and meagre state rations.  Despite a huge surge in tourism, the economy as a whole is effectively stagnant, paralysed not just by the US embargo, but at least as much by the failure to open it up to market forces and to encourage entrepreneurship. At the same time, hundreds of political dissidents languish in prison and people are spied on by a network of informers.

Raul Castro has made a few tentative steps in the right direction economically. But he needs to be encouraged to do much more. When Barack Obama enters the White House next week, he should end the US embargo and work with Mexico and the European Union in not only helping to modernise the Cban economy but also to promote democracy and human rights constructively. Fifty years is a good time for celebrations, but it should also be a moment to close one chapter and open another.

(photo: Jonathan Fryer and Vilma Espin in Havana)

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