Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Raul Castro’

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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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.


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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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