Then and now, Venezuela and Cuba, 1960-2008

18 December 2008
Watching Hugo Chavez orate on Venezuelan television rings old memory bells. “Socialism. Revolution, Patria.” Words I heard in 1960-61 in Cuba. Now, almost half a century later, in Venezuela’s 5 million plus capital, I watched the local residents cheering and waving flags, a scene that looked almost identical to what I remembered in Havana when Fidel Castro launched his marathon exercises in exciting rhetoric. Like his Cuban mentor, Chavez offered examples of how “imperialism” -- his word for the United States -- had violated sovereignty, by backing the unsuccessful 2002 military coup against him and how Washington interfered in the internal affairs of smaller countries. What a difference the decades make! In the early 1960s, the CIA (using Cuban exiles) assassinated Cuban teachers and militia members, and sabotaged Cuban installations. I remember hearing explosions, shots, and screams from the street. From May through October 1960, I heard Fidel speak frequently to large crowds. He had become what Lee Lockwood called “Cuba’s living newspaper.” (Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel, 1967) Almost fifty years later, Fidel’s ideological son attempts to apply some of his mentor’s rhetoric towards similar goals: to build a socialist society in a nation where oil has helped produce a capitalist mode of thinking and doing (shopping), a large wealthy class and a much larger mass of poor people. Fidel exported his mortal enemies to the United States. Or, Washington had a policy of importing them. Out of Cuba, wealthy exiles could only mount terrorist campaigns -- for almost 50 years -- but not block the dramatic changes that allowed Cuban revolutionaries to transform their island. Chavez doesn’t have the option of exporting the wealthy oligarchs, the business class below them and the professionals who adhere to distinctly anti-socialist values. Nor will Washington return to its old “import the anti-Castro Cubans” policy. He retains strong support among the poor and especially among the most conscious sectors of Venezuela’s organized working class. He also knows that if he wins the February referendum he has the chance to remain as President until 2021. As much as he admires Fidel, Chavez will not copy the economic model of Cuba. Socialism in Venezuela will eschew Soviet models for other -- as yet unknown -- economic arrangements. As Chavez has observed, eighteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s economy staggers. After spending a week in Caracas, I walked the streets of Havana and saw groups of young men drinking beer and singing along to reggaeton beats on portable radios or Ipods with speakers. “And where do these lazy bums get the money to buy beer and acquire fancy music boxes?” asks a middle aged woman in Marianao, one of Havana’s populous neighborhoods. “I’ll tell you where,” she answers her own question. “They steal.” Then came her anecdotes about how the criminals learn from some TV shows and put woolen ski caps over their heads and faces to conceal their identities. “One of these bums pointed a pistol at a neighbor and stole her motorbike. He had cut slits out and she saw he had green eyes. But so what? Thousands of Habaneros have green eyes.” I heard her complaint echoed several times. “If we don’t do something to reform the labor system here,” said a writer friend, “we’re in deep trouble. Raul [President Raul Castro] himself said so. We can’t afford to continue down this road. On top of the hurricane damage, we now face rising crime and that is obviously linked to the refusal of some young people to work at the jobs that exist.” He referred to three powerful super storms this year that devastated Cuban agriculture and destroyed hundred of thousands of homes. Nevertheless, Cuba’s tourist industry claimed that by year’s end some 2.3 million foreign visitors will have vacationed on the island, among them almost 700,000 Canadians. Tourism earned more than $2 billion. Younger Cubans I speak to express resentment “at how the old guys have risen from the grave [he meant Machado Ventura and Ramiro Valdez, who have rejoined the Politburo of Cuba’s Communist Party].” The young man spoke with passion. “I’m a committed socialist, but paternalism may kill our revolution. Will those old fogies never quit?” Yes, I think, when will the very aging leaders give the car keys to the middle aged kids? People in the mid and late 70s who have wielded power for decades and offer little originality do not exactly vibrate with inspiration at a time demanding creative and revolutionary thinking. Other young people recount the achievements -- health, education, art, music, sports, science, as well as real human rights. But none of these past glories deals with an unjust and insufficient salary structure, with mediocre but very obedient people heading agencies containing critical and brilliant people. Raul’s daughter, Mariela, has spoken publicly about the urgent need to reform in several areas. Her courageous remarks about putting an end to homophobia on the island carry a sub-textual message as well. It’s time to put an end to the decades of official censorship, not only in the case of “dangerous” bloggers, but journalists who get chewed out by some of the old guard for writing “sentences you should not have written.” Indeed, I dare not mention the writer’s name for fear it will cause more problems. “We have too much invested in our revolution,” a writer for Juventud Rebelde told me, “to allow the old guard to ruin everything by not allowing discussion of issues everyone knows about [referring to the irrationality of the economy and the refusal to cede power]. Cuba stands for basic human rights even if the government refuses to grant some of them. Our future must be one of enjoying. Our generation, people between 30 and 60, knows that.” I agreed. So many people have invested their hopes and dreams in the Cuban revolution for five decades. Every time Cuba does something we think contradicts its basic revolutionary principles, we wince. “Cuba hurts,” wrote Eduardo Galeano. Right now lots of Cubans are hurting because of the condition of their daily lives. Hurricanes and a less than perfectly functioning system don’t amount to the old one two punch. But they are worrisome, especially in the context of pressure in today’s world. Cuba offered a vision for the future despite the paternalism and other less than democratic legacies it carried. It also stood for the embodiment of human rights, again notwithstanding the absence of a free press and a voice for the opposition in its electoral politics. Cubans had rights to food, shelter, education, medical care, old age securities -- albeit not the absence of fear on the part of those who made public their criticisms of government policies. However, Cuba did not hunt down and murder “subversives” as did a gang of states, in Latin America -- backed by Washington. Nor did it launch aggressive wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East as did the United States, which officially celebrated, on December 10, the 60th anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That day should have been a day of mourning for 60 years of failure to achieve the noble goals of the Human Rights declaration. Two wars rage on in Iraq and Afghanistan, while increased global warming vitiates the right to a safe environment. Almost 3 billion people suffer the very deprivations that in 1948 were officially the targets of all the world’s governments. Some cause for celebration! Human rights in the United States have shrunk. In 1945, the U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg explained that waging aggressive war was permanently outlawed. In 2003, George W. Bush waged aggressive war in Iraq. In the post World War II era, torture became a crime against humanity. In the 21st Century, Bush reauthorized it. Waterboarding became associated with U.S. jailors at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba. European allies cooperated with the United States in secretly transporting people to torture centers in other places as well. Meanwhile, Chavez, attacked by Washington for being antidemocratic, has expanded the breadth of human rights for Venezuelans. They now enjoy more health-care, women have gained greater equality, more poor people have learned to read and have access to potable water. These accomplishments coincide with the spirit of the 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights. It seems as if the U.S. government has forgotten the goal and uses only the words as an instrument of policy to attack its enemies while it violates the letter and spirit of the very human rights laws U.S. lawyers helped to establish.
Saul Landau is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and a senior fellow of the Transnational Institute. His latest book is A Bush and Botox World. His latest film is We don't play golf here! And other stories of globalisation .