“LIFE isn’t all about having two cars,” announced a Cuban man to me after a long visit to Ireland.
“Godammit,” I replied, “Have we taught you nothing?” When my friend married him he didn’t want to move to Ireland so she moved to Cuba. She explained why she loved it from her porch in the countryside: “Think of the Ring of Kerry fused with Monument Valley in technicolour… People are well mannered and respectful. Education is valued and people are proud of their country. They are resilent and good-natured as a whole. There is a low crime rate, a low infant mortality rate, and human life is valued above all else. I love how everybody still loves and admires Fidel. I love how the revolution has brought a sense of pride to Cubans.” I listen to her more than to commentators, even those as esteemed as Michael Clifford and Gerard Howlin, because she has lived in Cuba, as a Cuban, for several years. And also because she is apolitical, or at least not “parti-pris” like most visitors to Cuba.
Her husband, who grew to maturity during the so-called “Special Period” after the old Soviet Union’s pay-outs to Cuba stopped, was upset last Saturday when Fidel died. He describes himself as a “Fidelista” not a “Socialista” and says his allegiance was gained by the provision of healthcare and education.
His family, small-scale farmers, remember the horrors of Fulgencio Battista’s reign of terror. As my friend’s father likes to comment, “That Battista must have been some bastard,” given how easily Cubans put up with the deprivations they face now.
Many of these deprivations represent a gap between them and Western society but are not in themselves serious. My friend’s hilarious blog often chronicled her efforts to bridge that gap. She said she missed “Skittles and Lidl”. When a friend visited and casually threw a Balisto bar to the dog she said she considered going head to head with the mutt to get it back.
Her trips to the hairdresser were among our favourite stories: “The view from the chair is a cave dug out of the marl with a pig sleeping in it, a mango with most of its roots exposed and an open shed also dug out of the clay with a makeshift roof. The shed houses an open fire where black pots bubble and chickens jump up and try to pick at whatever is cooking. The patio is covered in chickens, not elegant ‘gallos finos’ like ours, but large half baldy, scraggy creatures.
As my hair dye was being prepared, one hopped up onto the table for a better view and ran off with the plastic glove. Yanita took off after him and retrieved the glove as another chicken had eaten a glove and choked on it.” It is, she sums up, “A far cry from Peter Marks.” Who would choose it, though? That’s the central question. Even if the country offers its citizens enough simple food and shelter, enough education and healthcare — even if they are better-off than other Central Americans — they are 90 miles from Florida and will compare themselves with more developed economies.
The successes of Fidel’s revolution in 1959 teaches us many things and that is why we are obsessing about it. Cuba stood up to the US, their close neighbour and the most powerful country in the world. Despite constant threats, an invasion in 1961 and a full economic blockade since 1962 which even prevented US citizens travelling to Cuba, Fidel developed a country which had the best living conditions in Central America.
He built a society which has noticeably more racial equality than the US. I noticed this suddenly in a small village barber’s on my one visit there and it was a shock because it made me realise that in our countries black people always have about them an awareness of their otherness — even of their relative disadvantage.
Because of these achievements President Higgins spoke for me and for many Irish people in his lament for Fidel last Saturday. Without a doubt Castro was responsible for human rights abuses. But his alliance with the Soviet Union and Soviet-style repression was a function of Cuba’s strategic importance to a very aggressive neighbour which is still responsible for the main human rights abuses occurring on Cuban soil, in Guantanamo Bay.
My father Jack White wrote from Havana in 1960 in an article I discovered by chance yesterday: “I am not yet convinced that the leaders of Cuba want to surrender their independence for the sake of a marriage with Moscow. They have been led dangerously far along this road, I feel, by an excess of anti-Americanism, just as some Irishmen would have adopted Germany as an ally against Britain.” His hope was that America’s economic sanctions against Cuba would be found to be illegal because their aim was political change and America would withdraw them. What has happened instead is that the US has ignored the criticism of the UN and has continued the embargo.
The resulting reliance on the Eastern Bloc was exposed when the Bloc collapsed, leaving Cuba isolated and struggling to survive. While Fidel’s successes teach us many things, so do his failures. They teach us that no country is an island in more than geographical terms. No country can survive on its own but must find allies and trading partners. The smaller a country is the more it needs others.
This is as true for Ireland as it is for Cuba and it means there are no easy answers. It is the reason for the many compromises Ireland has had to make to stay in the euro, for instance, much decried by Ireland’s many megaphone Fidelistas currently dusting off their Bolshevik boots for a winter of discontent over a small charge for wasting water.
Left on its own after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc Cuba threw open its doors to euros and Canadian dollars in the form of tourism and this has unhinged the economy. You only have to sit for a while on the terrace of one of Havana’s old colonial hotels,where once the Mafia which ran Cuba as a money-laundering outfit, before you are approached by a Cuban offering you his body and soul for a few euro.
This relative disadvantage demeans Cuba and the Cubans. What Cuba needs in the wake of Fidel’s death, is the restoration of trade with the US and the withdrawal of the US from its soil. Cubans deserve democracy as much as the rest of us but we all deserve free healthcare and education and a more equal society living within its means and those of the planet. Before we lambast Fidel we would do well to remember that Cubans may look across the Florida Straits at orange hair and wonder if democracy’s all it’s cracked up to be.