One man's island

<strong>My Life</strong>

Fidel Castro, edited by Ignacio Ramonet, translated by Andrew Hurley

After nearly half a century in power, Fidel Castro is too consummate a revolutionary to let his guard down in this autobiography (as told in a series of interviews to the Franco-Spanish journalist Ignacio Ramonet). His interviewer shares his preference for lengthy political disquisitions over anything more personally revealing; Ramonet notes pompously that "it never crossed my mind that we should speak about Castro's private life, his wife or his children".

Fans will enjoy the swashbuckling tales of adventure, from the Cuban Revolution to the 1962 missile crisis. Those hoping for an insight into the man behind the beard will have to read between the lines.

The most personal reminiscences come in the first two chapters, in which Castro describes his childhood in Birán, a poverty-stricken backwater of eastern Cuba. Even here, the anecdotes have been tailored carefully to fit the political agenda. Castro was the son of a wealthy farmer, a man of great natural authority who took pride in treating his workers well. He played with his poor neighbours and learned "to understand how much an illiterate person suffers". At the age of six, Castro became "the victim of exploitation" when his parents sent him off to Santiago, where he lived with a penny-pinching school mistress. He explains at length that he experienced hunger as a child, as the school mistress neglected and underfed him. He wreaked his revenge by firing catapults at her tin roof in his first act of rebellion.

It is revealing that, other than this odd story, Castro offers little explanation of how the son of a right-wing landowner grew up to become an iconic left-wing revolutionary. Unlike Che Guevara, who was famously politicised by the poverty he witnessed during a trip across Latin America on a motorbike, Castro was not an idealistic young man. He says that his childhood instilled in him a sense of the injustices of pre-revolutionary Cuban society, but this doesn't quite ring true - particularly as he later admits that when he arrived at university in Havana he was still a "political illiterate", more interested in sport than in studying. He was, however, always a "rebellious spirit", with prodigious energy and firm convictions about his own destiny: "I sensed from a young age that there were a great many things to do [in my life]."

Castro attributes his conversion to "utopian communism" to reading Marx at university, but just as significant to his choice of career was his appetite for a fight. As a boy, he locked horns with his quick-tempered father and attacked his teachers. His first foray into student politics involved a dramatic armed showdown with the pro-Batista "mafia" at Havana University. Soon afterwards, he experienced his real political awakening when he visited Bogotá in 1948 and witnessed the riots following the assassination of the liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. "I joined the people; I grabbed a rifle from a police station . . . I witnessed the spectacle of a totally spontaneous popular revolution." Amid the chaos and violence that sparked Colombia's long-running civil war, Castro found his calling.

For this keen sportsman, politics is primarily about strength. He praises Robert Mugabe as "an intelligent, tenacious, firm leader", and notes approvingly that Franco "clearly showed what he was made of". The most jaw-dropping example of his alpha-male approach comes in the chapter on the missile crisis, in which he reads out his correspondence with Nikita Khrushchev. Rather than consider compromise in the face of mutually assured destruction, Castro wrote to the Russian leader urging him to strike first: "however hard and terrible the solution might be, there is no other". Thankfully, the testosterone levels were slightly lower in Moscow. "This would not be a simple attack, but rather the beginning of thermonuclear war," Khrushchev pointed out in his reply. "Dear Comrade Fidel Castro, I believe your proposal to have been wrong."

Castro's brand of strongman politics works best in a world polarised into two opposing camps. It fared well during the Cold War and, after a shaky period during the 1990s, has experienced a resurgence with George W Bush in the White House and Hugo Chávez in the Palacio de Mira flores. It is fundamentally incapable, however, of engaging with any more complex reality. Asked about the Varela Project, an internal Cuban pro-democracy movement that refuses US funding and denounces the blockade, Castro simply dismisses it as a "terrorist mafia . . . run by the American special interests office". It is, apparently, unthinkable that anyone could object both to the US's treatment of Cuba and to his own disregard for Cubans' political rights.

In this sense, Castro is perhaps very much like his father, the powerful but well-meaning land owner. He has assiduously doled out health care and education to his citizens, while refusing to countenance the idea that they might challenge his authority. Meanwhile, around him, things have changed. Other Latin American countries are gradually overtaking Cuba's social achievements - Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica all scored higher in the United Nations Human Development Report of 2006 - without demanding such great sacrifices in return. Therein lies a challenge, and it will require more than machismo to meet it.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.