No Fidel, no problem?

Miami is planning a great party, and Bush's people expect dancing in the streets of Havana. But few

The wild party is already planned. CBS News has rented out a shop on Calle Ocho, the main drag in Little Havana, Miami, from which to anchor coverage of dancing in the streets. "No Fidel, No Problem", say the bumper stickers. Not just Little Havana, but now the entire city of Miami is planning a great party and concert at the Orange Bowl stadium to celebrate Fidel Castro's death. Tomás Regalado, the city's commissioner, explains: "He represents everything bad that has happened to the people of Cuba for 48 years. There is something to celebrate."

Fly a thousand miles back up north to Washington, however, and the mood is sober. Winds of change may be blowing through the new Democratic Congress, but I can find nobody in DC - in the Bush administration or Congress - who thinks that Fidel's apparently imminent demise will suddenly transform Cuba itself or markedly change US policy towards Cuba. The CIA has, after all, been predicting Castro's death from cancer since 1979.

I spoke, for example, to Jeff Flake, a highly influential 44-year-old Republican congressman from Arizona who has been to Cuba five times, and who in December led the biggest US congressional delegation - four Republicans and six Democrats - to Havana since 1959. Flake is an independent-minded Mormon unafraid to buck the party line. "What was striking, you know," he told me, "was that [the Bush administration's] policy has always been that as soon as Fidel goes, there'll be riots in the streets, people demanding free and fair elections, and we'll have a sea change.

"But anybody who's spent any time in Cuba realises that's not the case at all. That's surprising to people here who believe the administration's line. But there aren't riots in the streets, and to all intents and purposes they [the Cubans] have made the transition." The Bush administration, he says, "is going to have to be dragged kicking and screaming" if its intransigence towards Cuba is to change. Flake and the Democratic congressman Charlie Rangel have just jointly introduced a bill to lift the "travel ban" - supposedly free Americans can still be sent to prison for travelling to Cuba unless they fit into specific categories and are granted government permission - but that, so far, is the most revolutionary change on the books.

Succession scenario

Raú Castro has twice asked Washington for talks since he took over from his brother Fidel last July, but the hubristic Bush refrain has been all too familiar and potentially no less catastrophic than it has been elsewhere in the world: we do not talk to evil men. After Fidel stepped down, Bush described Cuba as an "outpost of tyranny", while John Bolton, his late and unlamented ambassador to the UN, called it the region's own "axis of evil". The White House says simply that it "sees no point" in holding negotiations with a "dictator-in-waiting" such as Raú.

Indeed, the state department dashed all hopes of progress when it said not only that "the US will not accept a succession scenario", but that "there will not be a succession". Tell that to 11.3 million Cubans.

Even many of the 1.5 million Cuban Americans (who live mainly in Florida and New Jersey) are dismayed by the prospect of the continuing isolation between their two homelands. Regardless of those plans for a high-jinks party in Miami, many of the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who poured in to Little Havana between 1959 and 1962 have now died and successive US-born generations of Cuban Americans are (contrary to long-standing myth) much less fanatical and obsessive. None the less, Cubans are still granted the unique privilege of being given automatic asylum, in effect, should they make the 90-mile journey to Florida.

Yet if George W Bush is to blame for such a hopeless impasse, so are the eight previous US presidents whom Castro has successfully defied. Ike ordered the CIA to destabilise Cuba when Fidel came to power in 1959, stopped buying Cuban sugar and ordered an embargo on selling oil to Cuba. As US ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson tried to persuade JFK to ameliorate relations with Fidel by giving the Cubans back the naval base in eastern Cuba that the US insisted on occupying. It was called Guantanamo.

Instead, JFK tried to demonstrate his manhood by ordering the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961, and since then US-Cuban economic and political relations have been virtually non-existent, the US always assuming that its combined policies of drastic economic embargoes, political isolationism and ongoing CIA attempts to foment insurgency would bring Castro down. Castro survived at least eight assassination attempts by the CIA or its agents between 1960 and 1965 alone, according to a US Senate intelligence committee report. They included such tragicomic efforts as putting explosives in his cigars and giving him a diving suit lined with carcinogenic materials.

Clinton also pandered to the Cuban-American vote in his 1992 election campaign by saying that the US "must bring the hammer down" on Cuba. That same year, Congress passed the Cub an Democracy Act, which tightened restrictions on trade and travel. It was followed, four years later, by the even more swingeing Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, aka the Helms-Burton Act, after its authors, the late Senator Jesse Helms and Congressman Dan Burton (who is about to announce his candidacy for the Republican 2008 presidential nomination). This, among many other things, made it illegal under US law for foreign countries to trade with Cuba or for a US administration even to recognise a transitional government from Fidel to Raú.

Which brings us to 2007, a boneheaded administration in place until 2009, and a Senate and House with small Democratic majorities that are not enough to overturn presidential vetoes. If Congress attempted to abolish the Helms-Burton Act, for example, it would be stymied by a presidential veto. "The chances of getting any major legislative changes [over Cuba] emanating from the Congress that the president will accept are slim," said a senior adviser to a Democratic congressman who asked not to be identified. "But we control the agenda in terms of hearings, and that way we can raise the profile of discussion."

Thus, Congressman Bill Delahunt, the Democrat head of the oversight panel of the House foreign affairs committee, has already said that he will hold hearings on aid to Cuba. Rangel and Flake intend to persevere with reversing the travel ban and, in the Senate, Max Baucus and Joe Biden (the new chairs of the finance and foreign relations committees) plan high-profile hearings on Cuba.

To which, naturally, the Bush administration will remain adamantly deaf. In 2003, Dubbya set up the "Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba", the purpose of which (according to none other than Condoleezza Rice) was "to hasten the end of the dictatorship". It introduced yet more severe restrictions, making it illegal to send even clothing or soap to Cuba from the US.

Last year, the commission issued a 93-page report, some of which was redacted; its principal recommendation was that the US spend a further $80m to overthrow the Castros. The classified section is presumed to contain details of US military plans to invade Cuba (or even, yet again, to assassinate one or the other, or both, of the Castros). Fidel dismissed members of the commission as "shit-eaters who do not deserve the world's respect".

In addition, $35m of US tax dollars is still known to be budgeted annually for what is known as "democracy promotion" (in other words, destabilisation) in Cuba, although the isolationism has meant that US intelligence from inside Cuba is very low-grade indeed. The US has funded the truly pathetic TV and Radio Martí since 1985, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Cubans successfully jam the TV signal and all but shortwave radio transmissions. By Washington's own estimation, only 1.7 per cent of Cubans ever listen to Radio Martí.

The finest beaches I have ever seen are near the city of Santiago de Cuba on the island's eastern tip (close to Guantanamo) and are second only to those of Oman, in my experience. A nightmare scenario for me is that such idyllic places will suddenly be invaded by hordes of casino-bound US tourists chugging down their Cuba Libres.

But much of the thinking on the American right, as well as the left, is that more economic trade and tourism can only open up Cuba and simultaneously benefit relations with the US. "We need to give up the travel ban first and foremost. If it were up to me, obviously I'd lift the whole embargo," Congressman Flake told me. "Having [it] has been a tremendous advantage, in my view, for the old regime."

The ultimate sanction Congress can impose on a recalcitrant president is to withdraw funding for his policies, as some now want to do with financing the war in Iraq. But "I'd like to see [the travel ban bill] go through regular order and not have to amend appropriation bills," says Flake. "We still face a difficult time going through regular order, given the composition of the foreign affairs committee of the House."

Stalin, Mao, Kim Il-sung: successive US administrations sat back and assumed, wrongly, that once they had gone, magically democratic and pro-western leaders would materialise in their place. But it is not just Republican congressmen such as Flake or former CIA chiefs such as Porter Goss who see the departure of Fidel differently: General Michael Maples, director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, testified before the Senate recently that Raú Castro is firmly in control of a relatively stable, functioning Cuba and that no dramatic change should be expected soon.

US intelligence first reported that Fidel was dead in 1956, supposedly killed by Fulgencio Batista's forces in the Playa Las Coloradas rebellion. More than half a century later, according to World Health Organisation figures, life expectancy is higher and infant mortality rates lower in Castro's Cuba than in the US; it has diplomatic relations with more than 160 countries and (according to the CIA's own figures) its economic growth rate is 7.5 per cent. Perhaps that wild party at the Miami Orange Bowl will prove somewhat premature.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile