The revolutionary road

Fidel’s defining moments

1926: Castro is born in Mayarí, Oriente Province, eastern Cuba. Attends local Jesuit schools in Santiago de Cuba before studying at Belén, the elite high school in Havana.

1945: Enrols in the faculty of law at the University of Havana. Travels to Bogotá in Colombia in 1948 (paid for by Argentina's Juan Perón) to protest against the first meeting of the US-supported Organisation of American States. Takes part in the Bogotazo, the riots widely seen as the beginning of Colombia's slide into civil war.

1953: Having tried the life of a lawyer, Castro embarks on his revolutionary career, masterminding an audacious attack on a military barracks
in Santiago de Cuba. He is sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment at the notorious Isle of Pines penitentiary.

1955: Castro and his fellow rebels are released from prison under an amnesty agreement. He immediately begins agitating for change and within months is forced to flee to Mexico. Soon afterwards, he meets Ernesto ("Che") Guevara and puts together a rebel army in exile.

1959: After two years of fighting in the Sierra Maestra Mountains of Cuba, the rebel army marches victorious into Havana. Many are shocked at
the executions that follow and large numbers of the Cuban middle and upper classes leave for the United States.

1962: Castro's turn to the Soviet Union, after being pushed away by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, precipitates the Cuban missile crisis. A nuclear confrontation is narrowly avoided with a last-minute deal between Nikita Khrushchev and Kennedy. It leaves Cuba officially a Soviet satellite state, but feeling more vulnerable to US attack than before.

1970: Emulating the spirit of his recently slain comrade Che Guevara, Castro goads all Cubans to help produce the largest sugar harvest (the island's staple crop) the island has ever achieved. It fails calamitously, disrupting industrial development throughout the economy.

1976: Castro consolidates Cuba's incorporation into the Soviet bloc by passing a new socialist constitution, modelled on the Soviet bloc countries. Amended in the early 1990s to allow for foreign investment, it was affirmed as irrevocable in a controversial vote in 2002.

1986: Castro begins what is known in Cuba as the process of rectification, abandoning the Soviet reform model before the collapse of communism and recentralising parts of the economy, while opening the system up to internal review and revitalisation.

1989: Castro orders the execution of General Arnaldo Ochoa, a comrade from the revolutionary war, and one of Cuba's most respected senior military officers. Ochoa, along with three other prominent military figures, was accused of corruption and drug trafficking. Despite considerable dispute about the accusations levelled at Ochoa, no appeal was countenanced. Rumour has it Ochoa asked not to be blindfolded and gave the order to fire himself.

1990: With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba loses 80 per cent of its export markets and suffers a major economic decline. By August, Castro declares the "Special Period in Time of Peace": a period of austerity measures and rationing to help ensure the survival of his regime. The country
begins to promote tourism and biotechnology alongside sugar as part of a national industrial survival strategy.

1998: In a move that grabs headlines around the world, Castro welcomes Pope John Paul II to Cuba, despite having marginalised the Catholic Church in the 1960s and tolerated discrimination against practising believers until the early 1990s.

1999: Castro once again stirs up tense relations between Cuba and the Cuban-exile community in the United States by insisting that the young rafter Elían González, whose mother died in their attempt to flee Cuba for the US by boat, must be returned to his father in Cuba. An international legal wrangle, mirroring one Castro himself had fought in the 1950s over his own son, is eventually settled when US immigration authorities, acting on behalf of the Supreme Court, seize Elían and return him to Cuba.

2003: In what becomes known as Black Spring, Castro has 75 dissidents imprisoned, including 29 journalists, precipitating sanctions from the European Union.

2007: Taken ill with peritonitis, an infection caused by cavities in the abdominal wall.

2008: At the age of 81, having not appeared in public for well over a year, Castro cedes power to his brother Raúl in February.

2009: Castro makes a reappearance on video in August, talking to a group of students and looking healthier. On 27 October the World Health Organisation director, Margaret Chan, after meeting with the Cuban leader, reports him to be "very dynamic".

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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