Where next for the revolution?

Venezuela-based economics adviser Stephanie Blankenburg considers the future of the Cuban revolution

Fidel Castro is to take retirement. In a brief statement – by the standards of a man famous for speeches lasting the best part of a day and essays disguised as “letters” – Castro announced on 19 February that he will step down as his country’s president and comandante en jefe. The announcement follows a slow and difficult recovery from a serious intestinal illness and paves the way for Castro’s brother, Raúl, to become the next president of Cuba on 24 February when the recently elected national assembly will come together for the first time to elect the members of the next Council of State.

Reactions around the world have been predictable, ranging from veiled threats by the US government to everyone contemplating positive engagement with Cuba after Castro’s retirement and prompt calls for a “democratic transition” from European leaders to a warm and friendly salute from China. But despite the extraordinary amount of coverage dedicated to the Cuban leader’s decision, including a six-page leader in El País, reactions have also been surprisingly cautious: This time, not even the otherwise surreally fanatical anti-Castro community of Cuban Exiles, that had prematurely celebrated Castro’s death in the streets of Miami when he first fell ill in July 2006, felt moved to a repeat display of its usual shenanigans.

Both the high level of media attention and the caution are well placed: The first amounts to a well-deserved, however implicitly granted, tribute to an extraordinary political figure who kept a socialist project on a tiny Caribbean island on the world agenda, steering it through such historical events as the downfall of the Soviet Union, and who gained the (grudging) admiration of friends and foes alike for his political skills and his encyclopaedical command of knowledge, from major world affairs down to the latest production figures of the Chilean copper mines, the technicalities of a Venezuelan infrastructure project or the reserve movements of any Central Bank in the world. The second reflects the lasting complexities and contradictions that have characterised the Cuban revolution from its beginnings and that are not about to be resolved in a stroke of post-Castro genius.

At the heart of these complexities is the unique case of a revolution that, differently from Chile, Nicaragua or Venezuela in Latin America and also from Russia or China, truly wiped out an utterly politically bankrupt elite of semi-feudal landowners and rentiers, as well as its social and political institutions and its middle class allies. The memory of the sad caricature of a “Banana Republic”, run by native torturers and international thugs in casinos that was Cuba before Castro, is deeply rooted in the collective psyche of contemporary Cuba. Together with outstanding achievements of the revolution in the area of social policies, recognised by most international organisations, this has made for a potent mix of a wide-spread progressive nationalism and a latent, yet potent, loyalty of the people to “their” revolution without which even Castro could never have weathered the lengthy, repetitive and often punishing economic crises the country has experienced over the past 50 years, for reasons both of internal policy mistakes as well as external threats.

Today, the main challenges, apart from the continuing external threats, arise from two main issues that will require careful consideration: First, Cuba’s social landscape is changing fast. As a result of both, the gradual opening of the economy to international investment in a few sectors, such as tourism, since the 1990s, as well as a growing sophistication of the state structure and economy, Cuban society is becoming more stratified and also more unequal – spatially, economically and socially – than at any stage before in its revolutionary history. When all over Latin America the poor were forced to pay the price for their leaders' obsession with neoliberal policies, Cuba managed to maintain a basic safety net for those affected by unavoidable economic restructuring measures, such as the scaling down of sugar production, with the help of a centralised state system of social services. More than ten years on, this centralised system may no longer be adequate to respond to much more diversified social needs and a tendency towards growing inequalities.

Second, ethanol production offers a very tempting solution to Cuba’s immediate economic problems. For several years now, the US has pursued a policy of “rule and divide” in Latin America, offering its agrarian and industrial elites lucrative long-term high fixed-price and low or zero-tariff deals for the export of crops for bio-fuel production. Behind the closed doors of meetings to promote free trade agreements, this was the real deal with the explicit intention of bereaving popular left-wing alliances across the continent of their upper and middle class allies. Which is, of course, also why Fidel Castro continues to oppose any such deal. Yet, from a purely economic point of view, the Cuban revolution needs nothing more urgently than a lucrative long-term export deal, not least to provide the finances for an intelligent and progressive response to the growing complexities of its social base, and thereby also to set an example to the social phraseology of the neoliberal world.

In this context, speculation about personalities is secondary: True, possibly differing approaches to these problems have already been attributed to those up and coming in the new Cuban leadership. Raúl Castro, 76, is a guarantor of continuity, not least given his founding role and decades-long command over the Cuban military. Together with his main ally, Carlos Lage, 56, Vice-President of the Cuban Council of State and Secretary General of the government’s Executive Committee (thus comparable to a Prime Minister), Raúl Castro has been read to advocate a “pragmatic” opening of the Cuban economy and society to international economic and political relations. Of equal importance is, however, Felipe Pérez Roque, 42, currently Cuba’s Foreign Minister who was in charge of negotiations with Chávez’ Venezuela and all important agreements to supply Cuba with oil in exchange for doctors and social workers. He is generally seen to be a close ally of Fidel Castro’s more cautious stance towards offers from the “Empire”.

Be this as it may, Cuba’s new leaders share the iron-clad will of the majority of their people never to go back to anything resembling the pre-Castro era. This resolve will be much more important than any potential divisions on policy that may surface more openly now than they have in the past. Similarly, it would be premature to expect any serious overtures for a real change in relations from a new Democratic US president. It was a Democrat who sent a rogue army to the Bay of Pigs, for fear of being regarded as weaker on national security than his Republican rivals. Things change, but usually not very fast. Long as he may live, a retired Fidel Castro might be very much needed to oversee whatever real changes may be on the agenda.

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.