Made in Cuba

Cuba is already transforming and not towards a discredited neoliberal model - Fidel’s retirement is

In the wake of Tuesday’s announcement by Cuban leader Fidel Castro that he will “neither aspire to nor accept” another term as the country’s president, much of the analysis in the mainstream media has concentrated on whether Fidel’s retirement will usher in a “transition” period for Cuba’s socialist revolution, now in its 50th year.

But while the transition being talked about by these analysts foresees a globalised, neoliberal economy, Cuba has in fact been engaged in its own distinct transition for the past year or so, when illness resulted in Fidel handing over power to his younger brother Raul in July 2006.

Under Raul Castro, the Cuban revolution’s leadership has initiated a series of far reaching debates within Cuban society about the type of socialism that it sought. Through various mechanisms Cubans have been actively participating in determining the future direction of the country’s revolution. During this period Fidel has largely remained in the background yet the widely predicted implosion of Cuba’s revolution has failed to materialise. Instead, the revolution has shown that it can both survive without Fidel at the helm and make the type of changes needed to renew the island’s socialist model.

It now seems that Fidel has reached the stage where he feels able to let go and let a new generation of revolutionaries lead the island’s political process. In his resignation letter Fidel said of these: "Some [in the new leadership] were very young, almost children, when they joined the fight in the mountains and later they filled the country with glory with their heroism and their internationalist missions. They have the authority and the experience to guarantee the replacement. There is also the intermediate generation which learned with us the basics of the complex and almost unattainable art of organising and leading a revolution."

So, rather than a chaotic turn to capitalism, as occurred with the demise of the Soviet Union – and which Fidel has sought to avoid at all costs in Cuba - the changes taking place in Cuba so far seem to be controlled by the leadership yet importantly also contain a significant degree of popular participation in moulding the model of society that Cubans aspire to.

Two inter-related factors have been critical in ensuring the survival of Cuba’s revolution and facilitating the transition currently underway in the face of continued U.S. opposition. The first is the rise to power of a number of left-wing governments in Latin America, the so-called “pink tide” sweeping the region.

In particular, the election of Hugo Chavez to the Venezuelan presidency in December 1998 has been of incalculable importance for Cuba. As well as providing invaluable economic support (especially access to Venezuelan oil), Chavez has spearheaded an ideological assault on the failed neoliberal policies that Washington has promoted in Latin America. With his fiery rhetoric Chavez has also reignited the anti-imperialist discourse that has characterised Fidel’s Cuban revolution and many of the social movements that are once again on the march in the region. By standing shoulder to shoulder with Cuba and daring to talk of “21st century socialism” Chavez has conferred a level of legitimacy on Cuba that many predicted would disappear with the crumbling of the Soviet bloc.

Indeed, Chavez’s ‘Bolivarian revolution’ – named after Simón Bolívar, who liberated Venezuela and much of South American from Spanish colonialism – has become a reference point for the left not only in Latin America but across the world. And the alliance that Cuba has formed with Chavez’s Venezuela and other governments such as those of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua has meant that Cuba feels more secure that at any point since the end of the cold war, when it was left without friends or support.

The second factor concerns the current US government’s inability to impose its agenda for transition in Cuba due to the severe weakness of its Latin American policy. The Bush administration’s fixation with the “war on terror” and its involvement in Iraq has meant that its policy of “regime change” in Cuba has failed to find public support in Latin America.

Such is the loss of the US political influence in Latin America that a statement released yesterday by the secretary general of the Organisation of America States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, said that the Cuban people should be allowed to determine their own future, free from foreign interference. The significance of this lies in the fact that Cuba was famously suspended from the OAS in 1962 at the behest of the US

In light of all of this, the announcement of Fidel’s retirement seems much less dramatic than what we have been led to expect. The fact is that Cuba is already changing, and rather than signalling the beginning of a move towards a discredited neoliberal model, Fidel’s retirement merely forms part of a home-grown model of transition.

Pablo Navarrete is Red Pepper’s Latin America editor

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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