A look at Fidel Castro’s legacy

An “astute political brain” who “inspired a generation of leaders”? Or a “figure from a different era” running a government of “sordid lawless killers”?

Heated discussions dominated the morning at this special event at Canning House, the UK-Iberia & Latin America foundation, looking backwards and forwards at the legacy of the former leader of Cuba.

Ken Livingstone paints a positive image of Castro’s global legacy

There were three sections to be debated: Castro’s domestic, regional and global legacies.

The first one saw Antoni Kapcia, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Nottingham, put forward the point of view that the Cuban revolutionary acted and made “decisions within the realm of the possible”, carefully calculating what was achievable and loth to outreach himself on domestic policy.

Helen Yaffe, author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, described the US embargo as “devastating and suffocating”. She also looked to the island’s Soviet sponsor giant, saying that “constraints were placed on Cuba’s room for manoeuvre from the collapse of the USSR”, not just through the American trade ban.

The final speaker in this section was Cuban-born Alina Garcia-Lapuerta. She argued that there was still a “sense of uncertainty” surrounding the future after Castro’s death. Having said that, she did try to look to what might be ahead: “there could be no political change while Castro was still alive…he was too big a figure in Cuban life and Cuban history.”

In the second part of the event, for the discussion on regional legacy, Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba, called in on conference from the United States. He discussed how Latin nations’ friendships and ties with Cuba had come and gone. While at some point in recent history, most neighbour countries had “broken diplomatic relations with the US”, many states had gone on to thrive economically following different models than that espoused by Castro.

The former diplomat raised the issue of the “economic mismanagement and social turmoil” currently afflicting Venezuela, noting that Havana stands by Caracas due to their traditional links. Yet those regional links are weakening, according to Webster Hare, who said that young Latin Americans are today more distant in their political views from what is increasingly seen as the outdated outlook of Fidel Castro.

Steve Ludlam came to the regime’s defence.

The lecturer and member of the Cuba Research Forum drew a picture for the Britons in the audience of Fidel Castro as a mix of “Winston Churchill, Aneurin Bevan (the founder of the NHS) and the Queen Mother”. He went on to stand up for the “audacious revolutionary” whose radicalism had “strong anti-imperialist and anti-racist” elements to it. He also saw one of Castro’s legacies as the “success of social welfare programmes across Latin America”.

The final section was on the former leader of Cuba’s global legacy. For this, Canning House invited the Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens and the ex-Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.

The politician put forward an appraisal of the revolutionary, calling him a “giant” and an “icon to those who want to live in a better country”.

Peter Hitchens delivered the opposite. He described the Castro regime as being treated in a “rock-star way” when it was really a “government of torture”. Hitchens saw Castro’s “boasts of social advances go unchecked” and argued that “people should grow up about Castro…this cult of Fidel should be dropped.”

Questions were taken after each section and there was a notable intervention during the regional legacy part of the morning. The “Ambassador from the British Empire” was lambasted for challenging the fading policies of the Castros by a book publisher and socialist apologist who offered a vehement defence the Cuban leftist model. There were other questions, too, from exiled Cubans, criticising divisions in society created by the lack of a free press and the fact that Castro never held an election.

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Snowed under

Several countries with competing ambitions are involved in the CIA whistleblower’s escapade

Since arriving in Moscow yesterday, Edward Snowden has set yet another diplomatic ball rolling. The cobweb of international espionage winks and nudges seems to be growing daily. The US would like to see Mr Snowden back on home turf as soon as possible to answer charges of spying and communicating classified information, but he has, so far, managed to stay one step ahead of Washington.

He first fled to Hong Kong after leaking details of the questionable intelligence-gathering methods employed by the US secret services, for whom he used to work as an IT engineer. That brought China into the mix, and although Hong Kong has a separate legal set-up to the rest of the country, it did give Beijing the indirect chance to rub the US up the wrong way.

Mr Snowden has flown from China to Russia and he has submitted an asylum request to Ecuador. He was rumoured to have been leaving Moscow today on a flight to Cuba; a journey that was possibly only going via Havana on route to its final destination in Venezuela. Lots of countries are involved and all of them are defending Mr Snowden’s right to speak out. But why? It does appear that one of the major reasons for these nations defending the name of Edward Snowden is to employ this ruse a means to irritate the US. Certainly, the Latin American states involved are all members of the late Hugo Chavez’s leftist ALBA bloc, and love nothing more than having a go at what they see as an overbearing, bullying neighbour to the north.

There has been a lot of talk on this issue so far regarding human rights, freedom of expression and the right (or lack thereof) of governments to snoop on citizens. But it is interesting to look at the list in the paragraph above of the countries now involved in this escapade. Mr Snowden claims to be fighting for freedom of expression but China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador have not been shy to suppress parts of the media that report on issues that they see as a bit too close to the ruling inner circles. The US may be wrong to think that all countries should deign to whatever arrest warrant it has issued for the latest Wikileaks-related secret data releaser. But, on the other hand, Mr Snowden may be wrong to think that a fair trial is a matter of regular, democratic order in places where restrictions on expression – the very issue at the heart of this case – have been all too common in recent years.

Guatemala talking

On Monday 11 February, the Guatemalan foreign minister, Fernando Carrera, attended several events in London. This is a review of the talk he gave at Canning House, the UK-Iberia/Latin America cultural institute

Guatemala is a small nation. With a population of 14 million, it is dwarfed in many ways by its huge northern neighbour, Mexico. So on matters of policy it generally tends to stick together with the other little Central American states. Its foreign minister is a stocky, smooth-talking economist who was at great pains last night to point out the much larger ambitions that his country has – particularly in terms of regional integration.

Fernando Carrera, in a late afternoon talk at Canning House, focused his short speech on regional integration and relations between Latin American countries as a whole and the democratisation of the region.

INTEGRATION

Carrera could not have been more excited by the prospect of a closer economic and political club for the Central American countries. He was especially vocal about the possibilities of partnership between the southernmost five states of Mexico long with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – “[that will be] part of our future, for sure”. He then added Cuba to the guest list for entry to what he labelled the ‘4 x 14 million’ group. These are four areas: Southern Mexico; Guatemala; El Salvador and Honduras; and Cuba that have about 14 million people and may be open to getting together to form another Latin American bloc. Such alliances are not rare. From the Organisation of American States (every North and South American country), through CELAC (the same lot minus the US and Canada) to ALBA (a leftist group of eight states), the politicians of the region seem to spend a lot of their time dreaming up acronyms for the next combination of countries.

One of these blocs that Carrera eulogised was the Pacific Alliance (Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile); he praised its abilities to “go beyond traditional markets”. This comment could have been seen as a slight nudge to some of those aforementioned blocs, which pander to regional trade and policy. The Pacific one is trying to get the nations on the other side of the ocean involved as well. Guatemala is an observer of the Alliance. However, he did also make sure he underlined the importance of running a healthy home as well as planning holidays abroad – “by supporting each other, we learn how to get out of war” and “it’s clear today that creating economic opportunities in Central America is very easy”.

DEMOCRATISATION

Mr Carrera used the latter part of his talk to address the current state of democracy in the region. He was openly happy that Latin American countries had finally got over the hurdle of arguing about different political ideologies and got on with some proper dialogue at the head-of-state level. He said that a “united Latin America can now be considered” and that democracy had opened the minds of the people of Latin America in a way that had not been previously possible.

After his talk, Fernando Carrera took four QUESTIONS, of varying themes:

He was first pressed on Guatemala’s relations with Belize. The two countries have been disputing their shared border for many years and have agreed to hold simultaneous referenda in October on submitting Guatemala’s territorial and maritime claims to the International Court of Justice. Mr Carrera did not mention Belize when he was discussing teaming up with his neighbours, despite the two countries’ proximity to one another. This omission was noted by the audience; the minister called the issue “challenging” but he did say that he would “love Belize to be part of the regional integration plan”.

The second question focused on co-operation between Guatemala and its neighbours to try to combat the ongoing violent crime in the region. The politician said that one major problem that needed fixing was the weakness of the state actors of Central American countries. He conceded that this had been lacking in his nation, saying that the strengthening of national executives, legislatures and judiciaries across the area was paramount to being able to take on the violence in a strong and measured manner.

After that, Mr Carrera was asked about further integration with Mexico. He referenced simple ideas such as academic exchanges and grander plans like a possible chamber of commerce between certain areas of southern Mexico and Guatemala.

Finally, I wanted to know what steps the minister could take through his foreign affairs role to try to safeguard the lives and rights of Central American migrants making the dangerous journey through Mexico to the United States. Crimes against migrating workers – regularly travelling illegally and therefore taking even more hazardous decisions and routes – are common and range from robbery to rape and murder. Mr Carrera had spoken a lot that evening about integration and it seems that it is only with international action that such violence could possibly be confronted. The minister said it was a “pity not to be able to guarantee the migrants’ lives and rights”, saying that his government will “do our best to avoid this horrible situation”. He highlighted that one way to try to act was through ensuring that “we strive not to allow state actors to violate rights or perpetrate crimes” against the migrating workers.

Puzzling clues

A Venezuelan government sympathiser claims to find death threats hidden in a crossword puzzle

The supposed inflammatory answers were “asesinen” (they kill), “Adán” (Adam) and “ráfaga” (burst of machine-gun fire). Put together they could seem like a coded threat to the life of the president’s brother, Adán, but the veteran compiler who constructed the puzzle in Ultimas Noticias newspaper last week has totally denied the suggestion of a secret plot. Neptali Segovia was quoted as saying “I have nothing to hide because the work I have been doing for the last 17 years has only a cultural and education intention, and is transparent”.

The man accusing the wordsmith of the alleged subversion was Perez Piruela, a pundit on state TV. Piruela said “It’s a message…I’m speaking in the name of truth” and then went on to draw an amazing comparison between Segovia’s crossword and the coded resistance messages sent by General de Gaulle from London to France during the Second World War. The arguments over the clues go so far as the meaning of the last offending answer, with ‘ráfaga’ also being used daily to describe a gust of wind, not just a hail of bullets.

President Hugo Chávez has now been at home for a week since getting back from Cuba after his latest successful round of radiotherapy. He has admitted that the illness and subsequent treatment have been a setback. However, he says he is determined to recover enough to reach a level where he can get back on his political horse, rejoin the presidential race and gallop freely past Henrique Capriles, his opposition challenger in the October election.

“As the hours and days pass, I’m sure that with God’s favour, medical science and this soldier’s body that envelops me, I will get back to where I must be, in the front line of the battle, alongside the Venezuelan people, promoting the socialist revolution.”

The last week has been a busy one for Chávez as in the past seven days he has also created an advisory body called the ‘Council of State’. The new national group will have nine members but it has already come into question with regard to the unorganised issue of political succession. The Bolivarian leader of the country has not designated anyone to follow him in the short-term, should he succumb to his illness, or in the long-term, if and when he steps down. Just before one of his recent trips to Cuba for another round of cancer treatment, he jokily warned his brother, (the crossword-concealed Adán), against trying to wrest the presidency from his control behind his back while he was lying in hospital.

But on a more serious note, it seems that the president has not even considered the possibility that he might not be able to stand in the autumn vote, and he has equated his health battle with the battle against the West: i.e., one that he must win, one that he will win, and one that unites all anti-imperialists. Nor has he even come clean about the idea that he might truly lose the election. He has said openly that his rival will not be able to defeat him, but, if Capriles does win (the unwinnable election), then as a ‘democratically mature’ president, Chávez has also said that he will freely stand aside.

With a leader as misty and mercurial as this, it is no wonder that political paranoia is on the rise in Venezuela. The presidential ballot is too far off and too uncertain to call just yet. But as we have seen this week with the scandal over the apparent ‘death-clues’ crossword, it would not be too odd an idea to suggest that the result of the election may not truly lie with the pollsters but with the puzzlers instead.

Diagnosis elections

Presidential health problems must be taken seriously as soon as they are uncovered

On 1 September, the president of Guinea-Bissau, Malam Bacai Sanha, was flown to neighbouring Senegal for a ‘medical check-up’, according to the government. He has had numerous hospital trips recently, normally to next-door Dakar. In December 2009, Sanha postponed a visit to Portugal ‘for health reasons’. He was hospitalised in Paris for ten days. When asked about his health, Sanha said: “It’s true that I also suffer from diabetes but that is not as serious as people want to make out.”

Popping in and out of the country over health concerns can make the people worry. Unsurprisingly, as a small West African state, Guinea-Bissau has suffered political turmoil and in March 2009 the then president Joao Bernardo Vieira was assassinated. Mr Sanha has provided some welcome stability to the tiny nation after a peaceful transition followed Vieira’s killing. But the balance could easily swing back a violent way if Sanha can no longer go on or dies.

If you look 1,600 miles to the east, a similar situation arose last year when Nigerian president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua died. He had suffered from a chronic kidney condition for at least 10 years. One health trip to Saudi Arabia, in November 2009, lasted three months. This left a power vacuum and Nigeria began to rock. Replacing him with the vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner, was far from a simple step: Mr Yar’Adua was a Muslim northerner. The Abuja presidency, on a regional and religious rotation schedule, was on its Muslim spin, though in subsequent elections, Mr Jonathan won a majority fairly.

The most well-known poorly president at the moment is Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has cancer and completed his third round of chemotherapy on 2 September. He has been undergoing treatment in Cuba and the opposition has claimed that this has been putting national security at risk. However, Mr Chavez underwent his latest batch of treatment back home in Caracas. This was surely a move designed to prove his recuperating fitness and to warn both his deputies and the opposition that his full recovery is approaching. Chavez has been defiant so far, saying on Friday that he “feels better than ever”. He has warned his older brother and other ministers off eyeing up his office, saying he will contest and win next year’s elections.

The manoeuvring and electioneering that inevitably occurs as soon as the main man whizzes off to some overseas clinic is destabilising to a country. Fragile situations, such as those in West Africa, can be left on a knife-edge. In Venezuela’s case, there are worries over to what extent Mr Chavez really can run the country from his hospital bed, despite the president’s phone-ins to state TV. As enticing as triumphant returns from the brink of death can be for presidents lured by possible electoral boosts, the best health policy must surely be honesty from the start over the seriousness of the condition and clear planning for elections and successions if things get worse. And, of course, some of that fresh foreign air.

Returning to the front line

Although many focus on future policy planning, the way politicians recover from setbacks can define a career

On Friday 1 June, the French president’s office released a statement in which they announced they would “not comment on the course of American justice” and “respect the presumption the innocence”. The innocence being presumed was that of a man who had recently been arrested, forced to pay an enormous bail and surrender his passport for an alleged criminal sexual offence.

Returning to try to rebuild your life after such a setback would be hard enough in itself. If you were Dominique Strauss-Kahn, it would seem near impossible. But, incredibly, the French press are already talking about him manoeuvring back on to the track he was chugging down until he was detained on 15 May: organising a bid to be the Socialist presidential candidate for next year’s election.

It would be a stunning return to action but it is unlikely. Many think it more possible that he become openly involved with one of the current candidates’ campaigns. DSK will not be able to waltz back into the corridors of power; France’s outlook on ‘bedroom politics’ has changed permanently, whatever the final outcome of his case.

Recovering from this setback, (and there is no doubting there was a sexual element to the incident), will be difficult but big political personalities in Paris (especially those who have been seen to belittle the US in some way) hold a lot of strings with which to pull themselves back up.

For Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, the challenges are different. He is now back in Caracas after convalescing in Cuba following surgery to remove a pelvic abscess. Chavez revealed on 30 June that he had also undergone an operation for a cancerous tumour. Speculation has mounted over his position but Chavez himself simply called his health problems “a new battle that life has placed before us” and pledged to defeat them as though they were some irritating Western critics: “Forever onward toward victory! We will be victorious! Until my return!”

But will he be victorious? There are three main scenarios that have evolved from this medical setback:

1) He is too ill ever to come back properly and fulfil his energetic socialist agenda and has to leave power (although there are no similarly charismatic pretenders waiting in the wings)

2) He takes quite a while to improve and has to transfer power temporarily to his brother Adan Chavez or maybe vice-president Elias Jaua or Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro

3) He is fit and well and deliberately delayed his comeback in order to make his return to Caracas all the more triumphant (today, 5 July, is Venezuela’s bicentenary of independence from Spain)

Whatever their nature, it would be folly for politicians always to live in the future. How (if, at all) they overcome setbacks can be critical to their lives in the limelight.

An Arab and his amigos

Colonel Gaddafi appears to be increasingly isolated. Will he look to his Latin friends for an exit route?

William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, suggested (erroneously) back in February that Muammar Gaddafi had fled Libya and sought refuge with the friendly face of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president – a claim which Caracas criticised heavily. However, that idea was not a whimsical prospect dreamt up by Mr Hague at random – Mr Chavez has made it a habit of his to befriend states with clear anti-US rhetoric and ideals, such as Iran and Cuba. Libya has been no exception and in 2009, Gaddafi named a football stadium after the Venezuelan premier (only for rebels to rescind the honour a few weeks ago). (Football seems to be a peculiar source of mutual content for states which take pleasure in upsetting the US.)

Now Colonel Gaddafi is losing support in the Maghreb and in his own cabinet , can he look west across the Atlantic for help? Chavez has derided the ‘no-fly-zone’, calling it ‘total madness’ and his thoughts have been echoed by many across Latin America.

Brazil abstained from voting on the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1973, the document which gave the allies their international legal permission to crackdown on Gaddafi’s forces. Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, did not agreed with the UN’s decision and announced his ”condemnation, repudiation and rejection” of the intervention.

Similar noises were made by Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega, a constant thorn in the side of the West, criticised the UN for turning itself into ”an instrument of warmongering and death for these powers”. Fidel Castro accused NATO of ”demonstrating the waste and chaos that capitalism perpetuates” and the President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, although ‘lamenting’ the attacks by Gaddafi, pointed out that ”saving lives with bombs is an inexplicable contradiction in terms”. Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay also came out against Resolution 1973.

But there were some resolute stances from the Latin Americans in favour of the allied action. Mexico, Peru, Chile and El Salvador all came out in favour of the Security Council’s decision. Colombia said that the Gaddafi regime had ”made fun of” the resolution and President Santos called for an end to the fighting.

So Gaddafi seemingly has a few open doors in Latin America. Whether he will choose to walk through them remains, at this stage in the crisis, very hard to predict. However, public opinion can be fickle in Latin America and presidents are always on the hunt for high approval ratings – giving the Colonel some free bed and board might not go down too well. So as this situation develops, despite their previous announcements, it is not a given that the Latin capitals will continue to be so welcoming to the dictator.

All drugged up

Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, is not best pleased with the US at the moment. He has accused the States of ‘attempted defamation’ during his ongoing battle with Washington to save his country’s beloved coca from renewed international prohibition.

Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, chewing a coca leaf at at UN Convention (from 0:50)

Source: unitednations, YouTube, 16/03/11

What has rankled with Mr Morales is criticism of the way his government is tackling drug production. He believes the US wants to destabilise him by linking his administration to drug traffickers. But there is no smoke without fire. Last week, Rene Sanabria, Bolivia’s anti-drugs chief was arrested in Panama on charges of running a cocaine-smuggling gang at the same time as heading an 15-person anti-narcotics intelligence unit for Mr Morales.

Whilst this was a frustrating setback for Evo, he needs to cool his temper if he is to achieve an end to the global moratorium on coca leaves, in place since it was condemned by the UN in its 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Coca has been chewed for thousands of years across Bolivia and also in the highlands of Peru to combat altitude sickness, or soroche, along with other ailments and also for recreational purposes. Morales himself had a chew at a UN Drugs Convention in Vienna in 2009 (see video above).

It is a traditional pastime but a hobby that does involve the mastication of the rawest form of cocaine. And this is where the US gets nervous.

Washington wants to sort out cocaine production, the heartlands of which are in Bolivia. If it hits the war on drugs from inception point, it can get a grip on the other parts of the chain, notably Mexican trafficking and US domestic demand. But it is not convinced that Mr Morales is doing enough to cut cocaine farming. And these current problems will probably have kept La Paz off US President Obama’s schedule during his present trip to Latin America, which comes to an end on Wednesday 23 March.

Last week, the UN International Narcotics Control Board criticised the Morales government for allowing Bolivia’s coca crop to increase to 119 square miles, the largest amount of land dedicated to coca cultivation for 13 years.

But Morales maintains that he too wants to stop cocaine production and the close links to coca farming mean the line between the two is often blurred. Morales is angered by what he sees as the US-sponsored embargo of his cultural heritage and he knows that his firebrand socialism, which reaches out to Iran and Cuba, is a thorn in the side of the US.

Lula wading into choppy waters one last time

Never one to shy away from the chance to promote Brazil on the world stage – and try to reaffirm the country’s growing global stature – Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the outgoing Brazilian president, has angered the US once more.

The government in Brasilia has announced that the time has come for the country to recognise the Palestinian state, a move which has immediately drawn criticism from the US and Israel.

Lula has played this game before. In May, he refused to vote for energy sanctions to be placed on Iran. Only Turkey and Lebanon joined his call-to-arms. Many saw Lula’s decision as a signal of support for embattled Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who he had welcomed to Brazil on a tour earlier.

However, Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s chosen successor who will replace her mentor as president next month, has attempted to scupper claims that she is nothing more than Lula’s puppet. She has admitted that the Brazilian position on Iran was unpopular and warned that there will be a more ‘cautious’ foreign policy on her watch.

But Brazil is not the only Latin American nation to recognise Palestine: Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Venezuela have all formalised relations with the disputed territories.

Last month Uruguay joined the list and on 6 December Argentina added its name to the group. Latin American nations have powerful backers (Colombia – US; Venezuela – Iran) but are seizing the mantle more and more now to become outspoken defendants of global causes themselves.

They are still learning the trade, though. On 30 November, Ecuador’s deputy foreign minister, Kintto Lucas, made a forthright decision to offer the since-arrested Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder, the platform to speak publicly. President Rafael Correa then rubbished the idea that an offer of accommodation would be made (in all likelihood because Ecuador will not escape complicity in the compromising cables).

Ecuador’s confusion demonstrates its infancy on the vocal world stage. Lula is no such paddler; he has been swimming against the current for a while. It will be up to Dilma whether to maintain Lula’s defiant oratory or to change tack and go with the flow.