Friday, February 29, 2008

Playboy Castro

Did anyone see George Galloway on Question Time last night? I thought he was rather good. You can tell he's a seasoned speaker, used to "robust" exchanges with political opponents. I particularly liked the effect he had on the rather indomitable looking Tory who's face became more stony and humourless as the night wore on.

One of the more interesting exchanges was on Cuba's transition to a post-Fidel regime. Much was said of the achievements of the Cuban regime in the face of furious opposition of the world's strongest superpower just seventy miles away.

It's true that health care, education and other public services are extremely good for a third world country - although I think sometimes people have an exaggerated idea of quite how good these provisions are and it does rather rely on the fact that you need to ignore the rights of the workers in those services.

Cuba has the most doctors per head of population than, I think, any other country in the world. They are also some of the lowest paid doctors in the world without the right to independent trade union representation. There are good and bad things to say but you rarely find people who acknowledge both sides of the story.

We could, for example, call Cuba a socialist state if we chose to define socialist states by whether they plan centrally and have an economy dominated by state owned industries (the private sector is increasing but by far the majority of workers in Cuba are in state controlled sectors).

If we define socialist as working class people being empowered to have a real say over their lives and a state that defends traditionally oppressed people, recognising women's rights, combating homophobia, opposing racism well, Cuba's record is less impressive.

It's no mean feat to hold out against US imperialism for decades and those who choose to paint Fidel (pictured with giggling strumpet) as a despot curtailing civil rights for the hell of it fail to recognise the context of the Cuban state's actions - but none the less Cuba is not a template for a glorious socialist society either.

Raul Castro's succession to his brother's throne will no doubt be held up as another example of how Cuba has a self contained, self selected elite - and those who cite this will be unlikely to recognise that Raul has been a major player from even before the Cuban revolution and is a significant figure in his own right, he's not just Fidel's brother.

People will lament the lack of civil rights in Cuba, and they are right to do so, but we should acknowledge that there are *some* democratic freedoms afforded to the citizens. The situation is not black and white.

Take the recent petition handed in to the Cuban legislature calling for the state to adopt only one currency. If you can organise ten thousand names on a petition you have the automatic right for your proposals to be heard - this is a freedom the UK could do with adopting, although it does not, on its own, replace the need for the right to organise independent political and trade union organisations.

Incidentally, the currency is one clear example of how class stratified Cuba really is. Where most citizens are paid in pesos those who are paid in the lucrative "convertible" peso are able to buy certain kinds of goods in shops that only accept this currency. By making access to these goods unavailable to the majority, no matter how many pesos they are able to save, it entrenches a permanent economic elite. This division also skews the economy towards tourists and it's widely acknowledged that Cuba still has serious problems with prostitution and crime.

The petition admirably stated that “We demand for all the nation that the Cuban peso be an acceptable means of payment in every establishment without exception," essentially calling for an end to the two tier economy. I think this demand is something that progressive people should back without descending into the reactionary bating of the regime that some seem unable to resist.

Just finally, I'd heard people joke that they only looked at dirty magazines for the articles - I hadn't actually realised they genuinely did carry them. Earlier today I was pointed towards Playboy's two interviews with Fidel Castro, one in 1967 and the other in 1985, they happen to be quite interesting and worth a look.


Charlie Marks said...

Gr8 article, Jim. I agree about petitions - though we could do with something stronger...

For anyone who's interested: see citizens' initiative ( and people's veto (

Renegade Eye said...

We don't even know if Fidel stepped down or was shoved, if he is dead or alive.

Fidel saw what happened to Russia in the 90s, and didn't like it. Raul likes the Chinese model.

It will be interesting to see what happens.

Joe Otten said...

Know your own party's history, mate. The Green Party was founded based on an article in Playboy.

blackstone said...

Your last comment was funny, when i found my father's playboy's when i was a young child, he told me the same thing.

It's true, playboy does have more words than pictures.

Jim Jay said...

RE: I think basically the guy's old and it's time to retire - I don't think there's any reason to suspect foul play - I mean Raul is the left wing brother after all.

Joe: That's an interesting link, thanks.

Charlie Marks said...

On the matter of homophobia in Cuba, it's worth noting that discrimination against lgbt people by the state no longer exists as an policy and overtly the position is pro-lgbt rights - same-sex partnerships are to be legally recognised, gender reassignment surgery will be a possibility for trans people.

Raul was a communist before Fidel and so it would be ironic if he pushed for a Chinese model...

Most Cubans won't like the Chinese model - it means paying for health and education yourself.

I would hope that Raul keeps to the spirit of the times in the americas and opts for greater democratic participation in the economy.

Jim Jay said...

Yes, that's right Charlie - the Cuban state has official acknowledged that previous homophobia was wrong - and its a good point about Raul that perhaps he's preparing to open up by signing up to human rights declarations etc.

Unless the US loosens the reins though they will essentially be forcing Cuba to strengthen its ties with Venezuela and other leftist Latin American governments - so much of the future is in their hands. Perhaps now Raul is in they think they can back off without loosing face - particularly if Obama wins the presidency as he is the only one of the three main candidates whose publicly said he wants to talk to the Cuban regime.