Artwork by Oliver Buckingham
Between 1982 and 2002 the British journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote a column entitled ‘Minority Report’ for a radical left-wing American weekly called The Nation. The name referenced a Philip K. Dick novella of 1956: The Minority Report, later adapted by Steven Spielberg into a hit blockbuster starring Tom Cruise. But Christopher had selected it because of his tendency to shun the political consensus, which landed him on the minority side of countless issues. Throughout his raucous 40 year career – kick-started by a third-class PPE degree from Balliol – Hitchens maintained one rule: ‘My own opinion is enough for me’. There was no majority so large, and no reputation so inflated that he would be deterred from trying to prick it.
Attempting to draw comparisons to someone so erudite, witty and prolific is extremely foolhardy, but my intentions with this column are the same. It will focus on politics and international affairs. It will be concerned with issues both big, such as the evils committed by the world’s despots and authoritarians, and small, like when a BBC journalist referred to Bill Cosby as Bill Clinton. It will be bullish, sometimes snarky, hopefully witty, and definitely interesting. Boredom is the enemy, as is conformity. You will not agree with everything I write. I certainly hope not. What would be the fun in that?
Anti-government protestors are on the streets of Cuba’s cities. They are demanding ‘Libertad!’ The dictatorship – now 62 years old – is showing its age. Castro’s cult has lost its magic. Under the weight of years and mounting crises, the regime looks increasingly decrepit.
Since the success of Castro’s revolution on New Year’s Eve 1958, the island has been governed by a Marxist-Leninist one-party system. Normally a few misplaced words are enough to attract the attention of the police, who use arbitrary imprisonment as their favoured means of intimidation. But today, anger at the regime appears to be overwhelming Cubans’ fears of retribution.
Food shortages, high prices, rising Covid cases, a poor sugar harvest, and a weak domestic currency are all fueling the discontent. Sanctions imposed by the Trump administration are applying further economic pressure. The government’s decision to develop its own vaccine has slowed the immunization of the population considerably, leaving the country vulnerable to new waves of infection. Grocery stores are visible by the long queues which trail from their doors.
“We are here because of the repression against the people,” one protestor told the BBC. “They are starving us to death. Havana is collapsing. We have no house, we have nothing, but they have money to build hotels and have us starving.”
That last line is a telling reference to the system of ‘tourist apartheid’ imposed by a government desperate for foreign holidaymakers. For decades, Cuban citizens have watched as plush resorts and boutique shops are constructed and then reserved for foreigners and Communist Party officials. That sends a simple message: You’re only worth anything if you can pay in dollars.
Resentment is seething. Qualified doctors – the cream of Cuba’s vaunted healthcare system – are paid less than the bell boys in the hotels. Meanwhile, the population is infantilized by state media which insists that all is well. The dissonance between what Cubans are told and what they see is growing.
Nowhere is this clearer than on the website of the Cuban Communist Party newspaper, Granma. The late Argentine dissident Jacobo Timerman once described the paper as a ‘degradation of the act of reading’. 22 years after Timerman’s death, a review of Granma’s headlines suggests little has changed:
‘WITHIN THE REVOLUTION THERE CONTINUES TO BE ROOM FOR EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE, EXCEPT THOSE WHO SEEK TO DESTROY THE COLLECTIVE PROJECT’
There is no such thing as an opinion section. News and propaganda are knitted seamlessly together until they cannot be distinguished:
‘CUBA CELEBRATES THE CENTENARY OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CHINA’
‘THE UNITED STATES IS AFRAID OF CUBA’S FOOTBALL TEAM’
And just in case you hadn’t got the message…
‘WHY WE DON’T NEED MORE THAN ONE PARTY’
Prize for the best piece of doublethink goes to this subheading: “Our Party is unique because it guarantees the unity of all Cubans intent on building a more democratic, inclusive and just society.”
The proposition that the Cuban Communist Party is ‘building democracy’ is not a thesis that can be accepted by a thinking person. But regimes like Cuba’s do not want their citizens to think. Independence of mind is substituted with worship of communism, and of Castro. Granma can’t get enough of him: ‘FIDEL IS THE COMPASS’, ‘ONE PARTY, FIDEL’S’, ‘THREE KEYS TO FIDEL’S PARTY’, ‘FIDEL AND BASEBALL’.
The reverence shown to the old leader epitomizes how Cuba has been forced into stasis by its government; stuck in a cold war time warp. Castro died in 2016, and his enthusiastic installation of Soviet missiles in 1962 nearly led to a nuclear apocalypse. Once a charismatic freedom fighter, he became a neurotic despot with a penchant for eight hour speeches. Endless, repetitive, and senile, much like the regime which ossified around him. His saintly veneration reflects a communist party which has nothing to offer but faded memories of ‘58. Such necrotic government cannot last.
The current president – Miguel Diaz-Canel – is the first communist leader to hail from outside the Castro clan (Fidel’s brother, Raul, did 10 years in the job). His response to the protests was to demand that the population take to the streets in defence of communism:
Some Cubans did answer the call, but a command like that says a great deal about how the government still views its people: As tools of state, bound to defend the right of the politburo to rule.
For dissidents, social media and music have provided new avenues for voicing opposition. The protest song ‘Patria y Vida’ (‘Fatherland and Life’) went viral last year. It’s a catchy tune. Written by a collective of Cuban anti-government artists, its lyrics enraged the regime:
‘No more lies. My people want freedom not more doctrine (…) the true story not the correctly narrated one.’
The song rejects the morbid demand made by Castro, and now by Diaz-Canel: ‘Patria y Muerte’ (‘Fatherland and Death’). Cuba’s detached leadership will still ask their people to fight for a regime which has brought poverty and denied them basic political rights. It still expects them to be duped by state TV, and galvanised by reruns of Castro radio addresses. It expects them to have the minds of children, telling them who to fear and who to obey. It expects nothing of value, except loyalty.
No people will stand to be treated like this forever.