I have become a sentimental Communist
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Tuesday 07 December 1999
Instead it is Cuba, where I spent the last fortnight, that preoccupies me. Last week, with comparatively little fuss, a plane full of Americans arrived in Havana from New York, the first of what is to be a weekly flight. After four decades of hostility, paranoia and blockade, relations with the Yanqui imperialists are moving towards normalisation. American tourists will soon be arriving every week, to be followed - somehow the process seems inevitable - by American money and culture and all the glories of the most fiscally evolved society in the world. How profoundly depressing it all is.
Yes, I became a holiday Fidelista, a sentimental Communist. Sipping my mujito listening to one of the astonishing local bands as they played "Hasta Siempre, Comandante", "Cancion del Guerrillero Heroico" and other rebel songs - the revolution, of course, always has the best tunes - I found myself overcome by a sense of plump, toe-tapping solidarity. What a marvellous thing Fidel had been doing. How the rest of the world could learn from him.
Even at the time, I was aware that this was a faintly absurd position, comparable to that of the visitor to a distant dictatorship who marvels at the efficiency of its infrastructure, its lack of crime, the smartness of its policemen. Even tourists, protected from the realities of Cuban life by the two-tier economy in which foreigners pay in dollars while Cubans live by the peso, cannot fail to notice that life there is harsh, with tourism providing a lifeline for just a few - waiters, taxi drivers and the girls to be seen on the arms of sagging, piggy-eyed Western sex tourists.
The media are tightly controlled by the government and, according to PEN International, several dissident writers are languishing behind bars. Every week a few illegal emigrants are said to risk their lives taking boats to the freedom that is offered by Miami.
Yet - and this may sound like the sun-struck ravings of a Sixties hippie - Cuba offers another reality, old-fashioned but not entirely irrelevant. Because economic growth is not deemed the only political good, the government avoids exploiting tourism to the detriment of the environment or local communities, sensibly sending the package tours off to a couple of resorts while carefully restricting development elsewhere.
Aware of the effect of past predations on the rainforest, it has embarked on a programme of tree-planting and ecological research, in notable contrast to the dollar-crazed economies of South-east Asia. Uncontaminated by globalisation and a desire to imitate all things American, Cubans often display virtues that we First World sophisticates have tended to forget: dignity, politeness and a sense of national pride.
None of which will make sense to the American and European conglomerates hovering like vultures for the moment when Cuba is "free" and can be profitably developed into a playground for rich, golf-playing tourists, to the international tobacco companies eager to bring the country's cigar industry up to speed, or to the advocates of unrestricted world trade who gathered in Seattle last week.
Now and then, out in Cuba, glimpses of that world could be caught on CNN broadcasts - reports from a society in which investment and profit were the only virtues, where every TV commercial was about making more money, where government seemed little more than the political wing of big business. Suddenly, it all seemed rather grubby, sad and morally reduced.
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