It turns out that freedom of expression is largely a matter of fashion. Some acts of censorship are titillating and promotable, while others are downright embarrassing. So, in the week when there was considerable fuss over the alleged banning of a book at the Dubai Literary Festival, the deteriorating health under appalling conditions of 21 Cuban writers, journalists and librarians serving long prison sentences barely merits a paragraph – and is then denied by an apparently sane and respectable British academic.
Cuba, of course, is tricky. It is a plucky little country which has defied the bullying of its mighty neighbour. Its revolution has become the stuff of Hollywood films. It has a good health service, wonderful music and lovely cigars. The Castro regime is one which, for romantic lefties living in comfort in the West, still represents the smiling face of revolutionary socialism.
In this context, it is an awkward fact that a group of people who are similarly independent-minded and articulate, but who happen to be Cuban, were rounded up by the authorities in 2001. The crime of these 75 writers was that they were arguing for democracy. In short order – all the trials took place over two days and behind closed doors – they were sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment. The families of those who remain in prison tell increasingly grim stories of beatings, solitary confinement, dire food and medical conditions causing serious illness in some cases.
It was to this little-publicised aspect of Cuban life which the writers’ organisation English PEN brought attention on this month’s 50th anniversary of the Castro revolution. The reaction, as is so often the case with Cuba, has been bizarre and vaguely shameful. In the past, Ken Livingstone has dismissed criticism of the Cuban government’s human rights record as coming from those “with a very right-wing perspective”. This week’s Fidelista has taken a different tack. Rebutting PEN’s call to arms in a letter to The Guardian, Professor Michael Chanan concedes that there might be Cuban prisoners “classed from outside as political” but they are kept in good conditions. Chanan himself had, he says, filmed political prisoners in 1986: they had actually “declined to let us film their quarters because they didn’t want people to see how decent they were.”
In other words, like Ken Livingstone, George Galloway and others, Professor Chanan believes that PEN, Amnesty International and indeed the United Nations Commission on Human Rights are inventing the grim circumstances of the imprisoned writers (details of which can be found on www.englishpen.org).
On his website, the professor makes great claim for the new freedom enjoyed by Cuban film-makers; it is apparently only those who argue for a second political party who might find themselves in a bit of trouble. There are many like him who prefer their illusions about the Castro to remain unblemished. If these people are truly interested in allowing the truth to be told, they will convince the Cuban authorities to allow visits to the imprisoned writers. So far, the prisoners have kept out of sight and contact from the outside world. If that remains the case, only one conclusion can be drawn.
Tony Benn, a great champion of the Castro revolution, once said that “socialism has always been about democracy, human rights and internationalism”. For Cuba, one out of three is no longer enough.