Brian Wilson MP writes on Cuba

Campaign News | Thursday, 28 August 2003

Revolution revisited - Cuba isn't perfect - but it is living proof that it is possible for a third world country to combat poverty, disease and illiteracy

Revolution revisited

Cuba isn't perfect - but it is living proof that it is possible for a third world country to combat poverty, disease and illiteracy

Brian Wilson

Thursday August 28, 2003

The Guardian

Twenty-five years ago this month, I visited Cuba for the first time. The occasion was the World Festival of Youth and Students, which drew 20,000 to Havana from 150 countries - probably, to this day, the country's biggest display to the world of its revolutionary wares.

I went as a journalist, which had its advantages. Rather than encamp with the motley British delegation, I stayed at the Havana Libre hotel, formerly the Havana Hilton. These were the days before tourism had become a Cuban necessity and, rather than change the Hilton symbols, there were notices alongside them stating: "Liberated from American imperialism."

Happily, this location kept me far from the interminable debates in which the Brits earnestly engaged themselves while everyone else had fun. For many months prior to the festival, the various factions who contributed to the British presence had been haggling over the correct position to take on human rights. They continued to do so once in Havana, instead of speaking to the locals.

The two ringmasters in this untidy political circus were Charles Clarke and Peter Mandelson. Clarke, who even then was described in reports as "portly", had spent a year working on British preparations following his presidency of the National Union of Students, while Mandelson was chairman of the British Youth Council. Arthur Scargill, though not in the first flush of youth even then, turned up to add merriment to the solemn search for political correctness. This was to be expressed through an end-of-festival communique which the world was doubtless awaiting eagerly. Agreement on the text was never achieved.

It has always been part of the hypocrisy towards Cuba that people who would visit any other country in the world and accept its strengths and weaknesses at face value apply very different standards once the plane lands at Havana. Twenty-five years ago, that was apparent in the tortured behaviour of the British delegation. Now, as then, supposed leftists often see disapproval of Cuba as an opportunity to balance their ideological brownie points.

But for me, that visit was the start of a life-long love affair. There is no need to confuse that statement with uncritical acclaim for everything about the place. But criticism should never ignore the fact that Cuba's primary service to the world has been to provide living proof that it is possible to conquer poverty, disease and illiteracy in a country that was grossly over-familiar with all three. That is a pretty big service. The fact that it has been delivered in the face of sustained hostility from an obsessive neighbour makes it all the more stunning.

Fast forward 22 years, and I became trade minister in a Labour government. At my first meeting with the official in charge of trade with the Americas and Caribbean, he offered a summary of our commercial relations with just about every country. There was one conspicuous absentee. "What," I asked, "are we doing with Cuba?" The answer was very little, ostensibly because of a modest outstanding debt from the mid-1980s.

Within a month, we were on a plane to Havana, and commercial normality now exists in our relationship. During that first ministerial visit, I was guest of honour at a small dinner and retain a copy of the diplomatic telegram which recorded the occasion.

The opening summary reads: "Unscheduled invitation from Castro to Mr Wilson to dinner. Castro holds forth for five and a half hours. Unequivocal message from Cubans that they seek further improvement in bilateral relationships with particular emphasis on trade relations. Close rapport established between Castro and Mr Wilson." The dinner ended with him toasting "Tony Blair and the third way" while I responded by raising my glass to "peace and socialism".

I have now had half a dozen such sessions with Castro. He talks a lot but then he has a lot to talk about. He is a man with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I have got to know quite a few surprising characters whom few would recognise from the caricatures - Castro as an admirer of Churchill; Castro as a pragmatist who recognises the inevitability of globalisation and wants Latin America to mould it; Castro whose withering remarks about the Soviet Union confirm just how unloving a marriage of necessity that was.

Those who think that Cuba will roll over and be trampled on when Castro eventually goes are, I believe, grossly mistaken. Cuba will continue to evolve pragmatically, as it has done beneath the rhetoric for 40 years, in order to defend the integrity of its achievements. The tragedy is that the evolutionary process - not least in regard to the liberal freedoms - could be so much more rapid and comfortable, if only the US would learn to co-exist a little more graciously.

Given Florida's status as a hair's-breadth deliverer of Republican power, that is probably a vain hope. Yet the contradictions of the US position, in terms of its own rational self-interest, are so extreme as to demand reappraisal. Even the Bush administration has had to ask itself how, while engaged everywhere else in its holy war against terrorism, it can sustain the outrageous Cuban Adjustment Act, which gives haven as political refugees to anyone, including hijackers, who reaches American shores for any reason from Cuba.

For the first time since 1966, when the act was passed, the Americans recently sent back three hijackers on the basis of an understanding that they would not be sentenced to more than 10 years. This has provoked outrage from the Cuban extremes in Florida.

Cuba's problems are immense. Socialism in one country is still a contradiction in terms. For those who go to Havana only in order to sneer, there are political paradoxes on every street corner. All true, all the inevitable product of 40 years of siege, but also all irrelevant to the bigger picture of what Cuba represents as a symbol of human potential.

· Brian Wilson is Labour MP for Cunninghame North

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