[SCMP Column] Lasting Sense of Despair

December 05, 2016

For the past week, the death of Cuba’s Fidel Castro has captured the world’s imagination. Some have mourned. Some have popped bottles of champagne. A firebrand even in fragile old age, he was the product of a cold war era that we hope will never return. But as a ruthless champion against inequality in a country blighted by hopeless corruption, his story retains sobering relevance.

Many – in particular in the USA – will remember him as a communist icon. But far more accurately, he was a nationalist railing against the rape of his country by a corrupt elite that was unrepentantly aided by the US.

In this, the US today has cause for introspection – which of course we are unlikely to get from President-elect Donald Trump. But it is worth recalling John F Kennedy back in 1963 – just four years after Castro swept the corrupt Batista regime from power, and just a year after the Cuban missile crisis: “I believe that there is no country in the world, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country's policies during the Batista regime.

“I will even go further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins.”

Whether political and business leaders in the US today believe they have paid – or indeed should have paid – for those sins is open to doubt. Through those Cold War years, and even to this day, successive US administrations have forged awkwardly “pragmatic” alliances with large numbers of unsavoury, even barbarous regimes, in their ongoing battle against communism and radical Islam. Wikipedia lists at least 22 military dictatorships supported around the world even today, and the list does not include the likes of Pinochet in Chile, Noriega in Panama, Duvalier in Haiti, Sadam Hussein in Iraq, or in Asia the likes of President Park in Korea, Marcos in the Philippines, or Suharto in Indonesia.

CNN and BBC may today be giving hours of air time to Cuban Americans celebrating Castro’s death in Miami, and calling for the opening up of the Cuban economy. But just how many of the 1.2m Cuban Americans today living in Miami have “clean hands”? At least two thirds of those Cubans in exile link back to a corrupt Batista elite that fled with ill-gotten wealth, and seek to recover some of it. Recall what US author Arthur Miller wrote: “Cuba is hopelessly corrupt, a mafia playground and a bordello for Americans and other foreigners… Havana served as a hedonistic playground for the world’s elite, producing sizeable gambling, prostitution and drug profits for American Mafiosi.”

It was JFK who recalled that at the time Castro overthrew Batista’s regime, US companies owned 40% of Cuban sugar lands, 90% of the mines and mineral concessions, 80% of utilities, and accounted for two thirds of Cuba’s imports: “Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in 7 years, and he turned democratic Cuba into a complete police state.”

All this is important to bear in mind as we criticize the ruthlessness of the Castro regime – and it is one of the reasons I think of Castro – alongside Mao Zedong in China, and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam as “accidental communists”.

It has been convenient for many of us in the west over recent decades to apply the simple demonizing label “communist” to these uprisings. But the reality is that these leaders were champions of something quite different. They were above all else fighting for dignity and self determination after decades of ruthless exploitative foreign control that had allied with corrupt, nepotistic and often incompetent local leaders.

The likes of Mao, Ho and Castro may have adopted the vocabulary of communism. That was natural enough as they came to power committed to removing corrupt elites, and reducing the gross inequalities that hobbled their countries. It was natural too as they were ostracized and subjected to embargoes by the US and western allies that they welcomed support from the Soviet Union. After all, rule number one in diplomacy is that the enemy of your enemy is your friend.

But the political cultures of China, Vietnam or Cuba were never truly communist in any philosophical or doctrinal sense of the word. They were all countries in which acute poverty and inequality had arisen as a result of foreign political and economic connivance with corrupt and incompetent political elites. Leaders like Mao and Ho and Castro found resonance with local people not because they were communists or spouted communist mantras, but because they spoke to the pain of local people.

Perversely, it is populist autocrats like Trump in the US, Le Pen in France, Hofer in Austria or Geert Wilders in Holland that are today speaking to that same pain.
Mercifully, we are not yet facing the same brutal and destructive conflicts that confronted populations in China and Vietnam and Cuba 60 years ago, and forced awful political choices between corrupt incumbent elites and straw-in-mouth radical neophytes. But the warnings are clear. Inequalities in many countries around the world are becoming extreme. Large parts of the normally-moderate ‘middle” are feeling abandoned, with no tolerable future, by political and business elites that seem unashamed at the divide that has emerged.

This trend is as clear today in Hong Kong as anywhere worldwide. Our “electorate” feels deeply alienated by a political elite that has no sense of the hardships and hopelessness that they feel. As yet, we have no charismatic Castro to articulate the anger that has built. But how long before such a voice will emerge? Better to do something about it now.
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