Let’s break Havana’s hold over us

The island of Cuba is like a Rorschach test for liberal opinion. For some, it represents hope followed by disappointment, a brave revolution which has hardened into insular authoritarianism, the music of heroic youth giving over time to the drone of three-hour speeches made my old men determined to hold on to power by whatever means necessary.

For others, the dream lives on. Plucky little Cuba, with its lovely music and marvellous health service, is an enduring symbol of resistance to Yankee imperialism, revealing, in the words of Ken Livingstone, “the brutal consequences of neo-liberalism”. Even when Havana’s heroes of the revolution deploy a bit of brutality themselves, the loyalty of Fidelistas in the West remains unquestioning.

In 2003, while the world was preoccupied by the invasion of Iraq, the Cuban government rounded up 75 writers, librarians and academics who had argued for democratic elections. Over a period of two days, a secret court handed out lengthy jail sentences. The dissidents were sent to prisons far away from their families. The food and conditions were so bad that the majority of them have suffered severe health problems. Any contact with a prisoner from the outside world was liable to result in further punishment.

In February, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, one of Amnesty International’s “prisoners of conscience”, died after going on a hunger strike in protest at his treatment. Another political prisoner, Guillermo Farinas, is close to death having refused to take solids since February. Yet this week there has been a small breakthrough. Thanks to pressure from human rights organisations, the EU and the Catholic Church, the Cuban government has agreed to release 52 political prisoners over the next three or four months. The desperately feeble official line, that the writers were mercenaries working for the CIA, has quietly been forgotten.

Where, one wonders, does this leave the eager fellow-travellers in the West? In the past, anyone who has dared to criticise Cuba in print, pointing out that it has one of the worst record in the world for locking up writers, would receive enraged emails from readers. Some correspondents argued that those locked up for 20 or 30 years were all spies and deserved what they got. Others claimed the arrests had been invented by the Western press.

These impassioned defenders of government-sponsored barbarism seemed to be concerned and thoughtful people. The idea that one of the few bona fide heroes of the West could be in charge of a harshly repressive regime was, it seemed, simply too much for them to accept.

Shamefully, theirs was a fashionable position on the left. According to Livingstone, anyone who raised human rights issues in the context of Cuba was “very right-wing”. Tony Benn has said that the only human rights problem was at Guantanamo Bay. A roll-call of the great and the good was on hand last year to congratulate Cuba on the 50th anniversary of its revolution; not one questioned the need for those who have spoken up for democracy to be sent to prison.

Cuba is a wonderful and unusual country, but the sentimentalism with which it is viewed often borders on the weird. In February, when Orlando Zapata Tomayo starved himself to death in prison, the BBC marked the occasion with a Matt Frei report on the old American cars which are still to be found in Havana. Their survival, like that of Cuba itself, was “a triumph of persistence over adversity”, he concluded chirpily.

Amid hopes that Cuba will enter a new age, retaining its proud independence but not at the cost of freedom of expression, there are starker lessons to be learned nearer to home. Democracy and free speech are more fragile, more vulnerable to attack, than we like to think. With the right sentimental baggage, a dangerous moral relativism comes into play. Even for good-hearted, liberal-minded folk, there are some circumstances when the brutal suppression of dissidence is just fine.

Independent, Friday, 9 July 2010