castroThere’s an episode of ‘Jason King’ in which Kate O’Mara perhaps inevitably plays the obligatory eye candy for the world’s most effete novelist-cum-international crime-fighter; in it, Peter Wyngarde’s flamboyant alter-ego becomes embroiled in the affairs of a fictitious Latin American country, languidly stumbling into a story as he so often does and used as a pawn by both El Presidente and the revolutionaries seeking to grab power for the people. O’Mara is probably the sexiest revolutionary ever to don the one-size-too-small requisite rebel uniform, but such plotlines were a staple of British and American spy/adventure series throughout the 60s and into the 70s. Late 1950s events in Cuba cast more of a cultural than political shadow in the popular western imagination.

Although he never attained the iconic status of his one-time fellow revolutionary Che Guevara (probably because he lived far too long), the death of Fidel Castro at the age of 90 nevertheless draws a line under an era in which isolated pockets of resistance to global American domination became a beacon for wannabe radicals in student union bars everywhere. Castro’s undoubted charisma as a young firebrand whose role in the toppling of a terrible tin-pot dictator made him a worldwide household name continued to exert a powerful hold over outsiders for decades, something that even his dubious human rights record as President couldn’t demystify.

Following in the footsteps of other musicians who had flouted the unofficial boycott of Cuban culture by the west, The Manic Street Preachers’ 2001 visit to the Caribbean island just 90 miles from the coast of Florida also included a meeting with Castro himself. On the video that documented the encounter, visibly overwhelmed guitarist Nicky Wire turned to the camera and proudly declared ‘Noel Gallagher met Tony Blair and we’ve met Fidel f***ing Castro!’ A man who had easily repelled America’s clumsy attempt to recapture Cuba forty years previously had by then outlasted eight US Presidents, though the fact this perennial thorn in America’s side was still in power in 2001 spoke volumes about the nature of democracy on Cuba. It was, however, always thus.

The country Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born into in 1926 had travelled a familiar colonial path during its lifetime. After 400 years of Spanish rule and several failed attempts to overthrow its imperial masters, Cuba was ceded to the USA following the Spanish-American War of 1898 (along with the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico); although America’s official role was to oversee the transition of Cuba from a Spanish colony to an independent nation (the Republic of Cuba was founded in 1902), American economic interests in the island rendered genuine independence something of a falsehood. The terms of the Cuban Republic’s independence were such that the US remained entitled to intervene in its affairs, which it proceeded to do on numerous occasions as democracy struggled to take hold.

Not until the early 20s did the influx of American tourists and American investment in Cuba serve to transform the island into the decadent playground for foreigners it gradually gained an unsavoury reputation for. Casinos, hotels, restaurants and brothels boomed and the Mafia gained a foothold in the capital Havana that was to last for over thirty years. The contentious figure of Fulgencio Batista first made his mark in Cuban politics during this period, and by the time Batista staged a coup and declared himself President for a second time in 1952, the divisions in Cuban society between rich and poor were glaring, though the island remained an attractive prospect for the worst US imports of crime, corruption and corporate exploitation.

For Fidel Castro, a failed lawyer and active activist whose Marxist political principles were at odds with Batista’s increasing anti-Communism (which won him greater US support as the Cold War intensified), the country was in dire need of liberation from a repressive dictatorship bankrolled by America. He formed a guerrilla group called The Movement and embarked upon a series of subversive activities that landed him in prison following a high-profile trial in which he used the platform to expose the rape of his nation to the world. Released early as the result of an amnesty on political prisoners, he emerged from gaol committed to the overthrow of Batista and the expulsion of American companies from Cuba. He plotted this after fleeing to Mexico and recruiting Argentine exile Che Guevara to the cause, eventually returning to Cuba with just 80 other recruits in 1956.

A two-year campaign against Batista’s forces was staged from Castro’s base in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, picking up the invaluable support of Cuba’s peasantry in the process. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, the US slowly began to withdraw its support for Batista at a time when Florida was beginning to overflow with Cubans who had fled the regime and were loudly proclaiming their belief in Castro as the country’s saviour. The US imposed an arms embargo on Cuba, weakening Batista’s military stranglehold and enabling Castro’s much smaller forces to sweep towards Havana on an unstoppable tide of revolutionary fervour that climaxed with Castro’s army’s triumphant entry into the capital on 2 January 1959 and Batista’s flight.

With the extent of Batista’s corrupt rule now public knowledge, Castro’s achievement was widely welcomed, though events that followed soured initial optimism. The rushed trials and executions of those who had constituted Batista’s military, police and secret service seemed no different from the brutal punishments the deposed President had himself overseen, and it began to feel like a case of ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. Castro’s unashamed Communism did him no favours stateside, nor did his nationalisation of all Cuba’s foreign-owned properties. It was inevitable that Castro’s rejection by the US would send him into the arms of the opportunistic USSR, and ill-advised efforts to reverse the revolution by America such as the disastrous Bay of Pigs affair, not to mention the CIA’s mind-boggling schemes for Castro’s assassination, opened the doors for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to begin shipping missiles to the island. We all know what happened next – or, to be more accurate, what didn’t happen. If it had, we probably wouldn’t be here now.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, America’s focus shifted to a certain country in South East Asia and Fidel Castro began to implement the educational, agricultural and healthcare reforms for the Cuban people that have often won him the kind of plaudits from those who have not been so favourable towards the methods he employed to hold onto power. Investment from the USSR continued to play a vital part in Cuba’s success story, though the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the early 90s dealt a severe blow to the Cuban economy that emphasised the damage of America’s long-standing economic embargo.

Fidel Castro finally retired as Cuban President ten years ago; the fact he handed over the reins of power to his brother Raul when doing so emphasised the absence of democracy as the west would recognise it, though whatever means Castro used to assert his authority haven’t dimmed his legend as the heroic liberator of Cuba. A regime that has become the blueprint of every revolutionary-turned-President since is not necessarily a legacy anyone with genuine care for human rights would praise, though were he remembered solely for what he achieved in 1958/9, that would be a fitting obituary. Sadly, there’s far more to the story than that.

© The Editor


marcosThese are strange days for America where its relations with friends and neighbours are concerned. We’ve had the unexpected ceasefire in the long-running feud with Cuba, Obama making veiled threats about the UK being at the back of the queue for US trade deals in the event of Brexit, Donald Trump’s awkward encounter with the Mexican President following months of negative Mexican stereotyping by the tiny-handed gobshite, and now the incumbent resident of the White House being called a ‘Son of a Whore’ by the Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte.

The outspoken leader of the Philippines has previous – applying the same insult to the Pope a few months back and adding ‘gay’ to his favourite catchphrase when aiming it at US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg. But it was aiming it (minus the ‘gay’ part) at President Obama that has caused the cancellation of a planned meeting in Laos this week between the two, in which Obama stated he would raise the tricky topic of the 2,000-plus lives lost in the Philippines’ state-sponsored ‘war on drugs’, provoking Duterte’s outburst. One wonders if Donald Trump has been basing his own charm offensive on the main man in Manila.

After 300 years as a province of the Spanish Empire, the Philippines wrestled itself free of Spanish rule in 1899 and proclaimed a Republic. However, the Pacific island was then caught-up in US interest in the region, following the Spanish-American War of 1898 – one of the endless conflicts the USA has been involved in for the majority of its existence. Capitalising on the vulnerable and diminishing remnants of Spain’s ancient colonial possessions, the US supported Cuban rebellions against Spanish sovereignty in the late nineteenth century and went to war with the fading European power for ten weeks, a demonstration of America’s imperialist expansionism that resulted in Spanish surrender and the Treaty of Paris. With Spain suing for peace, the ball was in the USA’s court and the Treaty of Paris handed over the likes of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the Americans.

The short-lived independent republic that the Philippines proclaimed after overthrowing the Spanish was brutally crushed by the US in the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, and the imperial plaything that the Treaty of Paris had ceded to America became the colony of a foreign power again. After hypocritically lecturing Britain for years on the need to grant independence to its own colonies, the US officially surrendered the Philippines in 1946, a year before the British exited India, though this was largely a consequence of the Japanese occupation of the nation from 1942-45. The US promised the Filipino people independence once the Japanese were evicted, and the US kept its word – after between 500,000 and 1,000,000 had died under Japanese rule, not to mention the thousands of Filipino girls and women the Japanese had used as ‘Comfort Women’, a euphemism for sex slaves.

There was an inevitable catch when independence came. The terms of this independence were heavily balanced in America’s favour, with dozens of US military bases remaining as well as legislation granting American corporations access to exploit the Philippines’ natural resources, turning an American colony into an American satellite state. As with the Soviet Union, once the US got its claws into a country, it stayed put. The American Empire of which Gore Vidal wrote – in the writer’s eyes, a betrayal of the original intentions of the post-British US Republic – was never more evident than in the way America controlled the fortunes of the Philippines, with the possible exception of pre-revolutionary Cuba.

That a ruthless tin-pot dictator such as Ferdinand Marcos could be allowed to oversee a regime marked by human rights violations, state censorship and suppression of political rivals yet still be backed by the US speaks volumes. As long as he wasn’t a Commie, he could clearly do whatever the hell he liked – the example of Batista in Cuba had already shown that an inhumane regime would be tolerated while ever it danced to America’s tune.

Even The Beatles were on the receiving end of Marcos’s rule when they were essentially thrown out of the Philippines after turning down an invitation to dine with the President and his shoe-fetish wife Imelda during their strained 1966 tour of the Far East. A decade of Martial Law and the 1983 assassination of Marcos’s nemesis Benigno Aquino Jr upon his arrival back in the Philippines after a period of exile eventually sealed Marcos’s fate – though it’s telling that, rather than stand trial for his crimes, he was allowed to settle in Hawaii upon his abdication in 1986.

In recent years, the Philippines has built bridges with its wartime occupier Japan, has retained relatively good relations with is former colonial overlord Spain, and has also overcome its one-time hostilities towards China – though something has changed where America is concerned. Ironically, the man who was elected Filipino President just a couple of months ago has the kind of pedigree the US would once have vigorously endorsed: linked to a vigilante group called the Davao Death Squad, cited as responsible for the extrajudicial murders of alleged drug dealers, the very issue Obama sought to raise in the aborted Laos meeting with Duterte. Yet, despite past support for America during the Cold War and the War on Terror, the servant would appear to be finally standing up to its long-time master.

With the newly installed and unpredictable President Duterte at the helm, American-Filipino relations seem poised to enter a new and unprecedented phase. ‘I am no American puppet,’ he declared before making his unsavoury insinuations as to Obama’s maternal parentage. How long this rather reckless antagonism will last remains to be seen; but as Duterte has threatened to withdraw his country from the UN and form an alliance with China and various unnamed African nations, we may perhaps be seeing the beginnings of a drift away from American influence after more than a century, and genuine independence at last – albeit with another nutter calling the shots.

© The Editor