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


PutinIt was an assassination straight out of a Cold War spy novel – an East European dissident resident in London stands at a bus-stop, waiting to get to Bush House where he will broadcast on the BBC World Service; a sharp pain suddenly shoots through the back of his thigh; he gazes behind him and sees an anonymous man walking away carrying an umbrella. Only when he develops a fever that evening is a connection made between the sickness and what resembles a bee-sting on his leg. Gradually convinced he has been poisoned by foreign agents, he dies before any action can be taken. He was Bulgarian novelist, playwright and critic of his country’s Communist regime, Georgi Markov, and a pellet containing the poison ricin had been jabbed into his leg via the tip of the umbrella carried by a man believed to be a KGB operative. Nobody has ever been charged with his murder, which took place in September 1978.

Both Markov’s minor celebrity and the novelty of the method used to assassinate him garnered headlines at the time, even though agents of both East and West were routinely engaged in such cloak-and-dagger hits back then. The notoriety attached to Markov’s murder merely confirmed the activities of operatives as played out in the pages of John le Carré novels were far-from fantasy; le Carré’s own day-job at MI6 gave him an insight into the realities of international espionage that infused his books with the kind of accuracy Ian Fleming had avoided. When the Cold War officially came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin’s attempts to implement a Western-style free-market economy on Russia in the 90s, many assumed the age of East-West antagonism was over. Not so an ex-KGB officer and rising star in Yeltsin’s administration, Vladimir Putin.

For the last half-decade of his 16-year KGB career, Putin was stationed in East Germany, where he worked in tandem with the Stasi. As the DDR entered its final days, he was instrumental in the burning of KGB files and was then recalled to Moscow; during the KGB-engineered coup to topple Gorbachev in 1991, Putin sensed which way the wind was blowing and switched sides. After a period in local government in St Petersburg, Putin transferred to Moscow and was promoted into President Yeltsin’s team, falling back on his KGB experience to head its successor, the FSB. By the end of the 1990s, his hardline approach to the conflict in Chechnya earned him public plaudits and he was awarded the post of Prime Minister before winning the nomination as Yeltsin’s Presidential heir, a position he ascended to in 2000.

During his first stint at President (2000-08), Putin’s aim seemed to be to restore pride and prestige to a country that had lost an empire and had suffered the exploitation of Yeltsin’s economic reforms by a handful of businessmen who acquired immense riches whilst the majority of the population endured hardship. Putin’s persecution of the Oligarchs unsympathetic to his rule forced most of them into exile before they could be imprisoned, whereas his crackdown on free speech and media independence attracted his first heavy criticism from the West.

When he stepped down as President in 2008, Putin was accused of being a backseat driver when his successor Dmitry Medvedev appointed him Prime Minister, a position he held for the next four years before running for President again in 2012. By this time, Putin had moved the Presidential goalposts, altering the constitution in order to extend a third term from four years to six.

His re-election was widely condemned as rigged, but despite protests both home and abroad, Putin’s grip on power was reinforced. The expansion of the Russian military and interventions in Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the annexation of Crimea, all of which were initiated to return the country to its Soviet-era size, served to restore the only kind of Russian pride and prestige a man raised in the USSR and employed by the KGB could relate to. What some have referred to as a Mafia-style concept of governance is not without its home-grown critics, one of whom was Alexander Litvinenko. The former FSB officer had defected to the UK as his ex-boss Putin was poised to be inaugurated President and embarked upon a career in journalism and adviser to the British secret service. His accusations that both the FSB and Putin were complicit in several acts of terrorism, including the 2006 murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, earned him the enmity of his countrymen

Just a couple of weeks after implying Putin had ordered the assassination of Politkovskaya, Litvinenko suddenly fell ill on the same day he had met two ex-KGB agents in London; hospitalised, his condition worsened as it was discovered he had traces of polonium-210 in his blood; evidence that he had been poisoned by a rare radioactive substance backed-up Litvinenko’s claims that Putin had been behind the poisoning, but he died within three weeks of being admitted to hospital. Litvinenko’s widow fought long and hard for a public inquiry into her husband’s death and was finally given the green light in January 2015. Now, twelve months later, the conclusions of the inquiry are that her husband was indeed deliberately poisoned and effectively murdered by two fellow Russians, named as Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy, the pair he had met on the day he fell ill.

Relations between Russia and Britain, weakened by the initial murder of Litvinenko and not helped by Putin’s subsequent military adventures and persistent macho posturing, appear to now be at their worst since the Cold War. Russia’s refusal to allow the extradition of the two men accused of Litvinenko’s murder and their counter-accusations of the inquiry being ‘politicised’, along with Theresa May’s vocal condemnation of the Russian state’s response, suggest this particular case will remain a thorn in the side of British-Russian relations for a long time to come. All accused parties deny any involvement in Litvinenko’s death, but to paraphrase dear old Mandy Rice-Davies, they would, wouldn’t they?

William Gladstone’s belief that Britain and Russia should be natural allies due to their geographical similarities, situated on opposing edges of Europe, both part of and yet outside of the continent, was an alliance he surmised would be a useful means of preventing a dominant France or Germany in the centre. 150 years later, the two nations have never seemed so distant from one another; and neither France nor Germany will lose much sleep over that.

© The Editor