USA orders Irish city to abandon Che Guevara statue project

Galway City Council in Ireland wants to place a statue of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in his ancestral city.

Would you call the Argentinian Che Guevara an Irish revolutionary? A revolutionary, evidently, and distantly Irish too. Patrick Lynch of Galway emigrated to Buenos Aires via Bilbao in about 1742, I read on the genealogical website http://en.rodovid.org. He married Rosa de Galayn de la Cámara, and their son Justo was the great-great-grandfather of Che’s father Ernesto Guevara y Lynch. So the Galway connection, real as it is, dates from a long time ago.

Amazingly, given that Che was assassinated in 1967, 45 years ago, the USA is raising objections. Dara Kelly, writing on www.irishcentral.com,* tells of the chair of the Homeland Security Committee of the House of Representatives, Peter King, ‘advising’ Galway’s councillors to  abandon the plan. What business is it of the USA’s Homeland Security Committee if a small city on the far side of the Atlantic erects a statue to a long-dead icon? None at all, I would have thought, but Peter King (Republican, Long Island) wrote to Councillor Padraig Conneely saying:

“The ties between Ireland and the United States are strong and lasting. But the building of a statue to Guevara could well impact on American investment in Ireland [and on] continued support of the International Fund for Ireland. As your friend and a friend of Galway, I strongly urge you to take whatever action you can to prevent this project from going forward.” (my emphasis)

That’s not all. Dara Kelly reports that Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, has called on no less than Ireland’s prime minister, Enda Kenny, to stop the statue.

Statues in Galway, or Glasgow or Ghent for that matter, are no business whatsoever of the USA, which looks more like the Big Bad Bully than the Protector of Freedom. Who do I find objectionable in history? One candidate would be Stalin, but would Wales ‘advise’ Stalin’s home nation of Georgia against remembering its own history? No, I feel sure that Wales would not do that, but even if tempted, Wales is too small to be a global bully. The message for me is that super-states quickly grow so big and bellicose that they threaten freedoms everywhere.

* ‘US politician tells Galway officials to halt Che Guevara statue plan’, by Dara Kelly, August 5 2012.

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Intimidation in Havana

I saw and heard what looked like a riot, as I walked down Neptuno street in Centro Habana on Saturday December 10th. The commotion was a couple of blocks further on from the turning into the street where I was staying. A large flag had been stretched over the street, and I could see dozens of men and some women yelling and punching the air with their fists. It was intimidating.

I soon learned what was going on. The ‘riot’ was outside the house of Laura Pollán, former leader of the Damas de Blanco, the ladies in white who demonstrate peacefully against political imprisonment and for human rights in Cuba. Laura died aged 63 in Calixto Garcia hospital, behind the university, on October 14th 2011, reportedly of Dengue fever (which is more widespread than foreigners are supposed to know). I have just watched a clandestine amateur video of the accident and emergency unit at Calixto Garcia, on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MK3AnxSgdxA) and it does not inspire confidence. Poor Laura.

“Did you see the yellow bus parked in the next street?” one resident asked me. “It brought military personnel, militares, out of uniform in civiles. Their job is to harass the Damas de Blanco.”

Harass them they did, until about three o’clock in the morning. It struck me as similar to the US military’s treatment of General Noriega in Panama in 1989 when they wanted him out of the Vatican Embassy, where he had sought refuge. They played heavy metal music very loudly until the general could stand no more.

The women were meeting in Laura’s home. The military, pretending to be ordinary citizens, were a threatening presence.

Walking about Havana in early December, on two occasions I saw elderly men arrested on the street and bundled into police cars. I don’t know if these were political arrests or not, and I suspect they were probably for vagrancy, but afterwards I read that in Cuba in 2011, according to a tally by CIH Press, there were 3,835 political arrests, 576 of which were in December.

http://babalublog.com/2012/01/political-arrests-in-cuba-rise-256-in-2011/ )

Not surprisingly, many people are afraid to say what they think. These are among the comments that I heard:

  • When there is an unexpected knock at the door, and you are watching a foreign soap opera thanks to an illegal satellite dish, you switch the TV to a Cuban channel before opening the door.
  • Cubans do not often speak in the future tense because they may not have a future.
  • If you leave Cuba and are away for over 11 months, your property is forfeit to the state.
  • A group of 24 Cuban students went to China for four years to learn Chinese. Only six returned. The others stayed in China or travelled to Europe.

I came away feeling sad that the Revolution has failed to usher in  new era of hope and justice, sad that most Cubans have such a struggle just to get through each day, sad that they cannot engage freely with the rest of the world, sad that hurricane damage compounds their problems, sad that out of fear they have to pretend to be living in a successful state. One day I went to see an elderly lady who used to be a teacher at the university. Her work must have been of great value to the state, yet she lived in a dingy room and her bed was a mattress on the floor. Her pension of less than £10 a month did not buy her a nutritious diet. She did not complain.


Censorship isolates Cubans

The main stories on the Cuban TV newscast I was watching one evening in November were of American police beating up ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protestors, the Syrian government’s struggle against ‘terrorists’ (who in the UK are seen as campaigners for human rights), and the ‘Cuban Five’ spies (heroes in Cuba) sentenced in the USA in June 2001 to imprisonment terms from 15 years to two life terms. Protests in Egypt at the slow pace of reform since the ousting of President Mubarak, the greed of Europeans buying wood from Amazon forests, and Cuba’s tomato growing programme to try and reduce imports, were also prominent.

Cuba has parallel information streams, the formal state-controlled media and Radio Bemba*, news and gossip passed person to person. Through this channel, people get to know just how much ‘news’ is omitted from state TV and newspapers. People in Havana in 2011 knew about the extent of mosquito-spread and dangerous Dengue fever,  the scarcity of equipment and medicines in hospitals, the harrassment and worse meted out to the women who form the human rights group the Damas de Blanco, and the deployment of the military (dressed as civilians) to stamp on any show of dissent, although problems such as these do not feature in the official story.

In a month, I did not see a single newspaper on sale, with the exception of a couple of pensioners in Havana who were selling the English-language version of the Communist Party paper Granma to tourists for convertible pesos. “You just need to know where to look,” said our guide. But he didn’t tell us where. There are apparently 19 newspapers, 20 TV stations and 87 radio stations, the great majority serving localities, and all state-controlled. Five of the TV channels are national, and when I was watching, there always seemed to be cartoons on at least one channel and sometimes two. The channels don’t show advertisements, of course, but do carry public service announcements, like ‘use less electricity’, ‘keep rubbish covered’, ‘beware mosquitos’. Cubans can’t turn (legally) to foreign TV stations because it is against the law to have a satellite dish.

There is nothing in Cuba akin to the British newsagent, full of daily and weekly papers and magazines. The worldwide trend to read online is not responsible for the public scarcity of newspapers, because Cuba represses internet use. The Reporters Without Borders organisation classes Cuba with Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam as enemies of the internet. Any Cuban who is caught writing anything that the regime considers defamatory can expect to go to jail. There is no independent judicial system: justice is state directed, state controlled. In Cuba I felt that censorship was more pervasive than when I was there in 2006, when there was a sense that life was improving, that opportunities could only grow. I met different people of course, and saw different happenings on the streets, and so it is in no way a scientific comparison, just a feeling.

Contacting the rest of the world via the internet is possible only for Cubans who have government approval, for example because they work for state security; for those willing to risk an illegal connection; or who can afford the 6 cuc** to 10 cuc per hour at a monitored access point, for example in hotels catering for tourists. As these rates are one, two or three weeks’ wages for most working Cubans, they are an effective deterrent.

The telephone is not a cheap option, either. Reading the directory one day, I noted the costs of calling the rest of the world: $3.71 per minute to North America; $5.07 to Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean; $6.63 to South America; and $8.78 to the rest of the world, including Europe. The minimum charge is for three minutes. I winced at these colossal amounts, which set the lowest cost for a call to Europe at $26.34… or more than the typical monthly wage. It’s like charging me well over $2,500 for three minutes speaking to someone in Australia. There is a cheaper option for residential customers of the state telecoms organisation ETECSA if they sign up to a special service, ranging from $1 a minute to Venezuela to $1.50 to the world outside the Americas, and the charges can be reversed in 11 countries including the UK, but international calls on the phone remain a luxury.

If I had distributed modems to help people connect to the internet, or equipment to receive satellite TV, not only would I have landed in jail, but my hosts too. Penalties are harsh. An American, Alan Gross, is serving 15 years for distributing computer equipment and satellite phones to Jewish groups in Cuba.

With a few socialist exceptions, no foreign papers or magazines are on sale. Books have to follow the approved political philosophy. Even the books of Leonardo Padura, winner of numerous international prizes and creator of the reflective Havana detective Mario Conde, are not widely available in Cuba. You might find one priced in cuc, which few Cubans can afford. I didn’t find any, but a member of a group I travelled with stayed in a house where the owner possessed one title. Most Cuban households do not have books. Where there are books, they tend to be pre-1990 (and often much earlier).

Mobile phones are probably the most successful technology for jumping over the high walls of Cuban censorship, although they are too expensive for most people, about 100 cuc to set up a contract and 5 cuc or so every month thereafter.*** Censorship by cost reinforces the censorship imposed by law, and together they separate Cuba from most of the rest of the world.

* ‘Radio Bemba — Word of Mouth News for Cubans’, by Mary Murray, NBC News, February 15th 2007. See http://worldblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2007/02/15/4376286-radio-bemba-word-of-mouth-news-for-cubans

** One convertible peso or cuc is worth 24 national pesos. £1 is about 1.5 cuc.

*** ‘Cuba-Cel Phones: Good Deal But…’ by Osmel Almaguer, January 11th 2012. http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=59545