There is a picture that has made front pages round the world. It is fairly simple picture; against a background of bombed and burning buildings there are three people in the foreground. A woman, in a paroxysm of grief and probably terror, a man, her husband perhaps, a picture of impotent rage and in his arms, their son, an infant of majestic detachment, conscious it would seem, of everything, but not in the least disturbed. He knows too much, already – it seems.
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Fifty New Year’s Eves ago nearly nine out of every ten people now alive weren’t born yet.
I was then 24, contemplating marriage and, with my girlfriend, celebrating the ending of the old year with a close friend and his wife in their house in Gordon Town.
We were listening to one of about 80 Cuban radio stations we could hear in Jamaica, It was Radio Rebelde, the voice of the 26 of July Movement. We were expecting interesting news, as over the past few days it was becoming obvious that the tide was turning against ‘la dictadura’ - despite all the US attempts to shore up the bloody tyranny of Fulgencio Batista
On New Year’s Eve the American effort came crashing down. The Radio Rebelde announcer began to shout:
“The Dictator has fled! the tyrant has gone!” Pandemonium!
All of a sudden the disciplined broadcasters of Radio Rebelde were like high school kids, celebrating end of term. We listened to make sure we’d heard right and then Wilmot Perkins and I and our ladies jumped up and down, singing Cuban songs and drinking toasts to Fidel, Ché, Raul, Camilo and whoever else we could remember. Some of them we’d met on their way through Jamaica, courtesy of Gabriel Coulthard who seemed to know everyone in Latin America and brought them round to meet us at Public Opinion. Fidel’s lawyer, Baudilio Castellanos, was one.
For most younger journalists in Jamaica at that time, Cuba was the big story and a year later, after the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation had come into existence, I decided to go to Cuba to find out what was going on. When my mother heard of my plans she convinced Wills Isaacs, a family friend – to try to talk me out of it. Wills, then Minister of Trade & Industry did even better. With his good friend Aaron Matalon, Wills offered me a year on an Israeli Moshav cooperative farm – which they knew fascinated me – if only I would not go to Cuba, where I was ‘more than likely to be shot’.
At that time I was really deeply interested in the new social experiment that was Israel and like most people at that time had no real idea of what had happened to the Palestinians, no idea that the Palestinians were being made to pay in blood and treasure, for what Europe had done to the Jews. As a child I’d seen the horrific pictures of the stick figures of dead and dying Jews in the German extermination centres, Belsen, Birkenau, Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz, the names themselves seemed to stink
I never saw pictures of the Palestinian refugees in their camps nor any documentaries of their Nabka - their counterpart to the Jewish holocaust.
I was an admirer of Israel, of Ben Gurion and Shimon Peres, of Abba Eban of Golda Meir and Teddy Kolleck. My first real problem with Israel came with their execution of Adolph Eichmann. I said in a newspaper commentary (1963) that for Israel to reintroduce the death penalty for Eichmann was a dangerous error. To hang him for facilitating the murder of six million Jews plus homosexuals, Gypsies blacks and others was to devalue their lives. Eichmann, I suggested, should be sentenced to work in a kibbutz, to experience at first hand, the civilisation he had tried to destroy. That would have been real punishment.
By that time I had been to Cuba(1960) and had seen the start of another radical social experiment this time among a people far less literate than the Israelis and whom the Americans had decided were not to be trusted with power. The difference between American support for the Israelis and their antagonism toward the Cubans was not ideological. The leadership of Israel then was socialist and the society was committed to socialist principles. In Cuba Fidel and a few others would describe themselves as humanists or social democrats if pressed. The US reaction to the Cubans was on the question of property and sovereignty
Most Americans who had heard of Cuba thought of it as “Ours, like Puerto Rico.”
Fifty years later the world has been turned upside down.
Israel is a capitalist theocracy, claiming legitimacy by divine dispensation. As I write, the Israelis are attempting to reduce the Palestinians to abject surrender. In punishing the Palestinians for misbehaviour the Israelis have over the years, devastated their communities, destroying their universities, theirs schools, their mosques, their hospitals, their houses and their social capital. They have used supersonic jets to terrorise men, women and infants with sonic booms at ungodly hours of the night, and, as in the latest exercise they kill many times more Palestinians than the Palestinians kill Israelis.
Today, as the Cubans celebrate 50 years of independence they are condemned for lacking freedom of speech in a society under constant military, terrorist, bactericidal and propaganda attack in a war which has killed thousands of Cubans and destroyed Cuban material and social capital worth billions.
The Cubans have liberated Southern Africa and their example of solidarity is helping liberate people who considered themselves slaves until recently. In a poor tropical island with meager resources they have produced one of the healthiest, best educated and most civilised societies on earth. It is socialist and it works.
I am glad I chose Cuba fifty years ago. Given the choice today, I would do it again.
Copyright © 2008 John Maxwell