This article of mine appears in today's Australian.
WHAT'S the first thing that springs to your mind when the name of Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader who today celebrates his 81st birthday, is mentioned? Havana cigars? CIA assassination plots? The Bay of Pigs? The first thing I think of is fox hunting. Let me explain.
A few years ago in England we had an enormous debate about fox hunting. Opponents of the proposed hunting ban claimed foxes were a pest and numbers needed to be controlled. Supporters of the ban argued that foxes were sweet, lovable creatures that never did anyone any harm. But the greatest argument for not banning the sport was one that neither the pro-hunters or anti-hunters could make: the fact that fox hunting means more foxes. Foxes are more plentiful in areas where hunting took place for the simple reason that hunts always made sure there were plenty of animals to hunt. But for obvious reasons, neither the hunt nor anti-hunt lobbies wanted to acknowledge the fact.
The debate on Cuba is rather similar. For the Right, Cuba is an example of where socialism inevitably leads to: repression, poverty and enslavement. For many on the Left, including filmmaker Michael Moore, Cuba is a beacon, a socialist paradise in a hostile sea of capitalism, a progressive model whose policies on education and health care ought to be copied throughout the world.
Yet both the Right and the Left hold a picture of Cuba which is far removed from the truth. Cuba is a repressive, poverty-stricken country, yet it cannot accurately be described as socialist, if by socialism we mean a society which is based on egalitarian principles.
The problem with Cuba is not that it's too socialist, but that it's nowhere near socialist enough. But don't expect either its right-wing detractors or its left-wing supporters to admit it.
The Left, rather than own up to Cuba's deficiencies, instead carry on defending it, on the basis that if the Great Satan from across the Florida Straits is so hostile it must be doing something right. And they take the socialist credentials of Fidel Castro, or El Comandante, on his word.
It's true that in the early years of the Cuban revolution considerable gains were made. The government outlawed racial discrimination, enacted land reform, created a low-income housing program and made health care and education free for all. But, nearly 50 years on, the revolution has gone full circle.
Apartheid may have come to an end in South Africa but in Cuba it lives on, only people are not divided by the colour of their skin but whether or not they have access to Cuban Convertible Pesos, the currency all tourists are forced to spend.
Those who have access to Convertible Pesos (an estimated 30 per cent of the population) are Cuba's new elite; those who don't are really struggling. And I mean struggling. There's virtually nothing to buy with Cuban pesos, Cuba's other, second-class currency, except rationed food and street corner snacks and refreshments. All clothes are sold in Convertible pesos, as are all consumer durables.
One of the saddest sights my wife and I witnessed on a recent visit to Cuba was an 800m queue for ice cream in Havana's famous Ice Cream Park. Families who only have Cuban pesos habitually spend all their Saturday afternoons queueing for an ice cream. But for tourists and those Cubans who had Convertible Pesos, there is no waiting at all.
For the majority of Cubans, life is desperately hard: the average salary is about $US13 ($15.45) a month, and even the Government admits the weekly ration is inadequate.
The Cuban Government blames US sanctions for the poor state of the economy, but while it's true the embargo has hit hard, there's no doubt that they have been used as a convenient excuse for Castro and the party elite to keep attention away from mismanagement and corruption.
Back in January it was reported that a Cuban delegation had been turned away from the $US200-a-night Edderkoppen Hotel in Norway as a consequence of the sanctions. (The hotel had been bought by the American-owned Hilton group.)
But while Cuba's supporters protested at the pettiness of the decision, very few questioned what the Cubans were doing booking into such accommodation in the first place. (It transpired that they had stayed in the same hotel five years running.) While its people make the sacrifices, the Cuban elite continue to enjoy the good life: in March, the Cuban Government ordered Series 1, 3 and 5 BMWs for all its ambassadors and a Series5 model for Raul Castro, in charge after his brother's hospitalisation.
Raul is reported to favour adopting the so-called Chinese model of introducing more capitalism while maintaining the Communist Party's strict political monopoly, as the answer to Cuba's difficulties.
Others in the Politburo are said to favour more socialist solutions, such as the scrapping of Convertible pesos.
But while El Comandante is incapacitated, no major decisions will be made. And that means the growing inequality and hardship will continue.
Who knows what will come after Fidel Castro in Cuba? Neither the Left nor the Right will admit it, but a little bit of socialism wouldn't go amiss