FIDEL'S INFLUENCE ON ME By Max Bade (Article)
REFLECTIONS OF COMPANERO MAX
by Max Bade
Yesterday, Fidel Castro wrote a column entitled "Reflections of Compañero Fidel" (Newsmax.com of February 22, 2008) and this has made me reflect on Fidel's un-suspected and un-expected influence on my own views and life. I will not bother with well known and documented episodes like the Bay of Pigs, or the Missile Crisis, or even the Iran-Contra affairs, but rather tell about facts and conjectures related to my consultant's life.
- The Alliance for Progress which I joined as a young professional back in 1966 was a direct result of the Montevideo Inter-American conference of 1961 and was intended to counter the Cuban "menace" in the Americas. The creation of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in 1961 was also a Kennedy government idea meant to finance projects and programs emanating from the Alliance for Progress intended to make the ideas of Cuba less likely to succeed. Cuba never was a member of the IDB and the US made sure that Cuba was expelled from the OAS (it housed the Alliance).
The Alliance for Progress never got very far and in 1969 when I quit, I considered it an "un-repairable failure". The reasons for this failure were diverse but stemmed from the original design of the Alliance which called for the set-up in each Latin American country (except Cuba of course) of a national planning institution; the drafting of a national plan; the review of the plans by a Committee of Nine (wise men from various countries); the financing of these plans by the IDB, and other multilateral and bilateral development institutions; and eventually the execution of the plans, programs and projects in the countries. All these steps took an inordinate amount of time to get realized so that many Alliance countries were frustrated at the delays. Development plans were more theoretical than practical and the Committee of Nine proved incapable of dealing with the situation. Countries simply found it easier and more effective to present their financing requirements directly to the IDB or the other institutions. The Alliance slid into various metamorphosed entities such as the Inter-American Committee for the Alliance for Progress as time progressed and then into oblivion. In 1976, when I had assumed a high administrative post at the OAS, I had the rare satisfaction of officially eliminating from the books the Alliance for Progress.
Was Cuba effectively counteracted by the Alliance for Progress? I doubt it. The work of the IDB, the World Bank and others I believe gave a more effective "neo-liberal" counterbalance to the socialist ideas spread by Cuba to the rest of Latin America. And when I think of Cuba, I am always reminded of some of my elder and senior colleagues at the Alliance that were Cuban: one was the ex-president of the Cuban Communist Party who was expelled by Fidel and given a high post by the US State Dept. (!); another was the president of the Cuban Central Bank equally engaged by the US State Dept. and later shifted appropriately to the IDB; and yet another Cuban who initially working for Senators Goodwin and Kennedy was the originator of the name Alliance for Progress. Interesting people these!
The Alliance undoubtedly also carried in itself intellectual contradictions which accelerated its demise: a) the US of all countries (!) insisted on national plans as a pre-requisite for financing activities. The US, like other developed countries does not have national plans-its budget is the plan-hence it had little moral clout with the Latinos; b) In addition there is no national plan that has ever worked in the world hence it should not surprise that none of those plans generated under the Alliance ever were executed. Lesser deviations, such as regional plans and local plans which were eventually developed by the remnants of the Alliance, also never got anywhere; c) Much insistence and conditioning was exercised on the issue of "poverty" and "inequity" and this created counterproductive social upheavals in many countries through agrarian and political reforms which, I am sure have made Fidel laugh. In Chile for example I thought (in 1969) that the agrarian reform fostered by the elder Frei (not so much by Allende!) was an unmitigated disaster that contributed to the establishment of the Pinochet regime.
Agrarian reforms were instituted in many Latin American countries even before the Alliance. Mexico started it in 1910 with its Revolution and enshrined the right to own a piece of land by everybody in the Constitution. During my Alliance days, I vainly tried to point out to my dogmatic bosses that the part of the Mexican Constitution dealing with the right to possess land by everybody was fraught with an impossible contradiction since there was not enough land for everybody to till! But I belabour the obvious.
While Fidel, after 49 years in power, is ready to "take a vacation", we have his proxy Hugo Chavez and some lesser friends who continue to believe in some of the grossest socioeconomic mistakes fostered including by the Alliance at one time or another. I am thinking of all that is represented by the FARC in Colombia; Ollanta Humala in Peru; Evo Morales in Bolivia; for the second time, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and to a lesser extent Rafael Correa in Ecuador. It is not only their "social revolution" but their avowed tendencies to do away with internationally established arrangements, their aggressiveness and the effects of the drug cum terrorist activities that raise eyebrows. The ridiculous in the process is that Chavez may be pardoned if he takes full advantage of a $100 per barrel price of oil stimulated by the most absurd of American wars, and like the Americans in 1961, fosters the creation of its own regional development bank, the Banco del Sur. Yet, the more sober, like to point out that food production never lent itself to dogmatism of Marx and Co. and Venezuela today is sorely lacking in general basic foods. This appears as a surprise to some, but for similar dogmatic reasons, Bolivia, Cuba, Chile, Guyana, Peru, Nicaragua and El Salvador have experienced in the past similar shortages and distortions.
- Grenada is one of the loveliest of the Caribbean islands where one would hardly suspect Fidel to have influence of any kind. Yet this was and is not so.
In 1979 when I was working for a consulting firm in Ottawa I received a request from a much larger Montreal based firm to help them out on a proposal to build the St. George's airport. The proposal was submitted to the Government very quickly, still in 1979. Unfortunately the Government was already then not very fast in evaluating the proposal and then we experienced the Trudeau-Clark-Trudeau change so that when by 1983 we had been selected, one day we were called in by the Government and told "sorry, but the Cubans are already bulldozing the runway". So, we were left high and dry wondering what had happened. That the Government wanted to do the airport was good; that it could or would not act expeditiously was bad and that there was a change in government was unfortunate. Could we have prevented the later Grenadian troubles i.e. the US invasion and its consequences? I certainly thought so. But we did not and this, probably because already then bureaucratic entanglements reflecting an aid program subservient to our own petty interests was more important than expeditious help. But then, at least in 1979 still, an earlier experience of the authorities might have had something to do with the delays. What appeared at stake at the time was some evidence that the Cubans had opened a terrorist training camp in the Quebec Eastern Townships.
- Ethiopia & others
In 1982 I came for the first time to Ethiopia to work on a rural roads project financed by the World Bank. While landing in Addis Ababa I thought that I saw similarities with the green mountains of Ecuador, but the immigration authorities had similar equipment to the East Germans and the fully uniformed Russians in the back reminded me of my first trip to communist Hungary in 1970. This did not augur well, but finally somebody from the project drove me to my hotel and gave me a schedule for the next day. When left alone, I thought of tasting Ethiopia's famous coffee from Kaffa and went downstairs only to be thoroughly surprised at all the uniformed Cubans chatting away in Spanish. Well, I did not expect this and upon further enquiry found out that these Cubans were part of a Praetorian Guard contingent of 10,000 men at arms meant to guard President Mengistu. Ethiopia was at war in the Ogaden in those days (the same as today) and needed all possible help.
The deal with Fidel was, like so many similar ones: Russia would take Cuban sugar at about five times the world market price against Cuban soldiers and other "technical assistance" anywhere where the good cause needed them. Well, Fidel made money with his mercenaries while we crisscrossed the country on mules and donkeys with the express purpose of finding viable rural roads.
Still in 1982, we calculated that there were 250,000 hunger deaths in Ethiopia that is much before the "international community" took notice the next year and serious attempts were made to send food aid. Most of this food-aid, in one way or another, ended up with the military rather than the needy. Hence the large number of deaths. Starting with Mengistu, the Cubans, East Germans and Russians never gave a damn about the situation. We saw no Cuban troops anywhere in the highlands and I don't remember if the Praetorian Guard ever actually fought in the Ogaden. Eventually the notorious killer, Mengistu, was thrown out of power and sought asylum with Mugabe in Zimbabwe where he still is.
In 1983, while still in Addis, I received a surprise invitation through the embassy to look after a cocoa project in Grenada, and saying as much to my Ethiopian boss, he promptly volunteered to write a letter of recommendation to a Grenadian classmate of his that he met in a Marxism course in Belgrade. Well, between Addis and Rome there was no news; but thereafter it was weird: in Milan I learned that the Grenada PM, Maurice Bishop, had been jailed and in Miami I learned that the PM was shot "by the Marxist Revolution". I still have the letter written to the revolutionary development minister who ended up in jail in St Georges and was still there when I left Grenada.
The best of the Cuban adventures, I thought exemplified by Angola. Here the usual Russian sugar price arrangement was implemented to have Cuban troops defend the Marxist Luanda government against the capitalist "revolutionary and terrorist" Sawimbi. But the Cuban assignment came with a twist: it had to guard the American oil Co's oil fields as well because Luanda's life-line financing depended on the American oil exports! Any deal seemed fine for Fidel.
From my Alliance days, I had heard something about "triangulations" in politics, but the full weight of the experience only dawned on me at a much later and unexpected stage in life. I had been hired to set up a river basin planning study in Colombia in the early 90's. One of the problems the study had to deal with was settling the displaced population due to the FARC and the ELN. It so happened, that my counterpart, was from the Gaviria family before his brother became President of Colombia and later on, Secretary General of the OAS. The project area was in those days a border area between the official government and the guerilla and on more occasions than one we found ourselves faced with producers who complained most loudly about "double taxation" and often enough only the wives or children were left on their farms. Non-payment to the guerillas was deadly. One day, a cousin of my counterpart got kidnapped and the consternation was great. The family traced the incident to the FARC, and Gaviria, already at the OAS, contravened a covenant not to touch base with Fidel by talking to him directly per phone. The cousin was promptly released!
Against the above experience, Chavez's recent theatrical intermediations with the FARC appear crude, cruel and ineffective.
- Nicaragua , was not one of my preferred countries to work in for, early on in 1968, while still with the Alliance, I had felt what it meant to be disapproved by the Sosmozas. And speaking of Tachito Sosmoza, I have to admit that my highest boss at the OAS\ Alliance was tied up in a murky cattle business that stretched over the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. They owned ranches on each side of the line and cattle passed from one side to the other with the wink of an eye. This had caught the attention of the World Bank personnel as Costa Rica's cattle herd could hardly produce the amount of exports that were actually recorded. But before anybody could effectively do anything about this, the Ortega irregulars took care of things through night-strife's that eliminated further trips to the area of my Secretary General and his business. Tachito Sosmoza ended up in exile in Paraguay where he found a violent death through a car-bomb. One of the Stroessners apparently did not like Tachito to date a certain common girl! I was not surprised that the Sosmoza's went and the Sandinistas took their place.
Once Ortega and the nine "comandantes" got organized in power, Fidel was the ever obliging elder statesman. He sent the usual contingent of obsolete Russian armament, sent his teachers and veterinarians and ensured that any missing sugar quotas at home would be provided by Nicaragua. In the sugar business, Nicaragua got 10 cents per lbs from Fidel and Cuba got 30 cents per lbs from Russia for the Nicaraguan sugar. Business is business!
Of the many times I visited Nicaragua under the Sandinistas and the many things that I experienced there, I will mention only a few: a) while working on the formulation of a national agricultural development plan, we were often called to "volunteer" digging trenches against the "eminent arrival of American marines" and on one occasion I met with the Norwegian Ambassador doing the same. Why? It was the duty of the "international socialist"! ; b) On a food "emergency" call fostered by various NGO's at home, I was once sent to assess the situation only to find out from President Ortega's assistant that what Nicaragua was looking for was John Deere spare parts because the American embargo had immobilized most of their machinery; needless to say, the NGO's were not happy with my report; c) On the same "food-aid" mission we were invited by the "comandantes" for drinks at their club. Ortega was the only one that wore a bullet-proof jacket and he was as pleasant a person that could be and even invited me to stay and fix the botched up agricultural plan that finally had been drafted by his government. Of the guests, I had the most dismal and disagreeable impression of one, Firmenitch, who acted as "revolutionary advisor" and I remembered him as being "exiled in opulence" in Paris after the Argentine "dirty war" was settled after thousands of "disappearances". Compensated by this, was the wife of one of the comandantes who still pretended to be a "flower child" by dancing naked every morning in her garden.
Concluding Reflections : With the benefit of hindsight and a review of my diary I cannot deny the influence that Fidel has had on me. Fidel was and remains no "saint".
In Cuba, he has maintained himself in power often ruthlessly; there are still many political prisoners and there are many Cuban exiles in Florida. Yet, Fidel has educated Cubans and has provided them with a good health system and the streets of Havana and elsewhere in Cuba are safe. Under Batista this was not so. Fidel stands tall with many like-minded people in the world such as the ambassador I found digging trenches in Nicaragua. But I found these like-minded people a little naïve for they did not see or did not want to see the ruthless and the righteous proselytizing side of Fidel. Just think of it, what is Fidel doing in Venezuela, in FARC dominated Colombia, in Peru, in Bolivia, in Nicaragua and even in Ecuador?
With Fidel however, the Latin American world has learned to identify more clearly than ever before what is implied by the left and the right and other catcall antonyms. This may be considered positive as long as there remains enough freedom to make a choice. In Cuba there is no freedom and there is no choice. What the people of Cuba say or think is irrelevant to Fidel. This contrasts sharply with most democracies of the world where, the short-term "public opinion" is given an inordinate importance to what generally is anathema to longer-run goals. Fidel does not have to bother about the protean media-monster that continuously asserts and contradicts and forms "temporary opinions" in the people of the free democracies and in the process claims unedited influence and power without balancing them with responsibilities. Fidel does not need to be concerned about the New York Stock Exchange, its ups and downs, and a most atrocious sub-prime lending fraud. Fidel does not have to bother much with money and banking that provides sustenance to greed, corruption, arrogance and lawyers. These are matters of the Gringos. In more sense than one, Batista represented all that could be seen as negative of the "capitalist system": it was corrupt, it was a-moral, money reigned supreme, it was lascivious, it was non-representative, it was careless and free-wheeling. Nostalgically, my Cuban acquaintances of the Alliance days however would say, "It was fun".
Fidel changed Cuba for a more decent albeit boring place than it was under Batista. In the process however Fidel has left Cubans poor and without a future. Some may argue that the Greeks and Italians were also poor when they created their culture and their Renaissance, so, poverty does not matter. Perhaps. But one cannot see in Cuba much enthusiasm, much innovation, much invention and many significant cultural rumblings. The Cuban poverty seems more bleak and sad than cheerful and creative.
Perhaps then, the missing ingredient is "liberty"? The Greeks were free and so were the Italians of the Renaissance, but not the Cubans. They feel subdued and fearful and see no way out of a repressive system that holds every Cuban captive. These are no desirable hallmarks for any human soul and\or for any society.
Compañero Max (Max Bade)
Quito, February 2008
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