“There’s no humourist like history” the American author Will Durant once wrote, a truth confirmed yet again by recent events in Cuba. Who in the heyday of communist solidarity could have predicted that then staunch “socialist” allies Cuba and the Czech Republic would one day be embroiled in a human rights controversy? But last month Cuban authorities jailed two Czech citizens on charges of subversion. Their “crime” was meeting Cuban dissidents. Predictably Cuban officials condemned the two men as “American agents” and the dissidents as “counter-revolutionaries”.


But then this sort of thing is a regular occurrence in Cuba. In March 1999 four Cuban dissidents were given lengthy prison sentences for “crimes against the state”. These “crimes” consisted of holding news conferences with foreign journalists, calling for elections to be boycotted, and producing a document entitled “the Fatherland is for All” which demanded democratic change. Last April Cuba received a UN censure for human rights abuses, and a month later released three of the “Group of Four”. But Vladimiro Roca is still serving his five year sentence.


Fidel Castro was an unquestionable improvement on his corrupt and racist predecessors, and carried out admirable educational and health reforms. Even today Cuba’s health and educational systems remain the envy of most Latin American countries. But do these compensate for the fact that Cubans remain unable to choose their leaders, have no right to due process and enjoy little freedom of speech?


The only proper judges of that are the Cuban people, and they can only vote with their feet. For all Jamaica’s problems far more Cubans are coming to live and work here than vice versa. If Castro is truly as popular as his defenders say he is, why won’t he give his people a chance to express their affection in free and fair elections? No amount of demagoguery can hide the brute reality that the ultimate basis of Fidel Castro’s rule is not the people’s will but military force.


Castro’s name appeared in quite a few local “great men of the millennium” lists last year. But I find it difficult to understand how a journalist who makes his living by expressing his opinions - and who can lambast his own government with impunity - can admire a man who jails people merely for criticizing his regime.


I have only visited Cuba once, and one week as a tourist doesn’t make anyone an expert on a country. But my abiding memory was walking around Havana one Saturday afternoon in almost total silence. People were waiting for buses in orderly lines, but there was a complete absence of the exuberant chatter and laughing byplay you see in Jamaica. A feeling of almost physical oppression began to come over me, a sensation I had never experienced before. And it did not go away until I left the next day. As we got on the plane, my girlfriend remarked that if the flight had been delayed even one day she would have cried. And when we landed in Mobay she laughed that she felt like kissing the ground.


Short and shallow as it was this trip convinced me that whatever the merits of Cuba’s educational system they came at too high a price. There is not much to choose between Jamaica and Cuba in terms of official material well being – both have roughly equivalent life expectancies and per capita incomes. But we have the priceless gift of freedom.


Some admiring Jamaicans maintain that Castro’s ‘disciplined’ dictatorship will make Cuba more prosperous and advanced than Jamaica in the long run. But history is on the side of freedom. Few countries that hold fast to the tenets of liberal democracy have failed to overcome their problems. While most nations that resort to “quick fix” authoritarianism fall sooner or later into chaos. Who knows what will happen to Cuba when Castro goes? There are no plausible political heirs in sight, no credible opposition and an exile community itching for revenge. Castro’s ultimate legacy may well be that of so many dictators before him - anarchy or civil war.


Freedom, like everything else, has a cost. And in truth many of Jamaica’s problems are a result of our deep-rooted respect for individual rights. If all deportees were simply jailed indefinitely and police were free to arrest anyone suspected of murder, our homicide rate would plummet overnight. But we as a society have rightly decided that such draconian measures would inevitably violate the rights of many innocent people and would be a cure worse than the disease of crime.


No doubt too many people in this country have had their rights abused. Michael Gayle, Agana Barrett, the Montego Bay Street people, and the prison beatings were all national disgraces. But it was a credit to the Jamaican people that they deemed the violation of the rights of even the powerless so upsetting as to pressure the government into holding public enquiries. And even if the real culprits were not punished at least a message was sent to all public officials. In many countries similar incidents pass virtually unnoticed. In Cuba of course there are no street people as “undesirable elements” are swept into jail, and the forces of the state are never wrong. 


Jamaicans is fortunate to be one of the relatively few countries where the fundamental principles of liberal democracy are deeply ingrained in the national psyche. Jamaicans will never countenance any other system of choosing our leaders but that of multi-party elections. We cannot conceive of not being able to speak our minds whenever, wherever and on whatever we want. And we take due process as our birthright.


This deep sense of justice is one of the Jamaican people’s most admirable traits. To be sure it is not always expressed in a “proper” manner. Take for instance the recent incident where Seba football fans slashed the tires of the team bus to prevent it from leaving for a scheduled match because the late Shorty Malcolm had not yet been buried? As a fan reportedly said


“How Seba fe play and ‘Shortman’ no bury yet. You no see seh dat a disrespect. Dem lucky dem never get beating this morning, bout dem going to Clarendon. Seba cannot play until we bury ‘Shortman’ and that is final.”


Acts of violence can never be condoned. But part of me couldn’t help admiring people taking decisive action not for financial gain or out of partisanship but from a sense of respect for a man they admired. In a way it showed both strong values and a willingness to actively defend them. And it left me with a curious feeling that a nation where people have such a sense of entitlement of the freedom to do what they think is right will never lose it.


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