Life without Free Speech
Published: Sunday | August 13, 2006

What is it like to live in a country where the government decides what you can hear or say? It's a state of mind those who consider free speech a birthright really can't comprehend. And it's something Jamaicans could and would never tolerate.

You only have to turn on the radio or walk through any town centre to realise that nothing gives Jamaicans greater pleasure than expressing their opinions as loudly as possible. No people on earth indulge more passionately their right to say whatever they please whenever they please. I'm convinced that Jamaicans on the whole enjoy heated conversations even more than they do sex - and that is saying a hell of a lot.

It's rather amusing to hear our media doyens Mutty Perkins and John Maxwell praise places like Singapore and Cuba, where those who challenge the state end up behind bars.

I immensely respect these men for literally teaching a generation of journalists to be brave and never back down. But their very raison de etre is to forcefully say what they think. So who can take seriously their comments about willingly trading our freedoms for Singa-pore's prosperity or Cuba's educa-tion system? The least hint of government censorship here starts them almost frothing at the mouth. And even three months of parroting the official line would probably cause John and Mutty to either flee in desperation or blow out their brains.

Life's problems

Actually, this last might be a truth spoken in jest. Cuba may have admirable education and health systems. But its suicide rate is one of the highest in the world and about ten times Jamaica's. Suicide is always a multi-factoral problem. But the inability to say what you really feel must surely make life's problems loom even larger.

I visited Cuba once for seven days and tried to keep an open mind, weighing both good and bad. But my most lasting memory was walking around Havana on a Saturday afternoon and seeing most people sit around in silence, even those waiting for the bus. A sense of oppression came over me, a feeling I've never experienced before or since. My girlfriend felt the same way, and while we were waiting at the airport the next day she gloomily remarked that if our plane was delayed she would burst into tears. On landing in Jamaica we figuratively kissed the ground. Now, these were only the fleeting anecdotal impressions of two tourists. But I've never had any inclination to visit the place again.

Fidel Castro is a hero of sorts to many Jamaicans, with his 'David against Goliath America' act striking a natural chord. Women especially admired his rugged beard and army fatigue swagger - 'Super Busha' a local journalist once dubbed him. It's not uncommon to hear people say "We need a leader like Castro to cut down our crime!" Of course, their tune quickly changes when you ask if they would like not being allowed to express their opinions publicly or not being able to change their leader. "Well, I never think about it that way," is the usual response.

Anyway, it's a ridiculous notion. State-controlled socialism and censorship in a country where people grumble loudly if they have to line up for more than five minutes and regularly hold intimately detailed cellphone conversations at the top of their voices in crowded public places? Please! Police locking down crowded dancehall shows because political leaders are being criticised? It's easier to imagine Jamaica winning the football World Cup.

Anyway, the bottom line is that no matter how bad things we Jamaicans say things are here, lots of Cubans find life on our rock more tolerable than in Fidel land. But very few, if any, Jamaicans want to live in Cuba full-time.

The questions now being asking about Cuba - Is Fidel Castro still alive? Will his revolutionary system survive him? Will people accept his brother Raul as his successor? - are unfathomable in a liberal society. With a free press a leader's condition can barely be concealed for even an hour. In democracies the system is a constitution ratified by the electorate, not an army backed dictator's whim. And in countries with a fair vote, heads of state are chosen by the people and not foisted upon them by military juntas.

No doubt Castro's educational and health achievements are to be admired. But like nearly all leaders his greatest accomplishments came in his first ten years and he has long since outlived his political usefulness. Had the U.S. normalised economic ties with Cuba 30 years ago, Castro's revolution would likely seem as irrelevant to present Cubans as the socialist 1970s is to Jamaica today.

Nothing has contributed more to Castro's larger than life world stature than the warped American presidential system which holds the country hostage to Florida's voters. I've always wondered if the U.S. was really serious about assassinating Castro - supposedly 638 or something attempts have been made on his life - or whether it suited the moneyed elites there to keep him around as a tool for manipulating the Miami Cuban vote.

Now, I'm no fan of George W. Bush - possibly the worst president in U.S. history - or his house slave Condoleezza Rice. But how can anyone living in a country where voters choose their leader take umbrage with Ms Rice's message to Cubans?

"The United States respects your aspirations as sovereign citizens and we will stand with you to secure your rights - to speak as you choose, to think as you please, to worship as you wish, and to choose your leaders freely and fairly in democratic elections."

It's amazing how many persons who would never tolerate such behaviour in their own land apparently think that anything other than Raul Castro succeeding his brother would amount to destabilisation of the Castro regime. A lot of otherwise sensible commentators seem to have over invested emotionally in anti-Americanism at the cost of all common sense. For what right does Raul Castro have to rule other than the brute force backing of the Cuban army? The world doesn't even know if Fidel Castro is alive - it's been nearly two weeks since he last uttered a word in public - so how does it know what Cubans really think of him or his brother?

Perhaps the most crackpot 'no American interference allowed' view of the Cuban situation comes from Gwnne Dyer whose column is published by over 175 papers in 45 countries. His favoured solution to make Castro's revolution 'irreversible' after his death - a desirable outcome Dyer implies - would be a formal link between Cuba and Venezuela, with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez as president of both.

Apparently, he feels Cubans would be pleased to see their 48- year local dictatorship succeeded by a foreign one. Or maybe he thinks, like so many of his ilk, that the wishes of the Cuban people are irrelevant. At any rate he brings to mind Humbert Wolfe's famous jibe:

"You cannot hope to bribe or twist

Thank God, the British journalist,

But seeing what the man will do

Unbribed, there's no occasion to."

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