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The Wave Of Western Populism Should Learn From Cuba's Mistakes

It doesn't take long to realise that any romanticised idea of Cuba is a fiction.
People wait in line to reach Revolution Square to pay tribute to Cuba's late President Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba, November 28, 2016.
Stringer . / Reuters
People wait in line to reach Revolution Square to pay tribute to Cuba's late President Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba, November 28, 2016.

The death of Fidel Castro on Friday marks a potential new beginning in Cuba. Castro, a darling of far-left revolutionaries, and reviled by nearly everyone else, oversaw his island nation for the better part of half a century. But the objective failings of his leadership have to be acknowledged, with lessons to be learnt for those on both sides of the political spectrum.

Having recently returned from the island, I am gripped by an ironic parallel between Havana's leftist government, and that of Western right-wing populists: both are constrained by a fervent attachment to an overly glorified version of history.

My curiosity about Cuba is long-held. Growing up in an environment that has embraced progressivism, worker's rights and held conservatism at arms length, I am well versed in the heroic narrative of the Cuban experiment: an almost utopic idea of a country that took on the world's dominant cultural, political and economic force in the U.S., and never succumbed.

It doesn't take long, however, to realise any romanticised idea of Cuba is a fiction. Cuba is a country struggling with a dual identity, and burdened by a wealth of contradictions.

It offers both ultimate freedoms and restrictions. Opponents of the 'nanny state' in the West would rejoice at Cuba's liberalisation of day-to-day activities such as smoking in restaurants or drinking on the streets. But small liberties are meaningless when compared to the larger limitations placed upon the more important aspects of life.

Cuba's labour market misallocates its skilled workforce: I met one civil engineer sowing tobacco plantations; one English professor who makes her income operating an AirBnB on the fringes of legality.

A thin veil of joy and pride -- most still declare themselves 'Fidelistas' -- masks a dark reality, which is that its people are limited in what they can really achieve or desire. The state sanctioned wage of around US$25 per month does not enable the free pursuit of ideas or ambitions.

Across Cuba, a symmetry between the people and their ailing buildings is on display. Both present a façade rich in colour, but when you scratch beneath the surface, that vibrancy often fades.

In the buildings this is observed superficially, in the crumbling walls or faulty fixtures. But in the people, you sense fatigue and frustration, and lingering trauma from the darkest eras of recent Cuban history. The resignation towards the status quo is palpable.

A fear of regressing to the worst moments in Cuba's memory -- like the 'special period', the economic crisis following the fall of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s -- inspires a defeatist, unquestioning loyalty to the leadership in Havana.

Cuba's failings extend to its social and economic inequality, well observed in the stark contrast between two neighbouring towns on the island's southern coast.

Trinidad is rightfully renowned. Over 400 years old, the colonial village offers a rich cultural experience. It is historic, and beautiful; its people boisterous and musical.

But only three kilometres away is Castilda, a small port town of clotheless children, dirt-floor, one-room homes, pot-holed roads and an idle population.

It's a two-speed economy, in which those living only marginally outside the tourist trail simply miss out.

These structural inequities are so often ignored by proponents of the regime.

Supporters -- often disgruntled U.S. tourists -- highlight the wins of Castro's Cuba, such as universal education and healthcare. But while these reforms might have been truly revolutionary in the 1960s, many countries (except America) today offer the same rights.

They blame the U.S. embargo for all of Cuba's economic woes, but ignore how outside of Washington, the world unanimously rejects it, leaving 75 percent of the global economy available for Cuba to engage.

In the end, Cuba is a country frozen in an upside-down moment in history. In 1959 -- when Castro took over -- the world looked very different. South Korea was a decaying dictatorship while North Korea was full of hope and success; European culture was retreating while Communism was advancing; the U.S. was being matched in every sense by the USSR.

In this old world, perhaps Cuban socialism had a role. But that era is a footnote in history that will never return.

A recent spate of reforms under Raul Castro -- the tempered embrace of a new generation of capitalist entrepreneurship, for example -- are, unfortunately, stop gap measures offering only band-aid solutions to endemic structural malaise: three quarters of Cubans are still on the state's pay roll.

Instead, any attempt to change Cuba for the better is hamstrung by an emotionally charged attachment to the past. And herein lies the ironic parallel between Cuban communists and Western populists: both are incapable of imagining real progress, due to a corrupting idolisation of a glorified, often fabricated history.

While Western populists and Cuban socialists sit at different ends of the left-right divide, they are united in their inability to envisage a new future that embraces bold ideas and offers viable change. They are united in their attachment to mythologised versions of history that only prohibit contemporary problem solving to contemporary woes.

And in Cuba's case, this imaginative restraint has been disastrous.

Fidel Castro's death offers hope for a change. My only wish is that Cuba goes on to embraces the best of Castro's rhetoric, not the worst of his actions, as it inches ever onwards towards modernity.

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