Thursday, August 31, 2006

Ségolène et les éléphants socialistes

Marcel Berlins complains about the socialist “elephants” campaigning against current frontrunner Ségolène Royal to be the French left's candidate in next year's presidential election. Since cuurent polls say that Royal is the only candidate capable of beating the right's Nicholas Sarkozy, Berlins sees it as “electoral suicide” apparently to even go through the process of choosing an official candidate when pragmatism demands a coronation.

However, Berlins admits that – though it scarcely matters - "le ségolisme" does fall just short of perfection in one small respect: namely that “she has not yet explained her specific, thought-out policies on anything”.

!

Her speeches, and answers to media questioning, are rarely more than well-expressed platitudes. She has a book coming out soon which may (or may not) reveal her deeper thoughts on issues of public concern....".

To reveal your thoughts “on issues of public concern”....or not to bother. Such are the tough choices of modern politics.

But leaving such trifles to one side, Royal, for Berlins, remains the obvious choice. The point is that she'll win power; never mind what she'll do with it.

Elsewhere in the Guardian, commenting on the UK Labour Party's inability to rid itself of Tony Blair, Geoffrey Wheatcroft has an excellent article debunking the personality cult of Blair the election winner, who “[for] far too long...bedazzled Labour with the idea that, love him or hate him, he was a political wizard in a class of his own”, which looking at the factual record, as Wheatcroft eloquently explains, wasn't exactly the case. But in being so bedazzled, Wheatcroft says, Labour struck a Faustian pact with Blair “and thereby gave new meaning to the phrase 'more than they bargained for' “.

In any case, its worth remembering that election day in France is a long way off, and its unlikely that the polls will remain completely static between now and then. The fortunes of Sarkozy and his eventual rival during the campaign will change according to their respective performances, how the public take to their policies, unforseen events and so on. Will Royal stay silent on policy throughout? And if and when she does break her silence, what will be the public reaction? If - as seems likely from what little she has seen fit to share with the world of her political vision - she turns out, like Sarkozy, to be of the Blairite school - i.e. not a 'left' candidate at all - will France be quite so keen on her then?

And would choosing a non-left, non-socialist candidate be strictly the best choice for.....the socialist left? Clearly you need power to implement your policies, but the drive for power should be subservient to the choice of policy. Not the other way round, as Berlins would apparently have it.

Political discussion often neglects what genuinely democratic politics would actually consist of. In that theoretical scenario, Royal would set out her policies, they would be debated alongside everyone else's, and then the French left would make its decision on that basis. It may not be a surefire guarentee of attaining political power, but then - tiresome as it is - that's democracy.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Israel and its neighbours

"Fifty nine years ago, two months before the outbreak of our War of Independence, I published a booklet entitled "War or Peace in the Semitic Region". Its opening words were:

"When our Zionist fathers decided to set up a 'safe haven' in Palestine, they had a choice between two ways:

"They could appear in West Asia as a European conqueror, who sees himself as a bridge-head of the 'white' race and a master of the 'natives', like the Spanish Conquistadores and the Anglo-Saxon colonists in America. That is what the Crusaders did in Palestine.

"The second way was to consider themselves as an Asian nation returning to its home - a nation that sees itself as an heir to the political and cultural heritage of the Semitic race, and which is prepared to join the peoples of the Semitic region in their war of liberation from European exploitation."

As is well known, the State of Israel, which was established a few months later, chose the first way. It gave its hand to colonial France, tried to help Britain to return to the Suez Canal and, since 1967, has become the little sister of the United States.

That was not inevitable."

'America's Rottweiler' by veteren Israeli peace campaigner Uri Avnery

"In this frightening mess in the Middle East, let's get one thing straight. Iran is not threatening Israel with destruction. Iran's president has not threatened any action against Israel. Over and over, we hear that Iran is clearly "committed to annihilating Israel" because the "mad" or "reckless" or "hard-line" President Ahmadinejad has repeatedly threatened to destroy Israel But every supposed quote, every supposed instance of his doing so, is wrong.

Why is Mr. Ahmadinejad being so systematically misquoted and demonized? Need we ask? If the world believes that Iran is preparing to attack Israel, then the US or Israel can claim justification in attacking Iran first. On that agenda, the disinformation campaign about Mr. Ahmadinejad's statements has been bonded at the hip to a second set of lies: promoting Iran's (nonexistent) nuclear weapon programme."

'Putting Words in Ahmadinejad's Mouth' By Virginia Tilley

Monday, August 28, 2006

Iraq: Occupation or Civil War?

Its often asserted that whatever you think about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, to withdraw western troops now would be to abandon that country to the horrors of civil war. As the Prime Minister said in his speech to the Foreign Policy centre in March of this year:

"Iraq is facing a crucial moment in its history: to unify and progress, under a government elected by its people for the first time in half a century; or to descend into sectarian strife, bringing a return to certain misery for millions......the fact is that now, whatever the rights and wrongs of how and why Saddam [was] removed, there is an obvious, clear and overwhelming reason for supporting the people of [Iraq] in their desire for democracy."

I've covered the cynical fraud that is Blair's idea of Iraqi democracy many times, so lets put that to one side and focus on the question of whether the occupiers really are all that stands between Iraq and a sectarian bloodbath.

The obvious answer is that it was precisely the chaos created by the US-UK invasion that set the current civil conflict in motion, and that's correct to a certain degree. But the point needs to be developed further. Middle East expert Gilbert Achcar of the University of Paris-VIII (who, as a Lebanese, knows a little about civil war) spells out the exact relationship between the occupation and the sectarian bloodshed:

"...the slide of Iraq toward the worst-case scenario for its population does not necessarily represent the worst-case scenario for Washington. Actually, most of what has happened in recent months in Iraq, except for the publicity surrounding U.S. troops' criminal behavior, has suited Washington's designs. The sharp increase in sectarian tensions as well as the defeat of Muqtada al-Sadr's [pan-Iraqi national resistance] project played blatantly into Washington's hands. Along with many others, I have warned for quite a long time that, when all is said and done, Washington's only trump card in Iraq is going to be the sectarian and ethnic divisions among Iraqis, which the Bush administration is exploiting in the most cynical way according to the most classical of all imperial recipes: 'Divide and rule'."

"The occupation fuels the insurgency, which stirs up the sectarian tension that Washington's proconsul [Ambassador Khalilzad] strives to fan by political means, which in turn is used to justify the continuing occupation. The latest major way in which U.S. occupation authorities are throwing oil on the Iraqi fire, according to Shiite sources, is by helping the Islamic Party -- the Iraqi Arab Sunni group closest to Washington and to the Saudis -- build an armed wing that is already taking part in the sectarian feud."

"There is no way out of this burning circle but one: Only by announcing immediately the total and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops can a decisive step be taken toward putting out the fire. This would cool down the Sunni insurgency that the Association of Muslim Scholars has repeatedly pledged to call to a halt as soon as a timetable for the withdrawal of occupation troops is announced. It would dampen as well the sectarian tension, as Iraqis will then look squarely at their future and feel compelled to reach a way to coexist peacefully. And if ever they came to the conclusion that they needed a foreign presence for a while to help them restore order and start real reconstruction, it should definitely not be one composed of troops from countries that harbor hegemonic ambitions over Iraq, but one that is welcomed by all segments of the Iraqi people as friendly and disinterested help."

Read the rest here, where Achcar describes the dynamics at work in more detail.

Achcar raises the question of a "friendly and disinterested...foreign presence... that is welcomed by all segments of the Iraqi people ....to help them restore order". I wrote about just such a solution in October 2005, as did Middle East scholar Juan Cole earlier that year. That course of action needs to be implemented now more than ever. But it would also mean Washington abandoning its imperialist project, which apart from anything else would be a disaster for its credibility as a global hegemon. The occupation will only end, therefore, as a result of irresistable popular pressure forcing the hand of government. And that's where we come in.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

On "anti-Americanism"

Good short animation on the charges of anti-Americanism and anti-semitism often levelled at critics of government policies. Go here and click "watch this movie".

Friday, August 25, 2006

Iraqi Democracy

A recent poll shows that Iraqis seem to want their country to move almost in the exact opposite direction politically from the one its heading in today. That hardly makes it the 'model Middle Eastern democracy' that the US and UK governments would have us believe it is. More on the poll in a moment.

During the Chomsky/Ricks discussion that I linked to in yesterday's post, Chomsky answered the question of 'what should be done about Iraq now?' by saying that that's up to Iraqis. Occupiers and invaders have exactly no rights at all in the country they've colonised. What we should do is whatever the Iraqis want. That should be the deciding factor, and any ideas we may throw around amongst ourselves belong strictly in the realms of abstraction.

We read and hear a good deal of debate in Britain and the US on what should be done about Iraq going forward, and how wonderful it was of us to turn Iraq into a democracy. These displays of altruism contrast sharply with the near total absence of knowledge about what Iraqis think and what sort of furture they desire for their country.

Occasionally, I've tried to use this site to present Iraqi voices speaking at length on how they see the situation. I've also tried to contrast what we know of Iraqi popular opinion with the outcomes under the fraudulant "democracy" afforded them by the occupiers.

So to continue in that vein, I'll quote here at length from a University of Michigan survey of Iraqi public opinion, published in June this year and presented in comparison with a 2004 poll (quotes in italics). It makes for very interesting, and sometimes surprising reading. I'll also throw in a few of my own comments here and there.

"Over the last two years, Iraqi political values have become more secular and nationalistic, even though attitudes toward Americans have deteriorated.....When asked what they thought were the three main reasons why the United States invaded Iraq, 76 percent gave "to control Iraqi oil" as their first choice. "But at the same time, significantly more Iraqis support democratic values, including the separation of religion and politics. "In 2004, 27 percent of the 2,325 Iraqi adults surveyed strongly agreed that Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were separated. In 2006, 41 percent of 2,701 adults surveyed strongly agreed".

Note that Iraqi opinion on this subject is moving in the exact opposite direction to actual political trends and events in the new 'Western-style democracy'. We've seen a dramatic shift from an overwhelmingly secular Iraq pre-invasion, to today's country, dominated by religious political parties, militias and insurgent groups. Apparently, this has happened exactly contrary to trends in public opinion, wherein desire for secularism is increasing even as actual secularism disappears

"The findings of this second survey show that even though Iraqis have a more negative attitude to foreigners, especially Americans, they are moving closer to American values and are developing a much stronger sense of national identity," said Mansoor Moaddel, a sociologist at Eastern Michigan University and at the ISR."

It seems plain that there's no "even though" contradiction here. Iraqis can move toward these values independently of their deepening anger at America because, contrary to the rhetoric, they have been shown precious little of what purport to be "American values" by the occupation. Supposed "American values" and actual American policy are completely unrelated

"In one indication of a possible lessening of sectarian conflict, the proportion of Iraqis who identified themselves as Muslim Arabs rather than as Shi'a or Sunni Arabs increased from 6 percent in 2004 to 14 percent in 2006. "The percentage of those surveyed who agreed with the statement "I am an Iraqi above all" rose from 23 percent in 2004 to 28 percent in 2006 in the country as a whole, from 23 percent to 33 percent in urban areas, and from 30 percent to 62 percent among Baghdad residents. "Despite increased political violence between the Shi'as and the Sunnis, the researchers found no significant change in the overall level of inter-ethnic trust among Iraqis. While trust between the Shi'as and the Sunnis declined, trust between the Sunnis and the Kurds increased between 2004 and 2006."

This doesn't necessarily indicate "a possible lessening of sectarian conflict", since that's apparently driven by an extremist minority (see below). But its a hopeful sign that despite everything that's happened, sectarianism doesn't appear to have put down deep roots in Iraqi society, and that popular opposition to sectarianism is growing. Although, as the survey says "trust between the Shi'as and the Sunnis declined", and that's the significant concern

"Among Iraqis as a whole, 59 percent of those surveyed in 2006 strongly agreed with the following statement: "In Iraq these days life is unpredictable and dangerous." That compares to 46 percent who strongly agreed in 2004. "This change varied among ethnic groups, with the biggest change among Kurds," Moaddel said. "Only 17 percent strongly agreed that life was unpredictable and dangerous in 2004, but 54 percent strongly agreed in 2006.""

The change in amongst Kurds possibly has to do with concerns like the simmering tensions in Kirkuk, for example.

"Iraqis' increasing attachment to national identity and increasing support for secular discourse may support the formation of a modern and democratic political order," he said. "Moreover, since the support for secular attitudes has gained considerable ground among the Sunnis, al-Qaeda may find it more difficult to recruit among this group in Iraq."

This is heartening, at least to an extent. I've argued in the past that sectarian attacks seemed to be the work of an extremist minority within an insurgency whose mainstream concentrates on military targets (and that bringing peace to Iraq could therefore come largely through political accomodation, rather than a simple fight to the death with the fanatics). The first graph ("insurgent attacks in Iraq") in this BBC article published the earlier in the week seem to bear that out. However, this report from the International Crisis Group argues that any blurred dividing line between these two tendencies has been evaporating and that the insurgency has been consolidating around an extremist Islamist leadership, thus heightening the prospects of protracted conflict and civil war. If sectarianism is actually rolling back amongst Sunni popular opinion then that at least puts limits on the drift to extremism, since the insugency can't survive without a sustainable level of support from the population. The ICG report makes clear that the broad insurgency is aware of the unpopularity of sectarianism, and distances itself from such acts in its propaganda. But that hasn't stopped the attacks from taking place, or the extremist tendency from extending its grip on the resistance as a whole.

The success of attempts to get a sense of popular opinion in Iraq - as with attempts to understand the nature of the broader Sunni insurgency and other actors in the civil conflict - are always going to be severely limited by the chaotic situation on the ground. But these studies can still be very useful in gaining as clear an understanding of the facts as possible; an essential task if we in the west are to engage with the situation effectively, and understand the consequences of our government's policies.

[Additional 27/8/2006 - a new poll shows that 91.7 percent of Iraqis oppose the occupation. And the feelings are intense. 84.5% are "strongly opposed" to the occupation. Among Sunnis, opposition to the US presence went from 94.5% to 97.9% (97.2% "strongly opposed"). Among Shia, opposition to the US presence went from 81.2% to 94.6%, with "strongly opposed" going from 63.5% to 89.7%. Even among the Kurds, opposition went from 19.6% to 63.3% (with 30.6% "strongly opposed").

Of course, Bush and Blair et al would react scornfully to any suggestion that troops should pull out, which tells you exactly what they think about Iraqi democracy.

You may remember an tourist ad for the US in the early nineties which finished with Bush I asking the viewer "so what are you waiting for? An invitation from the President?"

So what's his son waiting for now? Individual signed letters from every inhabitant of Iraq?

Also according to the poll, asked for "the three main reasons for the U.S. invasion of Iraq", less than 2% chose "to bring democracy to Iraq" as their first choice. The list was topped by "to control Iraqi oil" (76%), followed by "to build military bases" (41%) and "to help Israel" (32%).

Seems the backward "Arab street" has a rather keener grasp on reality than the Western political classes.]

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Iraq and "the lowered expectation of President Bush"

Whilst the world has been focusing on the Israeli-Hizbollah war over the past few weeks, Iraq has continued to sink into the depths.

For example, whereas around 1,000 people are thought to have died in Lebanon, Baghdad morgue reports that it took in 1,815 bodies during July. Recall that (a) this is only Baghdad, and (b) the amount of bodies that wind up in the morgue will only represent a fraction of the deaths even in that city. The UK's Royal Institute of International Affairs, aka 'Chatham House', published a report yesterday saying that Iran, not the US, is now the dominant power in Iraq (and indeed the wider Middle East). Notice that this is despite the US having had 130,000+ troops, several billions of dollars worth of hardware and a massive administrative presence occupying Iraq for the last 3 years. Another lesson in the nature and limits of power in the modern world, alongside Israel's humiliation at the hands of Hizbollah.

Its perhaps with the facts described by Chatham House in mind that the US is apparently moving towards dispensing with even its formal commitment to Iraqi democracy (which was always fraudulant in any case). On August 3, it emerged that Britain's outgoing ambassador in Baghdad had warned the Prime Minister in a confidential memo that "the prospect of a low intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy. Even the lowered expectation of President Bush for Iraq - a government that can sustain itself, defend itself and govern itself and is an ally in the war on terror - must remain in doubt".

Note the clear distinction the ambassador draws between on the one hand "a stable democracy" and on the other, "the lowered expectation of President Bush".

And then there's this little nugget of info, creeping in at the back-end of an August 17 piece in the New York Times:

"Yet some outside experts who have recently visited the White House said Bush administration officials were beginning to plan for the possibility that Iraq's democratically elected government might not survive.

"'Senior administration officials have acknowledged to me that they are considering alternatives other than democracy,' said one military affairs expert who received an Iraq briefing at the White House last month and agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.

"'Everybody in the administration is being quite circumspect,' the expert said, ‘but you can sense their own concern that this is drifting away from democracy.'"

Of course, to fully understand what's happening you have to be prepared to translate from newspeak to English. In the language of western statesmen, "democracy" means a client state that is allowed a degree of internal freedom (well short of actual democracy) because it can ultimately be relied upon to do what it is told. On the other hand, "the lowered expectation of President Bush" is that Iraqis will have to hand back what meagre freedoms they have wrestled from the occupiers since Saddam's fall, in order to ensure that their country turns out to be an obedient servant of Washington in the long-term.

These differing modes of neo-colonialism, deployed variously depending on individual and contemporaneous circumstances, will be familiar to anyone with some knowledge of US policy in 20th century Latin America, for example.

Its tempting, when following the slow-grind horror story of day-to-day news from Iraq, to come to the conclusion that at least the bottom has been reached. Sadly, I doubt that that's true. The much-heralded yet elusive turning-point, in Iraq and the Middle East, is probably some way off yet. How far is in part up to us. Since the ever-unfolding disaster remains to no small extent our fault - as citizens of one of the countries that, as Arab League chief Amr Musa put it, opened "the gates of hell", and are holding them open even now - it remains our responsibility to (a) inform ourselves of the realities of the situation we helped to create, and (b) work to end the UK's national complicity.

So to finish, in the interests of consideration (a), here's a few recommended links.

Firstly, from the essential Tomdispatch, Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology and Faculty Director of the Undergraduate College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University, who's written some excellent pieces on Iraq at Tom Engelhardt's website, sets out "7 Facts You Might Not Know about the Iraq War".

Secondly, here's an audio link to a radio discussion between veteran activist and expert on US foreign policy Noam Chomsky, and Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post. The difference between the two men's views of what's happening is non-trivial. Ricks sees the US Iraq policy as a disastrous mistake, whilst Chomsky sees it as a crime. But at no point does the discussion approach the sort of tedious slanging match that political debate is so often reduced to. Rather we have a fruitful, informed and productive discussion that will reward both listeners that are new to the topic and those that have been following events closely.

Beyond that, you could do worse than spend 15 minutes each morning reading Juan Cole's daily news summary and expert analysis. Still the best source on the web, in my opinion.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The War on Terror in pictures

(above) A destroyed clothing factory following an Israeli air strike in suburbs of Beirut; August 12; AP






(left) Picture taken 12 August 2006 shows buildings destroyed by Israeli bombardment in the southern suburbs of Beirut; AFP






(right) The middle floors of an apartment building in the suburbs of Beirut after an Israeli air strike Saturday, August 12; AP









(right) No walking street sign is seen next to a destroyed building that used to house the offices and studios of Hezbollah's Al Nour radio station; AP.



"Smile, my son, otherwise we may be accused of anti-Semitism."

Pictures from the indispensable Norman Finkelstein.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

The Roots of Terror

The debate over what causes Islamic extremist terrorism will be rejoined in the coming weeks, with those who say it is rooted in political grievances lined up against those who blame the deviant pathologies of "Islamofascism". The media will give equal weight and time to both these argument irrespective of the objective fact, as set out by the experts over and over again, that the balance of merit between the two positions is entirely in favour of the former.

I wrote
this article after the London bombings last year, describing each of the several instances where the security services have warned the government that its foreign policy is increasing the threat of terror attacks on Britian. Now Robert Pape, professor of political studies at the University of Chicago, is publishing the results of his exhaustive study of 462 suicide bombings in recent history, which surely make him the world's foremost expert on the phenomenon. His conclusion is that "There is not the close connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism that many people think. Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist campaigns have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organisations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective. Most often, it is a response to foreign occupation."

Though the foiled terror attacks on planes leaving the UK were planned for many months, so cannot have been caused by events in Lebanon since 12 July, there can be little serious doubt either that their inspiration was Western foreign policy, or that Britain's current policy towards the Israel-Hizballah war is seriously increasing the already considerable threat of many future attempts by terrorists to inflict death and destruction on this country, some of which will not be foiled.

As I wrote last year, "Britons may wish to take another look at those to whom they have entrusted their safety and security. They may wish to reflect on the fact that their government is deliberately and repeatedly ignoring the advice of the UK’s intelligence services, departmental advisers and independent experts, and pursuing policies that are increasing the threat of terrorist attacks on Britain. They may wish to reflect that, with ... the threat of further atrocities hanging over the country, the government is strenuously avoiding any honest discussion of the problem, preferring to obscure the issues with self-serving mendacity. They may conclude, by uncontroversial reference to the plain facts, that New Labour is clearly failing to discharge its duty of care and is therefore fundamentally unfit to govern."

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

When is a ceasefire not a ceasefire?

The answer of course is, when only one side has to stop firing.
And there's a supplementary answer: when its a formalised military victory for the other side.
After nearly a month Britain and the US have finally agreed to a draft UN resolution calling for a ceasefire, but one whose terms would secure through diplomacy what the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) has so far failed to achieve through violence. The draft resolution implicitly permits Israel to occupy southern Lebanon, and gives it the right to take military action in self-defence, which as Tel Aviv would no doubt claim, covers all the acts of violence undertaken so far (i.e. - bombing of factories producing glass and milk, farm workers loading vegetables onto refrigerated trucks, a Greek Orthodox church, telecom towers, roads, bridges, clinics and hospitals, fuel depots and Beirut’s port and airport in what renowned Middle East scholar Juan Cole described as “total war on the Lebanese civilian population”).
But whilst Israel is instructed to cease “offensive military operations” by the draft resolution, Hizballah has to cease “all attacks”.

Exasperated onlookers might ask how hard it could have been to call, at the earliest possible point after 12 July, for both sides to cease all military activity and comply with international law. But that would depend on what principal outcome you were looking for; and end to the killing, or a victory for one of the belligerents. Tony
Blair’s claim that “I agree the important thing is to get the ceasefire as soon as possible” is meaningless, since the only “ceasefire” he was interested in was one that came as a victory on Israel’s terms. Israel no doubt also wants victory as soon as possible, and if that victory comes it will cease firing, since no one keeps fighting a war after they have won it.
Of course, it should be recalled that the US and the UK weren't remotely interested in any negotiated solution until it became clear that Israel was failing to achieve its objectives against Hizballah by force alone. Only since the ominous resilliance of Hizballah's forces became clear did they step up their diplomatic efforts from simply trying to silence any international censure of Israel to attempting to impose a formal settlement in Tel Aviv's favour, whilst leaving their ally to pursue the military track simultaneously. Winston Churchill said that it is better to jaw-jaw than war war, but Blair and Bush clearly don't believe that this is necessarily true. This afternoon, the proposed draft appears to be failing, but that won't concern Washington and London unduly since stopping the violence - as they have made abundently clear - is not an end in itself. What they want is to attain their strategic objectives. If that can be achieved through diplomacy then fine. But for now the central policy remains as I described in an earlier article: "give war a chance".

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Hasta La Victoria Siempre

With suspicion growing that Fidel Castro’s handover of power may not be temporary, some on the left may be prompted to mark the occasion with ill-considered statements like these from George Galloway, speaking to the Independent on Sunday in 2004.

Galloway - He’s a hero. Fidel Castro is a hero.

IOS - He's a dict. . .

Galloway - I don't believe that Fidel Castro is a dictator

IOS - I honestly can't think of anything to say to this.

Galloway - Fidel Castro is a great revolutionary leader. But for 40 years or more of siege, undoubtedly Cuba would have developed, democratically speaking, differently. But when the enemy is at the gates, spending billions to destroy the revolution, you have to accept that there will be restrictions on political freedoms in a place like Cuba.

IOS - You've met El Presidente, I take it

Galloway - Yes. Magnificent. He’s the most magnificent human being I’ve ever met.

Of course, there’s no doubting the social benefits Cuba enjoys as compared to many of its regional neighbours, and this achieved under decades of siege from world’s only superpower. Writing in the UK Guardian in July 2003, Seamus Milne pointed out that, “Cuba has achieved first world health and education standards in a third world country, its infant mortality and literacy rates now rivalling or outstripping those of the US, its class sizes a third smaller than in Britain - while next door, in the US-backed ‘democracy’ of Haiti, half the population is unable to read and infant mortality is over 10 times higher…[Cuba] has sent 50,000 doctors to work for free in 93 third world countries and given a free university education to 1,000 third world students a year”.

Moreover, had Cuba not repelled the advances of its American suitor, the island’s people might well have suffered the gruesome fate of others in the region; countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Panama where US-backed state terror of various descriptions inflicted bloodbaths reminiscent of the conquistadors’ worst excesses, as the IMF drove one economy after another into the ground.

But Castro’s regime is still responsible for human rights abuses which are in no way excused by the far worse crimes of his enemies. Amnesty International reported in March 2005 that people “imprisoned for peacefully expressing their beliefs and opinions… [had been] handcuffed and kept in tiny ‘punishment cells’ infested with rats and cockroaches. …Prison guards reportedly stamped on the neck of Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, causing him to pass out during a beating last November while he was handcuffed. Another man, Luis Enrique Ferrer Garcia, was reportedly stripped and beaten by guards. …[The men] were arrested for ‘offences’ such as publishing critical articles or communicating with human rights groups”.

As Galloway points out, Cuba is a nation under siege, not least by a murderous sanctions regime. When Britain curtailed its civil liberties during World War II there were decent justifications for those measures under the circumstances. But is it strictly necessary, in the interests of defending one’s country, to stamp on someone's neck for “peacefully expressing their beliefs and opinions”? And can the man ultimately responsible for such abuses seriously be described, quite unambiguously, as “a hero… the most magnificent human being I’ve ever met”?

An extremely strong case can be made for saying that, on balance, Cuba is comparatively better off under Castro than as a US client state. But there are at least elements on the left who, to my mind, need to be able to hold these two thoughts in their head simultaneously:

(a) Cuba is better off independent of the US; and
(b) Castro has presided over a repressive, human-rights abusing dictatorship that should be replaced with a democracy without any delay.

As political change unfolds, Cuba may now see openings emerge that offer the chance to build a democracy, where economic and social welfare come together with real political and social freedoms. This independent development could be underwritten by growing international partnerships, with Latin America in general and oil-rich Venezuela in particular. In fact, the rise of an independent South America may have come at just the wrong time for those who'd like to see Cuba return to the brutal regime of Batista. It would be ironic if the death of Castro – celebrated by his enemies as the end of Cuba’s resistance to the US – turned out to be the prelude to the island’s historic split from Washington becoming permanent and irreversible. A democratic, independent Cuba, integrated with the rest of Latin America, would be all but unassailable; morally, politically and economically. The long-predicted outcome of Castro’s demise is by no means a done deal yet.