Cuba – Beyond independence…

At the showcase agricultural community of Las Terrazas in Cuba’s Sierra del Rosario, I sip a café con leche at the state-owned Café de Maria and try to tune my Short Wave radio to the BBC.

Model community - Las Terrazas, Sierra del Rosario, Cuba
Model citizens – Las Terrazas, Sierra del Rosario, Cuba

For Cubans, conduits to world news remain constricted. Internet at six Convertible Pesos (CUC) an hour is out of reach for most – a Cuban doctor earns just twenty CUCs a month; satellite TV is available only at international hotels.

Beneath the café’s veranda hens and chicks scratch in the undergrowth, wary of overflights by ever-watchful turkey vultures. Concentrating to distinguish the calm tones of Bush House there’s determined local interference. Cocks, loudly complaining sets of feathery bellows, crow almost constantly, dogs bark, babies cry, women shout in delight or desperation, live music plays and motorised wheelbarrows… well you get the picture. I turn off the radio.

Later, in Trinidad narrow cobbled streets and pastel–coloured buildings are distinctly un-socialist. Formerly a centre for Cuba’s highly profitable sugar industry the once brash opulence of its ornate architecture is now described in official UNESCO terms as shabby chic.

Trinidad - after the sugar rush
Trinidad – after the sugar rush

At the Museo de Historia Municipal, a 19th century plantation owner’s house, miserable earthenware and bone shards of Cuba’s pre-colonial civilisation are lost in a display cabinet. A brace of British naval canon stand to attention in the courtyard, still saluting a dark 18th century deal with Spain that saw Britain swap Cuba for Florida, ending the Seven Years War. In a side gallery a case contains one of the country’s few star-spangled banners, a flag that flew over Trinidad in December 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. Nearby, a typewriter used by El Comandante Che occupies the same cabinet as photographs of Fidel Castro canvassing voters before the 1952 election – an event negated by Uncle Sam’s man, Fulgencio Batista, who led a coup d’etat before votes were even cast.

At its height supplying almost a third of the world’s sugar, Cuba’s 19th century struggles for independence disrupted exports. US military intervention to ‘free’ the country from Spanish rule introduced new refining methods and saw the industry’s focus shift from Trinidad. More fundamentally, sugar profits were effectively siphoned off-shore by a swathe of centralised, US-owned sugar mills. After Castro’s revolution production was nationalised and Cuba’s addiction to a sugar continued, fed by a ready market in the USSR, a sweet tooth that ceased overnight in December 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet superstate.

Havana's Capitolio, modelled on Washington's Capitol Building
Havana’s Capitolio, modelled on Washington’s Capitol Building

Back in Havana I loll over a pleasantly cold beer in Hotel Sevilla’s open and airy lobby bar. The walls are hung with black and white photographs of another age, Hollywood stars of the silver screen, indolent socialites, gamblers, and ne’er-do-well mobsters such as Lucky Luciano and Al Capone. Graham Greene too stayed here while penning absurdist tales of Cuban beauties, Catholic guilt and vacuum cleaners in Our Man in Havana.

How times changed. The US embargo on Cuba endures, now in its 54th year, despite no such qualms regarding trade with many more unsavoury regimes. Indeed in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse restrictions were tightened, some in Congress perhaps swayed by domestic political interests sensing an opportunity. In the face of what was interpreted as vindictive bullying, Cubans’ spirit of national unity was strengthened. Combined with innovative programmes of austerity and a lifeline of Venezuelan oil cast by the late Hugo Chavez, Havana’s lights stayed defiantly on. Degrees of economic liberalisation have followed, and as the generation of the revolution dwindles and the Castros themselves bow out, Cuba is set to become a very different place, but not quite yet…

Today, streets nearby Hotel Sevilla are still populated by ill lit over staffed shops, arrays of pointless wares spread thinly under glass. Global brands are conspicuous by their absence. At a corner grocery store livelier than most I peer inside. It sells mostly biscuits and rum. I need neither but enter anyway.

Children of the revolution, Havana
Children of the revolution, Havana

‘My friend, what are you looking for, what do you want?’ asks one of several loitering youths.
‘I’m not sure,’ I reply honestly, unnerved by his zeal.
‘Look, here.’ He points at shelves filled by bottles of Havana Club. ‘Very typical. Very, very typical but, ha, not very good.’
‘Is this your shop?’ I enquire.
‘No my friend… this is the shop of Fidel.’

European colonial occupation, domination by the US and uneasy existence as a Soviet client state, Cuba’s Fidelist regime has outlasted all its erstwhile Socialist allies. It’s not a free country but by some measures Cuba is now more independent than ever.

Benghazi – the day after…

Right now it seems there’s so much bad news from Libya that the networks are tired of carrying it.  Even my most optimistic contacts in Benghazi report that security has deteriorated.  However, against the chaos of kidnappings and assassinations it’s easy to forget that Libya under Gaddafi wasn’t exactly a bed of roses either.  The piece below was published last summer in The Middle East magazine, and was based on trip I made in March 2013.  

Benghazi – the day after…

At Benghazi’s Café Tikka bearded baristas serve a steady stream of clients, eager for their morning dose of industrial strength Turkish coffee. On the nicotine-stained walls a gallery of black and white photographs re – cord an unfamiliar city of well-kept squares, neatly trimmed hedges and ordered streets sparsely filled by traffic of curvy 1950s saloons.

Cafe Tikka, Benghazi
Cafe Tikka, Benghazi

Idris, first and last king of Libya, deposed by the ‘Free Officers’ of Gaddafi’s 1969 coup, has equal billing with a stylised image of elderly anti-colonialist fighter Omar Mukhtar, from whom the well-worn Italianate boulevard outside takes its name.  I order a coffee ‘ mazboot ’ – medium sugar, it’s pointless asking for decaf here, grab a small bottle of water and take a seat.

Compared with the heady days of the 2011 revolution the café’s atmosphere carries an understandably lower charge, people no longer sustained by nervous energy, overcome by an almost clinical predisposition to unload, but they are still happy to talk. “At the BBC , I used to listen on summer evenings.  It was very clear.  Here Gaddafi controlled information, and everything else.  The daily news was maybe two hours, just about him, who he was meeting, what he was doing, telling us nothing.” Fwouzi Ariby worked for Libyan Arab Airlines as a dispatcher and was not sorry to see the back of the old regime.  “Before, security was everywhere, pictures of Gaddafi everywhere.  It was oppressive.  I was locked up for four months just because I supported Benghazi’s Al Ahly football team,” Fwouzi sits back in his chair incredulous at his own recollection.

There is a tap on my shoulder and someone offers me a cigarette, despite having given up years ago, for a moment I consider taking it – already there’s so much smoke in Café Tikka it would make little difference. “This man,” says Fwouzi indicating his neighbour, “has a boat and used to take guns to Misrata when it was under siege.  Everybody in this café has a story.” Fwouzi picks up a small bottle of water, “42 years like this,” he says, shaking the bottle and pointing to the top, “and now like this,” taking the top off and pouring the contents into his glass. “It’s not perfect. The French Revolution took more than 10 years.  Look at the traffic, it’s crazy.  Some people who drive they cross a red signal saying ‘Libya is free’… but we will get there, step by step.”

I ask about the continued presence of militias, and Omar, a professor from the city’s university, leans over to join the conversation. “The government is very weak.  To move from Benghazi to Tripoli, it was really stupid.  It was the lure of the capital,” he rolls his eyes, “They were building strong relationships here and then they cut them.  They have forces to deal with these militias but don’t use them.  They need to demonstrate their authority and earn the respect of the people.  Before the people knew only fear of authority not respect.”

I mention that I’d travelled some 200km from Benghazi to the extensive Greco-Roman site at Cyrene, only a small part of Libya’s remarkable archaeological wealth.  However, further east towards Derna, check-points manned by hard-line Ansar Al Sharia militia had made continued progress unwise. “Yes, I have friends in Derna,” says Omar.  “They tell me militia graffiti says ‘Mali – we are coming’.  If that’s the case we are

Cyrene - beat the crowds...
Cyrene – beat the crowds…

happy.  We will pay for their tickets.  These extremists are illiterate but well armed and well trained.  They suffered a lot under Gaddafi, the Internal Security used to tie them to chairs and set their beards alight.  You can understand why they don’t want central authority – police, army or government, just militia commanders as in Kandahar.  But I don’t think they will succeed, we’re all Sunni here, no divisions like Syria or Iraq, and whatever happens next it can’t be worse than Gaddafi.”

It’s time to take some fresh air.  Together with a headache, the accumulated assault of caffeine and second-hand smoke has destroyed my ability to string a sentence together.  I make my apologies to Fwouzi and Omar and leave without being able to pay my bill – Libyan hospitality is genuine and second to none.

Outside I wave my right hand as though bouncing a basketball, the recognised signal to the variously beaten up vehicles characterising Benghazi traffic, that I intend crossing the road.  At a kiosk set amidst a grassy, litter-strewn square I sit down on a dubious white plastic chair in the shade of an insubstantial wooden gazebo and order a shawarma, Benghazi’s ubiquitous street food.  Leaning back and looking around, I can see upper storey windows still scorched by fire.  High up in one building curtains billow from glassless windows and gusts of wind slam doors at irregular intervals.  Across the street, once bedecked by giant banners, the NTC’s former media centre where I’d been part of an international press pack mingling with techno-savvy revolutionary Libyan youth, is locked and silent.  It seems like the party is over.  Despite the fumes of sclerotic traffic, fresh air rolling in from the nearby Mediterranean soon clears my head.

Beyond the square’s dry and dusty fountains, a former government building seems surprisingly open.  I’m curious and walk over, poking my head uninvited through a door and interrupting a meeting of 20 or so men of differing ages seated around a long table. Anwar Abdul Salam, Director of the Libyan Political Prisoners Society kindly invites me in, taking me to a side room where we chat without disturbing the others. “I wasn’t even in an anti-government organisation, I only knew some people involved. A friend told me about a dream where he’d seen Gaddafi dead, and that was enough to put me in Abu Salim jail for 12 years.”  Gaddafi’s notorious prison witnessed a massacre of an estimated 1,270 inmates over two days in 1996, precise details are still being established.  “We heard the gun shots and asked the guards what had happened. They said ‘Shut up and keep quiet!’  We heard whispers… but what could we do?  I still don’t know why we survived.  Our families knew we were there, perhaps this is why. And, Al Hamdulillah, we lived to the revolution and we saw Gadaffi killed.”  How many people do you represent I ask? “Oh, around 1,600 here in Benghazi, men, women even children – Gaddafi didn’t differentiate, and maybe 3,000 across Libya. We had two or three meetings with the Transitional Council and they said they wanted to help, but since they transferred to Tripoli it’s more difficult.  These prisoners, they faced Gaddafi, they dared to say ‘No’ and the Libyan people know what it meant to say ‘No’. It’s a must for us now to help them.” What about the future I ask?  He looks thoughtful, “Some bad things happen now.  42 years will not change just like that,” he clicks his fingers, finally defining Libya’s revolution and others past and present:  “But at least now we have freedom. We can talk.  In the end we won our country back.  It was lost.”

First published in The Middle East, June 2013.



From Our Own Correspondent – Bangladesh – Chittagong Hill Tracts

For those who weren’t tuned to the BBC World Service, 2nd April at 19:50 GMT,  here’s a link to my latest From Our Own Correspondent piece –  I butt in around 4′ 30″.

If you’d rather read the copy, as delivered from a rather too-snug wardrobe at BBC Newcastle, I’ve pasted it in below the following brief intro paragraph…

Bangladesh – Chittagong Hill Tracts

Independent since 1971, Bangladesh’s 154m citizens share one of the world’s youngest states.

To most the country is universally Islamic, overpopulated and flood-prone. If it’s not a cyclone or a ferry capsize it’s an horrific factory fire or even a plague of rats. Bangladesh is simply a disaster waiting to happen…


A headache-inducing three-wheeler ride from Chittagong airport, and a further two hours’ drive to the town of Bandarban; beyond military checkpoints, Bangladesh gets complicated.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts are sparsely populated, home to the country’s few 1,000 metre peaks. Unlike the Bengali lowlands, indigenous tribal peoples account for the majority here. Most are Buddhist, many Christian. Shining temples and modest wooden churches are surprising sights in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh - flat, flooded and overpopulated?
Bangladesh – flat, flooded and overpopulated?

Beyond the colourful maelstrom of Bandarban, a tribal village of the Bawm people is a quiet place. Simple wooden and bamboo houses, a tea-shop and a Presbyterian church, sit by a leafy green track ascending the hillside. It’s the dry season but it’s raining. Water drips from tin roofs fast forming muddy puddles. Chickens peck speculatively. I take shelter in the tea-shop.

Climbing a few rickety steps, it’s a rudimentary affair, open sides, three rustic tables, a scattering of listless men. Faces are more oriental than south Asian. A colourfully dressed woman sitting on the floor is in charge, her orbit of children distributing steaming glasses of sweet, milky cha tea. I ask where I can find the karbari, the village leader. It turns out he’s ensconced at one of the tables. An unassuming older man, dressed in shorts and greying t-shirt, he invites me to join him.

‘We came here from the Burma border because of better amenities, schools and clinics,’ he says. ‘Everything is fine, only the religion is different. We’re not told what to do by the government.’

‘Why is the army here?’ I ask.
‘The army came to look after us when there was fighting.’ The karbari’s words are too carefully chosen and I ask my guide to offer reassurance by disclosing his own unmistakably Hindu minority name.

As he does, a younger man, Lal Ram Bawm, earnestly interrupts. ‘The army would say they’re here to protect the country, to defend the border,’ he says. ‘But we don’t need so many soldiers now.’

The deployment is a hangover from the twenty-year Shanti Bahini insurgency, a reaction to Dhaka’s newly independent government riding roughshod over indigenous land rights, even promoting land grabs.

An agreement ending the violence was signed in 1997, but much remains to be implemented. Tribal people complain they’re marginalised, at worst persecuted, and that the army is complicit. The army argues its continued presence is vital for security.

‘All land is occupied by the army,’ says Lal Ram. ‘We need permission from the army to move. 16km from here they pushed all indigenous people out, nearly 1,500 from the Mru tribe, and then built a training camp.’
‘Didn’t they know it was tribal land?’ I ask.
‘Oh, they knew. They just did it anyway,’ he replies, to the murmured agreement of others.

The rain intensifies. More young men group around to listen. I order cha for our table.

‘Everywhere there is a good place for tourism they put an army camp,’ says Lal Ram. ‘They make a good business. Restaurants run by Dhaka people. Not a penny for us.’

It’s estimated some 400 temporary military camps remain in the CHT despite government promises of their removal.

Another man pitches in, ‘At Keokara Dong, near the Burma border they built a tourist place on common land. No consultation with local people,’ he says. ‘This is my motherland but if I want to build a house I have to ask permission from Bengali people. Why?’

‘How about relations with civilians?’ I enquire.

‘We have some problems with local Bengali men and their attitude to Bawm women, and other indigenous women,’ say Lal Ram ‘Some harassment, rapes, even murders. You see our lifestyle is quite free for women and girls. Bengali youths don’t understand this.’

We reach a hiatus. The tea glasses are empty.

‘We feel something like animals in a zoo,’ says Lal Ram. ‘We are captured by the army and local people too.’

Asked about his hopes for the future Lal Ram looks at me squarely, his face relaxed. ‘Firstly, the army should leave. Next we want Bengali people to leave. Then we want to look after ourselves.’

The People Want the Fall of the Regime…

It’s said that those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it, and collective memory can be surprisingly short.  Last week former Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi slipped into something more comfortable than his usual freshly pressed military dress uniform, determined to look his best civilian self for next month’s Presidential elections.

Today and Tomorrow - Front page from Egyptian newspaper  Al-Youm al-Sabi
Today and Tomorrow – Front page from Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm al-Sabi

It’s perhaps worth reprising the last days of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first ever freely elected head of state.  In March 2013 amidst increasingly erratic policy changes, amateurish gerrymandering, a perceived conservative Islamic agenda and political naivety, for Morsi the writings were not only on the city’s walls, but typed on glowing screens and sprayed on white bed sheets, once more held aloft in the protest camps of Tahrir Square.  The tenure of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government was coming to an end.  It was no longer a matter of ‘if’, only when and how.  Both these questions were addressed by the July military coup, the deaths of an estimated 1,000 Egyptians and detention of almost 16,000 others.

Returning from Libya, I spent a few days in downtown Cairo collecting the thoughts of those I encountered.  The piece I wrote was overtaken by July’s events, but at this juncture it might have regained some retrospective value.  Churchill once said, ‘No one pre­tends that democ­racy is per­fect or all-wise.  Indeed it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Govern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…’  What happens in May determines the political course of the Arab world’s most populous state for four years…  However,  the staying power of previous former military men suggests Egyptians may have rather longer than four years to privately ponder on the wisdom of Churchill’s words.

Cafe Critics – Cairo – March 2013.

Five minutes from Tahrir Square, amongst grand 19th century French facades, Café Riche has seen revolutions come and go.  In 1919 an assassin hurled two bombs from its doorway, attempting to kill British-backed Prime Minister Youssef Wahba Pasha – he failed. In 1952, nationalist hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser shared tables with the ‘Free Officers’ whilst plotting the demise of another Riche regular, the widely reviled King Farouk.

Cafe Riche - Sharia Talaat Harb, Cairo
Cafe Riche – Sharia Talaat Harb, Cairo

More recently novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, to date the Arab world’s only literary Nobel Laureate, critic of ruling regimes from Nassar to Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood, based his book, Karnak Café, on the microcosm of Café Riche.  Today the café’s basement bar still has a hidden door leading to a secret escape tunnel, a succinct exit for those whose outspoken views attracted uninvited attention. In 2011 revolution was again on the menu at Café Riche, activists seeking the council of café elders who’d lived through previous struggles, wooden tables and bespoke chairs cleared away, its floor space ready to treat those injured in Tahrir Square.

Historically Café Riche’s vantage point at the heart of Cairo has offered a clear view as high-minded ideals deferred to realpolitik or were ignored by those who never held them anyway.  ‘I’ve been coming here for half a century but now the atmosphere is not the same because the income of the people is not the same. The intellectuals, the creatives, the artists, they’re still all here,’ And so it appears are Cairo’s grumpy old men many of whom have little time for Egypt’s current leaders.  ‘Which government?  Here we have a government? It’s something new for me.’  My elderly interviewee’s sagging features transcend idealism.  To him the suggestion that governments might improve the Egyptian people’s lot seems farcical, his dismissive expression lacking even the merest hint of a smile confers impermanence on the current incumbents. ‘Look, no names. I don’t make speeches,’ he says, wearily but definitely. ‘I tell you the truth not dreams,’ this last word appearing to carry a bitter taste,  ‘This is a country with no programme. You don’t know what is to be done day-to-day, you don’t even know what is to be done for the rest of the day. A very strange country.’

Egypt’s new democracy seems at odds with Café Riche, which may account for the attitude of its clientele.  The Muslim Brotherhood’s finest minds are unlikely to be found huddled around a Riche table, sinking a cold bottle of Stella or savouring a glass of Omar Khayyam over a plate of deep-fried calamari any time soon…  The serious old men in suits occupy their regular seats and talk for hours, sharing their private jokes,but the politics of Egypt has spilled out into the open air.

Man of the Moment...
Man of the Moment…

 Down an unpromising alley just along the street the plastic chairs and rickety tables of the Al Bustan describe another café society.  ‘Café Riche? It’s for the rich,’ says Ahmed drawing on his cigarette, ‘The revolution is here, all these people. That man there,’ he points, ‘His son died. I myself saw blood in Tahrir Square. I don’t forget this.’  However, despite the change in venue political perspectives appear remarkably coincident. ‘Morsi was in Tahrir for one hour. I was there for four days. There are 95 million people in Egypt, Morsi’s support comes from just a section of five million. Where are the people of the revolution? Not in the government.’  I ask why more did not vote for the other presidential candidate, former Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafik?  ‘When the election came it was a choice between the fire and the frying pan, and the people did not want another Mubarak.’ Ahmed lights another cigarette, ‘Morsi has no programme.  Many of his people were in gaol during the Mubarak time. They were all chained up and in the dark. They need psychological counselling not to be put in power.  Morsi’s president now, maybe for tomorrow, maybe for two more years, maybe four but not more.  The people will not choose another from the Muslim Brotherhood.’

Overlooking the new tented protests pitched across Tahrir Square, tea drinkers at Café Wadi Nil have their own views.  ‘These people don’t represent Egypt,’ says Mohammed, casting a glance across the square,  ‘They want to go backwards not forwards. Morsi is not a bad man but he’s not experienced in leading a country.’  I ask about Egypt’s chronic levels of youth unemployment.  ‘There is work in Cairo,’ replies Mohammed, ‘But it’s not well paid. If people take a job and keep working they’ll earn more in the end but they don’t have the patience. Instead they stay at home or come here.’

Walking across the square a smiling small boy approaches, boldly telling me, ‘Fuck you!’, immediately taking a precautionary step back.  I pretend not to understand.  A young man follows behind, ‘So what about you? Why are you here? Are you with us?’ he demands.  I tell him that the future of Egypt is best determined by Egyptians.  He wanders off thoughtfully, satisfied or mystified, I’ll never know.

Tahrir Square, Cairo
Tahrir Square, Cairo

Sitting on the concrete surround of a Cairo metro ventilation shaft I’m offered tea by kindly, open-faced woman.  A crowd of the curious and the bored gather to watch me drink.  Two well dressed young women from Upper Egypt in turn ask to have their photograph taken with me – I smile.  My tea drained, the small boy still lingers, racking his infant brain for more profanity but before finding the words he’s shooed away by a tall youth. ‘Hi, I’m Imed, Imed the Iraqi, everybody here knows me. Shall we walk around?’  Grateful to exit the limelight I join Imed.  Beyond the tents the grass is brown, pavements scorched by fires, once shady trees chopped for firewood, the scorched windows and burnt out shell of the National Democratic Party’s headquarters looms large in the background.  ‘There are real protesters here, but also many just looking to cause trouble,’ says Imed.  ‘I’ve watched while children throw stones at police. They have nothing, so nothing to lose.’  Walking across Qasr Al-Nil bridge the view of Cairo is expansive as ever. We stand in the sunshine for a moment, looking down at a moored and empty flotilla of tourist cruisers, watching the powerful Nile current.

For many in Cairo the outcome of the Egyptian revolution remains uncertain.  Freedom was a unifying goal.  Blood was spilt and a dictator overthrown.  Across the city’s cafes and squares there’s freedom to talk but the question now for many Cairenes is whether anyone is listening? (Cairo.  March 2013)

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