From Cuba to Palestine, when revolutionaries end up as dictators, the people pay the price

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Ismael Francisco/AP

Who betrayed the revolution? It’s a question exercising Cubans after last week’s harsh regime crackdown on street protesters marching for freedom. It’s also a conundrum for other erstwhile liberation movements now wielding power in places as far apart as South Africa, Nicaragua and Palestine. Too often, it seems, the new bosses behave little better than the old bosses they overthrew.

Those on the progressive left face an obvious dilemma when revolutionary causes backfire. In keeping with a simplistic American tradition, US president Joe Biden is busily dividing up the world into good and bad guys, democrats and autocrats. Attention has mostly focused on authoritarian rightwing leaders, as in Brazil, Belarus, Russia and Myanmar.

But what of the dictatorships of the left? China does not easily fit this definition, since it long ago swapped communist theory for capitalist practice – though the CCP won’t admit it. In contrast, Cuba’s top cadres, self-appointed heirs to Fidel Castro, keep faith with old-school Marxist ideology and rhetoric. In textbook fashion, Cuba’s president dismissed the protests as a Yanqui plot.

Miguel Díaz-Canel defaulted to the time-worn narrative of a Bay of Pigs-style putsch cooked up by mercenaries and subversives in Miami. “They will have to go over our bodies if they want to confront the revolution,” the 61-year-old party bureaucrat declared, glossing over his lack of Che Guevara expertise. The demonstrators were “confused revolutionaries”, he said – a term more aptly applicable to himself.

© Photograph: Ismael Francisco/AP A anti-government protesters march in Havana, Cuba, on Sunday, 11 July, angry over the lack of basic goods and foodstuffs.

More honest by far would have been an acknowledgement that any “confusion” among Cubans stems from hardships caused by a shrinking economy, mis-governance, Covid-19, US sanctions, and shortages of subsidised Venezuelan oil – and by the failure of a democratically illegitimate, corrupt regime to address them. Locking up protesters and journalists is no answer.

So is it fair to say Cuba’s communists have betrayed their own revolution? Not entirely. Castro’s post-1959 Cuba suffered decades of US-led manipulation and interference. Efforts to build a fairer society were sabotaged from without.

Biden is less overtly hostile. But a fundamental change in US policy looks unlikely, given the importance of Florida’s Republican-leaning Latino vote in next year’s midterm elections. Knowing this, Cuba’s leaders won’t willingly change either. So the siege – and the struggle – continue.

Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, veteran of the 1981-90 war with US-funded rightwing Contra rebels, argues similarly that the country’s 1979 revolution is relentlessly betrayed and subverted from abroad – although, in its heyday, his Sandinista Front enjoyed overseas support, not least in Britain.

How disappointing, then, that Ortega has turned into a modern-day version of Anastasio Somoza, the dictator he toppled. Like another socialist hero, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and his sinister successor, Nicolas Maduro, he has eviscerated opposition parties, abolished term limits, corralled the judiciary and media, and detained opponents. It was just like old times when Washington imposed sanctions last week.

In a very real sense, Nicaragua’s revolution never had a chance. The global geopolitical, financial and trade systems were stacked against it. More than 40 years on, the country remains among the very poorest in the western hemisphere.

Yet that’s not how Ortega tells it. He and his wife, vice-president Rosario Murillo, cling, with weird incongruity, to the mantle of successful, mould-breaking revolutionaries. In the debate about mutual betrayal, who’s kidding who?

Entrenched poverty, a history of colonial exploitation, and the legacies of war were challenges also faced by 20th-century African freedom fighters. But once in charge, they too often fell short as power corroded principle.

In energy-rich Angola and Mozambique, where cash trumps the collective, supposedly leftish liberators are the new elites while the people stay poor. Robert Mugabe’s post-independence Zimbabwe was a disaster in a league of its own.

Yet how to explain the unrest now shaking South Africa, which when the African National Congress took charge in 1994 was the continent’s richest economy? These latest riots and looting are not, ultimately, about the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma but about the imprisoned dream of a post-apartheid era of shared prosperity and equal opportunity.

Circumstances have undoubtedly conspired against South Africa. The economic ravages of Covid, now in a third wave, have been especially severe. Unemployment in the first three months of 2021 was above 32%. Joblessness among young people is the highest in the world. Yet all that does not wholly explain the meltdown.

The bottom line is that the ANC, weakened by endless power struggles and corruption scandals, has signally failed to fulfil the hopes invested in Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation – and the people are paying the price. A once inspirational movement has palpably lost its way. Its deployment of troops against desperate civilians carries ominous echoes of the past.

For those concerned about rising authoritarianism on the left, the dictatorial behaviour of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, is uniquely troubling. The unpopular 85-year-old Fatah leader has not faced a general election since 2006. His administration is seen as self-serving, divisive and ineffective. The recent death in custody of a critic, Nizar Banat, provoked howls of protest across the West Bank that were harshly suppressed.

Palestinian statehood is a hugely symbolic leftwing cause. But under the dead hand of the ruler of Ramallah, the vision fades as overseas interest ebbs and Israel shamelessly usurps its land. Palestinians badly need fresh, unifying, democratically elected leaders who can curb the violence of Hamas hardliners, avoid Israeli, Saudi and Iranian political snares, and rekindle active international support for a viable two-state solution.

In order to win, the terms on which this and other battles are fought must change. Old lessons about freedom must be learned afresh, the slide into authoritarianism resisted. It’s time for a revolution on the left.

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