Neil Clark, Progressive Cuba Basher

You cannot hope to bribe and twist, thank God, the British journalist. But seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.” -Humbert Wolfe

By Stephen Gowans

Neil Clark, British journalist, blogger and self-described paleo-lefty, has joined the unctuous club of “progressive” Cuba-bashers, by writing a screed against “Castro’s Cuba” that repeats hoary right-wing myths about the socialist country and adds some of Clark’s own.

In a 20th February 2008 article published in the Spectator, Clark launches a broadside against Cuban socialism with sneeringly ironical references to a “left-wing Utopia” and “socialist paradise” – the stock-in-trade phrases once favored by anti-communists, both of the paleo-lefty variety who eked out livings writing for “democratic left” publications financed by the CIA, and the unabashedly pro-capitalist editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times.

The workers’ paradise moniker was never one Cuba or any other country that has ever called itself socialist has adopted for itself. Instead, anti-communist ideologues invented the phrase, attributed it to Marxism-Leninism, and then used it to discredit communist countries by showing the reality didn’t live up to the Utopia they had supposedly claimed.

Clark, whose own socialism amounts to nostalgia for Old Labour, says he turned sour on Cuba when he discovered, on a visit to Havana, that it was terribly poverty-stricken! You might think he would have turned sour on Washington’s five-decades long blockade of the country – one of the principal causes of Cuba’s poverty — but as Richard Levins once wrote of other progressive Cuba-bashers, maybe Clark wanted “a cheap and easy way of being a little more mainstream” – helpful when you supplement your income, as Clark does, by writing for mainstream newspapers.

The origins of Cuba’s poverty are plain enough. Unlike Britain, whose wealth was built on centuries of slavery, colonialism and imperialism, presided over just as enthusiastically by Clark’s beloved Old Labour as by his hated Conservatives and New Labour, Cuba had always been on the exploited, not exploiting, side of the global ledger. With aid from the socialist bloc, it was, for a short time, able to pursue a new developmental trajectory, but the fall of the Soviet Union has deprived Cuba of its old supports. Add nearly five decades of unremitting US effort to strangle Cuban socialism, and Cuba’s poverty ought to come as no surprise.

Clark acknowledges US sanctions on Cuba, and denounces them as morally indefensible, but fails to acknowledge the connection between Washington’s blockade and all the things about Cuba he despises (and attributes to Castro) — from its poverty to the inequalities that have arisen as a result of the country being forced to turn to tourism to attract foreign currency. Clark notes with disgust that while Cubans have to wait in a queue for two hours to buy ice cream, tourists and Cubans with convertible pesos can buy their ice cream immediately.

You would think Clark’s egalitarian sensibilities have been outraged, but his over-heated rhetoric points to his playing at propaganda. The inequality between the peso- and convertible peso-economies becomes, in Clark’s hands, “a form of apartheid” that still operates “14 years after South Africa abolished apartheid.”

Heaping slur upon slur, Clark reaches into the anti-communist grab-bag for this pearl: The “regime” uses sanctions as a smokescreen to cover up inefficiencies and corruption — a line Clark could have lifted directly off the pages of a George Bush speech. If the line is true, why not drop the sanctions, and deprive the Cuban government of its smokescreen?

The use of “regime” to refer to Cuba’s government also marks Clark as a propagandist — or as a journalist ingratiating himself with editors of mainstream newspapers (the same thing.)

The typical discourse in the Western media used to be to refer to the Soviet Union as having a regime, secret police, and satellites, while Britain had a government, security services, and allies. Clark borrows from this lexicon, referring to Cuban ministers as Castro’s “cronies” who make up “a tiny, corrupt, elite” that “lives in luxury.” The luxury, according to Clark, is a fleet of BMWs used to ferry high state officials from one appointment to another. As to corruption, it’s impossible to say what Clark is referring to because he doesn’t follow up. He simply makes the corruption charge, and moves on to more bashing.

Much as Clark dislikes Brown and his ministers, I’ve never heard him refer to the cabinet as Brown’s cronies, who head up a regime, and live in luxury, because they have access to government limousines. But maybe that’s because Britain has never claimed to be a socialist paradise or a left-wing Utopia. But, then, neither has Cuba.

Indefatigably mimicking tired right-wing nonsense, Clark warns us that in Castro’s Cuba you can be threatened with prison “just for criticizing the country’s leadership,” but offers no examples of anyone this has ever happened to. No matter. Despite the mainstream press’s boasts about its devotion to fact-checking, anyone who writes for the Spectator, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, The Times and Guardian, as Clark does, is free to make whatever allegations are necessary to blacken the reputations of socialist states without having to bear the burden of producing a jot of evidence to back themselves up.

But if Clark’s making unsubstantiated accusations paints him as someone who’s happy to stoop to innuendo to grind an ideological axe, his complaining that in Cuba the threat of prison can be made just “for querying a medical bill” marks him as a rank propagandist.

Clark is referring to himself here. Visiting Havana, Clark came down with an earache, and consulted what he understood to be a nurse at his hotel, but turned out to be a doctor. Presented with a bill for services rendered, he refused to pay. When he tried to skip out, the hotel threatened to call the police.

There is a huge difference between being threatened with prison for querying a bill and being threatened with a visit by the police for refusing to pay a bill. But in the hands of a journalist trying to shore up his mainstream credentials with a bit of Cuba bashing, the difference disappears, and becomes a tall tale to discredit a country led by real socialists.

Clark’s lament that “Castro’s Cuba was no place for a socialist like me” puts me in mind of a self-proclaimed Italian paleo-Anglophile visiting London after the Blitz. “I’ve certainly witnessed devastation, but nothing prepared me for the back streets of London,” he writes. “German bombing is routinely blamed by Britain’s defenders for London’s plight. But while the bombing was harsh and morally indefensible, there’s little doubt it has been used by the regime as a smokescreen to cover up inefficiencies and corruption.”

Absurd, but no less absurd than Clark’s Cuba bashing.

2 thoughts on “Neil Clark, Progressive Cuba Basher

  1. As a blogging companero of Neil, I feel compelled to defend him – but only on grounds of lacking a Marxian understanding of imperialism and perhaps having not travelled to other countries in the region.

    Nick isn’t exactly one of the literati over here – he’s not got a column in a big name paper, so don’t knock him to hard.

    Have you emailed or commented on his story – he’s posted it on his blog.

    Like I say, Neil’s right on most things – but penning a hit piece for the Spectator (a hard right Establishment magazine) is not one of them.

  2. Thanks for this commentary which I have forewarded out to the 1130 subscribers to the CubaNews list. I am familiar with your writings from Louis Proyect’s Marxmail list.

    If you’d like to add my list to your links, that would be great. I’ll add yours to mine.

    Just a bit about me:

    Cuba is the only country on the planet where a military base and now a torture prison for people held indefinitely without charge or trial continues to occupy a part of the country’s territory. This is done by the United States government, whose public legislation commits it to the overthrow of the Cuban system and the restoration of capitalism. Through the laws such as Helms-Burton and Torricelli, and the Cuban Adjustment Act, Washington works ACTIVELY to overthrow the Cuban system.

    Cuba: has it ever tried to overthrow the United States government? Never! They sent a few agents to infiltrate right-wing Cuban exile organizations, one which organized terrorist activities against Cuba, but that’s about it.

    In this context, Cuba and the United States are not and cannot be equal. Cuba’s government certainly does limit democratic rights. But in a situation like David and Goliath, Cuba does what it feels it must to defend itself. Look at Iraq today and you can see what Cuba would look like if it were “liberated” by Washington.

    In Guantanamo, the world can see what legal system Washington would impose on the rest of Cuba if only it could. In Guantanamo, which is United States occupied territory, prisoners are held without trial for years, and are told they could be held indefinitely even if not found guilty there. In this context, Cuba’s defensive measures should surprise no one.

    My father and his parents lived in Cuba from 1939 to 1942. They were German Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and not political left-wingers. That family history is where my own interest in Cuba comes from. My dad met my mom in the United States and that’s how I came into this world.

    Cuban society today represents an effort to build an alternative to the way life was under the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who ran Cuba before Fidel Castro led a revolution there. No one complained about a lack of human rights and democracy in those days, but U.S. businesses were protected.

    Some things work, some don’t. Like any society, Cuba its flaws and contradictions, as well as having solid achievements. No society is perfect. But we can certainly learn a few things from Cuba’s experience. I think we can learn more than a few.

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