By Dr Kumar David
The hot topic on the international scene today is about Libya and the deveolpments over there, because of its crucial relevance for countries such as Sri Lanka. In the aftermath of the fall of Gaddafi, the opposition in every country groaning under an autocrat is salivating at the prospect of foreign intervention. In Lanka, for sure, the Tamil minority is convinced and explicit in pronouncing that unless India and the international community get in on the act, nothing will persuade the Rajapakse regime to embark on a new constitutional dispensation.
The Libyan case is a new turn and an antidote to the pessimism of the last decade when it was thought nothing could be done to control rogue regimes. In Libya the role of foreign military power in tipping the balance was crucial. Though China’s global economic role has grown dramatically, the cutting edge of Western power is military. China is focused on mega economic projects in infrastructure and raw materials extraction, but the Arab Spring proved that both China and Russia lack the military clout to intervene or ship military assistance to their friends. In addition the international community was quick to deploy financial muscle and freeze Libyan assets. The lesson that comes across is that in matters military, or in flouting asset lock-downs, we are a far cry from the days of the Soviet Union, or Vietnam and Cuba defying imperialism.
Especially important for Lanka is the Indian Ocean. Following on Indo-American strategic agreements it can be taken as given that Chinese involvement in the littoral states will remain economic. While the odd craft may dock or spy vessel snoop, China has no stomach for deep military involvement so far from home. Her military interests, for now, lie in the Taiwan Straits, the East China Sea and in airpower of regional capability. The nigger in the woodpile of course is the oil rich South China Sea where an ugly conflict, China versus Vietnam and the Philippines, is on the boil.
Libya after Gaddafi
The method and timing of Gaddafi’s fall, I predicted with some accuracy, though I did have an anxious moment or two in the interim when his mercenaries and loyalists seemed to put-up more resistance than I had anticipated. The speed of the final collapse though did not take me by surprise. The first job, ridding Libya of this grotesque tyrant, seems to be all but complete and now the nation faces the greater challenge of uniting over a 100 tribes, writing a constitution, forming a democratic government and sustaining economic development with reasonable social and material equity. It is time to cheer, but cautiously. I am sensitive to the magnitude of future hurdles; it’s only the easy part that has been finished, the project may yet derail. But without removing Gaddafi the democratisation project could not have even got started.
The central condition, the sine qua non, was that while the revolution must accept such assistance, including military assistance of the type provided by NATO and the Western powers, as was necessary, and from any other quarter, to make certain of the overthrow of Gaddafi, it should also ensure that decision making primacy remained in Libyan hands. This condition has been met because foreign military assistance has been confined to air-strikes, logistics and limited contingents of British and French special-forces on the ground to provide essential expertise to what was in fact a rag-tag assortment of revolutionary brigades. Without military assistance the Libyan Revolution would not have achieved its objectives and I am glad that the revolutionaries had the maturity to accept such support as was essential, from whatever source it was available, to achieve their objectives.
In the next, second and far more complex stage, again Western political-constitutional ideas and funds from Europe and America (not only governments but also investors) will play a role. The Cuban leadership, Chavez, South Africa as well as Russia and China have made themselves parayas in the eyes of revolutionary Libyans for the unashamed support they extended to the tyrant who trampled Libya underfoot for decades. Consequently, an appreciation of economic models (China, Vietnam), social welfare (Cuba), women’s rights (Cuba, China), radical populism (Chavez), and like experiences, will not spread to Libya in the early post-revolutionary period. Actually, these repressive regimes, one and all, were not standing up for their semi-loony comrade in Tripoli; no, actually they were worried about their own skins.
Cuba, sans reform, will be crushed
What these regimes are terrified of, namely that their own people will rise up and throw them out, is a valid concern. The monster that needs to be thrown out next is Bashir el-Assad, the butcher of Syria. The Assad regime is at war with a mass uprising of the Syrian people in cities across the country. The scale of the repression – tanks and troops out in force to mow down civilians – has been able to hold the uprising in check so far. Syria is a far harder nut to crack than Libya because of its sensitive geo-political location, secondly the great reluctance of foreign powers to get involved and thirdly the ruthless firepower of the military. There are, of course, things of value in Syria such as secularism, women’s rights and reasonable social welfare that need to be salvaged when the old order is overthrown. This brings me to the rest of my story.
Cuba is a repressive regime; there is no denying that it is a dictatorship of sorts. At the same time the achievements of the Cuban Revolution on behalf of its people are gigantic. With all its defects, compared to the Batista years, or compared to what might have been if US Imperialism had its way and overthrew Castro as it often tried to do, Cuba can boast splendid accomplishments. The successes need to be protected and taken forward for posterity. Of highest importance are education, medical services and research, housing for the poor, equality for women and some achievements in agriculture and food. To this list one must add a genuine sense of mature national pride collated with true internationalism.
I don’t want to sound as though there have been no grievous errors on the socio-economic front and that Cuba’s crisis today is only politico-constitutional, but none can deny that the services Cuba provides, universally, for its people (education, medical care, housing) are better than what the ‘greatest nation on earth’ just two hundred miles to the north offers, universally, for its population. These are the triumphs that must be preserved as Cuba goes through inevitable storms and reforms in the years to come.
In the post Arab Spring world, no regime that denies its people a high degree of democracy can survive. The one-party, no opposition, no media freedom, pretty overcrowded with political prisoners, system of governance, cannot last. It will face challenges that will eventually terminate it. Now challenges come not from imperialist hired Contras ferried across the seas by the CIA, they are home grown. The Cuban Communist Party must face up to political and economic reforms before changes that imperial the core the social triumphs of the revolution are forced upon it. Cuba has no choice but to live in this world, not a make-believe world of its creation erected behind political walls.
Economic reforms have started, but the process is too slow; the Cuban leaders have learnt some lessons from China but are cautious for good reasons. China has grown into an economic superpower but the benefits have been distributed with gross inequity between social classes and between the rich eastern costal belt and the deep hinterland. Corruption has become a cancer in party and state, and thirdly China, a powerful state, does not face the same threats to stability that Cuba will confront when it liberalises as it eventually must. But not to liberalise out of fear, is to set ones face against history and be overrun by bigger defeats in the end.
Raul Castro and his comrades must face the music that democracy will syncopate, they must face and win free and fair elections (they can win if Putin can) and they must relax restrictions on the freedom of expression. Democracy in the Twenty-first Century is a non-negotiable demand which can no longer be traded for better material circumstances. Buyers in the political marketplace are disappearing; even in Sri Lanka vide the minorities. Without democratisation and political reform, the Cuban revolution will be crushed, and its grand social achievements will be flushed out by reaction and counterrevolution. The only way to protect these gains is to commence political reforms forthwith to match the economic reform programme which the party endorsed in February this year.
Bolivarian Revolution has an easier road ahead
Chavez has been born into the lap of democracy; that is the luxury that Venezuela enjoys. There are those who cry foul, but Hugo has got as bad as he has given in the tussle to cut corners in Venezuelan democracy. Thanks to the very fact that a substantial degree of formal democracy – opposition parties and press, free elections, the cut and thrust of an independent Congress – prevails, the social triumphs of the Bolivarian Revolution, though less deep than Cuba, are more secure. Even if stout Hugo is pushed out of power, it will not be possible to liquidate the populist and social triumphs that eight years of Chavez’s reforms have put in place. The socially less privileged have been empowered; when Chavez goes, the basic achievements of his social programmes won’t.
Victory of the right at a future presidential or congressional elections will certainly be followed by the denting of these gains, but a dent is not life threatening. To quote a web source: “After surviving a botched opposition coup, Chavez launched a series of social programs that are his most popular policies. Free health care in poor urban and rural neighbourhoods, expanded access to education, literacy programs for the elderly and cheap food markets are some of the oil-funded programs that made Chavez popular even to some in the middle class”.
However inflation and economic mismanagement remain staggering problems. Venezuela has a 27% inflation rate and wages have risen only at less than half this rate. With presidential elections due next year Chavez has introduced a Fair Prices and Costs Law to force down prices below levels that producers can sustain. This is simply not doable and will lead to widespread shortages. The root problem is populist profligacy with little regard to sound management and economic good sense. Venezuela needs a good dose of economic reform and it would be best if this can be achieved under a Chavez leadership as this will guarantee stability and level out the balance of political power to better protect the achievements of the social programmes.
Hence I am more sanguine about the long-term prospects for Venezuela than Cuba not only because the former is resource rich with oil (the Orinoco belt is one of the richest shale oil reserves in the world) but also because with democratic structures, even if somewhat frayed, in situ, and populist public consciousness high, I think the country will muddle along with a social democratic ethos even after changes of leadership and government.