Last week saw two events that seem quite unrelated but in fact tell us a lot about changes in the global political economy over the last decades, changes that have accelerated since the end of the Cold War. The first event was a speech by Fidel Castro on the final day of the Communist Party Congress in Cuba. It was in many ways a farewell speech by the almost 90-year old former maximo líder who has been in poor health for some time, and he acknowledged as much. But at a time when almost everybody I know of whatever political persuasion follows in the footsteps of President Obama and rushes into Cuba to see it ‘before it becomes like the US’, Fidel Castro reminded those present of a time when Cuba, in spite of all its faults, served as a beacon of hope for many who believed a different world was possible. The ideas of the Cuban communists will remain as proof on this planet that if they are worked at with fervour and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need, and we need to fight without truce to obtain them, Fidel Castro said in his speech.
And while today’s tourists are mainly in search of some sort of nostalgia on the cheap, I remember visits to Cuba during different times. In the 1980s and 1990s – and the last time I have been to Cuba was in 1993, at a time when many of the economic problems Cuba faced were particularly acute, many Cubans were still proud of their attempt to built a society based on different parameters than the neoliberal globalisation propagated by the end-of-history paradigm. Much has been written on Cuba’s progress in the provision of social goods under conditions of scarcity, and on a society not blighted by the vast increase in inequality elsewhere. Less well-known perhaps are the extensive free education programmes, at secondary as well as university level, that Cuba provided mainly for students from African countries with a socialist orientation. It was often the only chance these students had for meaningful education, and indeed many of those who once were students in Cuba now occupy leadership positions in their countries of origin, as I have discussed elsewhere in relation to Mozambique.
Recent visitors tell me that now all Cubans want is getting as rich as US-Americans as fast as possible, and that might indeed be the case – I have no way of knowing. This relates to the second event of last week, the whistle-stop tour of President Obama to Europe with the ultimate aim of a push for TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The trip included a stop at Downing Street to warn the UK of Brexit with a focus on adverse consequences for trade relations, as well as meetings with Angela Merkel and a joint opening of both of the main German trade fair in Hannover, followed by meetings in Hannover that also included Cameroon, Hollande and Renzi, the leaders of Europe’s main trading nations.
Before Obama’s arrival, Hannover saw a large, under-reported anti-TTIP demonstration, and indeed TTIP is a quite extraordinary construct that gives big international co-operations almost free reign but does little to address the real problems of global trade and the flow of international finance. President Obama is in a rush to get the agreement signed as there is the fear that the next US administration will hamper progress and may ultimately kill any TTIP-like agreement. One should always be alert when such arguments are being made to push through a deal that indeed could disempower politicians in favour of CEOs in remarkable ways. One of the major points of contestation in relation to TTIP is thus its provisions for investor-state dispute settlement, a procedure that would allow companies to sue foreign governments over claims of unfair treatment and to be entitled to compensation. More generally, TTIP gives absolute priority to free trade and anything that might hinder such trade, from environmental and consumer protection, to social and labour standards, is suspicious and can in theory be undermined. TTIP also fails to address other core features that distort free trade worth the name but work in favour of the 1%, most prominently currency speculations and tax heavens.
TTIP more generally comes at a time when another pressing issue, the refugee and migrant crisis, has already exposed that free movement and free trade is really about goods, economic interests and extensive profits – but not about people. People are rather the collateral damage stuck in refugee camps in Turkey or on islands on the fringes of Europe, or in exploitative conditions in the Global South. Fidel Castro’s last speech reminds us of a time, however imperfect, when solidarity still had a different meaning.
I have written on socialist solidarity through educational exchanges programmes mainly between East Germany and Mozambique but including links to such programmes between Cuba and a vast number of countries, for example in African Affairs, 109(436), ‘Memories of Paradies’ – Legacies of socialist education in Mozambique, pp. 451-470.
The German daily Die Tageszeitung in its 22 April 2016 edition had on the cover of a special TTIP section the proposal for a revised TTIP that it asked President Obama to sign (see insert above). This Transatlantic Partnership for Eco-Social Transformation (T-PET) includes as core principles the agreement to end preferential treatment of corporations over human rights and nature, a global wealth tax, the misuse of personal data via the internet and respect for intellectual property rights.