Lessons from Cuba

The death of Fidel Castro contrasts starkly with the election of Donald Trump. 

Among countless other differences, in one way they were similar: they were populist leaders. 

Both, that is, are leaders who appeal in some way to the popular views of a significant group or groups of people in a country, and do so by drawing a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

A progressive form of populism – one that could be developed to counter Trump in the US, the Brexiteers in the U.K or Le Pen in France – could learn a lot from Castro, and its worth reflecting on some of the lessons to draw. Five lessons from Cuba for a progressive populism are nicely articulated by DL Raby in Democracy and Revolution, where he evaluates Castro’s record fairly, identifying where his strengths were and where he ought to have embraced greater pluralism and openness.

  1. Extend democracy. A progressive populism needs to ensure democracy is extended beyond the limits of parliamentary democracy, into workplaces and communities. 
  2. A progressive movement needs to allow for a range of ideas, not have a single view of what it is trying to achieve. To be successful it needs to embrace a range of people and views.
  3. Debate and diversity is important, but at the same time there needs to be unity around certain elements; otherwise it isn’t a movement. The key here is unity, not uniformity.
  4. Just as Trump managed, the populist values being articulated need to chime with established cultural values and beliefs. Start where the people are, not where you want them to be.
  5. And, despite extending democracy and encouraging pluralism, there needs to be clear leadership and organisation of the kind Castro offered.

It’s the complex mix of grassroots activism and leadership, unity and diversity, that made Castro such a successful and popular leader, despite his many faults.

We certainly don’t want another Castro. But we must learn what we can from such an effective and transformative leader if we want to see anything like the deep rooted alternative he offered take hold.

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Bread is the main thing to understand: the staple of speculation, the food for all theories about what happens next. Fifteen years from now, on the day the Bastille falls, the price of bread will be at its highest in sixty years. Twenty years from now (when it is all over), a woman on the capital will say: ‘Under Robespierre, blood flowed, but the people had bread. Perhaps in order to have bread, it is necessary to spill a little blood.’

Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety.

On the French revolution.