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Castro’s Cigars and Ahmadinejad’s Tobacco | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Perhaps many have heard of the interesting interview that Fidel Castro, the retired Cuban leader had with “The Atlantic” magazine (September 8), where he said, “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.” He directed a message to the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to stop hating Jews and denying the holocaust. He described the Cuban Missile Crisis that was about to trigger a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union as “it wasn’t worth it at all”. Are these the end-of-life confessions of an elderly man? Maybe. However, it is notable that these confessions have not bothered Castro himself as much as they have concerned those believing in the revolutionary model, or rather, say, the revolutionary era.

It is difficult for anti-capitalists and anti-liberals to accept the idea of absurdity in the revolutionary demagogue. Despite the end of communism and the fall of the Berlin wall two decades ago, many ideological regimes and parties have survived in some form. They have kept the same ideological rhetoric while making superficial reforms, most notably privatizing some of the profitable state-owned institutions, which instead of helping to solve main economic problems, has created a new class of exploiters associated with the state. Although many anti-capitalist/liberal states have adopted a somewhat free economy and opened their markets to foreign investment, they have kept many restrictions in the form of an outdated (bureaucratic) governmental system.

The problem of economic reform is that it cannot be fragmented, and some of its conditions adopted while others are neglected. China, which has been economically “open” since the 1970s, recognized this fact; thus, it has worked hard to separate what is political from what is economic. It has created a sort of balance in an ambitious economic vision. True, this balance witnessed some tremors, such as the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, when China recognized that it had to accept some of the consequences of economic reform, including the emergence of a middle class that has its own political and social demands. Now, 247 millions Chinese are classified as middle-class; this number is expected to reach 600 millions by 2015.

Cuba’s problem was that it was imprisoned in its revolutionary leaders’ dreams. It never thought of opening its doors to world economy until recently. In 1993, the economic conditions were deteriorating, so the Cuban authorities decided to permit the use of the US dollar. Within a few years, a little hope was raised in the revolutionary state due to the increasing revenues of tourism and trade, especially in the form of the famous Cuban cigars, despite American sanctions. However, instead of investing in this improvement, Fidel and his comrades decided to suspend the use of US dollar in 2004, which directly hit the Cuban economy. By the end of 2006, Cuba reached a deplorable state. As Castro himself faced a health crisis (2007), he transferred power to his brother Raul. One of the first decisions taken by the new government was to allow citizens to buy computers, mobile phones and microwaves, in a country where a government worker’s salary does not exceed $20 a month.

Commenting on the controversy caused by what was said in Fidel Castro’s interview, a statement issued by Raul Castro pointed out that what the “leader” meant to say was “The economic model does not work, but this does not mean the revolution, the socialist virtues and the spirit of independence [no longer work]. He was specifically speaking of the economic model.” Anyway, Castro, as many observers insist, is trying to market his brother’s economic reforms, especially in a time when his government has announced the lay-off of half a million Cuban government workers.

The Cuban model, which has been imprisoned in its own revolutionary totalitarian regime since 1959, has parallels in the Middle East and Africa, where armed groups seize power and impose their ideology on the political authorities regardless of the economic and structural losses inflicted on the state. Castro’s regime had been supported by the Soviet Union until its fall. Then, Hugo Chavez went on to support Cuba by providing it with 100,000 oil barrels in the last five years. However, this support was of little help during the economic crisis, when the country became incapable of paying wages or running its institutions.

In the 1960s, Castro boasted that the tobacco farmers strike was one of the most important factors for the success of the revolution. Thus, he attempted to promote the idea that the cigar, once a luxury limited to the Bourgeoisie, should become available to workers and farmers as a symbol of the revolution and the nation. Similarly, in Iran 100 years ago, a fatwa (religious ruling) issued by Ayatollah Al-Shirazi (in 1891) prohibiting the use of tobacco caused Nasser Al-Din Shah to retract the granting of an export license to a British company. Eventually, Al-Shirazi issued another fatwa allowing the Iranians to smoke tobacco provided that one fifth of the tobacco revenues were put at his disposal. However, in Cuba, the cigar transferred from the farmers’ mouths to export shipments in search of hard currency.

Whilst the export of Cuban cigars to the US was prohibited, the most exported product to Iran is US cigarettes, which reached 158 million dollars during the Bush administration. In a move to limit the use of American cigarettes, a spokesman of the Anti-Smoking Association in Iran recently declared that American cigarettes are contaminated with pigs’ blood and nuclear waste, in an effort to intimidate the Iranians who have not been discouraged by the US sanctions from buying its cigarettes.

Cuba and Iran are similar to a great extent; both are “revolutionary” states, particularly hostile to the US, both have imposed internal isolation on their people and turned their economy upside down, such that capitalism/liberalism is considered a threat to the principles of the revolution. What, then, was the result? Today, Castro and his comrades are acknowledging the failure of their adventurous project, and are satirically moving towards capitalizing the economy, yet amidst conditions dated back to the Cold War. Iran witnessed a fierce war with Iraq that destroyed all its resources, and invested its reserves in groups and parties abroad. When Iran started its reconstruction project in the early 1990s, economic reform leaned towards a centralized economy. Ten years after economic openness, the Revolutionary Guards seized the most important economic companies and institutions.

All one can hope for is that Iran will not repeat Cuba’s mistakes. Perhaps this motivated the old revolutionary Castro to advise the young revolutionary Ahmadinejad not to listen to the mullahs, as they are religiously indoctrinated people who make no compromises. Castro is right in this respect, as Cuba’s cigars could not prevent the country from decline, similarly, Iran’s tobacco will not make Iranians dispense with American cigarettes.