Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Global Media and the Scripting of Fidel Castro's Exit

It is a truism of sorts, that the media has been engaging more and more directly in the creation of a reality they can then report as news. Since the late 18th century in the West, the media has been as much an active creator of news as its reporter. We have come to understand, for example, the inevitable shape of the Israel-Palestine settlement, of independence for Kosovo, of the end of (now ex-)General Musharraf of Pakistan, and of the need for the United States to behave differently when it comes to the use of public power over environmental issues.

Now, at last, important elements of the global media have decided that Fidel Castro must go. And they are jumping on his words to help him on his way.

One of the leading shapers of global news--the BBC--has now reported that "Cuba's ailing communist leader, Fidel Castro, has raised the possibility that he may never return to the presidency." Fidel Castro Hints at Retirement, BBC News, Dec. 18, 2007. The report related how, "In a letter read out on state TV, Mr Castro, Cuba's leader since 1959, said he had a duty not to hold on to power or obstruct the rise of younger people." Fidel Castro Hints, supra.
Mr Castro's message was delivered during Cuba's main nightly current affairs programme, Mesa Redonda. "My basic duty is not to cling to office, and even less to obstruct the path of younger people, but to pass on the experiences and ideas whose modest worth stems from the exceptional era in which I have lived," it said.
Fidel Castro Hints, supra. The article reminded readers that Castro had relinquished power last year when he became ill and that these important comments come on the eve of elections that will lead to the election of a President for the Republic. Fidel Castro Hints, supra. And, of course, everyone understands the importance of voting. See Larry Catá Backer, Democracy Part IV (Nov. 25, 2007), Democracy Part II (Nov. 16, 2007), Law at the End of the Day.

The article then provided commentary from the usual cast of characters and the BBC's own brand of analysis. First the Americans, providing the usual sort of bland institutional response with the necessary edge of war mongering and interference, a hallmark of BBC coverage of official America (though whether always an unjustified distortion is another matter):
"It's an interesting letter. It's hard to make out what he is saying or what he means," said spokeswoman Dana Perino, quoted by the AFP news agency. "So we're just continuing to work for democracy on the island and we believe that day will come soon."
Fidel Castro Hints, supra. The American view was to be balanced by the view of the person on the street in Havana: ""He has left a solid foundation for us to continue. Even if someone else takes the seat of power, nothing will change," a Havana resident told Reuters news agency." Id. This perspective, in turn was contrasted by that of the the most conservative elements of the Cuban exile community in Miami. That perspective provided the article with the necessary way off center (right) balance, proffered in the form of
scepticism about the statement's actual meaning. Gina Forcellado said she thought the announcement was part of a cynical move by Fidel Castro. "He knows that he's not going to be judged very well by history, so he's trying to correct it," she told the BBC.
Fidel Castro Hints, supra. But the point of view that is meant to influence was provided by the BBC's men in Havana. First, there was a caution: "The BBC's Michael Voss in Havana says there was no indication about how or when the Cuban leader might step down." Id. Second, there was the astute analysis: BBC Americas editor Emilio San Pedro says the letter appears to be a calculated attempt to prepare Cuba's 11 million people for a Cuba without the emblematic revolutionary leader in charge." Fidel Castro Hints, supra. It is not until one gets to the very end of the report that one gets even a whiff of the context in which this story arose. It appears that Castro's "comments came in the final paragraph of a letter dealing with this month's climate change conference in Bali." Fidel Castro Hints, supra.

Well. . . . . . So what was the context in which these few (but important) sentiments were extracted? The statement itself can be found on the official Cuban government website devoted to the writings of Castro (Discursos e intervenciones del Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro Ruz, Presidente del Consejo de Estado de la República de Cuba). The great bulk of the statement (Reflexiones del Comandante en Jefe. Mensaje De Fidel A La Mesa Redonda. 17 de diciembre del 2007) (in English) was devoted to an analysis of the United Nations Climate Control Conference in Bali. The analysis was evidence that Castro retains his mental faculties. The writing was vintage Castro: It described in some detail what Castro believes to be a complex and highly deceptive and manipulative orchestration of climate control standards meant ultimately to favor the developed states. As he put it--"Everything had been foreseen ahead of time by the NATO allies." (Mensaje De Fidel A La Mesa Redonda, supra). It comes complete with a cast of characters each playing their designated role:

1. The U.N. Secretary General as the spineless absent leader ("The UN Secretary General, faced with the tenacious obstruction opposed by the United States before the 190 representatives who were meeting there, and after twelve days of negotiations, stated . . . that the human species could disappear as a result of climate change. And then he went off to East Timor." Mensaje De Fidel A La Mesa Redonda, supra ("El Secretario General de Naciones Unidas, ante la tenaz obstrucción de Estados Unidos en el seno de las 190 representaciones allí reunidas, y después de doce días de negociación, afirmó el viernes 14, hora de Cuba, cuando ya era sábado en Bali, que la especie humana podía desaparecer como consecuencia del cambio climático. Después se marchó hacia Timor Oriental.")).

2. The evil empire (the United States), which appeared to concede to the demands of the developing world for money, technology transfers and sacrifices from the developed states (but really didn't) The United States extracted a much weaker set of standards and managed to obtain agreement that the next round of talks would be held on American soil (or as Castro put it--"en Hawai, territorio norteamericano" ("in Hawaii, a U.S. territory"). Mensaje De Fidel A La Mesa Redonda, supra.

3. A group of compliant allies--in this case Canada and Japan. "Canada and Japan adhered immediately to the US stand, opposing the rest of the countries that were demanding a serious commitment to curtail the emissions of gases that are causing the climate change." Mensaje De Fidel A La Mesa Redonda, supra.

4. The two faced passive-aggressive former colonial powers trying to be everyone's friend while preserving their privilege:
The theatrical solution reserved for Europe the role of saviour of the world. Brown, Merkel and other leaders of the European countries took the floor claiming for international gratitude. What an excellent Christmas and New Year’s present! None of the eulogists made any reference to the tens of millions of poor people who go on dying of diseases and hunger each year as a result of the complex realities of the present, just as if we were living in the best of all worlds. (A Europa en la teatral solución le reservaron el papel de salvadora del mundo. Hablaron Brown, la Merkel y otros líderes de países europeos pidiendo gratitud internacional. Excelente regalo de Navidad y Año Nuevo. Ninguno de los panegiristas mencionó las decenas de millones de personas pobres que siguen muriendo de enfermedades y hambre cada año dadas las complejas realidades actuales, cual si viviéramos en el mejor de los mundos.)
Mensaje De Fidel A La Mesa Redonda, supra. It is hard to disagree, though perhaps not for the reasons Castro notes. Europe has become the bridge between th United States and the developing world. Its role now seems to be to make the harsh realities of power more palatable to those whose burden is to endure it, while retaining for themselves the privileges of power. Official Europe has, to some extent, become the priestly caste of the global social order--minding the poor but living well.

5. The parade of horribles: in the service of the consumer societies of the developed world all sorts of natural disasters will occur. Worse, the world will applaud the divergence of foodstuffs for the production of fuel. "The industrialized nations share with the United States the idea of turning foodstuffs into fuel for luxury cars and other wasteful practices of consumption societies." Mensaje De Fidel A La Mesa Redonda, supra. ("Las naciones industrializadas comparten con Estados Unidos la idea de convertir los alimentos en combustible para los autos lujosos y otros derroches de las sociedades de consumo."). Ethanol has been personified as a great evil by both Castro and Chavez. See Larry Catá Backer,Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and the Response to the U.S. Brazil Deal on Ethanol Production, Law at the End of the Day, March 3, 2007.

In light of this geo-political realities, Fidel reminisces, he is happy that he had the sense to refuse the 1998 invitation of then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétian to play the kind of games that Castro described in Bali. "I entertain no illusions." Mensaje De Fidel A La Mesa Redonda, supra. ("No albergo ilusiones."). But the problems for the Cuban people remain very real, and the solutions difficult to see.
I strongly believe that the answers to the current problems facing the Cuban society, . . . require more variables for each concrete problem than those contained in a chess game. We cannot ignore one single detail; this is not an easy path to take, if the intelligence of a human being in a revolutionary society is to prevail over instinct.
Mensaje De Fidel A La Mesa Redonda, supra. ("Mi más profunda convicción es que las respuestas a los problemas actuales de la sociedad cubana, . . . requieren más variantes de respuesta para cada problema concreto que las contenidas en un tablero de ajedrez. Ni un solo detalle se puede ignorar, y no se trata de un camino fácil, si es que la inteligencia del ser humano en una sociedad revolucionaria ha de prevalecer sobre sus instintos.").

It is in this context that Castro suggests his own contribution to the future difficulties facing Cuba: "My elemental duty is not to cling to positions, much less to stand in the way of younger persons, but rather to contribute my own experience and ideas whose modest value comes from the exceptional era that I had the privilege of living in." Mensaje De Fidel A La Mesa Redonda, supra. ("Mi deber elemental no es aferrarme a cargos, ni mucho menos obstruir el paso a personas más jóvenes, sino aportar experiencias e ideas cuyo modesto valor proviene de la época excepcional que me tocó vivir.").

This is a substantially different spin than that extracted from the last 3 lines of the letter by the experts at BBC. Compare carefully both the original Spanish with the official Cuban translation and the translation as it appeared in the BBC report. Let me suggest a less simplistic and manipulative reading of the statement--context. The message is important. But not as an indication that Castro means to disappear form the scene. He has no such intention.

However, he has finally made two things clear. First, he will not stand in the way of the Sinification of the Cuban economy (and ultimately the state apparatus, with power shifting decisively to the military). It appears that Raul Castro now has the green light to proceed as Castro reconciles himself to the need for change in order for the regime to survive his death. See Larry Catá Backer,On the Anniversary of the Attack on the Moncada Barracks: Cuba Moves Forward towards its Chinese Future, Law at the End of the Day, July 27, 2007. Second, Castro has given the go ahead for planning of the official succession. Power has already passed. Now the state apparatus will be reordered to prepare the people for its management by the new generation of leaders, who have been vetted over the last several years. We certainly will expect to see more of them and in more prominent positions. But be sure that the changes they will appear to usher is in place now. I expect overtures to Brazil as the wedge into Latin America. It makes tremendous sense both for Cuba and for Brazil. For Cuba it avoids the difficulties posed by Chavez,; for Brazil it permits the current regime to score points domestically while acting as an intermediary to the U.S. and retaining its leadership role in Latin America. But Castro has also indicated his intention to use the Europeans as well, at least for what they appeared to be good at in Bali.

Now this is quite a different story from that extracted by the global media. But I have little interest in hastening Castro's official succession. But Castro has not behaved well. The media had expected him to go. The story of the Cuban struggle in the wake of Castro's passing is ready to be written, but the Cubans are delaying the press. No matter. The press, the the Cuban state, or the Americans, are all adept enough at manging reality. And it is what the masses believe that counts, after all. That is a lessen that as not been lost either on states, or economic enterprises. See Larry Catá Backer,Multinational Corporations as Objects and Sources of Transnational Regulation, Law at the End of the Day, Oct. 29, 2007.

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