Castro’s Cuba in mourning

A farewell tribute to Cuba’s President Castro … ABC moralists prompt “no platforming” of dead painter Donald Friend …Trump V Clinton: war goes on … Women pollies break Euro-ceiling …

Guest contributor Judith White writes: This Sunday, in Cuba’s easternmost city Santiago, Fidel Castro will be buried in the Santa Ifigenía cemetery. When I was there last year bulldozers were already at work under the Caribbean sun preparing the plot where the 90-year-old leader will be laid to rest, opposite the mausoleum of independence hero José Martí. There could be no more appropriate place.

Since he died a week ago, commentators in the supposedly liberal Western media have fallen over themselves to join US president-elect Donald Trump in describing him as a “brutal communist dictator”. (Honourable exceptions include veteran Cuba hand Richard Gott, with an obituary in The Guardian, and in Australia Guy Rundle writing for the website Crikey – I’d recommend both pieces.)

The detractors misunderstand the movement of history. The 1959 revolution led by Castro was the high point of a hundred-year fight for national liberation that echoed around the world. Its survival, despite privation, invasion attempts, CIA plots and half a century of economic blockade, is in no small part because the goals of independence and of social justice have remained inseparable.

Cuba in the mid-19th century was a slave society. Half its population were African-American slaves – the highest rate in the world. When the French revolution reverberated around the Caribbean and the Haitian masses created an independent black state, the centre of sugar production shifted from there to Cuba. But at the same time the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity took hold among both educated Hispanics and African-Cubans. Poets, artists and intellectuals gave voice to the aspiration for a free, united country.

In 1843 the Yoruba slave Carlota led a revolt that ended when she was barbarically killed by the Spanish; when Cuba sent a major force to fight the agents of apartheid in Angola in 1975, they named the campaign Operation Carlota. In 1868 plantation owner Manuel de Cespedes began the first war of independence against Spain, freeing his slaves who then fought alongside him. National hero Antonio Maceo was one of a number of African-Cubans who emerged as military leaders.

But Spain, having lost its mainland possessions earlier, did not give up so easily. It took a second stage of the war, led by poet, journalist and martyr Martí, to defeat colonial rule – at which point, in 1898, the 30-year independence struggle was hijacked by the United States. Four years of brutal military occupation were followed by half a century of US-backed puppet dictatorships, of which Batista’s was the last and the most brutal.

Birth of a revolution

Enter Castro. His father was a Spanish-born peasant from Galicia who had fought on Spain’s side in the last years of Cuba’s war of independence from 1895 to 1898. Making his home in Cuba, he became wealthy enough to educate his sons at the Jesuit college and at the University of Havana, where Fidel studied law and imbibed Martí’s ideals of Pan-Americanism and anti-imperialism.

The six-year campaign for the Cuban Revolution began on 26 July 1953 when Castro led the assault on the Moncada barracks in Santiago, the city where he is being buried. Militarily the attack was doomed, and dozens of his comrades were killed; but in his courtroom defence of the survivors he stunned the country with a four-hour speech quoting the law, the Bible, Martin Luther, John Knox, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Honoré de Balzac and of course Martí. And he ended: “History will absolve me.”

When the Revolution triumphed on 1 January 1959 it was with a level of popular support that has never been entirely lost despite the huge problems with which it has had to contend. And the mistakes. Foremost among them was the persecution of gays and intellectuals in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for which Castro later apologised. It remains the greatest stain on the revolution; but those who take this as a reason to oppose the revolution itself should remember that Cuba was not alone. It was only in 1967 – just 13 years after scientist Alan Turing died following court-imposed chemical castration – that Britain legalised homosexuality. In Texas it took until 2013. Only a few months ago, SBS showed the four-part series Deep Water exposing the hate murder of young gay men in Sydney’s beachside eastern suburbs during the 1980s and 1990s. There were 80 killings, 30 unsolved cases and thousands of assaults. It was a murderous blood sport condoned by the police, politicians and the mainstream media. Are we seriously going to claim moral superiority over Castro’s malfunctioning Cuba of the 1970s?

Cubans also had other reasons to be critical of Castro, notably for his over-reliance on monoculture, evidenced in the failed 1970 attempt to produce 10 million tons of sugar. Twenty years later, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was plunged into the extreme poverty known as the “special period”.

But for millions of Cubans none of this detracts from the great achievements of the Revolution: an end to starvation, outstanding free medical care for all, equal opportunity in education and medical assistance to peoples throughout the former colonial word. What country sent most medical specialists to West Africa during the ebola crisis? Impoverished Cuba.

Such is the legacy that won the support and respect of both Ho Chi Minh and Nelson Mandela who dedicated their lives to the struggle for national independence. Like the freedom struggles in Vietnam and South Africa, Cuba became a ray of hope for people in the Third World as well as in Western countries. For decades from the 1960s radicals carried Cuban flags alongside anti-apartheid and anti-Vietnam war banners proclaiming an alternative to imperial domination, racism and the rule of profit.

It is for this legacy that multitudes queued in the capital’s Revolution Square this week to pay their respects, and that many thousands of students from the University of Havana, where Castro once studied, took to the streets under the banner: “We are all Fidel.” It is this legacy that will be honoured when, for a moment, the music of the great Afro-Caribbean city of Santiago falls silent this Sunday.

Donald Friend “no platformed”

Alex Mitchell writes: Every authoritative history of Australian art acknowledges the important place of Sydney-born artist Donald Friend, 1915-1989.

Friend was a painter, sculptor, writer and lifelong diarist. His deepest friendships were with fellow artists Russell Drysdale, Jeffrey Smart, Brett Whiteley and Margaret Olley, all now deceased.

donald-friendIt is tragic, therefore, that the Tweed Regional Gallery at Murwillumbah, home of the Margaret Olley Art Centre, has chosen to censor an exhibition celebrating his work. Gallery director Susi Muddiman has taken down a portrait of Friend (pictured) by photographer Greg Weight and removed copies of his diary, published by the National Library of Australia, from the gallery bookshop. The late Ms Olley, who was born in the Tweed Valley, would be horrified by the insult to her colleague while Friend himself would have laughed and opened another bottle of red wine. For Friend was a terrific stirrer, bohemian and outrageous iconoclast. In his middle age, from the mid-1950s to the 1980s, he also became a paedophile. That it to say, he enjoyed having sex with very young boys. Well before official publication of his self-revealing diaries between 2001 and 2006, stories about Friend’s sexual depredations in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and Bali were common knowledge in the artistic community and occasionally made feature articles in the art pages of the mainstream media.

Portraits of the under-age boys involved are among the hundreds of his paintings publicly exhibited in galleries across Australia. Many others found their way into private collections.

Friend showed no shame describing himself as “a middle-aged pederast who’s going to seed”. Critics preferred his earlier landscapes painted with Drysdale at Hill End, outside Bathurst. Barry Pearce, Australia’s foremost expert on Australian painters, said the artist’s “periodic sojourns at Hill End produced Friend’s richest vein of paintings”. (100 Moments in Australian Painting by Barry Pearce. NewSouth Books 2014)

Friend enlisted in the army at the outbreak of World War Two and served as a gunner in the AIF. Later he was appointed an official war artist and served in Labuan, now part of Malaysia, and Balikpapan in Borneo.

Censorship cloaked in morality

Friend’s paedophile past was resurrected this week by ABC Radio National journalist Antony Funnell. (“Our favourite paedophile: Why is Donald Friend still celebrated?”) Posing the question – What should be done with Friend’s works? – Funnell suggested three alternatives:

  1. “One option is simply destroy them.”
  2. “Another option is to hide them away – or at least the worst of them”.
  3. “A third option is to ensure that whenever Friend’s art is displayed, the viewing public is provided with context.”

For good measure, Funnell told his ABC’s books and arts audience: “Aestheticists, and those who choose to see Friend as a satyr and not a devil, will continue to resist, but with context, the viewing public can make up its own mind about Friend and his place in history.”

Hey, I think I’m one of those “aestheticists”. I deplore Friend’s sexual exploitation of children, particularly when they lived in poverty-stricken countries and were powerless to resist. But I don’t see him as a “devil”, as Mr Funnell does. He was an artist of notable merit who mentored many other artists.

If society decided to banish or “no platform” every artist, sculptor, composer, musician and author who ever committed acts recognised today as beyond the pale, the world’s cultural life would be seriously impoverished. In my experience assaults on art that come wrapped in “morality” are invariably political and have reactionary consequences, as we saw not long ago in the victimisation of the splendid photographer Bill Henson by the Daily Telegraph and Hetti Johnson’s “Bravehearts”.

My advice is simple: if you object to an artist’s moral behaviour or their art, don’t go to see their work, and don’t buy their books. It’s called freedom of choice – use it.

US election post mortem

In the final presidential debate in Las Vegas on October 19, Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton savaged Republic candidate Donald Trump for not committing to accepting the election result.

Mrs Clinton said: “That’s horrifying. Let’s be clear about what he’s saying and what that means. He is denigrating – he is talking down our democracy. I am appalled that someone who is the nominee of one of our two major parties would take that position.”

Headline in The New York Times, 26 November: “Clinton team to join recount effort pushed by Green Party candidate”;

Headline in The Washington Post, 26 November: “Clinton campaign will participate in Wisconsin recount.”

The Clinton campaign is not simply “joining” or “participating” in the recount, it is bankrolling it. The strategy is clearcut: damn Trump’s election victory as illegal and, therefore, his presidency as illegitimate; call on Democrats and Clinton supporters not to support the 45th presidency after the official inauguration in Washington DC on January 20.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters have joined street protests across the US, fearing the authoritarian and corrupt direction of a Trump administration. The result will be to split the country down the middle between pro-Trump forces (“deplorables”) and anti-Trump forces (“elites”). Governance will fall into gridlock. Passions will rise and so will community anger.

The Clinton v Trump election may be over, but the war between them is just entering a new phase. The form is legal courtroom argument but the content is wealth, ambition and power by the discredited political bosses.

Women break political barriers

Western Europe is streets ahead of other parts of the world in electing female prime ministers and female political party leaders. Britain’s Tory Prime Minister Theresa May is the second woman to reside in No 10 Downing Street. The first was (Baroness) Margaret Thatcher and that ended in tears when she was turfed out of office by fellow Tory MPs and most of the country celebrated.

Today in Scotland, all the party leaders are woman. The ruling Scottish Nationalist Party leader is Nicola Sturgeon while the Scottish Tory Party is led by Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Labour Party by Kezia Dugdale, both in same sex relationships.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister is Arlene Foster, leader of the Paisleyite Democratic Unionist Party. She refused to attend this year’s 100th anniversary celebrations for the Easter Uprising against British colonial rule because it was “an attack on democracy”.

On mainland Europe, Germany’s Chancellor is Angela Merkel, who will stand for re-election next year. Norway’s Conservative Party prime minister is Erna Solberg and Poland’s Prime Minister is Beata Szydlo, from the right-wing Law and Justice Party.

Christine Lagarde, a former French Socialist Party minister, is managing director of the IMF, and Virginia Raggi is mayor of Rome. Ms Raggi represents the Five Star Movement, aka M5S, founded by popular comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo to attract the anti-establishment, anti-European and pro-environment vote. She is currently campaigning for a “No” vote in Italy’s referendum on constitutional change being held this Sunday (December 4).

Many of the successful female politicians are the first to be elected to senior public office and their victories have been celebrated by non-political and anti-socialist women in many countries who don’t give a fig what they stand for so long as they are women.

However, all this will come to a crashing halt next year when French voters go to the polls to elect their next President. Should women vote for Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far right National Front, to become the republic’s first female president in the Elysee Palace at elections next April, or someone else?

Perhaps voters will consider the stated position of actress Susan Sarandon. Before the US presidential election when she announced she would not be supporting Hillary Clinton – she voted for Greens candidate Jill Stein – Sarandon said: “I don’t vote with my vagina.”

I don’t vote with my genitalia either, but I see what she’s getting at. It’s far better to use your head and exercise your principles. 

Great Crashing Bores – 23*

At long last those bludgers in Canberra have shown some good sense. At the eleventh hour they agreed to a 15% backpacker tax instead of 32%. What a terrific victory for overseas fruit pickers when they come here on holiday visas. And what a victory for our farmers too. It’s a win-win for backpackers and farmers. Do I think it will mean cheaper fruit and vegetables in the super markets owned by Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and IGA? Probably not. They have to make profits too, you know. That said, I wish MPs would cut my tax to 15% but I won’t be holding my breath.

* GCB is satirical fiction.

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  1. Disgraceful behaviour by Tweed Gallery. Donald Friend’s paedophilia hardly a new discovery.
    If appalling/ criminal/repellant behaviour a reason to remove the work of artists our galleries world-wide would be half empty.
    Margaret Olley will probably begin haunting the Tweed and not in a good way!

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