The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected." G. K. Chesterton
One of the many misconceptions people have about Cubans living abroad is the political views we hold once we settle in a foreign land. After all, having been born and raised – as in my case – under a totalitarian regime, our default position should be ideally in favour of small government, individuality over collectiveness and little financial regulation. In short, laissez-faire, Latin-style.
What a surprise it is then for some of my British and non-British acquaintances when they find out that there are many Cubans currently living in the UK who could be considered to be moderately centre-of-left, or even leftwing (I know a couple of them) and the way they have come to adopting these positions is not through imposition but through choice. What is also less known is that once this political cat’s out of the bag, the consequences are somewhat dangerous.
The main hazard is that the only reference most westerners have of Cubans abroad is that of the exiles in Miami. This is the blueprint that has been passed down for decades. However, generational confrontations in recent years have shown that even this species is facing extinction, as we know it. Right now there’s a large group of younger Cubans, born and bred in Florida and other cities and states of the US who want an immediate stop to the embargo imposed on the Caribbean nation almost four decades ago. This third generation of Cubans (or Cuban-Americans as they style themselves sometimes) want to have the opportunity to walk the streets and sit in the parks their grandparents and parents walked and sat in decades before. And they are doing their utmost to urge the Obama administration to open up the gates, whilst at the same time attempting to talk their own folks and grandparents into changing their mindset in relation to the Cuban government.
So, it should not be surprising that some of us choose to move away from this mêlée taking place in the Sunshine State and opt for more viable, democratic and less partisan positions abroad, as it happened to me, once I got over the shock that beans on toast was the staple of the British diet. Besides, with so many political parties, an august – albeit deeply flawed if the current situation is anything to go by – parliament and a judiciary that still applies the law effectively, I personally felt that involvement in politics was less daunting over here than in my country of origin.
And yet a brief look at the political spectrum in the UK nowadays would put that view to shame. Whereas the roles of the three main political parties were better defined, or at least better shaped, when I arrived in London in 1997, it is harder now to tell them apart. And this puts a voter like me, interested in social issues, in limbo. Policies on matters such as: the minimum wage, small/medium enterprises and their role in the economy, minorities’ rights and the rich/poor divide have been part of my everyday work for the last six years and my approach to them has usually been from a liberal point of view. I would like to keep – and increase eventually - the minimum wage that the Labour government brought in straight after they came to power, I favour low taxation on small and medium businesses (and the incentive to create more social enterprises), I lean towards granting more rights to minority group such as: women, gays, blacks, disabled, amongst others - although the fact that women make up roughly half the labour force in Britain contradicts that 'minority' role. And I would like higher taxes to be levied on the rich and using that surplus to level the playing field in employability and job creation for those in pecuniary difficulties. But you would be hard pressed to find a political party whose policies address these issues in a cogent and coherent manner. Labour’s recent conference was all about damage limitation. And their proposed centralisation won’t do. Not whilst the Iraq issue still hangs over the party’s head like the famous sword of Damocles. Not, whilst MPs continue to moan about the money they are being asked to give back. And above all, not, now that the Prince of Darkness, Peter Mandelson, has been allowed back into government: thrown out of parliament twice, bounced back the same number of times.
The Tories, on the other hand, are the party-elect. Theirs is the next general election to lose. Cameron’s suave character has won him many new advocates. But when it comes to walking the talk, his box of magic tricks is empty. His plans to cut spending are too simplistic, to put it mildly, and they risk alienating the same voters who will be rooting for him come May or June 2010. Plus, last time I checked, Cameron was trying to market his party as the ‘compassionate’ option. Fat chance if the likes of Michael Gove have their way once they are in power. Gove recently outraged the dance world when he said that by encouraging young people to take ‘soft subjects, such as A Level Dance, we are damaging their future chances of being accepted at university (Dance UK News, Issue 74, Winter 2009). And did I mention his proposal to recruit ex-army personnel and involve them in the running of schools? Will they distribute berets to students, too, I wonder?
So, Labour on one hand is target-obsessed whilst the Tories on the other hand are happy to let the economy set sail onto unknown waters. What’s a person, who insists on exercising his democratic right to vote, to do? You’ve probably noticed that I did not include the Liberal Democrats. Well, parliamentary fence-sitters have never struck a strong chord with me. And the Greens are a single-issue party.
That's why I have slowly been changing my mind over the last few years and begun to think that maybe, just maybe, this is a sign of our modern political times. Form over content, presentation over substance. Focus groups and marketing strategies in lieu de the great idea. Gone are the days when the combined efforts of Attlee and Bevan gave the UK its rightly cherished NHS. And love it or loathe it, Thatcher's free market approach was fresh at a time when the Keynesian method of the Callaghan government had apparently failed. This blurring of political lines nowadays and the absence of 'The Bold Concept' has turned Westminster into a place for thinktanks to get together as opposed to being the seat of the British government. Suddenly there's no red (Labour) or blue (Tories) anymore. We're all magenta now.
And it is a similar fate that has befallen the Cuban community abroad. No longer are the lines divided between those who hate Castro and those who feel sympathetic to his regime. In Miami, a city I have never visited but where I have a few acquaintances, the climate has been transformed drastically. This third generation of Cubans who are now in their early-to-mid twenties want less of the confrontational language that permeated earlier Cuban immigrants' mindset and a healthier approach to the island. All of a sudden it's OK to say that one is liberal, centre-of-left, or even leftwing, without being called a Chavez stooge of an apologist for Evo Morales's government.
But whereas the Cuban diaspora has benefited greatly from this panoply of political attitudes, the upshot of the absence of clear, audacious and defined social and economic policies in the British parliament is to risk losing voters. And we all know what happens when you lose voters, don't we? C'mon, guys, be brave, give us that Big Idea, we know you have it.
Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?' to be published on Tuesday 27th October at 11:59pm (GMT)