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From the Vaults: Sunday Telegraph, August 6, 1978 (Part II)

This is the second and final part of an article written by Andrew Stephen for the Sunday Telegraph on August 6, 1978. Part I can be seen on this link.

Castro’s £50 million jamboree

Andrew Stephen in Havana

Sunday Telegraph, August 6, 1978

…. Of the 180 British delegates, more than half were members of the Communist Party – and a proportion of these were what might be described as hard-line Stalinists. They would not tolerate any criticism of the Moscow line and woe betide anyone who did.

The Alice-in-Wonderland world of British middle-class student politics should not, of course, be taken too seriously. As on any British campus, the key word in Havana among the British contingent was basically. Basically, Cuba is a terrific country. Basically, Fidel is a great guy. Basically, it is time to eat dinner.

…. problems, serious problems. What, for example, would be the “typically British music” the Cubans wanted to play as the British contingent marched in convoy into the stadium at the opening festival? One youth seriously requested the Internationale, another the Soldiers’ Song.

Finally, the British contingent marched into the stadium to some Chilean military music, and to the undying shame of some, even carried a Union Jack – something bitterly opposed because the flag is considered to be colonialist, imperialist, etc.

One young member of the Labour Party even refused to wear a British festival T-shirt because it contained a vague Union Jack sign on the front. The British performance compared unfavourably (or favourably, whichever way you look at it) with, say, the East Germans in their chilling blue uniforms and Teutonically drilled band. By contrast, the British, in shorts and sandals, kilts and caps, were an endearing shambles.

During the ten days of the festival the political discussions and meetings were of quite mind-numbing banality, consisting almost entirely of tedious diatribes which blamed each and every ill of the world on colonialism, imperialism and other assorted capitalist conditions. One set-piece called “Youth Accuses Imperialism,” for example, consisted of a mock court with “judges” hearing evidence against the American Central Intelligence Agency, widely accused of interfering in Third World politics, not least Cuba’s. There was no defence for imperialism and no one in his right mind would have offered one.

Ulster Talk

Thursday saw a “meeting of solidarity with Northern Ireland,” whatever that meant. It was held in the open air (morning temperatures of 95 degrees) in a grimy steelworks 10 miles outside Havana, the chimney stacks providing a proletarian backcloth to the makeshift stage. Extremely bored workers were recruited to make up the audience. Leaflets like “Massacre at Derry” were hawked around by the Irish delegation, nearly all of whom were from the Official republican movement.

A Canadian speaker, her voice powerfully amplified through speakers obligingly provided by Radio Moscow, spoke of “the noble struggle with the last vestiges of British colonialism” and how “British troops regularly terrorise the Northern Ireland people, imprisoning thousands without trial.”

A diminutive Vietnamese, his voice breaking into what could have been an unkind pastiche of oriental fanaticism, spoke of the “perfidious schemes and manners of the imperialists in Northern Ireland, assisted by local neo-fascist elements.” There was no mention of the Provisional IRA, nor Ulster’s one million Protestants. Only two Irish speakers and Trevor Phillips, the 24 year-old leader of the delegation and President of the National Union of Students, delivered anything that was in touch with reality.

British Storm

He and his deputy, 24-year-old Mr Peter Mandelson, have been determined to do that throughout the festival. Both plan careers in mainstream politics, and Mr Mandelson felt that a heavily Stalinist British contribution in Havana could have had serious career repercussions for him. Messrs Phillips and Mandelson, therefore, were determined that Britain would raise the issue of human rights.

This was duly carried out by distributing a British leaflet drawing mild attention to the human rights trials in the Soviet Union. The reaction was swift. Acrimonious splits developed in the British camp.

The Russians were furious over the leaflet and their leader summoned Mandelson to give him a dressing down. “He said it was incorrect and inappropriate to raise matters like human rights, and we should have discussed it privately first,” said Mandelson.

The storm blew over and today the first contingent of the delegation begins the long track home. For most it has been a unique experience, for some more than others. One paralytic British drunk was arrested (and diplomatically released by Cuba’s Revolutionary National Police); another is recovering in the diplomats’ hospital from appendicitis; while others have suffered a  mysterious and painful foot-swelling malady caused by treading on tropical beach plants.

Few, though, have had a chance to see the real Cuba, away from the official guides and the prescribed routes. The escapist Cuba of the festival has seemed a long way from the Cuba of ration books, two shirts a year, and long prison sentences for black marketing in quite basic goods.

Mr Scargill, too, will be back in the daily grind in Britain again soon, as will his teenage daughter Margaret who came here representing Mr Scargill’s union. In the plush hotel where he was staying, Mr Scargill doubtless enjoyed the fresh mango and pawpaw cheerfully served by Cuban waiters.

Alas, such fruits are not even in season in Cuba. For the ordinary Cuban people, although liberated from the starvation and wretched disease-ridden times of before Castro, fresh fruit and vegetables remain largely a dream. For them the carnival will be over this week.