What do our respective revolutions have in common?
Recently, I saw The Cuba Libre Story, a Netflix documentary. It recounts the timeline of Cuba’s turbulent history. Since Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492, Spain ruled Cuba for almost four centuries.
Following the Spanish-American war in 1898, the making of free Cuba finally took shape. The formal independence, however, came in 1902. But that was just the beginning of a fresh form of occupation; Cuba fell under the control of Americans.
With the help of Raul Castro and Che Guevara, in December 1956, Fidel Castro’s revolutionary group launched a guerrilla war to overthrow the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. It is said that with only 300 men, Castro toppled the government in early January 1959.
Castro studied law, he knew how to talk, how to speak to the hearts of the populace. It was his great oratory that did half the job. His fiery, rousing rhetoric during the revolution united the downtrodden, embittered islanders against the authoritarian Batista regime.
We may find resemblances between Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Fidel Castro. They both were natural born orators. Both were tobacco users. It was upon the call of Bangabandhu that the Bengalis began the war of liberation and, similarly, Castro orchestrated a revolutionary war against the government.
At the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Algiers in 1973, Bangabandhu had a warm, intimate meeting with Fidel Castro. MR Akhtar Mukul, in his book Mujiber Rokto Lal, brilliantly illustrated the moment. Castro advised Bangabandhu to remove the old Pakistani bureaucrats from the administration.
Bangabandhu explained that he required a body of skilled civil servants to run the administration. “What experience have they got?” Castro said. “With their experience and advice mighty Pakistan lost in the war. Your Mukti boys? No experience. Fighting, fighting and fighting -- got victory.’’
In his broken English, Castro gave Bangabandhu his two cents: “Bring lawyers, bring journalists, bring business executives, bring doctors, bring engineers, bring professors, and put them on top of the administration. They will do (sic) mistake, mistake and learn -- but not conspiracy. For God’s sake, please give more responsibility to your Mukti boys. And fully trust them. Otherwise you will (be) finish(ed).”
Castro told him that the US government had been moving heaven and Earth to crush him. There were countless attempts on him. Even when he smoked a cigar, it was always tasted and smoked by his bodyguards first.
Soon after Fidel Castro assumed power, the US imposed a trade embargo and banned its citizens from travelling to Cuba. The island’s economy collapsed.
Plus Castro’s controlled economic policy for communist Cuba aggravated the situation. And, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuba experienced tremendous financial hardships.
Despite the island’s free education and impressive health care, since 1960, tens of thousands of Cubans risked their lives to cross the 90-mile strait between Havana and Miami in all sorts of rafts and makeshift boats. This exodus of migration in flotillas still continues.
There is another side of the coin. Still, Cuba maintains a tight grip on its media, and the internet remains under surveillance. This means that the bulk of Cubans have limited access to the internet.
Cuban dissident Yoani Sanchez calls her country “the Island of the disconnected.” It was only in January 2013 that the communist government relaxed travel restrictions for its citizens for the first time since 1961.
The youth and 1971
What does Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971 mean to the younger generation? They are aware of it but how much do they know about it or care about it? Curiously, a large number of youngsters muddle up Victory Day with Independence Day.
Often, even the banners put up by local ruling party supporters make this mistake. On Victory Day, some festoons read: “Regards on Independence Day.”
In April this year, a protest began on the Dhaka University campus to reform the quota system for government services, which soon spread to other public universities across the country.
Sadly, some big shots of the ruling party failed to fathom the young minds -- the objective of their movement. Minister Matia Chowdhury branded the protesters “children of razakars.” Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University, Prof Md Akhtaruzzaman, found the activities of quota reformists similar to that of Islamist militant outfits like the Taliban, Al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram.
Currently, 56% of government jobs are reserved for candidates from various quotas, in which 30% alone are reserved for the children and grandchildren of the freedom fighters. A few days ago, the committee formed by the government to evaluate the existing quota system proposed abolishing the system for first and second class jobs in public services.
Let’s get back to Cuba for a moment. The Cuba Libre Story renders that Castro’s Cuban revolution means very little to the younger generation. These apolitical young minds who didn’t see the revolution, and who were born in Castro’s regime, are fed up with communist Cuba.
Censorships, bans, restrictions, meagre income, and impoverished lifestyle -- they are ultimately disappointed with the system, with the country’s long-troubled politics and its stalled economy. They are desperate to earn more to have better living standards.
Scores of Cubans desire to leave the country thanks to their dying respect for the revolution.
The Liberation War of 1971 is unquestionably the golden chapter of Bangladesh’s history. And with the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s birth a few years away, it’s more or less the third generation who are protesting to reform the quota system.
Although initially assured that quotas will be scrapped, later the demands of the protesters were disregarded, citing a High Court verdict on the reservation of 30% freedom fighter quota.
What is more, the authorities took a hard line against the protestors. Other than endless harassments and threats from Chhatra League cadres, the police arbitrarily arrested and sent the students to jail.
Demands to reform the inequitable quota system to recruit civil servants have long been made by students as well as educationists. The gravity of this matter should be taken seriously, before the youths begin losing the spirit of 1971, and feel disinclined to respect those who fought for an independent Bangladesh.
Not even in our worst nightmare would we expect to have a generation like today’s Cubans. Castro’s revolution and socialism have cost the Cubans dearly, becoming an unbearable burden for them.
Let us hope something similar does not happen to us.
Rahad Abir is a writer.