Cuba's new leader | The rise of violent supremacy

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Rule number one of hosting a dinner party is to serve excellent and plentiful booze. That way if you bollocks up the food, everybody is too merry to care. The US government is clearly hoping the same rule applies to its pandemic response:

The US gov may just get away with it too - with table service like that, who says the American healthcare system is broken?

This week:

  1. 🌴 Cuba's new leader: Cuba is led by a non-Castro for the first time in 59 years. What happens next?

  2. 🐸 Violent supremacy: how governments are harnessing racism as a geopolitical weapon.

To old and new friends alike, please keep sharing International Intrigue! 


🌴 Cuba’s new leader

By John

Cuba has a new leader and, for the first time since 1959, he’s not named Castro. Miguel Díaz-Canel became Cuba’s First Secretary (de facto leader) on Monday after serving as Cuba’s president (second in charge) since 2019.

Díaz-Canel was elected by Cuba’s National Assembly with 99.83% of the vote - a strong showing from the newcomer and only 0.17% shy of the world record set in 2014 by North Korean election-winning powerhouse Kim Jong-un.

A quick Cuban history refresher:

  • In 1959, Fidel and Raúl Castro and Che Guevara successfully overthrew the US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and installed a communist government.

  • Fidel then led Cuba for 51 action-packed years, including 634 personal assassination attempts (including an exploding cigar plot). Cuba, meanwhile, powered through attempted invasions, crippling US sanctions, and a Cold War which very nearly turned hot on the island's shores.

  • In 2011, Fidel handed power to his brother, Raúl, who began reforming the Cuban economy with Fidel's blessing.

Other fun facts: Cuba sells ~$200m worth of cigars each year, Christmas was banned from 1959-1997, and baseball is the national sport - over 250 Cuban exiles have played Major League Baseball in the US.

(In 2017 Yoenis Céspedes signed a 4 year/$110m contract with the New York Mets. That’s 76,389 times more than the average yearly salary in Cuba 🤯).

The Cuban-American diaspora

'What do New Yorkers and Cubans have in common? They both dream of retiring in Florida'.

In reality, trying to leave Cuba isn't funny. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Cubans attempt to reach Florida every year; by boat if they’re lucky, clinging to driftwood if they’re not.

The US ‘wet foot dry foot’ policy was also a major incentive. Until the policy was ended by Obama in 2017, Cubans who made it to the US were allowed to stay, but returned to their country if intercepted at sea . There are now 2.7 million Cuban-Americans, most of whom live in Miami.

Having escaped Cuba, many Cuban-Americans are seen as anti-Castro. And since Florida plays a large part in determining US presidential elections, Cuban-Americans have traditionally had an outsized influence on US foreign policy towards Cuba.

The shadow of Fidel

Those sympathetic to Fidel Castro’s legacy argue that US economic aggression made it impossible for a communist Cuba to succeed. Critics of the regime point to a horrific history of torture, political repression, and corruption (Fidel was reportedly worth $900m).

Either way, Cuba’s revolutionary father casts a long shadow over the island. Like modern Chinese leaders who navigate Mao’s questionable legacy, modern Cuban politicians must grapple with Fidel’s radical politics:

One of the greatest benefits of the revolution is that even our prostitutes are college graduates.
- Fidel Castro, 2003

Whoops sorry wrong quote.

I’m not thinking of cutting my beard, because I’m accustomed to my beard and my beard means many things to my country.
- Fidel Castro, 1959

No, not that one either.

Socialism or Death!
- Fidel Castro's famous rallying cry

That’s the one.

Ultimately, the Cuban Communist Party knows that its ‘legitimacy’ comes from staying true to its founder’s spirit.

So what can we expect from the first non-Castro leader?

Compared to Raúl Castro (90 years old) and the rest of Cuba’s senior leaders (average age 82), Díaz-Canel is a dangerously young whippersnapper at just 60.

But Raúl’s retirement was no curveball. In 2017, he outlined his plan to retire in 2021 and for Díaz-Canel to succeed him. The fact that the transfer of power has gone exactly has planned should tell us two things:

  1. As President, Díaz-Canel proved to the Communist Party powerbrokers that he is the right person to carry on Fidel Castro’s legacy. He is no pushover.

  2. There won’t be any major political reforms in Cuba in the near future.

But it’s also clear that the Cuban Communist Party does not want to become North Korea:

Either we change course, or we sink.
- Raúl Castro, 2011

Cubans have recently enjoyed increased access to the internet and more relaxed travel restrictions. In February 2021, the Communist Party approved plans to privatise the vast majority of occupations (currently only 13% of Cuba’s labour force works in the private sector).

While that might excite business people, tourists, and cigar aficionados, Cuba is not about to become the Estonia of the Caribbean. From here, Cuba could realistically go two ways:

  • The best case scenario: Cuba slowly modernises and grants its people limited additional freedoms while maintaining the one-party state. This might look something like South Korea under dictator Park Chung-Hee in the 1960s and 70s.

  • The worst case scenario: current internal tensions lead to a harsh crackdown from the government. Led by the US, the international community further isolates Cuba and efforts to normalise relations stall. In this scenario, Cuba could easily fall into crisis like modern-day Venezuela.

An opportunity…

Cuba’s transition of power presents an opportunity for the US and the ‘West'. Not an opportunity to finally defeat communism in Cuba, but an opportunity to demonstrate the substantial benefits of participating in a connected global world.

Cuba isn’t going to become a free and open democracy anytime soon, but gently encouraged and not meddled with, it might become more free and open. Hardliners will argue that similar thinking re:China was disastrously wrong and accommodated the current rise of a powerful authoritarian dictatorship.

Fair enough, there are no easy answers. But here's one thing we do know: 60 years of US hostility, sanctions, and isolation did nothing to change Cuba's politics.

At a time when western liberalism is under pressure around the world, any attempt to undermine Díaz-Canel would be met with glee by authoritarian countries like China and Russia. Imagine their propaganda machines whirring into action, convincing countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa that the liberal world order must be knocked down and rebuilt from scratch.

It could be a very persuasive argument.

🐸 The rise of violent supremacy

By Helen

This week’s issue was one I struggled to make light of. Why? Well firstly, because it’s not a joke, and secondly, because the recent spate of anti-Asian crimes in the US hits close to home.

So, before wading into the dark and twisted alt-tech world of violent supremacy, let’s take a moment to appreciate this simple message from one of my favourite panda memes: 🐼

What is ‘Violent Supremacy’?

Violent supremacy’ is an umbrella term for theories and ideologies that are sometimes used interchangeably (e.g. white nationalism, far-right, right-wing extremism, neo-fascism, etc).

But at the core are white supremacist, neo-Nazi, anti-migrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, or male supremacist beliefs that promote exclusion and violence as a means to an end.

Some also subscribe to a narrow version of ‘accelerationism’, seeking to encourage terrorism and provoke race wars.

These ideologies have always existed, but reached a crescendo last year. The UN estimates violent supremacy attacks around the world tripled between 2015-20, significantly outpacing other extremist movements.

Islamist extremism is closely scrutinised by law enforcement in western countries as the incidents tend to cause more casualties - and yet, violent supremacy attacks have occurred almost three times more frequently in the last decade.

The span of violent supremacy is impressive, stretching from the US to Europe and especially to immigration-heavy countries like Canada and Australia (as if there weren’t enough things that could kill you down under 🕷).

💻 Tech for bad

“For white supremacists, the Internet is the caliphate”

- Rebecca Ulam, Intelligence Expert, Foreign Affairs

Violent supremacy groups have traditionally been decentralised and operated via informal networks. But in recent years, technology has revolutionised their operations and fuelled their growth.

For example:

  • 🤝 Recruitment is cheaper and more convenient, and the net is cast wider with ubiquitous social media use

  • 🐇 Radicalisation and indoctrination are easier with ideological echo chambers that espouse conspiracy theories

  • 🐝 Coordination for events happens in real time with ‘hive terrorism’ that groups and disbands quickly

  • 🚨 Detection by authorities is harder with use of encrypted alt-tech ecosystems that increase anonymity and privacy for members

  • 💵 Groups are increasingly transnational (and internationally franchised) with many financing options, including cryptocurrencies

Many targeted recruits initially turned to the internet seeking camaraderie and community. Many also desired simple and convenient answers to complex socioeconomic or political problems.

The economic hardships and social isolation brought by the COVID-19 pandemic have only exacerbated this trend in 2020, with violent supremacy groups capitalising on the opportunity to proselytise.

🌎 The geopolitics of violent supremacy

So who are the key players in the geopolitics of violent supremacy?

  1. Never underestimate Russia’s ability to capitalise on a crisis at the expense of the West. Russia has reportedly cultivated violent supremacy ideologies for years to sow discord abroad - the country has even been identified by white supremacists as "key to white survival".

  2. Ukraine is another global hub, having hosted gatherings (including music and mixed martial arts festivals) for violent supremacy groups to train and plan for operations in home countries.    

  3. Chinese (and Russian) online domains have provided safe harbour for 'alt-right refugees' purged from US encrypted platforms (e.g. Parler). Might authoritarian governments and violent supremacy form a new alliance to destabilise western democracies?  

🧩 Solutions

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to fix violent supremacy. Any effective solutions must be long term, and match the multi-faceted and transnational nature of the problem:

  1. Action: study right-wing community groups to understand how they work and stop the problem at the source
    Who: western governments

  2. Action: list violent supremacy groups as terrorist organisations
    Who: international organisations (e.g. the UN)

  3. Action: crackdown on the spread of false and dangerous information online
    Who: big tech companies in close conjunction with governments and NGOs

Those seeking to spread hate and do harm will always be one step ahead of those trying to prevent it. That is the price of living in a free society. But, for those of us who are directly affected by violent supremacy - and I’m speaking personally here - the very act of trying to prevent it matters.

➕ Extra intrigue

  • The Czech Republic expelled 18 Russian diplomats, citing Russia’s involvement in a deadly 2014 explosion at a Czech ammunition depot. Moscow retaliated in kind and gave 20 Czech diplomats one day to leave Russia.

  • Idriss Déby, Chad’s president for the past 30 years, died from injuries sustained fighting Libya-based rebels. Déby, who often joined soldiers on the battlefront, allied with the West to fight Islamist groups and helped stabilise the Sahel region.

  • The US has announced it will pull all troops out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, ending America’s 20-year war. Critics of this move argue it will expose vulnerable Afghans to abuse by the Taliban.

  • New Zealand has become the world’s first country to introduce climate laws for companies with assets of more than NZ$1 billion (~US$703 million). Companies are now obliged to report how they are managing climate change risks.

🔎 Intriguing recommendations

👩‍🦱  Helen: I might be late to the game on this one. But until my research this week, I had not realised that ‘My Little Pony’ is filled with racist innuendos. Sigh. But in far happier news, Season 2 of Ted Lasso is coming! If you didn’t catch the first season, do yourself a favour - it’s American feel-good comedy at its finest.

👴  JohnThe GPT-3 AI language model uses deep-learning to generate human sounding text. But if you’re worried machines are coming to steal your girl, you can breathe easy… for now 😂.

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