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

There is an adage that today’s news is wrapping for tomorrow’s fish and chips. Fortunately not all old newspapers are thrown away or used to wrap take-away food. In some vaults there exist archives containing the best, and the worst, of British newspapers.  A recent trip to the dusty vaults successfully located the Sunday Telegraph from August 6, 1978. That newspaper contained a report, written by Andrew Stephen, of a delegation of British youth and  a certain trade union leader on trip to Cuba for the World Festival of Youth.

I do not know if Mr Stephen is still around or if he is still writing articles, but in my opinion, this superb piece of journalism is deserved of a wider audience than those that read the relevant issue of the Sunday Telegraph. I am therefore pleased to copy that article to this blog. Given the length, approximately 1,800 words,  I have broken it down into two blog posts. The first part appears below and part two will appear tomorrow. I can assure readers of this blog that the full article is well worthwhile reading and I hope that those that take the time to do so will enjoy the article as much as I have.

Castro’s £50 million jamboree

Andrew Stephen in Havana

Sunday Telegraph, August 6, 1978

Just over 500 miles from Havana, in the hot and humid easternmost tip of Cuba, lies a peaceful, sleepy old Spanish colonial port named Santiago de Cuba.

It is the sort of Latin American town where afternoon Siestas seem essential, where palm trees simmer in the noon heat haze. It was in this town, exactly 25 years ago, that the young Fidel Castro and his guerrilla army made their first (and on this occasion disastrous) attempt to seize power.

So it is inevitable that overlooking the harbour there should be a Museum of the Clandestine Struggle in one of the splendid old colonial houses, where visitors can gaze for themselves at 25-year-old Fidel’s clothes, bottles from which Fidel drank, guns which Fidel fired, Fidel boots, Fidel trousers, Fidel memorabilia of every conceivable type.

This means equally inevitably that there is a visitors’ book in which guests can pay due homage. Yesterday the Soviet dominated World Festival of Youth ended here, and for the past fortnight that book in Santiago de Cuba has been filling up with international exhortations of socialist solidarity written by visitors from Bulgaria to Brazil, from New Zealand to Uganda.

If you look very closely indeed, you can spot a message in very English handwriting from none other than Mr Arthur Scargill, president of the Yorkshire area of the National Union of Mineworkers. In his message, Mr Scargill, an honoured guest of the Cuban government, does not mince words.

He says how impressed he was with the museum and continues: “the result of the heroic efforts of these brave men and women have led to a new and better society in which to live. The future is Socialism and Cuba will show the way.”

All this may seem a little excessive for a country which according to Amnesty International has 4,000 political prisoners and a rigidly controlled press, with precious little meat and vegetables for its nine-and-a-half million people.

Yet the Yorkshireman, like the 180 delegates here from Britain and the 20,000 others from around the (mainly Communist) world – including fellow guests ranging from Yassir Arafat to Harry Belafonte – seemed genuinely to find Cuba very impressive. He was even overheard telling a Dutch journalist that he would like to see the Cuban system of government in Britain.

He, like all the foreign visitors here, were subjected to a national public relations campaign of monumental proportions. Previous world festivals of youth have been held in places like Moscow, Sofia, and East Berlin, and have amounted to little more than a political back-slapping forum for the union and its satellite countries.

Personal Cost

But for Cuba, it meant something different. The festival, the first to be held in the West, gave Cuba and its beloved leader Fidel Castro an opportunity to show off the country’s achievements, to tell the rest of the world that after 19 years of revolution Cuba has emerged as a major country in its own right. Never mind the troops in Angola, or the one and a half million pounds poured into the country from Moscow every day, goes the message to the world: Come and see for yourself.

For the Cuban people, playing host to 20,000 generally well nourished foreigners, this meant serious deprivation.

The delegates and the 1,500 journalists here were fed meat and vegetables every day, but only because the Cubans themselves went largely without either for weeks on end. In a month, few Cubans eat the sort of meal the foreigners were eating every day. For a year each Cuban worker has had two days pay per month docked to finance the festival, which could finally cost as much as £50 million.

Seafront buildings which have not been painted for decades received hurried coats of paint; derelict buildings in the city centre were refurbished by large groups of workmen; shops which have been closed for years suddenly reopened with almost unheard of luxury goods on show, and 500 new buses (with Japanese engines, Soviet chassis, and Cuban upholstery) were hurriedly constructed to supplement Havana’s ailing fleet of British Leyland buses.

Youngsters in the “Pioneer” movement – like our own scout and guide movement – were drilled for months on how to greet foreign guests. Cuban people were specially selected by “Political Street Committees” to invite foreigners to their homes. (The most successful welcoming family won a hi-fi set.)

The Cuban people showed every sign of loving the whole affair. Small children swarmed after foreigners carrying autograph books, trying to collect as many different countries as possible, and the streets of Havana thronged with Cubans relishing the massive spectacle until four every morning.

Irrespective of their political leanings, the foreign visitors felt, in return, very welcome, and if Fidel Castro had taken the highly unlikely step of paying millions of dollars to a Madison Avenue public relations firm, he could hardly have achieved such a stunningly successful PR campaign to improve Cuba’s image in the eyes of most of his guests.

The arrival of 180 Britons, ranging in age from 15 to 35, was typical. They were met at their lodgings (a teacher training college on the coast, four miles outside Havana) by guitar-strumming Cubans oozing goodwill, fellowship, and socialist solidarity. Each was given a duffel bag containing sundry items like a first-aid box, a penknife, a hat, needle and thread, and even a phrasebook. (Typical words and phrases to be translated: “I come from Hanoi,” and in one successive cluster, “Proletarian, internationalism, socialism, Communism, capitalism, imperialism, exploitation, oppression, fascism, colonialism, neo-colonialism,” etc., etc.)

In part II, readers will find more about the British delegates, their political make-up and their antics.  The names of the leader and deputy leader of the British contingent, both of whom have gone on to become recognisable household names, will also be disclosed.