By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“Yes, finally the tables are starting to turn
Talkin’ bout a revolution…” – Tracy Chapman
2016 was the year in which we lost Fidel and Muhammad Ali. Fidel was the Muhammad Ali of politics; Muhammad Ali was the Fidel Castro of sports. We also lost David Bowie, Prince and above all, Leonard Cohen, the poet of our interpersonal lives.
I always thought that when Fidel went, we’d be lucky if we still had Bob Dylan but if we lost both, we’d have lost the two pillars of the collective consciousness of people like myself, of an age and a generation. We are lucky to still have Dylan —the TS Eliot of our time–who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature this year.
For Sri Lanka at the start of 2017, Fidel’s last speech at the Sao Paulo forum (which he and Lula had jointly founded after the USSR fell) contains an important message:
“Nobody can claim that objective or subjective conditions are favorable at this time for building socialism. I believe that at the present time there are other priorities… The most important battle in Latin America today is, in my opinion, to defeat neoliberalism, because if we don’t—we will disappear as independent states and will become more of a colony than the “Third World” countries ever were.”
For Fidel, remaining as an independent state was something worth fighting for, irrespective of the question of capitalism and socialism. Furthermore, it was obviously thought possible by Fidel to preserve or retrieve the independence of states even without resort to socialism—and indeed in a historical period in which socialism was not on the agenda.
Today, Sri Lanka faces, in the form of the Ranil-CBK-Mangala–Sumanthiran ‘Gang of Four’, the most reactionary, anti-national, pro-imperialist administration we have experienced in my lifetime. This faction of the regime is the closest Sri Lanka has come to the kind of Latin American policy regimes and foreign policy orientations which Fidel urged resistance to and rebellion against throughout his political life. If this comprador clique remains the driver of the policy agenda, Sri Lanka will become like one of those states that Fidel warned about: beyond/ beneath the status of colony that Third World states had once been.
It is extraordinary for any diplomat to speculate about, or indeed make reference to, that most supremely sovereign of acts, namely the promulgation of a Constitution in the independent, sovereign state to which he is accredited. It is a symptom of the political culture and style of the current regime that in his Christmas and New Year message 2016, the UK High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, H.E. James Dauris thought to write: “…the majority of Sri Lankans will, I think, be looking forward to having in 2017 a new Constitution, one that will help to create the right framework for really good long-term community relations…” This would have been slightly less absurd had the diplomat represented a country which actually has a written constitution promulgated in a specific year –which the UK famously does not!
The message is both premature and a little presumptuous, when we have no way of knowing if “the majority of Sri Lankans are looking forward to a new Constitution in 2017”—especially when President Sirisena and his wing of the SLFP have yet to make their minds up as to whether they are actually “looking forward to a new Constitution” or only the reform of/amendments to the existing one.
In a year in which there was mounting evidence from the Provincial Councils and Multi-Purpose Cooperative Societies all over Sri Lanka of the national will to resist, it was instructive to watch and be part of the Sri Lankan responses to the death of the most recognized symbol of resistance to imperialism and neoliberalism—Fidel Castro.
In Colombo, President Sirisena laudably held an unprecedented commemorative event at the President’s House. DEW Gunasekera of the Communist Party pointedly informed the assembled audience that Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike recognized revolutionary Cuba a mere two days after the Revolution took power in January 1959, even before Mao’s Communist China had made the move. Ceylon was the first Asian nation to recognize the revolutionary government of Cuba. DEW disclosed that this was partly the influence of the respected progressive TB Subasinghe, whom SWRD had urged should be the Deputy Foreign Minister under him, because “the first thing I must do is clean up the Foreign Ministry”.
SWRD’s daughter, Ex-President Kumaratunga can be seen on the video which is on the Presidential website, bustling in at the Presidential event commemorating Fidel just as the announcer tells the audience that the proceedings have drawn to a close. Her message on Fidel appeared a week after he died. A greater contrast with her parents could hardly be imagined.
President Sirisena disclosed that he had been a communist in his early teens and later had attended the World Festival of Youth and Students in Havana in 1978, spending three weeks there and attending a banquet hosted by Fidel. However he could not be present in Havana at Fidel’s funeral, nor could any representative of the Government of Sri Lanka nominated by him (Minister Susil Premjayanth had been earmarked), because the Ministry of External Affairs, which acts on the instructions of the Minister, failed for five whole days to convey to the leadership of the state and government, the invitation cum-travel arrangements presented by the new Cuban ambassador to Sri Lanka. This I have on very good–I might venture to say, excellent—authority, and at the President’s House itself.
Thus Sri Lanka, a founder member of the Nonaligned Movement went unrepresented at the funeral of a fellow NAM founder and legend of our times. Lamentably, there was no evidence of Sri Lanka addressing the UNGA during the special session of condolence for Fidel, which was addressed by representative after representative from member states. Sri Lanka, a fellow founder member of NAM, did not join. This is all of a piece with an earlier travesty, namely the absence in Venezuela in 2016, for the for the first time ever, of a Sri Lankan President, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister or even the Deputy Foreign Minister at a Nonaligned summit.
The same afternoon as President Sirisena’s tribute to Fidel, as significant an event was held by the Cuba-Sri Lanka Friendship association, chaired by Dinesh Gunawardene, which was an all-parties affair within which the entire left was featured–the JVP (Bimal Ratnayaka), FSP (Duminda Nagamuwa), NFF (Wimal Weerawansa), DLF (Vasudeva Nanayakkara), MEP (Dinesh Gunawardena), CPSL (Raja Collure), LSSP (Tissa Vitharana). So too were the UNP (Ranjith Madduma Bandara), the SLFP (Ranjith Soyza) and PHU (Udaya Gammanpila), together with the Cuban ambassador and two former Sri Lankan ambassadors, Tamara Kunanayakam, former ambassador to Havana, and myself, as the author of a book on Fidel (acclaimed most recently by Emeritus Prof Richard Falk in his essay “On the Death of Fidel Castro” in the Foreign Policy Journal).
The best speech of that day was, to my mind, delivered by Vasudeva Nanayakkara, who has matured into the grand old man of the Sri Lankan left. Renowned progressive Richard Falk concludes that “Castro was a genuine internationalist, as well as a devoted nationalist, a combination that is both necessary and rare among statesmen of the last hundred years.” (Ibid) Among Sri Lankan politicians today, Vasu seems to come closest.
The main task is to fight, as Fidel said, for an independent state, to prevent re-colonization or worse. To exist as an independent state we must prevent the state from being weakened, partitioned, privatized and auctioned off. We must restore the capacity of that state for independence. That struggle starts with the Battle of the Constitution in 2017. Already the JO and the SLFP have won the first round in the Steering Committee by temporarily deadlocking the UNP-TNA minoritarian Constitutional coup and pushing back the proposed debate of January 9, 10, 11 to an unspecified date.
Meanwhile the Consultational Task Force on Reconciliation has produced a Report – in actuality the ‘Saravanamuttu Report’—which, as the old joke goes, is not a document to be set aside lightly, but thrown with great force.