For the communists in Kerala, Cuba is not a speck of land in the trijunction of the northern Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic Ocean. It is an emotion.
Lal Jose’s 2007 Malayalam blockbuster Arabikatha (Arabian tale) depicted the emotion through Cuba Mukundan, a hardcore communist immortalised by Sreenivasan.
Forced to leave his village Chemmanur — the red land — Mukundan heads for Dubai, where an entirely strange circumstance awaits him. He initially struggles to cope with and is suffocated by the anti-worker class, anti-Marxist capitalist culture.
Back home, Mukundan got Cuba prefixed to his name due to his infallible adherence to the Marxist ideology, though several of his comrades had gone astray.
In Dubai, he falls for a young Chinese woman, Shu Min, who sells pirated movie CDs to raise money to treat her sick boyfriend. For Mukundan, she becomes the lone Marxist in an otherwise capitalist world.
While facing an existential crisis in Dubai, Mukundan often wonders why the communist leaders back home are reluctant to visit Cuba. He also wonders why the leaders are making a beeline to the Middle East, the UK and the US.
Come June, Kerala’s communist Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan will lead a team to Cuba, but only after a stopover in the US.
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Though communist stalwarts EMS Namboodiripad, EK Nayanar and VS Achuthanandan have been chief ministers, Vijayan will be the first Kerala leader to lead an official delegation to Cuba, primarily to learn of its achievements in the healthcare and education sectors.
The chief minister’s official programmes in the US include an expatriate meeting organised by the Loka Kerala Sabha and talks with senior World Bank officials.
So in all likelihood, the trip will be a mix of capitalism and communism.
Though Kerala is now facing an extreme financial crisis as is the case with Cuba, the delegation from the state is relatively big.
It includes Assembly Speaker AN Shamsheer, Finance Minister KN Balagopal; State Planning Board Vice-chairman VK Ramachandran, Chief Secretary VP Joy, Chief Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister KM Abraham; Officer on Special Duty (External Cooperation) Venu Rajamony, Principal Secretary of Industries Suman Billa; Finance (Resources) Secretary K Mohammed Y Safirulla, Staff Officer to Chief Secretary Snehil Kumar Singh; and Personal Assistant to the Chief Minister VM Suneesh.
While Vijayan and his team will reach Cuba on 13 June, Health Minister Veena George will join them there along with Principal Secretary of the Health and Family Welfare Department Tinku Biswal.
Despite the ongoing arrangements for the trip, the mandatory clearance from the Union Ministry of External Affairs is still pending.
There is an element of risk as the BJP-RSS leadership is unhappy about the Union government allowing foreign sojourns for Vijayan, the lone communist chief minister in India.
Though the chief minister’s spouse Kamala Vijayan is also travelling, the state will not be meeting her expenses.
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The Cuban story
“See the timing. It’s happening at a time when record numbers of Cubans are fleeing their country as the island is suffering its worst socio-economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” G Pramod Kumar, a former UN Development Programme officer said.
“Kerala is also turning bankrupt. What can two countries in crisis learn from each other,” he wondered.
Kumar said the number of Cubans seeking entry to the US, mostly through the Mexican border, has gone up to 2,24,000 in 2022 from 39,000 in 2021. Many have sold their homes at throwaway prices to purchase one-way flights to Nicaragua and travel through Mexico to the US.
“Cuba’s 11 million inhabitants live in increasingly desperate conditions. Internal migration from poorer provinces has led to overpopulation in Havana,” he said.
“Those who are not provided accommodation by the government live in albergues (hostels) or abandoned buildings refashioned as temporary homes. Others live in solares (crumbling buildings where several people cohabit) or tenement buildings,” Kumar added.
The Caribbean country, ravaged by a US trade embargo since 1962, is facing an acute shortage of food and medicine. Power outages have become normal, reminding Cuba of the early 1990s when Soviet subsidies ended as the USSR collapsed, leaving the country gasping.
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CPI(M) hopes, and uncertainty factor
But the CPI(M) leadership is hopeful of Vijayan’s Cuba visit along with the health minister. They feel that health, agriculture and higher education are the major areas in which Cuba has made giant strides. They felt Kerala can benefit from Cuba’s rich experience through cooperation.
Vijayan will also try for larger cooperation between the two countries in sports. He is expected to look at possibilities of availing Cuban coaches for the state’s sportspersons.
But uncertainty continues to prevail over the travel plan as the Union government has not yet responded to the state’s request for permission for the team’s travel.
Recently, the Union government denied permission for Vijayan and his Cabinet colleagues to travel to Abu Dhabi to attend an investment meeting organised by the UAE government. The Centre felt there was no need for the chief minister and other ministers to attend such a meeting, and an official delegation would suffice.
The Centre’s stand is that ministers and officials should travel overseas only in unavoidable circumstances. As per the Union Finance Ministry’s guidelines, participation of even officials in international fairs, exhibitions, workshops and conferences should be discouraged.
It is also learnt that the Centre is unhappy with the states liaising directly with foreign countries, bypassing the Ministry of External Affairs.
With the Centre denying clearance at the last moment, an official delegation, led by Chief Secretary VP Joy, went to the UAE. Besides attending the investment meeting, Vijayan was also scheduled to interact with the public on 10 May.
Though a known critic of the BJP, Vijayan did not comment on the Centre denying permission for him to travel. The CPI(M) insiders said the chief minister preferred not to attack the Union government because he was more keen on his trips to the US and Cuba.
Meanwhile, the Congress-led Opposition UDF is terming Vijayan’s foreign visits as leisure trips when the state is in the throes of a financial crisis.
Last October, Vijayan, some of his Cabinet colleagues, and senior officials, including the state’s chief secretary, went on a 10-day trip to European and Gulf nations.
Vijayan’s wife, daughter and grandson, too, accompanied him, which the chief minister undertook a day after the funeral of party colleague and CPI(M) Politburo member Kodiyeri Balakrishnan.
Among the ministers who were part of the official team was General Education Minister V Sivankutty. His wife accompanied him.
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Congress calls for clarity
Opposition leader VD Satheesan called for more clarity on such trips and their purpose. He challenged the government to detail the benefits accruing to the state from earlier foreign trips of the chief minister and his Cabinet colleagues.
Instead of accepting the challenge, senior CPI(M) leader and former minister AK Balan defended Vijayan. A mudslinging match followed in which Balan said that a minister in the previous UDF ministry had undertaken 23 foreign tours — and his wife accompanied him at least 12 times.
According to information from the General Administration Department, Vijayan has so far undertaken 16 major foreign trips, including the latest one to Norway, Finland, the UK, and Dubai.
The total number of foreign trips undertaken by ministers during Vijayan’s two successive regimes was 85.
Former tourism minister Kadakampally Surendran stands second to Vijayan with 13 foreign trips, while former industry minister EP Jayarajan is in third place with seven visits.
The countries Vijayan visited during his 16 trips include Japan, South Korea, the US, the UAE, France, and Switzerland. On most foreign trips, he was accompanied by his wife, daughter and grandchild.
Vijayan’s predecessor and Congress party veteran Oommen Chandy travelled abroad only three times during his five-year tenure as chief minister — and those visits were to the Gulf countries at the invitation of the Malayali communities there.
Vijayan’s senior party colleague and former chief minister VS Achuthanandan travelled only once abroad during his term.
Referring to criticism that he was utilising state funds to facilitate family outings, Vijayan said after his last foreign trip that his relatives accompanying him were meeting their own expenses and not using government funds.
According to a highly placed source in the Chief Minister’s Office, Vijayan’s official visits to Japan and South Korea involved several investment discussions — but none fructified.
“The chief minister and some Cabinet colleagues have gone abroad with their families many times. It would not be a crime to seek clarity and transparency in such actions from the ministers,” Satheesan said
“It’s indeed a bad precedent,” he added. “We all have the right to know how these foreign jaunts will benefit Kerala,” he said.