“Thank God I’m home! It’s like the United States here in comparison!” This was T’s comment when he returned from Cuba with two posters of Che Guevara and a bottle of coffee liqueur. He had also brought with him, as an albeit temporary reminder of the unrelentingly grim Cuban diet of rice, beans and stringy chicken, a bad case of flatulence and acute indigestion.
It was 1972 and, during Fidel Castro’s visit to Algeria a few months earlier — a belated response to Ben Bella’s visit to Cuba in 1962 -— he had invited T and two of his colleagues to visit the ammonia plant in Cienfuegos. T. clearly remembers El Jefe putting his arm around his shoulders and saying, “We need people like you in the fight against imperialism.”
T had duly gone to Cuba and, although initially excited at the prospect, had soon tired of being under the constant surveillance of the Cuban secret services. He and his colleagues had given them the slip one day in order to spend the afternoon at the beach. They had arrived back at their hotel to find the whole place in an uproar at their disappearance. That feeling of being continually watched, and the lack of fresh local food— most of it being kept back for export — soon put a damper on his enthusiasm.
The reason for Fidel’s interest had been that Algeria itself had recently been placed under embargo by the French. Algeria’s oil fields, until then under joint Algerian/French ownership, had just been nationalised by Boumediène. In retaliation, the prices of spare parts from France for Algeria’s petrochemical plants had been multiplied by ten, and Sonatrach had no choice other than manufacture its own. Given Algeria’s experience, Sonatrach managers like T had sufficient know-how to be able to advise the Cubans.
Spare parts were not the only import to fall foul of the French embargo. French goods disappeared from the shops, to be replaced by those manufactured locally. Shortages of many items became a way of life. Sometimes the quality of Algerian produce was questionable and there was very little choice. The shelves in private shops and state-owned stores alike were depressingly empty.
To explain all this, I think these events must be viewed in the context of the time. In the first few years after independence, Algeria enjoyed a matchless reputation as the first “Arab” country to have won its independence through what was perceived as a David and Goliath struggle. Liberal-minded activists, for the most part, had not been duped by the French spin on the troubles, that is, that what was happening was merely an internal affair, an “uprising,” and that they were “pacifying” what was, to them, part of France.
Every country involved in any kind of war of national liberation had taken heart from the outcome. A more egalitarian Algerian society, with opportunities for all, was the goal — the shining city on the hill — and socialism seemed to be the only way to achieve it. President Kennedy had been one of those well disposed towards the new country and had actually spoken out in favour of Algeria’s independence whilst still a senator.
He had promised to turn Algeria into “a new California,” and America had been actively considering an initial $60 million aid programme to help reconstruct the war-torn country. Its attitude changed, however, following Ben Bella’s visit to Havana. This came during the period of intense sabre-rattling over the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba, when the world seemed to be teetering on the edge of Armageddon.
Ben Bella violently denounced America’s “aggression” towards Cuba, its intervention in the Congo, its support of Israel and its “crimes’ against the people of Vietnam. He was, in fact, echoing the sentiments of many Algerians, who tended to equate any conflict opposing the West and an emerging country with their own fight for independence.
It seemed that the only way forward for a country with impeccable revolutionary credentials like Algeria was to follow Castro’s example. Having just thrown off the shackles of occupation, they were not about to commit themselves to a capitalist system, one in which the United States or France would hold the whip hand. They were going it alone.
T says bitterly that when he saw televised footage of Ben Bella returning from Cuba wearing a Mao tunic, he knew that the die had been cast.
The war of national liberation and its aftermath had severely disrupted Algeria’s society and economy. In addition to the physical destruction, the exodus of the pieds noirs had deprived the country of most of its managers, civil servants, engineers, teachers, doctors and skilled workers — all occupations which colonial policy had prevented or discouraged the Muslim population from pursuing. In a scorched earth policy, departing pieds noirs destroyed, or took with them public records and utility plans, leaving public services in shambles.
The departure of European owners and managers from factories and agricultural estates gave rise to a spontaneous, grass-roots phenomenon, later termed autogestion, which saw workers take control of the enterprises to keep them operating. Seeking to capitalise on the popularity of the self-management movement, autogestion was formalised by the government. The system proved to be a failure, however.
Agrarian reforms, similar to those carried out in China and Russia, included the compulsory purchase of large estates, and the creation of state-owned farms and production co-operatives. As a result, the crucial farming sector was to descend into chaos, partly as a result of bureaucratic incompetence, corruption, and theft. This was a country that had once been a major exporter of agricultural products, but which later had to rely on imports.
It was not the only sector to suffer that fate. The government called its policy of widespread state involvement in the economy “Algerian socialism.” The choice of “socialism” was deemed irréversible and every government press organ churned out this tired old catchphrase in every issue of the official El Moudjahid newspaper and on every nightly news bulletin.
It was “socialism” only for the masses, however, the then leaders depriving themselves of nothing. They, and the ANP (the Algerian army) had their own special stores, where the shelves groaned under the weight of imported delicacies. In theory, socialism seems to be the fairest system of all, but, in practice, the sad truth is that people rarely want to share. There will always be those who have more than others.
The increasingly dictatorial tendencies of the regime, reducing the functions of the legislature to rubber-stamping presidential directives, caused many of the original war leaders either to flee the country in protest, or to be assassinated. Several of these were Kabyle, who, amongst other grievances, had condemned the government for its failure to carry out reconstruction projects in war-ravaged Kabylie. They left behind them a ruling clique that had had almost nothing to do with the war effort.
For us, Algerian “socialism” meant being deprived of any kind of personal freedom or choice. Given T’s position, however, we had, from time to time, access to goods and services unavailable to the general public. My husband, perhaps feeling slightly guilty that I had given up my life in Britain to follow him, did his best to ensure that our children and I did not miss out on anything. As a result, we probably enjoyed a better material lifestyle than many in Europe.
All this makes me reflect on the lyrics of one of Charles Aznavour’s songs, Emmenez-moi, which is all about his longing to travel.
“Emmenez-moi au bout de la terre;
Emmenez-moi au pays des merveilles;
Il me semble que la misère serait moins pénible au soleil.”
(Take me to the ends of the earth, take me to Wonderland; it seems to me that misery is easier to bear when the sun is shining.)
He could not have been more wrong. The sun, sea and beautiful landscapes of Algeria did not make up for the harshness of life there. After a while, you didn’t even notice them anymore.