Cuba and America: what Fidel Castro got wrong — and right

Gore Vidal in Empire:

The black eyes were as quick as the wit; and the swift smile was both frank and agreeably murderous. “If you really want the Philippines,” said Hay, “you can have them. I’ve got too much time on my hands as it is.”

“I don’t want them, dear fellow. I’ve got enough with Cuba.” Root lit a cigar. “In fact, I’ve told the President that State should have all our island possessions. War just isn’t suited to run a peacetime colonial government. Of course, Cuba isn’t really a colony.” Root frowned. “I wish we could think of a better word than ‘possession’ for our…”

“Possessions?” Hay smiled; the pains in the back were in remission. A summer in New Hampshire had restored if not his weary soul his spinal column. “We must face what they are.”

“I’ve just divided Cuba into four military districts, rather the way we did the South in 1865. In due course, we’ll come home, but then what happens in Cuba?”

Whatever else Fidel Castro proved that a former vassal state to the United States could have the potency of a symbol long after the country had turned into a sieve, leaking the disenchanted and the persecuted and the bored. The Republic of Cuba was a Potemkin village of a democracy, a colony in all but name even after attaining its sovereignty in 1902. Senate passage of the Platt Amendment ensured that Cuba’s fate was in the hands of el yanqui who sat in the White House. Calvin Coolidge visited the island in the twenties. A decade later, dissatisfaction with Gerardo Machado prompted FDR to send confidante Sumner Welles as special envoy, theoretically to talk Machado into not doing anything that might provoke the United States into enforcing the Platt Amendment; this move destabilized Machado’s government enough to force his resignation.

Roosevelt’s man in the State Department until a homosexual incident involving a Pullman car porter made support untenable, Welles had most to do with where the country was headed than any person, Cuban or American. Professing fealty to democratic processes, Welles never stopped reminding a half dozen Cuban presidents who was boss; he wielded his ever-present cane like a scepter. I excerpted the Vidal passage above because Welles and his turn of the century predecessors John Hay and Elihu Root were part of the same lineage. This feudal lord refused to recognize Ramon Grau San Martin’s government after Grau rescinded the loathed Platt Amendment (an earlier four-month presidential term in 1933 ended when Fulgencio Batista and Welles whisked him out of office). Nevertheless, under Grau Cuba enjoyed its longest sustained peace; the Constitution of 1940 is among the most liberal documents produced in the Western Hemisphere, guaranteeing maternity leave and a minimum wage as fundamental rights. Then in a 1952 coup d’état Batista seized power.

Thus began the most ignoble chapter in Cuba’s history, augured by Conrad’s Nostromo and immortalized in Our Man in Havana and The Godfather, Part II. His bag men would nightly collect their takes from casinos for eventual deposit in Batista’s Swiss bank accounts. Before sponsoring their own wave of Monroe Doctrine-indebted guerilla war, Senator Kennedy denounced the gift of a solid gold telephone — boy, do Americans love kitsch — by ITT Corporation to Batista, “an expression of gratitude for the excessive telephone rate increase which the Cuban dictator had granted at the urging of our government.”

In the reflection I published today, I called Fidel an aberration and a culmination, like another figure recently elected. He was the twentieth century’s longest lived caudillo, a rebuke to American impotence in the age when Arbenz, Mossadegh, and Lumumba were removed or forced out by Americans (Aquino, Noriega, Saddam would join them). However, too many leftists have a received knowledge of suffering. His support for black African movements compensates for the degree to which black Cubans are not much better off than before the revolution: if the goal is reducing black and white Cubans to a shared vague hunger, then the revolution was a success (Nelson Mandela ended the bigger, nobler man). I’ve written thousands of words on the hypocrisy, propensity for violence, and appetite for power shown by Miami’s Cuban exile elite, but one thing is true: many of them are acquainted with the night. Uncles jailed for ten years for making casual anti-revolution remarks at the University of Havana. Police lighting a man’s books on fire. The regime’s encouragement of prostitution at every level; the whole soceity was on the take. Neighborhood informants to this day. People standing in line for soap and eggs for hours. The drudgery of routine in a totalitarian state, about which Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind was so keen.

The mild awe in which Castro is held by the left is the most pernicious example of the perils of false equivalence. Fidel’s police arrested and jailed men for being suspected of homosexuality? The Reagan administration let men and women die for years. Castro supported the wrong left wing causes around the world? See my sentences above about Arbenz, Sumner Welles, and the rest. I respond thusly: the measure of a society is how we treat dissent. If you opposed fidelismo at its peak, you got a beating at best and worst jail time — for years — in an arbitrary judicial system. When Castro let hundreds of thousands of Cubans leave through Mariel harbor in 1980, he said the following:

He who has no revolutionary genes, he who has no revolutionary blood, he who does not have a mind that adapt to the idea of a revolution, he who does not have a heart that can adapt to the effort of heroism required by a revolution: We do not want them; we do not need them. [cheers and applause] And at any rate, they are an insignificant part of the people, because what the imperialists do not want, what they want to hide, what hurts them to acknowledge are some truths. For instance, that there is no revolution with the mass strength of the Cuban revolution. [applause] There is no revolution, that is, our revolution; well, it is not good to make comparisons; it is not good. But, the mass strength, the moral strength, the political strength, the ideological strength of the revolution is tremendous. And when it is put to the test, you saw the 19 April march; you see this rally today. But it is not only numbers that count. You can see the quality and the spirit of the people. [applause]

I see no largess of spirit, nor generosity; I read the boilerplate of the dreariest sort of ideologue, a boor and a bore with bayonets ready to expel his countrymen on a whim. He doesn’t see these people as humans; they’re pawns of something he calls imperialism that stands for opposition to Fidel. Revolutions matter little if they kill their heirs. I question the good of universal health care and literacy in a country that for a few decades was an abattoir.

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