The Column of Lasting Insignificance: January 9, 2010
FIFTY YEARS AGO as I sat in Myrna’s Long Island home and we watched Fidel Castro and his 300 barbudos from the Sierra Maestre mountains triumphantly enter Havana, the excitement was infectious. Hope filled the air: a dictator vanquished in the cause of the people! Jubilation everywhere after this relief from years of travail. Dreams of the future sparkled. The only comparable event in my life was the night of Obama’s victory.
How (unfairly) American hopes have fallen in the past year. Although it was bound to be. Whoever won the 2008 election would have faced similarly relentless bitter attacks in this era of viciously supercharged politics. But hold it for a moment: it’s obviously too soon to bring down a president.
Back in the ‘50s when Havana was taken over, optimism also abounded. And there was a salubrious grace period before disillusionment began to take shape. Early talk of Soviet alliances was followed by the growing isolation of a captive populace. Perhaps the tipping point was reached after Che embarked on his roster of dubious executions. And still, even then, even as our aspirations faded, there seemed to be something worthy about Cuba and its expressed ideals.
Along with news of jailed writers would come reports of free health care with solicitous doctors, and lavish medical and development assistance offered to poorer countries. Next came word of widespread censorship, a subject that especially irritates writers. Nevertheless, we were somehow able to mentally visualize a society that was genuinely socialist, in all the best meanings of the word: i.e. that other people mattered in addition to yourself.
So for decade after decade, Cuba remained a paradox in our minds. And how could we not admire a genuine hero, who took power so forcefully — and kept it? All those megaspeeches, those José Martí evocations. It was easy to spot who had been Fidel’s role model.
“If Fidel Castro has betrayed the Cuban revolution, it happened at the moment when the children — children of the revolution — reached adulthood. writes José Manuel Prieto, “When by dint of the passage of time there appeared, at the end of the 1980s, a reformist current, a generation of young people born and bred within the force field of the revolution.”
Although Gorbachev inherited his power, Prieto recalls that “Castro’s the one who brought socialism to Cuba…He is convinced (and perhaps he’s absolutely right) that he alone is the best commander of this power, this type of power. Which doesn’t mean that either he or his power is desirable.”
Neither Fidel nor the revolucion is “a vulgar plunderer whose only goal is self-enrichment,” the writer claims, in La Revolución Cubana, a book which was recently translated from the Spanish. “On the contrary, I see an entirely different trait: a deep and terrible idealism.”
And perhaps it’s that which has kept so many of us hooked on this fanciful vision of what Cuba could be, rather than what it actually was.
Prieto’s book is engrossing, his hypothesis being that in Fidel’s vision of Cuba’s future lay in an uncompromising stance towards the U.S. “He calculated — like an engineer placing a satellite around the earth — that the only possible way of breaking the gravitational pull of the United States” was to use the momentum of independence to take control of the situation.
In a wonderfully graphic paragraph, the author explains:
“The unusual spectacle of the greatest and most powerful country on earth, the United States, caught up in an open war with so diminutive an adversary, like a wild animal in captivity, the astounded villagers crowding around to poke at it through the bars of its cage: that alone has captured the imagination of our contemporaries.”
So what can we conclude from all this? That naïve and, yes, idealistic as some of us have remained, it still seems better than the role undertaken by one president after another being played for suckers until, lo! this very day. Unarguably, the U.S. fell victim to “an astute provocation.”
And yet it’s incredible how unaware the United States still appears to be of its importance in everything to do with Cuba, Prieto explains. “The Americans do not suspect how much they are loved, imitated, how we hang on every word from Fidel Castro himself (perhaps more than anyone else) down to the last little child on the island (who dreams of living in America). A country penetrated from top to bottom by America’s influence, almost more than any other country on earth we could say, and without any other point of reference or counterbalance.”
He depicts the conflict between the two countries as a lovers’ quarrel, a neighborhood spat. Although many countries around the world are critical of the crudeness of much of the American way of life, Cubans envision a similar existence as alluring. Cuba wants to be the United States, he suggests.
“Cubans see such a life as desirable, imagine their future as independent — but American. Ugly suburbs, ticky-tacky houses, and disposable plastic cups all figure into the mental tableau of their happiness.”
La revolucion did wonders for Fidel’s international image — “a wellspring of strength” — that he’s continued to draw upon, and no less of a subsidy, the book avers, than the millions contributed by Russia, especially because their contribution was voluntary and that of the U.S. made “involuntarily, pathetically, ineptly.”
And as for the future, it won’t belong to the apolitical dissidents, nor even the Florida exiles who’ve been in the U.S. too long. The most likely leaders will be the heirs to “the violent and exceedingly self-absorbed Cuban Revolution.” It will be their task to found the country anew.
“They are freeing themselves from (it),” Prieto writes, “knowing how to make a break with its heritage of violence rather than acting as if nothing has happened…a clear and public expression of regret, an unequivocal condemnation of its excesses along with a vindication of its best aspects (the broad social and educational programs and all the rest). ”
Maybe one day, before too long, we’ll see a free — even prosperous — Cuba, but hopefully without the hoodlums, robber barons, and thieving tycoons that seemed to own the country before the Revolution. But Fidel Castro, good or bad, alive or dead, will take his place in history as a monumental figure, a man for the ages. Viva Cuba libré.
“Obama probably believes that the war in Afghanistan is ‘necessary’, in his words ‘for the defense of the people’. Unfortunately, impossible missions do not become possible because they have been dubbed ‘necessary’; on the contrary
they become quagmires.” — Jonathan Schell in The Nation