Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Havana vs. Prague (updated)

El Yuma anda con sombrero!

The renown polemicist Christopher Hitchens visited us at the 92nd Y in NYC this week to discuss his newest book, the memoir Hitch-22, (see here and here for more).  Hitchens was accompanied by his friend, fellow polemicist, and fellow worshiper at the church of skepticism, Salman Rushdie. (Go here for a quick review of the presentation at the Upper East Side "Our Town" blog).

It was quite an exchange complete with a limrick contest between the two children of the former British empire and reminisces of alternately covering, opposing, and supporting Sandinista Nicaragua, General Videla's Argentina and the "filthy" war, as Hitchens called it (i.e., selling the children of those "subversives" you systematically kiddnapp and murder), and of course the CUBA of 1968, where a young Trotskyite Hitchens was a political tourist and coffee planter in that heady year for the international left.

In fact, in the seventh chapter of his new memoir, "Havana vs. Prague," Hitchens recounts in critical detail his internationalist solidarity visit to Cuba that year and the various heated expereinces and debates he and his fellow internationalists shared - "A chance to mingle with revolutionaries fromall over the globe."

As he tells it, three central intellectual-political concerns consumed the young internationalists when they weren't planting coffee:

(1) Was there any hope for the idea that the Cuban revolution represented an "alternative" model of socialism with a "human," tropical face as opposed to the Soviet version of state-socialism?

(2) Had Che been right in proposing that "moral incintives" should replace material ones?

(3) What line should be taken about the increasingly bitter split between the Russian and Czechoslovakian Communist Parties?

From my reading of the chapter, while Hitch could use some lessons in Spanish grammar his vivid and always sharp analysis of these three issues is clear sighted and right on - especially in terms of what should always be the chief concern of any leftist worthy of the name - human freedom.

First, he was quickly disabused of his hope that Cuba's then "young, informal, spontaneous, and even somewhat sexy leadership" would be very different from "the waxworks in the Kremlin".  He came to this realization, of course, when Castro unequivocally endorsed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia on the very day he was scheduled to leave Cuba (for Prague itself, incidentally).

But, two prior personal expereinces in Cuba taught him what to expect in this regard.


"After handing over my passport, I waited awhile and, having by now heard a couple of rousing speeches of welcome, asked for it back. The hospitable internationalist grin on the face of the Cuban host contracted perhaps a millimeter or so. 'We look after it for you.' 'You do? For how long?' 'Until you leave our country.'"

And second, while staying with his commrades at Campamento Cinco de Mayo out in verdant Pinar del Rio province:

"I didn't especially like the way that uplifting music and hectoring speeches were played all the time on the camp's loudspeaker system [sounds like Jonestown to me!], but I was much more alarmed when, deciding on a hike one day to enjoy the surrounding scenery, I began to wave goodbye to the Cuban boys at the gate and was ordeered to hold it right there.  [...]  I didn't have a passport (it suddenly came back to me) [...] But the guards - as I now thought of them - pointed emphatically back up the trail to the camp.  Once you have been told that you can't leave a place, its attractions may be many but its charm will instantly be void."

Hitchens continues:

"The Cuban leadershipdeclared 1968 to be the 'The Year of the Heroic Guerrilla' and issued a call to all the schoolchildren in the country that they should live their lives 'Como el Che' or in the manner of Guevara.  It was the impossibility of following this directive that hit me first, even before the realization that the whole thing was borrowed from what Christians called 'The Imitation of Christ'."

Hitchens concludes this section with one of his sharp, classic one-liners, one that (if you know Hitchens) compares Cuban socialism with two of the things he detests most:

"So there it was: Cuban socialism was too much like a boarding school in one way and too much like a church in another."

Later, in a session with the legendary Cuban documentary film director Santiago Alvarez, hitchens made the mistake of asking the following impertinent but honest question:

"For all this lurid lapse into infantile pre-Oliver Stone leftism, old Alvarez then gave a reasonable-enough talk, and so I put up my hand and asked him a question. How did he find it, as an artist, to be working in Cuba, a state that had official policies on the aesthetic?  [...] It would not of course be possible or desirable to attempt any attacks or satires on the Leader of the Revolution himself.  But otherwise, the freedom of conscience and creativity was absolute.

I made the mere observation that if the most salient figure in the state and society was immune from critical comment, then all the rest was detail."

Hints of Hitchens gradual political disillusionment began to dawn on him as 1968 gave way to 1969, he remembers:

"People began to intone the words 'The Personal Is Political.' At the instant I first heard this deadly expression, I knew as one does from the utterance of any sinister bullshit that it was very bad news. From now on, it would be enough to be a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or even erotic 'preference,' to qualify as a revolutionary."

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