Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Hitch was one of a kind": Miriam Leiva remembers Christopher Hitchens

Miriam Leiva, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, and El Yuma 
(Havana, summer, 2008)

Those who have read the now late Christopher Hitchens' memoir, Hitch-22, know that it contains a chapter, "Havana versus Prague," chronicling his "internationalist solidarity" visit to Cuba in 1968.  He did voluntary labor at the "Cinco de Mayo" work camp and, tellingly for him, had his passport (then a British one) confiscated for "safe keeping" during his stay so that the authorities could "look after it" and, one assumes, after him too.

I summarized the chapter in a post from June 2010 when Hitchens passed through NYC to promote Hitch-22.  Here's a photo from his memoir showing him posing with two other young revolutionary internationalists.

Others may remember that Hitch visited Cuba again much more recently in the fall of 2008 when he accompanied actor Sean Penn and historian Douglas Brinkley on a junket that included Chavez's Venezuela and Raul's Cuba. Penn got the scoop in Havana, being the first "reporter" to land an interview with Cuba's new leader. Hitchens shares his impressions of Chavez here. Unfortunately for us, he never met or interviewed Castro. That would have been a doozy!

I just discovered, via an article published by Miriam Leiva in Slate (Spanish), that Hitchens was also in Havana with is family during New Year's 1995-1996.  In town doing a story on Cuba for Vanity Fair (the article is collected in Hitchens book Love, Poetry, and War), Hitchens paid a surprise visit to the dissidents Miriam Leiva and her husband Oscar Espinosa Chepe (pictured with me above).  He even invited them back to his hotel, none other than the presidential suite of the Hotel Nacional, for a New Year's Day breakfast!

Leiva informed Hitchens that she and her husband had become "seventh-rate citizens in their own country" as a punishment for their losing the revolutionary faith.  And Espinosa Chepe commented wryly to him: "If Karl Marx were Cuban, he'd be in jail or in Miami." To wit, Hitchens juxtaposes the following pair of pregnant epigraphs to kick off his chapter, "Havana v. Prague":

"Within the Revolution, everything. Outside the Revolution, nothing." - Fidel Castro

"Ex ecclesia, nulla salus." [Outside the church, no salvation.] - Thomas Aquinas

Below, Leiva movingly remembers Hitchens' visit in 1995 and the difference it made to her and her husband both at the time and in the difficult years still to come.

A Cuban Dissident Remembers Hitchens
He wrote a story about my husband and me in Vanity Fair, and never lost touch with us.
By Miriam Leiva
Monday, Dec. 19, 2011

On Dec. 31, 1995, the phone rang, and I answered.

“This is Christopher Hitchens. I’m an American journalist, and I’d like to visit you in a while.”

He didn’t sound much like an American. My childhood English from Connecticut told me it was a sort of British English. Anyway, it didn’t matter. I was glad to hear a friendly voice that night. My husband and I were very gloomy, alone in our tiny apartment, surrounded by hostility and surveillance from the political police. We were “non-persons” at that time, just for expressing our ideas in 1992, hoping to improve Cuba’s political, economic, and social disaster. We had been fired from work—me from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and him from the National Bank. Then, we started to write as independent journalists and joined the human rights movement. We had been labeled dissidents, and relatives and friends feared to get in touch with us.

Christopher Hitchens came to chat with us. He mentioned that he intended to publish a piece in Vanity Fair. We spent a couple of hours telling him our story. As he left, he said he would expect us at the Hotel Nacional next morning for breakfast. Astounding! Foreign journalists meeting dissidents could face accusations of imperialist conspiracy and at the very least be put on the next plane out of Cuba. We thought perhaps he was too well-known and the government wouldn’t risk a big scandal by expelling him.

So we began 1996 at the Hotel Nacional’s presidential suite, meeting Christopher’s dad, mom, wife, and little daughter. It was really moving. His whole family! The hotel had sent a basket to their guests including champagne, which he opened to celebrate with us. I could hardly eat or drink. We talked and shared our tough experiences. Just getting into a fancy hotel and up the elevator was amazing for us, as Cubans were forbidden to do so. Maybe our habits as former diplomats and our lack of fear made it easy for us to walk around as if we owned the place. It’s not that we felt courageous, but that we just focused on what we were up to. We were peaceful and defenseless people: We just intended to meet some friends. We didn’t think about the police. All we really thought about was: Are we on time?

Sometime later, my husband Oscar’s American brother called and said he was amazed to see our picture in Vanity Fair on a newsstand in New York. It was Christopher’s story on us. He bought the magazine and many months later we were surprised to receive it in the mail. I’m not quite sure exactly what month the story appeared, because the political police took the magazine away along with many books and our writings when they searched our tiny apartment on March 2003. They also took Oscar, who became one of 75 Cuban prisoners of conscience.

All these years I kept in touch with Christopher through regular emails. He was concerned and expressed his support. My husband, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, and I are deeply moved, knowing he passed away Dec. 15. Hitch was one of a kind.

The Hitch and I at the 92Y.

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