Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cuba's Paradise Lost - Carlos Fuentes

Cuba's Paradise Lost
April 20, 2003
Carlos Fuentes 

Carlos Fuentes is the author of numerous books, including "The Death of Artemio Cruz" and "The Years With Laura Diaz."

(H/T Ariana Hernández & CafeFuerte)

LONDON — When I arrived in Havana on Jan. 2, 1959, Fidel Castro had not yet entered the Cuban capital. He was advancing slowly by jeep along a victory route from Santiago, accompanied by a dove trained to stay on his shoulder.

He would interrupt his speeches along the way with a rhetorical question: "Am I going the right way, Camilo?" The question was ostensibly addressed to Camilo Cienfuegos, his second in command during the revolution, but in a sense it was also addressed to all Cubans. He was met with jubilation.

But Cubans expected more than just the overthrow of a bloodthirsty and corrupt tyrant. They expected political democracy, freedom of expression, freedom to gather, a mixed economy, a parallel strengthening of private enterprise and the state, better education and health care.

They got some of these things. But they also got a repressive government that ignored basic human rights.

In his latest crackdown, Castro has incarcerated 75 dissidents, sentencing them to a total of 1,500 years in prison. His government has also executed three citizens who hijacked a boat to flee Cuba.

These acts have prompted some prominent supporters of Castro to denounce his government. In a published statement last week, Jose Saramago, a Portuguese writer and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in literature, wrote that Cuba "has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, robbed me of my dreams."

My own disillusionment with Cuba's revolution came much earlier, in 1966, when the Cuban literary bureaucracy, pressured by poet and essayist Roberto Fernandez Retamar, denounced Pablo Neruda and me for attending an International PEN gathering presided over by Arthur Miller. Thanks to Miller, Soviet and Central European writers had been allowed to enter the United States for the first time to meet their Western counterparts. Neruda and I declared that this was an example of how the literary world could overcome the Cold War. For this, we were accused by Fernandez Retamar of fraternizing with the enemy.

He had assembled a long list of Cuban writers who had purportedly signed onto a statement condemning our actions, in which it was asserted that the problem was not the Cold War but the struggle of the classes. We had been seduced by capitalism.

It wasn't the feeble reasoning that outraged Neruda and me, but that Fernandez Retamar had included on the list, without consulting them, our friends, including Alejo Carpentier and Jose Lezama Lima. In the years that followed, Cuba attempted many times to tell other Latin American authors what they could and could not say and write.

It shouldn't have been this way. Castro seemed, in the early days of postrevolutionary Cuba, poised to deliver the free land his people desired. He had the support of the world's artistic and intellectual communities. From Jean-Paul Sartre to C. Wright Mills, the world's intelligentsia saw a chance for Cuba to become a new kind of revolutionary state, freed of the dogmas and deformities imposed by the contorted Marxism of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps in Polynesia such a revolutionary state might have been possible. Not in Cuba, with its close proximity to the U.S. It was the height of the Cold War, and Washington was quick to declare, albeit with less Manichean brutality than President Bush has shown lately, that "those who are not with us are against us." Castro was not interested in subjugating his nation's interests to those of the United States. Rather than bowing submissively to Washington, he began initiating reforms bound to be seen as aggressively communist.

Like Mexico under Carranza and Cardenas, Castro nationalized and expropriated private businesses and resources; but unlike in Mexico, he did not negotiate. Escalating confrontations with Washington led to the breaking of relations in 1961. And it was not just the U.S. that Castro alienated. He butted heads with his own bourgeoisie, who left in droves. The loss of talent and resources was immense.

The press was suffocated. Political parties were barred. Power was consolidated, and relations with the United States continued to deteriorate. The more aggressive the Americans, the more rigid the Cuban dictatorship became. The tighter the Cuban dictatorship, the more American aggression.

Despite these tensions, Cuba made major advances in education and health. It even had a military victory of sorts when, in 1961, a force of expatriate Cubans with U.S. backing landed at the Bay of Pigs and, without promised American air support, were quickly overwhelmed by Castro's forces.

But something was "rotten in the state of Denmark." Increasingly, human rights and freedoms were restricted in the name of national security. Cuba also turned toward an option that the Cold War offered the Third World: Soviet power. Shunned by the United States yet fearful of its power, Cuba allied itself with the Soviet Union. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis came close to launching the third and last world war. Only President Kennedy's ability to confront both Nikita Khrushchev and his own military establishment saved us from catastrophe. But Castro had cast his lot with the Russians.

Castro's support for the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia sealed a pact. Cuba became, if not a colony, at least a satellite state of the Soviet Union. If Turkey was the easternmost reach of the United States, Cuba was the westernmost limit of the Soviets.

The rigidity, the persecution of dissidents, might have been tolerated as an outgrowth of the revolutionary rhetoric if only Castro had delivered on the economy. But his economic revolution was disastrous. Cuba's enormous strengths -- its vast and intelligent human capital, its unexploited natural resources and fertile lands -- were sacrificed to stupid and exotic dogmas. Agrarian reform, launched by a smart and patriotic man, Antonio Nunez Jimenez, ended in absurdity: In the name of a crazed egalitarianism, the nation's cities were denied products from the countryside. Without incentives, farmers stopped producing. Soviet-sponsored industrialization projects filled Cuba with antiquated machinery, inappropriate for the tropics. On the wings of dogma, small businesses died.

Now, nearly half a century after the revolution, Cuba continues to be a dependent nation. Castro blames his country's ills on the U.S.-imposed embargo. And it's true that the U.S. has passed absurdly arrogant measures penalizing Cubans. One, the Helms-Burton Act, goes far beyond mere sanctions, imposing penalties on foreign companies doing business in Cuba until property expropriated by the Cuban state during the revolution is returned. (It is fortunate for the United States that Britain didn't pass such a law after the U.S. war of independence.)

But Cuba's economic woes extend beyond U.S. sanctions: The country had come to rely heavily on multimillion-dollar subsidies from the Soviet Union. Since it no longer receives them, it has had to turn back toward the economic engines of the Batista years: tourism and prostitution.

One might suspect that Castro needs America as a convenient scapegoat to excuse his own failures. He needs the American ogre, and in George W. Bush he has his ideal foil -- someone who needs his own villains to justify his ambitious plans. The axis of evil that began with Iraq, North Korea and Iran is likely to be expanded to include Syria, Lebanon, Libya and, in the Americas, Cuba.

I established a position in 1966 that I retain today: I am against the abusive and imperial policy of the United States toward Cuba. And I am against the abusive and totalitarian politics of the Cuban government toward its own citizens.

I congratulate Jose Saramago for drawing his line. Here is mine: I am against Bush and against Castro.

Translated by Lorenza Munoz

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