Belmont Club

Saving the revolution

Roger Cohen, writing for the New York Times, describes the last gasp of Fidel’s revolution.  Cuba lives in a world where things run backwards. The Day of the Revolution began an irreversible entropy when cars started to run down, buildings began to crumble, homes began to decay and meals began to shrink. Inexorably, year by year. It was as if history ended in 1959 and began counting down to the 19th century. Now the 18th century is in view. The sea, once a highway, has become a prison.  It is illegal to own a boat. What naval forces exist are tasked with keeping the population in rather than keeping interlopers out. Even the all-powerful state has become a tatterdemalion: Cubans must navigate “a labyrinth of rations, regulations, two currencies and four markets” to eat, in a kind of Third Man Vienna where the scars of wartime never heal and the occupation never ends.

But it’s a situation which Cohen seems to think is caused, not by socialism, but by an intractable old-fashionedness; by a relationship frozen in the Cold War, in which Cuba’s misery stems from an American refusal to treat with it.  He writes, “diplomatic relations have been severed since 1961; a U.S. trade embargo has been in place almost as long; the cold war has been over for almost two decades. To say the U.S.-Cuban relationship is anachronistic would be an understatement.”

Cuba’s director of the North American Department maintains that it is all America’s fault.

“I once saw a slogan on that U.S. billboard saying Cuban women have to prostitute themselves because they do not have the resources to survive,” she told me. “This is totally unacceptable, a violation of the Vienna Convention!” (The Vienna Convention of 1963 regulates consular relations.) “The U.S. wants to punish Cuba with its blockade. It cannot accept us the way we are. It cannot forgive us our independence. It cannot permit us to choose our own model. And now along comes Obama and says he will lift a few restrictions, but that in order to advance further Cuba must show it is making democratic changes. Well, we do not accept that Cuba has to change in order to deserve normal relations with the United States.”

The Cuban bureaucrat’s sentence leads directly to the main question the article seeks to resolve. What should Barack Obama do now that Fidel’s revolution is collapsing — never mind for the moment why — but undeniably collapsing. If Cuba’s misery is caused by old-fashioned Cold War attitudes, then it follows that whether for reasons of sympathy with the ‘ideals of the revolution’ or simply because it is a faster way to be rid of the island’s sclerotic Communism, that engagement must replace the ‘failed’ policy of confrontation with Fidel’s regime.

Obama’s victory is particularly significant because he bucked conventional wisdom on Cuba during the campaign. He lambasted Bush’s “tough talk that never yields results.” He called for “a new strategy” centered on two immediate changes: the lifting of all travel restrictions for family visits (limited by Bush to one every three years) and the freeing up of family remittances (now no more than $300 a quarter for the receiving household). Obama also called for “direct diplomacy,” saying he would be prepared to lead it himself “at a time and place of my choosing,” provided U.S. interests and the “cause of freedom for the Cuban people” were advanced. He said his message to Fidel and Raúl would be: “If you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations.”

While Cohen accepts that the ruinous picture that his eyes convey, he finds himself unable to feel relief at the death-rattle of the Cuban Revolution. Although he listens to the ritual presentation about the large numbers of doctors, increases in literacy, improvements in public health unimpressed, in private moments, he acknowledges that the Cubans have something he wants, something he doesn’t wish to destroy by making them like himself. Speaking of the Cuban medical system, he writes “I did sense something hard to quantify, a kind of socialist conscience, particularly among doctors. When I met Dr. Verena Muzio, the head of the vaccine division at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology — another official stop — she said her commitment to the revolution’s achievements outweighed the knowledge “that I could go to Chicago and earn $300,000 a year.” Her salary is $40 a month.” It is ironical that the only good thing anyone has left to say about Marxist regimes, founded as they are on the principles dialectical materialism and atheism, is that they produce a kind of spiritual wealth among their impoverished people.

Some of the article’s conclusions may be controversial, particularly the idea that Fidel’s murders should be judged by the abysmally low standards of Communist dictators, and therefore, as dictators go, he was better than most. “But of course Cuba is not totalitarian East Germany. Fidel has been nothing if not a brilliant puppet master. … There have been hundreds of executions, especially in the early years, but he has never been a bloodthirsty dictator, a Caribbean Ceausescu. Nor has he tried, in the style of some despots, to sweep the past away; he has merely let it wither.” Of course the past is not really made of dead books; it is made of living men who were born in it; and if Fidel has merely let it — and therefore them — wither, it may be unpleasant to those who had to undergo the dessication. Cohen’s article ends with an observation which may come nearer to the truth than he intends:

The land before me, and this farther stretch of empty sea, had been carved from Cuba at its independence. And now Guantánamo had become synonymous with some of the most egregious acts of Bush’s war on terror, acts that have tarnished America’s name. There have been other moments of American dishonor over the years in Latin America, from Chile to Argentina, where the U.S. told generals it would look the other way.

Yes, Fidel’s communist revolution, at 50, has carried a terrible price for his people, dividing the Cuban nation, imprisoning part of it and bringing economic catastrophe. But as I gazed from Cuban hills at Guantánamo, and considered Obama’s incoming administration, I thought the wages of guilt might just have found a fine enough balance for good sense at last to prevail.

Cuba’s unnaturally extended ‘Revolution’, Pol Pot’s disastrous campaign to return his country to the Year Zero and even Guantanamo Bay itself are outcomes of a complex policy dance between the Left and Right in Western politics. Cohen is right when he says that US policy toward Cuba makes no sense any more; it is the palimpsest of each side trying to get what it can over decades and splitting the difference. The wages of guilt are there, all right, but they are owed not only to “Bush” but to that considerable class of people who supported Cuba’s murderous and destructive Revolution as a vicarious way of indulging their own fantasies so that they could feel good about someone self-sacrifically earning $40 a year while they made $300,000. Cuba has been taffy pulled in every direction for five decades. F. Scott Fitzgerald described in personal terms what might well have been written of American ideological projection into the Third World: “They were careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Cuba doesn’t need an Obama, or a Fidel. It needs a Lee Kuan Yew and free markets. They’ve never heard of guilt.