Notes on the Extinctions at the Top of the World

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Between bouts of ducking and covering under my second-grade desk in case the Russians dropped an atom bomb on our classroom, I spent a lot of time studying geography. Not because my teacher emphasized matters geographical, but because she had a thing about homework. And not in a good way.

On the first day of class she handed out the first assignment and I did the obvious thing. I forgot about it. She didn’t forget, though, and the next morning, while the other kids were enjoying recess, I got invited to sit at my desk and complete the work. I passed the time staring at islands on the big world map next to the blackboard. On the third day I owed two homeworks, both of which would have to be turned in before I could head out to recess. Come April, I owed a hundred-and-some homeworks and all possibility of recess had forever receded below the horizon. If my family hadn’t moved to another city, I’d still be in second grade, puzzling over the Rorschach shapes of faraway islands.

Svalbard has the most polar bears of anywhere in the world — more even than Churchill, Manitoba, where bears sashay down Main Street eating people’s dogs.

There are a lot of islands in the world, and I came out of that experience with a geographical bucket list of almost bottomless capacity. It was, looking back, a list based on shape and remoteness instead of anything particular my seven-year-old self knew about any of the islands. Which is how my seven-year-old self wound up sending me to Svalbard more than half a century later, still thinking the place should be called Spitzbergen, the way it used to be.

The two things that I knew about Svalbard were that it is very far north, farther north, even, than Siberia, as far north as the northernmost reaches of Greenland; and that Svalbard had the most polar bears of anywhere in the world — more even than Churchill, Manitoba, where bears sashay down Main Street eating people’s dogs. Also, my seven-year-old self wanted to be there in the winter for the true Svalbard experience, and to see the Northern lights.

Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, is the former silver medalist for the title of northernmost civilian place on the planet. In the ’90s it got defaulted up to northernmost when the model Soviet city 50 miles west and a dozen or so closer to the pole was disqualified on account of going out of business. My wife and I lodged in a room in Longyearbyen, in barracks that housed coal miners before the miners rioted over their poor living conditions. Longyearbyen seemed an apt enough name for somewhere to be stuck on a yearlong contract digging coal. No wonder the miners rioted. It took a while for me to find out that the town was named after John Munro Longyear, the Michigan timber baron who began the mining operations in 1906.

It looked like a rundown middle-school gym, if middle-school gyms came plastered with posters of heroic Red Army soldiers from the Great Patriotic War, tarted up with gold CCCP’s on red backgrounds.

People who didn’t riot were the inhabitants of the Soviet model city. According to the young Russian who showed us around, it had been a very desirable place to be, Soviet-Unionwise. It’s called Pyramiden and people waited years to be assigned there. Like Longyearbyen, Pyramiden was a coal-mining town. We boated over one day to check it out.

There was a big, brass, snow-blown bust of Lenin welcoming us to the Sports Palace. The Palace had a basketball court and a tawdry little music room and an even tawdrier niche fitted out with shelves that some wag had designated as a library. It looked like a rundown middle-school gym in a community that had experienced a property-tax revolt, if middle-school gyms came plastered with posters of heroic Red Army soldiers from the Great Patriotic War, tarted up with gold CCCP’s on red backgrounds. There was also a sinister sounding building called the Tulip Hotel, which, since we weren’t Soviet royalty off on a junket, we weren’t allowed inside of. “Everything here was free,” beamed the Russian who showed us around. He was too young to know better.

Free included a bleak apartment in the men’s building, if you were a guy. In the ladies’, if you weren’t. There were rumors of a secret tunnel connecting the two which were hard to credit since both buildings were constructed several feet off the ground because of permafrost. Still, if you could manage to hook up with a coal miner of the opposite sex you hit the jackpot because married people got upgraded to a couple’s apartment. There must have been a limited number of those apartments, though, or people would have been allowed to meet out in the open rather than having to sneak around in tunnels.

Free also, of course, included all the labor those miners put in. And the food, the food was free, too. Evidence about what kind of food you can get for free lurks in the abandoned institutional kitchen. Mostly it seemed to have been canned peas stirred in huge electric-powered tubs that reminded me of the first-generation washing machines you see in photographs from the Depression. Free industrial peas at the end of working all day in the mines — no wonder the vodka was free, too. The vodka is still there. You can purchase a shot at the northernmost bar in the world. One taste, and you realize why it hasn’t migrated to a more competitive locale. And why it had to be free.

“Everything here was free,” beamed the Russian who showed us around. He was too young to know better.

High class people. Doctors. Lawyers. Folks with political pull pulled strings to get sent to a place farther north than Siberia so they could work in mines all day and eat cafeteria peas at night and hook up in tunnels like horny junior-high kids and shoot down vodka that would have etched the chrome off the fancy ZiL limousines the nomenklatura were chauffeured around in back home. A few miles away, Norwegian miners were rioting because they didn’t like the rooms they were given, but these poor schnooks thought they were living in paradise. There may have been Northern lights somewhere, but I wouldn’t know. It turns out the Northern lights are easier to see when it isn’t snowing all the time.

Also, I should have given a bit more thought to that business about seeing polar bears. Even my seven-year-old brain could have put it together. Bears. Winter. Hibernation. But I wasn’t any more analytical when I planned the trip than I’d been about not turning in my homework.

Or the bear thing may have had something to do with the fact that polar bears are dying out. All the right people say so. The pack ice is melting and bears all over the Arctic are falling into the water and starving to death, so if you live in Churchill, keep a close eye on your pets. There are a lot of hungry bears wading ashore. But people in Svalbard didn’t seem to be worried about polar bears dying out. They were worried about being eaten by bears. On Svalbard, you’re required by law to carry a high-powered rifle when you step outside of town.

Longyearbyen has a university, the Harvard of the Arctic, according to the Toronto Star, where you can study oceanography, but I wouldn’t. Studying oceanography involves SCUBA diving, and there are plenty of fine programs at places more equatorial than the Barents Sea. They have a nice museum at the university, though, a museum that focuses on geology and, this being Svalbard, the glaciers that sit on top of the geology. It was while I was reading about those glaciers that I came across this:

For the past four to five thousand years the Earth has been subject to a marked cooling, which gradually has created better conditions for the growth of glaciers and permafrost. Five thousand years ago the average temperature in Svalbard was around 4 degrees warmer than today. Then, one would probably have had to climb 200-400m up in the mountains in order to find permafrost, and many of today’s glaciers would not then have existed. The largest glaciers would have existed in a much reduced size. Many of Svalbard’s glaciers, therefore, are less than three to four thousand years old.

They were worried about being eaten by bears. On Svalbard, you’re required by law to carry a high-powered rifle when you step outside of town.

Svalbard has gotten a lot of attention over the past few months for being the ground zero of global warming. Maybe, even, a bit above zero, sometimes. Degrees on Svalbard have shot up quicker than degrees anywhere else on earth, which got me to wondering about those polar bears. Polar bears have been floating around in the Arctic for something like 200,000 years. Even if Svalbard is warming up today, what were they floating on 5,000 years ago? The sign didn’t say, so I had to look it up on my own. And discovered that there are two schools of thought on the bear situation.

The first is the one you’ve already heard. The other is that the bear population has exploded in recent years, mainly because of an international ban on polar bear hunting. When I tried to look up the exact numbers, I found some in the articles that thought there were more bears than ever. Twenty-five thousand, and climbing. Thirty-thousand, with populations of bears well established in dozens of locations throughout the polar region. The articles that thought the bears were dying out talked about pack ice. Less pack ice than ever. You can drive to the North Pole in your bass boat, if you want to.

Now I’m not a polar bear scientist and I’m not qualified to judge the quality of those articles, but it did seem to me that one side was willing to commit to real numbers and the other, well, the other weaseled out of addressing the question.




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Cashless and Thoughtless

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There has been a lot of push from international organizations to make poor societies around the world copy Western institutions, and recently to go cashless. Blind to differences in cultures, these international organizations have hugely over-estimated the organizational capabilities of people in the emerging markets — in the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Anyone who has spent a sensible amount of time in emerging markets — not in five-star settings but as a normal person — knows that in these countries, an organization of two people often has one person too many. It is also evident that the two tends to expand into dozens, hundreds, and thousands, either because of the local desire to subsidize more people or because of the need to instigate a Western-style bureaucracy to control the whole thing.

Erroneously assuming that we are all the same, that specific cultures do not matter, and that all that matters is training and incentives, there was a huge push for globalization.

In these culturally very different markets, companies and institutions — Western concepts, which do not transplant well without the underlying European culture and values — can never stay nimble. To maintain control, internal bureaucracies must grow to provide checks and balances, because workers fail in independent thinking, work ethics, honesty, and cooperation. Creativity stays conspicuous by its absence.

Despite seemingly low labor costs — as low as a couple of dollars a day in wages — the costs of keeping such organizations together grows exponentially with size. Growing bureaucracies require additional checks and balances. Without the cleaning mechanism of European values and the control systems they provide, these organizations invariably accumulate dead mass, which keeps growing cancerously until they crumble under their own weight. Organizations that do not have constant blood transfusions and external subsidies tend to disintegrate rather rapidly. The price of keeping them together is extremely high.

In a climate already characterized by political correctness, a certain wisdom that Europeans had accumulated about the colonized world had evaporated by the time the USSR era ended in the late 1980s. Erroneously assuming that we are all the same, that specific cultures do not matter, and that all that matters is training and incentives, there was a huge push for globalization.

German companies moved their factories to Eastern Europe, a region of relative cultural closeness to Germany. But many factories have since moved back. The anticipated cost savings turned out to be the exact opposite. All kinds of configurations of Western corporate investment in emerging markets were tried, with similar results.

The problem is that these emerging markets’ societies are tribal. In such cultures you need the glue of violence, subsidies, and massive bureaucracies to keep organizations in place. The experiments of the past 500 years with colonization and Western education show that it is not easy — when it is even possible — to wean societies away from tribalism. Bigger and bigger organizations were put in place in emerging markets, but they tended to remain poor and in strife. The intervention of Western economic methods created an unnatural gap between the poor and an entrenched elite, rendered more entrenched by the possession of whatever new wealth was produced.

Many factories have since moved back. The anticipated cost savings turned out to be the exact opposite.

There is only one solution: keep organizations in these emerging markets as small as possible, remembering that tribal instincts ironically propel them to make their organizations big. Never subsidize big organizations, for if you do, besides providing services that add value you create operations that are a massive drag on the economy, full of endeavors that consume wealth instead of producing it.

This brings us to the current drive to go cashless.

India has recently attempted to reduce the use of cash, ostensibly to reduce corruption but actually to further centralize the economy by creating a medium of exchange that the government can constantly monitor. Naturally, it is also creating a national ID card system. Both of these are in direct conflict with what India should do as a tribal, medieval society.

Let’s consider the sequence of steps required to operate an online bank account in India.

Start with slow internet connections and frequent interruptions in electricity. Add extremely unwieldy websites, websites that do not open properly. My browser often gets hung up on these sites. My password has a limited validity and must be renewed regularly by using the old password and a one-time password sent to my mobile phone; and a lot goes wrong during this “simple” process. Once inside the account, however, I may need another one-time password and an additional transaction password to complete my business.

Most people actually walk down to their bank branch to do the so-called online transaction — a clear instance of the fact that trying to modernize any system beyond its natural capacity in a tribal society increases the costs and makes it more difficult. This is the persistent irony of modernization.

My Indian banks charge me fees and commissions I never agreed on. They then top it up with taxes on “services” provided. Bank statements are ridden with so many charges that only the rare person has time or patience to sort them out, particularly when the banks are crowded, and getting someone to talk to you on the phone is extremely difficult. When you get through to an agent, he usually knows nothing.

The frustration of the people has been steadily increasing. Instead of easing their lives, the reduction of cash has added significantly to the burden.

It gets worse, especially if you are the so-called common man. I know my way around pretty well, but I frequently get stuck. And here is a country where 25% of the population is officially illiterate and where engineers and doctors choose to apply for jobs as janitors, mostly because their degrees are no more than paper. It is a country where a large proportion of those who claim to be literate struggle to sign their own names, let alone show themselves capable of reading a sentence. Imagine how they would deal with forced digitalization of the currency system. This will end in disaster.

Even now, in the last six months that India has been trying to reduce the usage of cash, the frustration of the people has been steadily increasing. Instead of easing their lives, it has added significantly to the burden.

Notably, however, none of this means that people have gone against the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. He is winning election after election, and most people simply love him. When not facing banking problems in real time, they are actively in support of Modi’s attempt to go cashless. One must remind himself that this is a tribal, irrational society. People often cannot connect simple dots that are right in front of them; not even the so-called educated ones can do that. They tend to do exactly more of what created the original problem, which in this case is irrational authority.

Any tribal society contains the impetus to make bigger, and more complex systems of authority. Tribal people want nannies. They feel secure in big structures, despite the fact that such structures actually make them less safe. Tribal people demand free stuff, without any feeling of gratitude to any real source of wealth. Governments meet that emotional need, while doing little else for their subjects.

Any rational leader would make an aggressive attempt to counter a tribal society’s willingness to increase the sizes of its institutions. But tribal societies do not easily produce rational leaders. They operate through expediency, not through rationality or objective moral thinking.

The IMF and the World Bank think that these emerging markets need better institutions. They think these countries need to reduce corruption, which is one of the reasons for the push towards going cashless. Locals in these countries agree. The irony is that these locals haven’t a clue about what corruption means — their tribal worldview means that they do not see corruption from a moral perspective. They merely look at the need to end corruption as a tool of expediency to improve their personal lives. They may think that everyone should stop asking for bribes, but they do not include themselves individually in that equation. Any sane, non-tribal person can see that this does not add up.

Tribal societies do not easily produce rational leaders. They operate through expediency, not through rationality or objective moral thinking.

Contrary to the view of many libertarians, even when privatization does happen, there can only be limited improvements. Indian companies — for they have tribal people as ingredients — are instinctively dishonest. They lack a work ethic and, unconstrained by morals, they rampantly abuse their clients. For example, I used an online Indian travel agency to buy an international ticket. After tens of attempts the money left my bank account — but I never got my ticket. The company said I never paid. No one knows whether it was the bank or the agent that was at fault. Eventually the agent refunded my money to the bank, but then the bank blocked that money. I had to run around the bank, which could not trace that blocked money. I shouted, screamed, and threatened, but in this entangled mess, I don’t really know who was the culprit. I do know that big organizations and forced-from-the-top digital money simply do not work.

Given the low-trust culture, Indians prefer immediate exchange of goods for money and vice versa. If you pay for a later delivery, you undertake huge risks that your goods might never arrive, and if they do arrive it is not unlikely that you might receive substandard goods. If you sell goods for payment at a later date, your money might never come. No wonder 95% of Indian consumer transactions happen in cash, with goods exchanging hands exactly at the same time that cash is paid.

India’s attempts to go cashless will end in a disaster. This will become obvious in a few months, not years. But India is merely an example. The situation with most of the emerging markets is exactly the same (with China, perhaps, as the only exception).

The lesson is that poor countries are poor for a reason, despite all kinds of tools of technology — particularly the internet — that are available to make their economies rapidly converge with that of the West. Western institutions worked in the ex-colonies as long as Europeans ran their institutions. With Europeans long gone and European values no longer underpinning them, the institutions have increasingly become hollow structures — what one sees everywhere in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, with the exception of a few small countries. An attempt to go cashless is a tribal attempt to centralize, exactly when their institutions, including the institution of the nation-state, another European import, are imploding.




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Corruption Revisited

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I was born in India, and not long ago I returned for an extended visit — which occasioned many thoughts that might be used in answer to the question that people frequently ask me: “Has India changed?” By this people usually mean, Is India on its way to “development”? Here is an attempt to answer.

What is the free market?

Ask middle-class Indians what they mean by the “free market.” They will often define it as a system in which corporations are given free rein to expropriate properties of rural people so they can build modern factories. They believe that the government should be allowed to pay a fraction of the market price to acquire farmers’ land to build infrastructure. They think that India would not grow if corporations and government were not subsidized by the rural segment of society. For them, the “free market” is a system in which individual forces are pooled for the greater good of India.

In India, an overt caste system has continued to disappear, particularly in urban areas — but scratch the surface and you find that it is deeply entrenched. When reminded of wretchedness and poverty, the well-off middle class likes to counter with talk about a high standard of living. In a country where more than 50% of the people have no toilets, and similar numbers have no electricity, water supply, or access to primary healthcare, one has to ask what is meant by that high standard.

Middle-class Indians think that India would not grow if corporations and government were not subsidized by the rural segment of society.

In fact, the Indian middle class is devoid of empathy for poorer brethren. Its members often fail to count their chauffeurs, maids, guards, and servants as human beings. These poor people are lucky if they get $100 per month for 12 or more hours of work a day, with no days off or vacations. The situation gets much worse outside the urban areas.

In India one must pay a bribe for everything one gets, and paying a bribe is usually not enough; one must grovel at the feet of those in power. Any sane person who wants to survive must stay politically well-connected, learning to exchange favors in an entangled mess. One can understand why Indians who must live in India may need to tone down their opposition either to the backwardness of society or to the tyrants that backwardness creates.

Most of the media is indirectly controlled by the government, for without government advertisement revenue it is hard to survive. Meanwhile, India consistently ranks among the most dangerous places for journalists. Freedom of speech in India is a myth, and even the richest and most powerful live in chronic anxiety.

Speaking of riches — the Indian GDP is $1,718 per capita. The average Indian is economically poorer than the average African. It is understandable why Indians try to emigrate. Given a chance, most would. Those who fail prefer to sing to the glory of mother India — and those who emigrate, alas, end up doing the same thing.

There is only one way to make sense of all this: by understanding the underpinning cultural forces.

India is a pre-rational society. It is deeply tribal and superstitious, allowing little space for forward planning or long-term thinking. In such a society, people are driven by a compulsive need for material gains but not by compassion, fairness, or goodwill for others. An irrational society has by definition no moral instincts; life is lived not by values but by expediency.

One must pay a bribe for everything one gets, and paying a bribe is usually not enough; one must grovel at the feet of those in power.

India has imported the easy, entertainment aspects of Western society, but it has forgotten to import — actually completely failed to see — the way of reason, of continuity between cause and effect. The Indian diaspora sings to the greatness of India, not because it believes in it — for if it did, it would return to India — but because to the tribal mindset a glorified India gives increased self-confidence. If lobbying for India in the West adversely affects the poor, downtrodden people who live in India, this is of no significance to the voluntary exiles.

Deep culture is entrenched and resistant to change, even after people — including very well educated people — have moved to a new society. It may not change for generations, if it changes at all.

Why international organizations fail

Financial corruption is only the tip of the cultural iceberg.

Economists and international organizations long to help India set up big factories and enter the modern world. Yet despite flashy isolated data, during the 70 years of so-called post-independence, modernization has impoverished the country. The problem is that much of it proceeds by force.

Indian corporations are extremely dependent on government support: direct subsidies, regulatory favors, and overt transfer of wealth from poor people. One might call it legal plunder or corruption.

In India’s tribal society, in which any organization of two people has one person too many, real growth comes from the informal sector. The formal economy is often the pest, but money lent to the informal sectors earns as much as 36% a year — while the same money lent to the formal sector earns a negative real-interest rate. Of course, the informal sector contributes little to taxes.

International organizations should be, but are not, encouraging growth in the informal sector. These organizations operate with a very shallow definition of corruption. For them, tax avoidance, bribery and the exchange of favors are the only corrupt practices. They endeavor to fine-tune institutions in emerging markets so as to remove corruption in public institutions, unconcerned that these institutions might be incompatible with growth.

They also want to educate voters. They want to enforce the separation of judicial, executive, and political functions, and they invariably fail. They fail to understand that to a pre-rational culture, separation of the three arms of the government is unimaginable.

Despite flashy isolated data, during the 70 years of so-called post-independence, modernization has impoverished the country.

Indian institutions have continued to degenerate since the British left. What exists today is merely the facade of what the British abandoned 70 years back. Western institutions did work in India as long as the British ran them, but those days are over. Once destruction of those institutions has been completed — and they are now in an advanced stage of decay — they can never be rebuilt. India will then be on course to becoming a recognized banana republic.

International organizations fail because they don’t think that culture matters. They think that people are blank slates. They think that locals always strive for the “right” institutions. To them, local history, religion, habits, and values have no significance. They believe that all people care about is economic growth and as long as the “right” institutions can demonstrate better growth, locals will offer their support.

But corruption in India exists because of the underlying corruption in the culture. Given the circularity of the statement, “corruption” is perhaps the wrong word. “Irrationality” is a better replacement.

Managed disintegration

With the best efforts, changing a culture is a long affair. It is entirely possible that cultures never fundamentally change. They cannot be changed unless the institutions that might reform them are compatible with them. Without compatible institutions, evolution of culture cannot happen — a society with incompatible institutions is confused and fails to see causality. The more irrational a culture, the more decentralized its institutions must be; but ironically, the tribalism of such societies creates the poison of totalitarianism from the bottom up. An enlightened ruler — one who cannot come into existence through democratic means — would allow such a society to disintegrate politically, for he would know that eventually nature would lead it to that future. Decentralization and the managed disintegration of India is what international institutions should be striving for.

Corruption in India, in the rest of South Asia, and in the Middle East, Africa, and South America is a product of irrational cultures, worsened by incompatible institutions. International organizations might do a patch-up job, but they will eventually fail and will make the situation worse if they focus on financial corruption, which is only a distressing symptom.




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Report From Iquitos

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I am writing from Iquitos, a town in Peru, encircled by the jungle of the Amazon. The only connection to the external world is by air. Boats — loaded with cattle, exotic animals, human beings, and forest-produce that in the US would put you in prison for several lives — go downstream and upstream, providing access to smaller villages and tribes, but not to anything beyond. Iquitos is very spacious and well-planned. The mighty Amazon and its tributaries surround the town, and most people have come here from its tribal areas.

For less than $40 a day, I can have a very good style of life. It costs me $22 for a good, clean, air-conditioned hotel, with full breakfast included. A tip of 30 cents a day gets me all the attention I want. A very good meal at an “expensive” restaurant costs me $8. The cost is much less — about $3 — if I go to a good, busy place for locals. Most taxi rides cost 60 cents. Yet because most things are flown in, Iquitos tends to be about 25% more “expensive,” in my estimation, than similar places I have visited in Peru.

During 30 minutes of my sitting in a boat one evening, several fish jumped in, without a need for bait.

I tend to eat at local places. I buy fruit from roadside vendors; a handful costs me 30 cents. This helps the local economy the most, for the money that I spend in touristic areas mostly accrues to the well-connected, entrenched interests. Moreover, spending money directly with locals ensures that their emotions get aligned with my interests and safety — eventually they will go out of their way to win my favors. People are very friendly.

The Amazon offers cheap and good food. During 30 minutes of my sitting in a boat one evening, several fish jumped in, without a need for bait. Fruit trees are easy to find. It is hard to go hungry.

Not too far away is dense jungle and animals of all sorts, all of which are hunted down, irrespective of the diktats of the federal government, the World Wildlife Fund, and so forth. If something “protected” is not killed, it is because its meat is not tasty. In the local market every endangered or protected species can be bought. Locals might show revulsion if you asked them directly whether they hunt monkeys and dolphins. But ask them subtly — without evoking any implanted defences — what dolphin and monkey meat tastes like, and they will describe it.

I feel very free in Iquitos. But for locals it is not a libertarian paradise, not even close. Outside the core, touristic area, Iquitos is very dirty, because people utterly lack the concept of hygiene.

The receptionist at my hotel works every single day, from 3 PM to 11 PM. She works 365 days a year, with no vacation or weekends. This is how they all exist. In the morning she looks after her younger siblings while her own parents go to work. She has nine siblings, all younger, six of them are girls. When asked, she had to count to remind herself how many there are. All of them share a couple of small, dark rooms. Every woman is loaded with children, mostly girls.

The rule is babies first, with whomever, with no thought whatsoever about the future.

There is something about this area that results in a high female-to-male ratio. Some say there might be twice as many — or more — female births than male births in this area; anecdotal evidence shows this. One possible reason is a local fruit called aguaje, which apparently encourages certain hormones in women, although I failed to find a properly researched document to support this.

Girls here want to get pregnant quickly, partly because they have very strong maternal instincts, and being a single mother is perfectly acceptable socially — in fact this is the only way. The rule is babies first, with whomever, with no thought whatsoever about the future. My travel guide, who speaks fluent English, sees absolutely no reason why he should have any discussion with his daughters about the risks of unplanned, early, single motherhood. At the age of 23, he has three daughters, from three different women. Mostly he does not care what the woman he has a relationship with does when he is not with her. Incest is not uncommon.

People have enough to eat, so major crimes do not happen. But when crime must be controlled, it is through fear of punishment and much more importantly through real-time policing; those who cannot think much into a future don’t worry about punishment tomorrow. This reminds me that in many parts of Africa there is no word for “tomorrow” or “future.”

As I have seen elsewhere among people lacking reflective, critical reason — which is the situation in most of the non-Western world — petty crime, such as seizure of cellphones, is not considered immoral and hence is very common. The police and military must stand on every corner.

The area around Iquitos could be better than Switzerland. It isn’t. But you cannot blame lack of resources, lack of space, or even lack of educational possibilities. People here have a very high time-preference. A remote village of 500 people that I went to, about two hours away by boat from Iquitos, started getting surplus money through its interactions with jungle-related tourism, so it set up a night club and two bars. Not a piece of machinery was bought.

Contrary to what a rational person might have expected, Iquitos isn’t a peaceful paradise — the situation got worse with the influx of money.

Any excess money over basic needs gets spent on pleasure, right away. Iquitos is very noisy, because people like loud music and other loud sounds. Girls in very short skirts stand outside shops to attract people to buy motorbikes, TVs, and big, high-capacity sound systems, all playing at full blast. Casinos (and I am told brothels, in this rather promiscuous society) are everywhere, showing how bored people are. They are addicted to constant distractions.

Any rational person would have expected the surplus to go into investments in capital. But of course, the World Bank with its Ivy League educated “economists” must be happy, for they want consumption to go up. Contrary to what a rational person might have expected, Iquitos isn’t a peaceful paradise — the situation got worse with the influx of money.

Outside the supermarket here, there are several women sitting with scales, to let people weigh themselves for a few cents. None has business. There are shops after shops after shops, all well stocked, selling exactly the same wares, with none too busy. Hundreds of women sit next to one another selling exactly the same vegetables and fruit, all staring in oblivion, from early morning to late in the evening. Everywhere people, including the receptionist at my hotel, sit glued to the soap operas on their TVs. Soap operas are packed with fighting and exaggerated emotional dramas.

Anyone who tried to understand the situation might come, quite contrary to what the mainstream developmental economists would suggest, to the conclusion that in the final analysis the problem here — as elsewhere in the developing world — is not lack of capital, space, resources, safety, or property rights; nor is it overpopulation. The World Bank, the IMF and most economists are looking in the wrong direction.

The problem of poor societies is their lack of imagination, creativity, and reason, which is the dominant characteristic of the non-Western world. Modern education has completely failed to inculcate these human qualities. Perhaps it has made the situation worse, for education has been marketed to people in the non-Western world as something that offers a better material future, not a bigger vision of life. This has encouraged rote learning, not a passion for understanding the universe. In the end the education instilled in such students becomes just another baggage of beliefs, burdening them and distancing them from imagination, creativity, and reason.

Material prosperity without intellectual and spiritual growth does not add up and is not sustainable.

In most parts of the poor world (Africa, India, Peru, Central America, the Middle East, etc.) economic growth — the kind encouraged by international institutions — has had many bad consequences. These regions did not develop the concept of reasoning, planning, and strategic thinking. In the absence of these things, removing people from their tribal lives leads to emptiness and confusion. Any money they get goes into showing off and into too much drinking and partying. Noise, smell, chaos seem to develop quickly wherever surplus money comes to exist. Obesity and other lifestyle diseases are growing rapidly in all of these poor countries. And most rational people in the West fail to understand the situation: rational people’s rationality preempts them from understanding how irrational the developing world really is.

In such places wealth does not lead to peace, hygiene, improved health, and enlightened living. Even what could be an oasis becomes noisy, dirty, and diseased. The developing world has been the economic beneficiary of easy imports of technology, almost all of it attributable to the internet and telephony — both of which, during the past two decades, opened the floodgates of quick economic growth. Contrary to the claims of international institutions, growth in most of the developing world cannot be shown to be a product of liberalization, the spread of democracy, or public education.

For now, the World Bank and the IMF can justify their existence, but correlation is not causation. Liberalization didn’t really happen, although democracy is rearing its ugly head everywhere in the developing world. It has involved masses of people in public policy, masses who cannot think and reason, and are mostly driven by the desire for bread and circuses. Public education hasn’t delivered.

At the core, material prosperity without intellectual and spiritual growth does not add up and is not sustainable. Now the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, and growth rate in the developing world is falling rapidly. The consequences of overconsumption and lack of capital investment are becoming visible.

A true developmental economist should look at the reality beyond the superficial economic numbers. I am extremely happy and free in Iquitos, but what a tourist and an outsider with money can experience is not the full reality. Never trust economists who do a quick fly-in and fly-out of a poor country and while there get driven around in Mercedes cars and stay in five-star hotels. Ask them if they have been to Iquitos, and the jungles with mosquitoes and naked tribes.




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Closing the Circle

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We may be approaching one of the most significant events of our time: the end of the Castro regime in Cuba. So long have Fidel Castro and his friends reigned in Cuba that it is hard to get perspective on the regime and its history. The history of Cuba itself remains little known to Norteamericanos.

Fortunately, there is Robert Miller. A longtime contributor to Liberty, Robert was reared in Cuba, as a member of a prominent family. He has spent most of his life in the United States but has followed events in his homeland closely. When Liberty discovered that Robert was writing a memoir of his family’s life in Cuba, their flight to the United States, and their adventures here, we asked Robert if we could print parts of his work. Robert agreed. We will be featuring it in several segments, of which this is the first.

The memoir is not a work of political science; it is something much more: an introduction to ways of life, parallel to those of North Americans, and connected at many points, but always pungently different. We think our readers will find this view of Cuba, before and after the Castro Revolution, strange, unpredictable, charming, funny, tragic, and always very interesting. — Stephen Cox

* * *

Part I

“Fidel does not have cancer. I’m very well informed . . .

Nobody knows when Fidel is going to die.”              — Hugo Chavez   

My mother, Ana Maria, died on July 14, 2000 at 78 years of age. For 40 years, ever since our flight from Cuba in 1960, she’d clung to the hope of outliving Fidel Castro Ruz, a man four years her junior. Almost more galling than having Castro outlive her was having her saint’s day fall on July 26, the anniversary and official title of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement. To a Cuban, one’s saint’s day — the birth date of the Catholic saint after whom one was named, in this case Santa Ana — is a personal holiday second only to one’s birthday. After our flight following the revolution, first to Mexico and then to the United States, she never again celebrated anything on that day.

My family has deep roots in Cuba. My maternal grandmother, also Ana Maria, was a third-generation Spanish émigré from the Canary Islands. John Maurice, my maternal grandfather, was an American contractor in Aguascalientes, Mexico when the 1910 Mexican Revolution erupted, so he fled for Havana where prospects seemed better.

Both were stern and imposing, with bulldog jowls, sharp, no-nonsense eyes, Grecian noses, and thin, locked lips, ever vigilant against any whiff of impertinence. Nonetheless, it must have been love, because in 1914 they married.

A massive man, a rigid disciplinarian, and a heavy drinker and gambler with a streak of willfulness that could turn violent, John Maurice was also an ambitious wheeler-dealer. He soon worked his way as a primary subcontractor into Cuba’s biggest construction projects under President Gerardo Machado.

Cuba was a faded canvas awaiting, if not a Michelangelo, at least a Jackson Pollock.

Nineteen-fourteen Cuba was caught in a time warp. It had achieved independence only 12 years before. Tiny next-door Haiti had been independent since 1804, besting what was then the world’s most powerful army, the Grande Armée of Napoleon. Since Cuba’s independence from, first, Spain and then, in 1902, from the United States — a facilitator in the first effort — it had experienced only five chief executives, two of whom were governors appointed by the US during post-independence interventions. Only three were duly elected presidents. And only one, Tomas Estrada Palma, the first, was considered uncorrupt.

In some ways Cuba in 1914 was like the US in 1804, when the War for Independence was a relatively recent memory, and its heroes still played a significant political role. But unlike the US in 1776 — a thriving outpost of a British Empire that was nowhere near its potential peak — Cuba was a distant province of an increasingly decrepit, inept, and corrupt Spanish empire. Slavery had been abolished only in 1886. Spanish investment in Cuban infrastructure was nearly nonexistent. There were no paved highways, and dirt roads were impassable after rains. What few railroads existed charged exorbitant monopoly prices for oxcart speed delivery. Cuba was a faded canvas awaiting, if not a Michelangelo, at least a Jackson Pollock. But first it needed reframing, restretching, restarching, stapling, and a solid foundation on a hardwood easel.

In 1925, Brigadier General Gerardo Machado, a hero of the War for Independence from Spain, ran for president under the slogan “water, roads, schools,” promising to end corruption while serving only one term (as the 1901 constitution dictated).

When he was elected, Machado kept his promise, building a beautiful new capitol building in Havana, with rotunda and wings modeled on the US Capitol, a paved trans-island highway, an enlarged and modernized University of Havana, a modern, progressively designed federal prison, the Hotel Nacional and Hotel Presidente, the Asturia Building (today the National Museum of Fine Arts), the Bacardi Building, and an expansion of health facilities. But he was not as successful in attacking corruption. In 1927 he pushed through Congress an amendment to the constitution that allowed him to run for a second successive term — a term that turned out as clean as the still undependable Havana tap water.

John Maurice was a beneficiary of the Machadaso, as Machado’s steamroller public works program was nicknamed. His first big commission, the capitol building, was completed in a scant three years. Begun in 1926 by the Purdy Henderson Co., it took 8,000 men to complete by 1929.

He then joined the big push to complete the Carretera Central, Cuba’s main trans-island artery; also built all at one go between 1927 and 1931. Family lore holds that John Maurice also worked on the Carcel Modelo (or model prison), the federal penitentiary on the Isle of Pines (the insular comma off the southeast coast of Cuba) that was built between 1926 and 1928, at the same time as the Capitolio and the Carretera Central. The three projects must have been a logistical challenge for the 41-year-old contractor. How he juggled these many responsibilities remains a mystery, though it is not uncommon for contractors to spread themselves thin by taking on multiple projects (often to the irritation of their employers).

Sometimes she’d field long distance calls from Ernest Hemingway, whom she always recognized by his unintelligible Spanish. He insisted on using it anyway.

When my mother turned 13 she was shipped off to a Louisiana Sacred Heart convent to learn English. After graduation she was offered a full scholarship to a Sacred Heart college in Missouri. It was not to be. With the Great Depression in full swing and the war in Europe about to break out, her father, John Maurice suddenly died of a kidney infection, leaving the family nearly penniless and saddled with his gambling debts. So instead, Ana Maria attended secretarial school, graduating quickly and putting her new earning power immediately to use as a bilingual telephone operator back in Cuba.

Sometimes she’d field long distance calls from Ernest Hemingway, whom she always recognized by his unintelligible Spanish. He insisted on using it anyway. When my mother, in turn, insisted that he speak English so she could understand him, he’d demand to know if she was aware of who he was. “No,” she always answered tersely.

“I’m Papa,” he’d impatiently retort. When no acknowledgement was forthcoming, he’d testily add, “Papa Hemingway!”

My mother’s answer, “I don’t know who you are,” was always followed by a torrent of profanity. Ana Maria not only didn’t care, she disliked arrogance, pretension, the concept of celebrities, Hemingway’s writing, and Hemingway himself.

With time these outbursts became more frequent. It seemed — to her anyway — that her imperious prudishness egged him on, something that gave her great satisfaction. With time and little patience, she took to hanging up on him — another “no” he interpreted as a “yes.”

Ana Maria had developed into a strikingly beautiful, statuesque woman. Tall for her times, with a ready laugh, she was indispensable in her social circle. Nicknamed Mina — a practice universal in Cuba — her friends called her Minita, the diminutive being more expressive. Nonetheless, she was not frivolous and had inherited her parents’ sedateness and instinctive disgust toward all manner of filth and uncouth behavior, malas palabras (obscenities) and the bodily functions to which they referred, including bodily odors. She always accused anyone who sweated profusely as stinking like a “guaguero de la Ruta 43,” a Havana Route 43 bus driver.

During WWII, Mina worked for the US Office of Censorship in Miami. After the war she returned to Havana and got a job with the newly founded American International Company (now American International Group, or AIG). The Havana AIC branch was established by my father, Howard Wesley Miller, who had been a principal in the founding of C.V. Starr & Co., the parent company of AIG in New York.

In need of a bilingual secretary, Howard was assigned Ana Maria. A trusting man of few words and a forced smile, he found Ana Maria’s regal reticence attractive (not to mention, as they say in Cuba, that she was “mas bella que pesetas” — more gorgeous than dollars), so he immediately fired her. Already married, he didn’t quite trust himself. When his wife unexpectedly died, Ana Maria was rehired. They were married in 1948.

Howard, born in 1898, 1899, or 1900 — the uncertainty owing to his forging of papers in order to enlist in the Navy during WWI (a ruse Mina was later to use to obtain a driver’s license before her time) — was more than 20 years Mina’s senior. He had already packed a lot of living into those years.

After two years as a gunner’s mate in the Atlantic theater, he was discharged in 1919. The war had kindled a spark of adventure. With an Belfast Irish buddy from the Navy, he bought a used Model T Ford and crossed the United States along the old National Trails roads; a disjunct network of pioneer trails, oftimes poorly maintained state highways, municipal streets, unmarked rural roads, and confusing and braided connecting easements — the majority consisting of unconsolidated sand and dirt that turned to mud after rains.

Still restless, Howard then headed to Havana to learn Spanish and serve an apprenticeship in public accounting, a trade he’d briefly studied in Chicago. In 1921, immersing himself deeper in the Latin American milieu, he went to Buenos Aires, rooming — by chance — with Aristotle Onassis, another expat also looking to make his fortune. Both applied for jobs with Standard Oil of New Jersey, then just starting to exploit possibilities in Argentina and Bolivia.

The Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal regulatory environment were the perfect challenge. If he could turn a profit under such adverse conditions, imagine what he could do in boom times.

Onassis didn’t make the cut: his language skills — in either English or Spanish (I never got that straight) — weren’t up to snuff (not that Howard’s Spanish merited any gold stars). Still, for some unknown reason, Standard Oil hired Howard, assigning him his own mule as an exploratory geologist’s assistant, prospecting for promising deposits across South America’s Chaco region. Eschewing traditional gaucho garb (or even a hat), and parting his hair straight down the middle, Howard, a native New Yorker and third-generation German immigrant, donned Wellies, jodhpurs, a white dress shirt, and wire-rim glasses. Though he stood out for his mildly eccentric outfit among the Chaco gauchos, it was his brains that were soon noticed. In no time, he was promoted to field clerk in a drilling camp in Patagonia and, before his 30th birthday, became Officer and Director of Standard Oil’s Argentine and Bolivian subsidiaries. That was when his earlier acquaintance with Onassis came into play.

Not one to pass up a good grudge, Onassis — by then well on his way to acquiring the world’s largest privately owned shipping fleet — had refused to carry Standard Oil products because of their earlier rebuff of him. But Howard needed tankers, and only Onassis’ fit his needs. Over a meeting I can’t possibly imagine — my father being neither garrulous nor guileful, and neither a big eater nor drinker — the two men sat down to resolve the problem. What was said, promised, or done, only the two men knew, but, their differences resolved, Onassis added Standard Oil to his list of potential clients.

Twelve years in Latin America — ten with Standard Oil — had taken their toll on Howard: he had contracted malaria, a condition that would bedevil him for the rest of his life. However, more importantly, he was still restless. He decided to call it quits and returned to the states. The Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal regulatory environment were the perfect challenge for him. If he could turn a profit under such adverse conditions, imagine what he could do in boom times.

During the following ten years he became, successively, comptroller of the Sphinx Trading Corporation, then Treasurer of Bush Terminal Buildings Company — a commercial property developer — and then controller of the Oxford Paper Company of Rumford, Maine, at the time the world’s largestpaper company under one roof.

Although in his early forties when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Howard immediately volunteered for the Navy, his old service branch. He was given a desk job, this time as an auditor. But for some unknown reason — perhaps his recurring malarial attacks, he served for only six months before being discharged. In 1942 he joined Starr, Park & Freeman, Inc., the initial precursor of what would much later become AIG, as Assistant Treasurer. In 1946 he returned to Havana as president of the American International Company, which supervised American International Underwriters operations throughout Latin America. That’s when he met my mother, Ana Maria.

Howard and Mina got married in Manhattan in January 1948. He returned to New York with a promotion: as treasurer and director of AIU. They settled in Massapequa, Long Island. The newlyweds planned on having children, adding some siblings to Howard’s 13-year-old son, John, from his first marriage. Howard was in a position to call his own shots, so the return to the United States had an ulterior motive: my parents wanted to ensure that their children were born in the US, in case they ever wanted to run for president.

I, Robert (soon to be nicknamed Baten, in the Cuban fashion), was born on November 19, 1949, proving — contrary to some opinions — that I am not a bastard. My sister Anita (Nana — from hermana, ‘sister’ or Nani, in diminutive) was born the following year, with little Patsy — my earliest memory — arriving in 1953.

Howard, now Pop to us, and Mina (mami or mima) lived in a Tudor mansion on a magnificent estate with an enormous lake behind it — or so it seemed to this three-year-old kid. They had brought Cuba along with them in the form of Mina’s mother, my Abuela (grandmother), Ana Maria Diaz y Otazo; a Cuban tata (nursemaid) to care of us kids; and a Cuban cook. Tata would often take us to the lake for an outing — in the summer, to pretend to fish; in the winter, to pretend to ice skate, an undertaking so thoroughly befuddling to her, and one that scared her so much, that she always invoked the saints and cut it short. Few Cubans had ever seen ice in situ.

My exposure to my parents being fitful, my first language was Spanglish, with a bias toward Spanish. We had a Dalmatian named Freckles (nicknamed Paca) who had his own fenced mini-estate. My brother John — at this time strictly an English speaker — and I loved to play with Paca. John attended a military boarding school and, with his sharp uniform, impressed me no end. Like his father Howard, John was a man of few words.

In fall 1953 — just after Fidel Castro launched his first failed coup on July 26 — and when Patsy was just barely old enough to travel, Pop sold the Massapequa estate and moved the family back to Havana. It was my first plane ride and one that I thoroughly enjoyed, pampered by the beautiful stewardesses and immersed in an illustrated book on American Indians and one on the animal kingdom.

Tata would often take us to the lake in the winter to ice skate, an undertaking so thoroughly befuddling to her, and one that scared her so much, that she always invoked the saints and cut it short.

Howard and Mina settled in Alturas del Vedado, one of Havana’s poshest neighborhoods, in a two-story concrete house near the dead end of Calle 43, next to a tributary gorge of the Almendares River. Terrazzo-floored throughout, the salmon colored house was high-ceilinged, spacious, and airy. My sisters shared a room, while my brother — whom I seldom saw — and I shared another room. Pop had gotten him an accounting internship at AIC’s Havana office. John would invariably come home late and leave early. When he reached majority, John left Cuba to seek his fortune in the US.

Kitty-corner across the street lived the just-deposed ex-mayor of Havana, Nicolas Castellanos, with whose children and grandchildren I’d later come to hang out. Directly across the street lived Luis Echegoyen, the star of MamaCusa, one of the top-rated comedy shows on Cuban TV, somewhat reminiscent of Jonathan Winters’ "Maude Frickert" character. His sons, Yoyi and Luis, about my age, became frequent playmates. One block away stood the Mexican Embassy, and two blocks away, the Peruvian Embassy.

Afraid I’d lose what little English I’d acquired, Pop and Mina enrolled Nana and me in Ruston Academy, an American school. The arrangement didn’t last. Mina was disgusted with their low academic standards and their emphasis on drawing, naps, and play time. It seemed that we were learning nothing and paying a high price for it. After a short while, she transferred Nani to the local Academy of the Sacred Heart, while I was transferred to La Salle, a Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers, many of whom were Spanish (at the time, Cuba had been independent from Spain for only 53 years, and the ties were still strong). President Fulgencio Batista’s children attended La Salle at the same time, but whether I was aware of this, knew who Batista was, or might have cared, I don’t recall. The students would ceaselessly ridicule the Brothers’ (to our minds) effeminate Castilian pronunciation of ‘Ds’ and ‘Ss’, always lisped in the most affected manner. But they got back at us: their fire-and-brimstone approach to catechism instilled the fear of God, hell, and sex in me for the next 20 years.

Catholic school didn’t quite have the same effect on Fidel Castro, who attended Belen, a Jesuit school in his time. The boilerplate catechism instilled in him the virtues of sacrifice and a strong empathy for the poor. As for sex . . . Castro hasn’t been nicknamed El Caballo (the stallion) for nothing. El maximo philanderer’s sheer number of affairs, assignations, and marriages rivaled the length of his speeches, the longest of which, delivered on January 1968, was 12 hours.

* * *

Pop and Mina were hands-off parents. Pop worked every day, but had also taken up golf at the Havana Yacht & Country Club, where I’d occasionally accompany him on rounds.

Neither Nani nor I remember spending any time with mami, with one exception. Later, after we’d moved into the mayor’s house, my bedroom connected to my mother’s dressing room through a common door. Most non-school mornings I’d hang out with her while she “put on her face” applying make-up and becoming a sounding board for whatever outfit she tried on. Mina’s vanity, L-shaped and entirely mirror-lined with decorative smoked edges, was extensive and packed with brushes, lipstick, curlers, mascara, talcums, creams, lotions, and myriad unidentifiable devices and concoctions. Mina was an excellent amateur painter and she approached her face as she would a blank canvas. The conversation flowed easily and we enjoyed each other’s company. Intermittently, she’d get up and head for the walk-in closet to try on an outfit. She never directly asked my opinion as to how it looked. To this day we still wonder how our mother passed her days in Cuba. Mostly, our tatas — now two, one for baby Patsy and one for Nana and me — took care of us. But I do remember our Havana debutante ball.

We children were strangers in a strange land. Soon after arriving, our parents engineered a birthday party to end all birthday parties, in order to introduce us to every possible playmate available in this new country. Every little cousin — no matter how distant (even in-law cousins) — every child of Mina’s or Pop’s friends, or business colleagues, or friends-of-friends’ kids, every kid in the neighborhood was invited. They all came. Pop and Mina hired a mini-amusement park, set up in our large back yard with an electric train, a mini-montaña rusa (roller coaster), ponies in a circle, a petting zoo — mostly goats and rabbits — and who knows what other childish delights. It was all meant to be a surprise — and it was.

Castro hasn’t been nicknamed El Caballo (the stallion) for nothing. El maximo philanderer’s sheer number of affairs, assignations, and marriages rivaled the length of his speeches.

There were 30 children there — not a single one smiling in surviving photographs. I well remember my own reaction: resentment at sudden, forced fun, friendship, and camaraderie. What were all those people doing there? Why did I have to “enjoy” myself? I had always been the master of my days, each one a blank canvas that I filled creatively according to my whims and plans. When someone imposed an agenda on me, it was a violation of my autonomy. Nani, even more sour-looking in photos than nearly all of the other children, particularly resented having to share a birthday with me, older and a boy to boot. I tried to hide, but someone dragged me out (in a not unkindly fashion). A gift of cowboy cap guns with holsters cheered me up, so I donned an Indian headdress and shot little girls at close range.

One of those little girls was Sara Maria, the skinny, curly haired daughter of Mina’s best friend. She and Nana had become friends. Sari, as we called her, wasn’t your typical doll-clutching, let’s-play-house little girl, so I put up with her. After immigrating to the US, we kept in touch. She was to marry Luis Luis, an academic, who was later to become the Organization of American States’ (OAS) chief economist, and whose insightful studies of the post-Castro Cuban economy became the basis for many of my articles about the island.

We didn’t last long at that house. Pop was doing well and, feeling a bit restless, cramped, and ambitious (he rued being from Brooklyn, at that time a run-down, unsavory neighborhood), approached Mayor Castellanos with a proposition. He and Mina bought the ex-mayor’s residence. Castellanos in turn built himself an even bigger house on the empty lot next door.

Now, at the time, Cuban elections had always been relatively free, that is, when compared with voting practices in countries such as Mexico or Guatemala. Nonetheless, the most ambitious party could always find ways of digging up dependable votes: union leaders controlled their workers; businessmen squeezed their employees; ministries rewarded civil servants with illegal bonuses; and a high percentage of voting cards lacked the requisite photographs and so could be used by anyone. The system had produced only one laudable administration, the very first one after independence, that of Tomas Estrada Palma. And at that, only his first term. By his second, he’d been soured by the lack of reciprocal idealism and turned vengeful, venal, greedy, and power mad.

The 1952 election started out no differently than any other: in Cuban-cigar-smoke-filled rooms with Mayor Castellanos cajoling together a grand coalition of anyone and everyone who had a claim on a piece of the action. Together they would apportion power and spoils uncontroversially and multipartisanly. But this time Fulgencio Batista, one of the primary contenders, didn’t want to share.

Batista was a tragic figure. He was nicknamed “the Okie from Banes” (el guajiro de Banes) and “el negro” because of his modest education, lack of sophistication, and dark complexion. According to the scuttlebutt of the time, he was one of the last surviving mixed-blood, indigenous Carib Indians — noteworthy because the Spanish conquistadores had — unwittingly — almost annihilated Cuba’s entire aboriginal population. (Cuba was now European, African, or mulatto). Batista had only risen to the rank of sergeant when, in 1933, he stepped into history. That year, during the unrest that followed the overthrow of Gerardo Machado, who had become a dictator, he led a popular, behind-the-scenes, intra-army “Sergeants’ Coup” that wrested power from the commissioned officers and, in an absurd reversal of traditional chain-of-command logic, conferred power unto the lower noncommissioned ranks — the sergeants themselves.

Prior to the coup, the army had been kept out of politics through a spoils sharing program whereby politicians paid off the higher officer ranks to secure their loyalty. The sergeants wanted a fairer redistribution of the loot. After the insurgency, Batista turned the government’s loyalty-buying racket into an overt army-extortion racket that benefited all ranks. Now that he ruled the armed forces, he promoted himself first to colonel and later to general. Batista, in effect, yet behind the scenes, ruled Cuba for seven years. In 1940 he ran for president, won, and ruled more-or-less competently — competently according to the standards of the time, with economic development programs, infrastructure improvements, and health and education investments.

At the end of his term in 1944 he had become immeasurably rich, but his marriage was falling apart, his popularity was at an all-time low, and he still hadn’t been asked to join the exclusive Havana Country Club. More important, his party surprisingly lost the election. In the midst of a midlife crisis, the Okie from Banes divorced his wife of many years, married a young socialite, and fled to Florida, into self-imposed retirement to enjoy his wealth and new-found connubial bliss. In 1952, restless, ambitious and more popular than ever in his own mind, he returned to Cuba to contest the 1952 elections.

A gift of cowboy cap guns with holsters cheered me up, so I donned an Indian headdress and shot little girls at close range.

Nicolas Castellano’s coalition could easily have defeated Batista; but not one to quibble, the ex-sergeant launched a second military coup on March 10 and named himself president of Cuba once again. The coup cost Castellanos the mayoralty. More importantly, it was the casus belli that launched Fidel Castro on the road to the revolution that rules Cuba to this day.

On July 26, 1953, and just before our new, five-member family had moved to Havana, Fidel Castro — precipitately, unprepared, and with a handful of loose cannons (both literally and figuratively) — attacked the Moncada Army Barracks in the province of Oriente. Some of his contingent even traveled by public bus. They were quickly defeated and brutally rounded up. Most were shot on the spot. Castro escaped with his life only because he’d married into the family of one of Batista’s ministers. Imprisoned for life in Carcel Modelo on the Isle of Pines, he declared, “History will absolve me.”

Pop rented our first house in Havana to an American by the name of Phillips, whom my mother said was a CIA operative. Nani, my sister, recalls, “All I remember about the Phillips family is that there was a girl close in age to me who spoke very little Spanish and that one Easter they invited me over for an ‘Easter Egg’ hunt, a bizarre concept to me at the time, and even weirder because the eggs were NOT CANDY but REAL HARD BOILED EGGS! YUCK! These Americans are CRAZY!”

Pinpointing the identity of that Phillips is a hit-or-miss affair, based on a last name, the memory of a little girl’s playmate, and my dead mother’s off-hand remark made years ago. Luckily, a David Atlee Phillips, CIA operative in Havana at the same time, wrote a memoir, The Night Watch, with many details that can be cross-checked against our meager bits. If Pop’s renter isn’t David Atlee Phillips, the coincidences verge on the miraculous.

Our new house at 130, Calle 36, was located on what, arguably, was Havana’s highest terrain. All the land around it sloped down. No wonder it was called Alturas del Vedado (Vedado Heights). It had all the amenities one might expect from the residence of the second most powerful man in Cuba.

Along with four bedrooms and bathrooms (all with bidets), one of which, the master suite, had a large adjacent makeup room lined with mirrors on every wall, the house boasted the following: a banquet-sized dining room (also lined with mirrors); a spiral terrazzo staircase leading upstairs from a grand entry foyer; four living rooms, one upstairs, and one with a six-foot aquarium; a small upstairs kitchen; a large office; a main kitchen with a built-in breakfast counter island, which could sit 12 people; and a built-in, industrial, 6-door, stainless steel refrigerator with an additional 2 doors facing the opposite room — a bar with curved counter adjacent to a patio; a multi-car garage with chauffer’s quarters; an attached L with maid’s, cook’s, and tata’s quarters; and, finally, a small, triangular chemistry lab, one which I soon put to good use with a 1950s-vintage, definitely-not-child-safe, riddled-with-warnings, skulls-and-crossbones chemistry set. Not good enough for pop, he immediately added a swimming pool with adjacent shower and changing room next to the already existing wading pool.

And the grounds! Three large, fenced yards, each with a patio, thick with bougainvillea, hibiscus, and all sorts of flowering tropicals only adults could identify; a breadfruit tree, a mango tree, and a flamboyant tree, with its huge, distinctive seed pods, and overarching, protective canopy.

The breadfruit tree, next to the columpio, or swing set, was a disgusting botanical specimen. The breadfruit — large, flesh-colored, wrinkled bombs, like a fat old woman’s oversize breasts — would drop to the ground when overripe and plop open disgorging a viscous, off-white, vomit-like, foul-smelling interior. This was unimaginable as a food source but wonderful for mortifying my sister, whom I would try to push into the putrid glob. I had once tried to pick up a portion of a felled fruit, carefully holding it by its skin, to lob at her, but the glutinous mass had no integrity and I ended up covered in breadfruit glop.

I came to idolize our driver and, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, declared, “un negrito chusma del solar” — a black bum from the sticks.

Life in the new, big house — especially now that I was a bit older — was an opportunity of possibilities. Pop would, on occasion, read me to sleep. His staples were Zane Grey and Winnie the Pooh, about the only English I was exposed to, but one that paid a dividend. One of Pop’s business associates from the US would occasionally come to visit. He’d always bring his little daughter, Kathy, with him. For some strange reason — in spite of little boys’ general aversion to little girls — we took a shine to each other. Not more than six or seven years old, Kathy and I would seek nooks and closets to hide in and kiss. We were not overly concerned with being discovered — other objectives being more pressing at the time — except by my sister Nani, who would try to exploit the knowledge to tease me (to no avail).

We acquired a black Chrysler limousine with foldout middle seats, and a black chauffeur, Jesus, to match. And yes, it’s true, Cuban chauffeurs always had a great collection of dirty magazines. Jesus and I became buddies. For some unknown reason, I never saw the rest of the household staff associating with him. He and I would take to hanging out, talking about absolutely nothing of consequence. His strong and unaffected, easy Cuban Spanish entranced me. It flowed so unencumbered and atonal. All the Ds and Ss, and many of the Rs became slight aspirations, or vanished. The Vs and Bs became indistinguishable. Most GUs became Ws. All fricative and lingual obstacles somehow disappeared. Even the consonants seemed to slouch. I came to idolize him and, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, declared, “un negrito chusma del solar” — a black bum from the sticks.

One day, stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the Barnum & Bailey circus (a rarity in Havana), right at an intersection, a car in the cross street T-boned into our limousine, scaring us all to death. “Ay, Dios mio!” exclaimed Abuela. It was our very first car crash and proved to be the end of both the limousine and the chauffeur. Jesus, who knows why, was let go. I suspect Pop and Mina weren’t totally accustomed to being chauffeured people. Pop then bought, in quick succession I think, first a Cadillac, then a Ford Fairlane.

After only one year at La Salle, Pop and Mina transferred me to the St. Thomas Military Academy, another Catholic school. Since I was a little angel, I can only surmise their reasons for the transfer. For one, it was a partial boarding school, in that I left home at 7 AM and returned at 7 PM, was fed three meals a day, and showered. Additionally, it was an arrangement that had suited my brother John so well when he was in grade school, that he chose it willingly when he entered high school. Finally, Mina’s brothers, John and Robert, had both gone to military school. But they were scamps of the worst sort and needed discipline like a broken bone needs a cast. Looking like twins, they’d often cover for each other when one got into trouble.

St. Thomas was located outside the city, in the middle of manicured parade grounds, athletic fields, and open space, all surrounded by giant trees that blocked any outside view. Its focus was discipline, and it was instilled under many guises. Students were assigned a number; mine was 119. Woe betide him who forgot his number. Marching drills with rifles alternated with kickball played on a baseball diamond. Students wore starched white shirts with sharp grey and black uniforms topped by either a crushable garrison cap or a billed dress winter cap — and black patent leather shoes shined and buffed to perfection.

My father retired from AIC in 1955 because of failing health. It wasn’t just the malaria. He returned home one afternoon looking very serious. Mama told us not to disturb him; he’d been diagnosed with a heart condition, angina pectoris, and would henceforth have to take dynamite pills. I was incredulous that dynamite could be used as a medicine. He was also advised to give up smoking.

I watched Pop go into the living room farthest from the center of the house, sit down, and pull out his pack of unfiltered Pall Malls. He stuck a cigarette in his mouth, lit it with his Ronson pocket lighter, and took a big drag.

I didn’t understand.

“He’s enjoying his last smoke,” my mother whispered. After he was done, he got up, threw the remainder of the pack away, and became his old, cheerful self. He never smoked again. It was a lesson in self-discipline I never forgot.

Pop was only 57 when he retired from AIC, but he was full of dreams still unfulfilled. Politically he was a moderate social democrat. He was one of those extremely successful capitalists with a strong sense of noblesse oblige — he wanted to do good while doing well. So he introduced the 1950s version of the Model-T Ford to Cuba: the Volkswagen bug.

VW’s first Latin American foray had been in Brazil, where the bug became very popular. Pop’s Autos Volkwagen de Cuba S.A. building, a combination showroom and mechanical plant, was outside Havana, near Rancho Boyeros, the airport (now Jose Marti), and Mazorra, the insane asylum. Pop was proud of his new venture and took us all to tour it. In the spirit of things, he sold our Ford Fairlane and brought home a red and white VW microbus. Such a strange-looking contraption! And so much fun! We loved to ride around in it. In no time he had orders from tour companies who wanted to use the multi-seated vans — with sun roofs — for sight-seeing groups. Even Fidel Castro got to test-drive one of these new “People’s Car."

Pop wanted to do good while doing well. So he introduced the 1950s version of the Model-T Ford to Cuba: the Volkswagen bug.

Early after the triumph of the Revolution, before the sugar cane curtain descended, before the endless rationing queues and shortages taught Cubans the lost virtue of patience, before the busybodies of the neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution killed all spontaneity and much of the nation’s humor, before physical and moral despair enveloped the island, while he was still popular, even idolized, Fidel Castro liked to appear in public unpredictably, followed — of course — by his retinue of guards. It wasn’t just vanity; he wanted to keep his finger on the pulse of the progress of the Revolution.

Dropping into a restaurant, he struck up a conversation with a pretty girl nicknamed Kika. One thing led to another, and he ended up going home with her in her VW bug, surrounded by his caravan of vehicles full of guards.

“You’re a very good driver,” Fidel told her, but added that the Bug was uncomfortable for anyone over six feet tall. The primus inter pares was too big for a proletarian car. Nonetheless, he was impressed. In the famous speech he delivered in March 1959, the one during which a white dove alighted on his shoulder, Fidel promised every Cuban a Volkswagen Beetle. Whether this would have been a windfall or a disaster — windfall if Castro bought the cars, disaster if he confiscated them for distribution — Pop’s reaction to Castro’s pledge went unrecorded.

But to return to the age before Castro: Batista, to improve his poll ratings, decided to amnesty all political prisoners. On May 15, 1955 Castro was released. In June he flew to Mexico to lick his wounds, reorganize, and plan an invasion of Cuba. One year later, on November 24, 1956, he sailed for Cuba with 82 men aboard the critically overloaded yacht Gramma.A week later they landed on the southwest coast of Cuba. Only a dozen survived or evaded capture. Those 12 men made their way into the Sierra Maestra mountains, regrouped, and rebuilt a force that would soon become a minor thorn in the government’s side. That thorn slowly infected and spread sickness to the entire island.

But I wasn’t aware of any of that. I was now old enough for my first communion, a Catholic ritual that marked entry into the age of reason, when a child was old enough to cope with the mystery of transubstantiation and understand that the bread and wine ingested at communion were the body and blood of Christ — literally. It would be many years later that, as an anthropologist, I would interpret communion as ritualized, symbolic cannibalism, a practice shared by many religions. But for now, I was torn by conflicting emotions.

Wine! I’d get to drink wine! At dinner, Pop already let me sip his Hatuey beer, a bottle of which always accompanied his meal. I was ambivalent about its taste, mostly just wanting to imitate and bond with my father. But wine! That was some real grownup stuff.

On the other hand, I was filled with foreboding at the gravity of the holy sacrament and my responsibility to do my best in the eyes of God. Unfortunately, this required participation in another sacrament: confession. I’d been taught that, when confessing one’s sins to a priest, two things were essential: full disclosure and full contrition. It was never easy for me, especially if I thought the priest knew me. I didn’t mind God knowing my sins, but another person? Especially one who was my teacher at St. Thomas Military Academy, where the event would take place? It seemed an undignified violation of one’s sovereignty, but one which I soldiered up to . . .

. . . Until I came up with a brilliant idea for my confirmation a year or two later, an idea somehow, no doubt, inherited from Pop’s affinity for accountancy.

I didn’t mind God knowing my sins, but another person? Especially one who was my teacher at St. Thomas Military Academy?

Confirmation, a rite-of-passage meant to ratify and seal the Catholic faith in the recipient, is an acknowledgement of the child’s doctrinal maturity. I was going to become a foot soldier of Christ, and I took my prospective responsibilities very seriously, especially since the sacrament was going to be administered by a bishop, my first ever contact with a Prince of the Church. The ceremony took place at our parish church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help of the Redemptorial Fathers.

For that confession, instead of divulging every sordid detail, I’d tally the number of violations against each commandment and present the results as if they were on a ledger: “Bless me father, for I have sinned,” I’d begin, followed by:

1st Commandment: no sins
2nd Commandment: no sins
3rd Commandment: no sins
4th Commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother”: no sins

(Had I known that Catholic doctrine includes, by extension, siblings, a confession of these transgressions would have been in the double, perhaps triple digits.)

5th Commandment: no sins
6th Commandment (“Thou shalt not commit fornication”): 20 sins
7th Commandment: no sins
8th Commandment: no sins
9th Commandment: no sins
10th Commandment: 2 sins

(Not being able to distinguish between greed, envy, and admiration, I always admitted to a couple of sins in this category, just to be sure I covered all my bases.)

Notice the 6th Commandment.

* * *

Life was perfect. It was a timeless time, a time to explore life. The hands-off parenting really suited me. No rules were imposed other than being home for dinner on time, never lying or stealing, and getting As in school. I had the run of the neighborhood, and it was the perfect neighborhood for a kid to have the run of. Four parallel dead-end streets, accessed from a marginal avenue with little traffic, butted up to a tributary barranca of the Almendares River. A continuous concrete wall, doubled at the street ends with a concrete barrier, separated the 200-foot precipice from the homes, empty lots, and dead-end streets atop the highest ground in the city, Alturas del Vedado. Kids didn’t stray far. All the routes on the other three sides out of the neighborhood led downhill and into congestion.

Three blocks away stood the Parque Zoologico — the zoo, actually the zoo park, because it wasn’t just a zoo; it included large playgrounds with swing sets, slides, and sandy play areas. Carmen, our tata, would often take us there to pass the time. Those times always included the awkward experience of “making friends” — meeting up with kids you didn’t know, or barely knew; kids you hadn’t been introduced to; little strangers whom you didn’t know whether you wanted to know at all; little kid bodies that hid cruel little bullies inside that were impossible to escape from once engaged; but whom, if you didn’t make some sort of connection with, you’d be stuck playing with your sister or, even worse, stuck playing with your sister and the little girls she’d managed to befriend. Anyway you looked at it, it was pure hell for a shy, private little boy.

A giant entry moat full of fat, catatonic crocodiles guarded the park entrance. We’d throw kilos — pennies — onto their hides to get them to stir. None ever did. One could roughly estimate a croc’s last move from the number of pennies on its back. Once we spied one so laden that the kilos added up to near a peso, so we alerted the keeper that he was dead. The keeper laughed, saying that that giant was particularly lazy.

Zoo visits were always a treat, in spite of the disconcerting social scene. The roasted peanuts vendor sold a hot, paper cone-full for un medio — a nickel. Once, when Pop took me there, he stopped at a roadside cafecito stand for a sweet Cuban espresso on our way back home. The attendant eyed me to see if the order was for two. I looked at Pop silently asking if it would be all right if I had a demitasse. He ignored the silly question. Today we were two men, sharing a drink. Though my siblings and I, seven-, six-, and three-year-old children, already drank café con leche for breakfast, it was my first shot of 100-proof Cuban espresso. We each had two.

A giant entry moat full of fat, catatonic crocodiles guarded the park entrance.

Coca Cola was popular in Cuba at the time as it was in the US, a staple of Cuba Libres — rum and cokes — but kids gravitated toward Malta, a thick, rich, very sweet, carbonated malt soft drink — somewhat like a Guinness without the alcohol and lots of sugar — or Ironbeer, a soft drink still very popular in Latin America. Coke was, however, reserved as a special treat when mixed with condensed milk — a nectar imbibed only at home or when one was a guest.

After the US embargo was instituted and Coke was no longer available, the Cuban government created TuKola, bottled and sold by the Cerveceria Bucanero. Someone ought to have been investigated for subversion, or an excessive sense of humor. Tu cola means, literally, your tail, or more accurately, your butt. Because of the Cuban obsession with glutei, it has become an endless source of catcalls, innuendos, and, now, very old jokes.

A cast of colorful characters plied their trades on our streets, either with horse-drawn carts or pushcarts. “Granizado, granizado!” The shaved ice vendor would clarion. He was my favorite, followed by the ice cream man. Un medio, a nickel, was always forthcoming from Abuela, and would buy anything I wanted. We ignored the tamale man, Cuban tamales being somewhat bland, with the pork chunks mixed in with the corn meal.

Early in the morning — earlier than I was usually up — the bread vendor would come by. Little Patsy’s preferred breakfast was a fresh roll smothered in olive oil accompanied by café con leche, hot milk and coffee in equal amounts, with lots of sugar. Nani and I, introduced to scrambled eggs, wouldn’t eat them without ketchup (a condiment we also liberally poured on black beans and rice).

The produce cart appeared in mid-morning, with mostly local goods: “Malanga! Boniato! Mamey! Mango! Guanabana! Frutabomba! Yuca! Platanos verdes y maduros! Piña! Kimbombo!” The vendor would shout, never missing an item. Sometimes I’d accompany the cook out to the cart to watch the transaction and help carry the produce in.

I remember the lottery vendor, a staple of the Cuban street scene, appearing at our back door only once. He never returned. Either the gambling bug hadn’t hit our household staff, or he was asked not to come back.

During mosquito season, a fumigating jeep plied the neighborhood roads, fogging entire blocks with the sweet-smelling DDT. I was fascinated by the process, knowing that the fog was poisonous, yet widely and regularly used. At night, we slept under white mosquito nets, made bearable when the new, window-model air conditioners were installed.

The local cop, a pasty-faced, pudgy cherub with the ubiquitous pencil-thin mustache, made no enemies, but he kept a sharp eye on the neighborhood. He once picked me up after dark — I must have been nine years old — during that fateful week in 1958 between Christmas and New Year’s when Batista had fled Cuba but the rebels hadn’t yet reached Havana. For those few days Cuba had no government, and it wasn’t a good time to wander the streets after dark with a gun to make you a target.

During mosquito season, a fumigating jeep plied the neighborhood roads, fogging entire blocks with the sweet-smelling DDT.

But not everyone on the streets was, to me, a welcome sight. Gerardito was my neighborhood bête noir. A bit older than I was, he always approached with a wry smile — a conman’s smile — and engaged me with some line or other until he could trip me up. Then he’d pounce. The first time he tried talking me into tasting an habanero pepper right off the vine, saying it was delicious. Since Cubans don’t eat and are not familiar with chilies — the cuisine being more Spanish than Mexican — and at eight years of age I wasn’t a fan of raw vegetables, I didn’t bite. When he became pushily insistent and wouldn’t take a bite himself, I suspected something was up. Finally, he grabbed a pepper and squished it all over my face, concentrating on my mouth and eyes.

He didn’t laugh. He just watched me scream and run away. Secure bullies simply enjoy the quiet satisfaction of success.

The next time I saw him, he had a broomstick in his hand. One end was whittled to a dull point. I immediately ran away. But being bigger and older, he caught up with me. As I struggled to escape, he rammed the stick into my right nipple, repeating, “See what happens when you run away from me?”

The injury soon festered and grew so large that Mina called our doctor. Dr. Ferrara came right away, diagnosed a cyst, and declared it had to be removed in a hospital. It was my first operation with full anesthesia. Years later, in American schools, I’d be asked why I had only half a nipple. “I was caught up in a street fight in Cuba during the Revolution,” I’d respond.

Later, after the Revolution had triumphed, Gerardito adjusted well. He was the only kid we knew with an electric toy car, one you could actually ride in. Carnival, at the beginning of Lent, was a big affair — as it still is in New Orleans and Brazil. In Cuba, where ancestral Spanish ties were still strong, clubs and associations based on the region of Spain from which one’s family hailed — Asturias, Valencia, etc. — would sponsor Carnival floats, marching bands, bagpipers, commercial displays, dance troupes, and just about any homegrown spectacle that would instill pride and provide delight. Children would dress up in regional Iberian costumes, complete with mantillas, castanets, and painted-on mustaches.

In 1959, Gerardito broke with tradition. Riding solitary between floats in his little electric car, he’d dressed up as Castro, with a fake white dove of peace attached to his epaulet, and a vain, arrogant smirk on his face. Fidel wouldn’t have objected.

For those few days Cuba had no government, and it wasn’t a good time to wander the streets after dark with a gun to make you a target.

Our household staff managed to be more inconspicuous yet more informal than most servants in more temperate climes. Carmen, Nana’s and my tata, was thin as a sugarcane stalk, dark haired, and with a face lined by country living that did not reveal her age. She was very relaxed but serious. After Pop, Mina, and we kids left the country, our house became the property of “The People.” It was deemed too large for Abuela, the single resident — according to the new regime’s housing laws. So our grandmother invited Carmen and her entire family to move in. They did, and were allowed to remain. Carmen sent us letters every month or two, keeping us informed on the condition of Abuela and the house.

When January of 1958 dawned, it only hinted at what the future held for the island. The previous year had been pretty uneventful, except in two important respects.

Throughout 1957, Fidel Castro’s 12 men — reduced to nine soon after landing — had managed to entrench themselves in the Sierra Maestra mountains in Oriente Province, on the western extremity of Cuba’s easternmost province, grow to a respectable force, and even win a few skirmishes. But they had gained little ground.

They were lucky. Batista had been tipped off about the landing and had sent the army and air force to welcome them. With a casualty rate of 73 men out of 82, armed forces commanders were convinced that the invaders had been neutralized. They radioed headquarters that Castro and his men had been annihilated. As far as the government was concerned, no follow-up action was required, and Castro was left alone to reorganize.

Two weeks later, Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times made his way into the Sierra Maestra and interviewed Castro in his redoubt. The interview and storybrought Fidel Castro to the attention of the world with both print inchage and television footage. It was the moment when Castro stepped onto the world stage — and into people’s hearts and imaginations. Matthews portrayed the bearded rebel as serious, humble, honest, and idealistic, a role Fidel fitted — or played — to a tee.

Still, various attempts at widening the struggle had failed. The next year, however, was another story.

On January 31, 1958, an expeditionary force of 16 men and one woman, with a large quantity of arms, left Miami in a small yacht, the Thor II. They landed near Nuevitas, in Camagüey province, in the middle of the island, where Cuba’s northernmost coast protrudes up like a dowager’s hump. They broke up into smaller units and, with the aid of supporters and new recruits, began the arduous, 120-mile march into the Escambray mountains, due south, near the southern coast of the island. Along the way they engaged two army units, one by ambush.

Under the joint command of Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, a Spaniard whose family were Republican veterans of the Spanish Civil War, and William Morgan, an idealistic American soldier of fortune, the men reached their new base of operations in the mountains within a few weeks. At the end of February they published their Escambray Manifesto, laying out the objectives of their movement.

A second front, completely independent of Castro and his July 26 Movement — but with common cause — was now established.

Aqui, Radio Rebelde, la voz de la Sierra Maestra!” The voice of the Revolution, set up by Che Guevara, began broadcasting in February. Between 5 pm and 9 pm, all of Cuba listened in to the daily battle accounts and Fidel’s speeches. Rumors that anyone listening would be arrested and tortured dissuaded no one, and only titillated audiences. Listening in made everyone feel like a participant in the Revolution; it made people feel that they were getting away with something — a hard-to-resist guilty pleasure.

We didn’t need Radio Rebelde to tell us about the bold incursion of M26 — as Castro’s rebel movement was known — into central Havana that February. It was all over the news. Two men had gone into the Lincoln Hotel and kidnapped Juan Manuel Fangio, the Argentine Formula One world champion racecar driver. Although semi-retired, he was in Cuba for the island’s Grand Prix. Fangio had dominated the first decade of Formula One racing,winning the World Drivers' Championship five times, thus making a record that stood for 47 years. To the boys at St. Thomas, he was a big celebrity, and it was all we could talk about.

It was the moment when Castro stepped onto the world stage — and into people’s hearts and imaginations.

The kidnapping was meant to embarrass the Batista regime by canceling the Cuba Grand Prix. But Batista insisted that the event go on. Police set up roadblocks and checkpoints everywhere, but Fangio could not be found. The rebels treated him well, installing him in comfortable quarters and allowing him to monitor the race on the radio. They tried to win him over to their revolutionary plans, with very limited success, since the Argentine was apolitical. After 29 hours Fangio was released, after forging friendships with the young idealists.

The publicity stunt was a great success. Fidel Castro and the July 26 Movement were on everyone’s lips — and not just as a distant guerrilla effort. The kidnappers were never found, adding to a growing perception of the regime’s incompetence. Public opinion sensed that Batista was losing his grip on power.

In March, Fidel Castro took another big gamble: he divided his forces and started another front in Oriente. Raul Castro, with a force of 60 men, marched east of the Sierra Maestra to the Sierra Cristal on Oriente’s north coast, opening up the Frank Pais — a third front — in the war against Batista. The revolution was morphing into a real war.




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Hong Kong: Democracy and Liberties

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As I write (October 15), protestors in Hong Kong are still trying to make the city more democratic and to wean it off Chinese government influence.

Protestors were seen cleaning up after themselves and even helping out the police with umbrellas during downpours. Indeed, HK is one of the most civilized places I have been to, and I visit several times a year. Despite its congestion, people respect your space and are hard-working, making it one of the freest, safest, and most competitive places in the world.

China itself is a communist dictatorship, or so it is believed. When the UK transferred the administration of HK to China in 1997, the world was convinced that China would destroy HK’s liberties. Between 1997 and 2003, the HK property market fell between 30% and 50%, and in some areas even more. A mass-migration happened to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK.

Democratic pressures lead to consistent increase in the size of government, as the majority insists on getting more and more from the pockets of wealth-generators.

By 2003, the realization had set in that the Chinese Communist Party had no intention of destroying HK’s liberties. HK continued to boom and stayed as one of the freest places in the world. China not only did not flood HK with continental Chinese, as had been suspected, but it maintained a visa regime like that which had existed before they took over: even today it is Chinese who need a visa to visit, not Indians, the stark enemies of China. Those who had left HK for good started returning. Businesses, the stock market, and the general economy boomed.

Within HK, you could speak, shout, and write against China and the Communist Party, on the streets and in the parliament, and still find yourself feeling as secure as you would have in a similar situation in Canada or the UK.

International observers — from social democrats to believers in the free market — sacrificed their integrity when they refused to admit that their forecasts about what China would do with HK had been proven wrong. They refused to express respect toward China for how well it had maintained HK. Even a criminal deserves fair treatment.

But should HK not get democracy, more liberties, and freedom of speech?

People’s understanding of democracy is utterly twisted, in an Orwellian sense. “Begging the question,” they treat liberty and democracy as synonymous. As defined, “democracy” is a system in which the government is elected, in some form, by the majority of people. By itself the concept says nothing about institutions of liberty and the size of government.

The fanatic believers in democracy, despite the common failure of democracies around the world — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, and more recently in Libya and Egypt — refuse to see the shallowness of their New Age religion. They refuse to see that democratic pressures lead to consistent increase in the size of government, as the majority insists on getting more and more from the pockets of wealth-generators. This invariably leads to overall reduction of liberties and relegates the majority to the culture and mentality of beggars.

The bazaar of bribes was conducted openly, without an iota of fear. People were groveling and pleading. The bureaucrats were demeaning these people and shouting at them.

But what about the freedom of speech and liberties that democracy promotes? As a student in my university in India, I could be beaten up without any moral hiccups if that was what the majority decided. These days, I podcast interviews of people from around the world, to discuss cultures. Most of my contacts feel flattered and are happy to talk. The country with the highest refusal rate for interviews is democratic India. In fact, the rate is close to 100%. In India, you can speak against systemic corruption, as long you do so in vague, broad terms, although what really matters in any fight is to pinpoint corruption of specific institutions. Hardly an Indian will talk to me about specific corruption.

Institutional corruption entangles people, for they must be a part of it even if they hate it, if they want to survive. Last week, I was in a government office in India. There were more private “facilitators,” to help navigate the corruption, than bureaucrats. The bazaar of bribes was conducted openly, without an iota of fear. People were groveling and pleading. The bureaucrats were demeaning these people and shouting at them. Where are liberties and freedom of speech in the world’s biggest democracy?

Should it be so difficult to understand that democracy and liberties are not synonymous?

If you want freedom of speech and other liberties, you must fight for better institutions, preferably private and non-democratic and hence unpoisoned by the majority who care less for virtues and more for material pleasures.

Or let’s consider the world’s second biggest democracy and the most passionate proselytizer, the land of the free, the USA. Americans can talk freely about broad, amorphous subjects. But can they talk about specific ones? How many people can claim to speak their minds openly about race, native Indian issues, the sexual orientation of others, women, etc.? And how many fail to speak freely because they fear they might get into the no-fly list or in the records of the CIA or that an unhappy government might initiate IRS audits? When at American airports, I make sure I don’t utter certain words — even in an innocent sentence — to avoid having a SWAT team descend on me. The lack of freedom of speech has become so institutionalized in the minds of Americans that they don’t even realize what they don’t have.

In comparison, non-democratic Hong Kong is a freewheeling place where people have the freedom to say what they think. There is hardly a country anywhere in the world better in comparison. Only those prepared to fool themselves or incapable of deeper thinking conflate freedom of speech with democracy.

Another way in which the international society, the secular but fanatic believers in democracy, has lacked integrity is their failure to recognize that some of the best improvements in liberties and economic growth have appeared in non-democratic countries: HK, China, Singapore, and Macau. Korea and Taiwan grew the most when they lacked a proper democratic system. So did Japan and Chile. I struggle to find a nation in recent times that has begun to succeed under democracy.

Our lack of integrity is not just a standalone vice. It detaches us from seeing the truth, from weighing the situation properly and assess what must be done to improve society.

But given the liberties and higher intellectual environment in HK — as I concede above — should its people not have the right to vote freely for their own government? Aren’t the students and people of HK — as I concede above — among the most civilized people anywhere?

It is an error to believe that what people say is what they want. The fever of democracy has now been sweeping the world for a few years. This is not a demand for more liberties or improvement in human rights, as they seem to demand, but in essence a demand for a magic wand, to get something for nothing.

People should fight for more liberties and an even smaller government. But “democracy” will take them in the opposite direction.

Collectives and mass movements are based on such desires and it is an error to expect higher ideals from them. Ready to follow unexamined romantic ideas, students of HK are supporting leftist elements. While a parliamentarian, Leung Kwok-hung, a Che Guevara lover, shouts and protests against the Chinese regime openly and without fear while he is in HK, I wonder if he would allow the same liberties to others if he came to power in a democratic Hong Kong.

One of the worst political disasters of recent times has been to give the vote to students. However good they might be, they simply lack the life experience to understand the relationships between ideas and, if they do, to weigh them based on their importance. They lack the experience to comprehend life in its complexities. Formal education at best is about learning the alphabet of life. But life must be lived and experienced to create prose from this alphabet. Moreover, education around the world, including HK and Singapore, indoctrinates students in what must be accepted as beliefs. And it is the “progressive” agenda of those in the West and their wishy-washy Marxist ideology that is now a matter of faith among students around the world. HK’s recent movement is heavily influenced by this.

So, what should Hong Kong do, if not fight for more liberties? HK has perhaps the smallest government in the world and is among the freest societies. Even then it’s worth reducing the size of its government, one hopes to nothing. Yes, indeed, people should fight for more liberties and an even smaller government. But “democracy” will take them in the opposite direction. Moreover, fighting on the street is always a wrong start, for it presumes that the protestor can infringe on other people’s liberties, to somehow gain larger liberties for everyone. Our path must be in sync with our goals. What one sees in HK today is the path backwards.




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Not Our Fight

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Excuse me if I sound insensitive, but the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane by Russian separatists in Ukraine is none of our business. It wasn’t our plane, it wasn’t our country, and it isn’t our fight. Moreover, only one passenger was remotely American (I say “remotely” because he held dual citizenship and had lived in the Netherlands since he was five). So we should just keep our noses out of this one. We don’t need to impose sanctions, beef up our military presence, or drive the price of oil down in order to destroy the Russian economy, as some have suggested.

While it is a terrible shame that anyone should be killed in an accident, that’s all this really was: an accident. What seemed to be a Ukranian military jet turned out to be a passenger plane, and the shooter pulled the trigger before making certain of the target. When our troops make that kind of mistake, we call it “friendly fire,” and because it isn’t an intentional act, we hand out some medals to the victims and let the shooter slide.

Am I the first to ask the unspoken but obvious question: Didn’t they know they were flying over a war zone? Didn’t they know that Russian separatists had been shooting down Ukranian military jets for weeks? Hours after the accident, commercial airlines began diverting their flight plans around Ukraine; a map released today shows almost no planes above that country. Seems to me they should have made that adjustment as soon as the fighting broke out in Ukraine. I’m no fan of Putin, but if I were holding anyone responsible for this terrible accident, it would be the air traffic controllers and flight plan originators who allowed commercial jets to fly over a war zone.

Again, if my remarks seem insensitive, I apologize. Not one of the people on that plane deserved to die; the grief of their families is deep, and their deaths are unwarranted. But I would rather cry over 300 people killed in an accident than worry about thousands of additional soldiers sent to police the area. This one simply isn’t our fight.




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One State in Palestine

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Seldom am I inclined to support a member of the Obama administration, but Secretary of State Kerry deserves defense against abuse for mentioning the unsatisfactory alternatives to a two-state solution in Palestine. If the single state allowed equal political rights to all its inhabitants, the Arabs would outvote and outbreed the Jews and deprive the state of its distinctively Jewish character.

Isn’t that obvious and worth recognizing? Kerry was arguing for two states, not a single state with apartheid.

The word “apartheid” may be an unfortunate term for inequality of rights. If so, let the critic suggest a better one. Meanwhile, we should recognize that words often do get applied beyond their original uses. This stretching can be forgivable and even useful, as it is in Kerry’s case.




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The Political Philosophy of the Crimean Crisis

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I tried to resist, but I can’t. At the risk of being accused of pro-Soviet tendencies, I have to comment on a bizarre but real report in The Telegraph (March 6):

As European leaders [who else?] met in Brussels [where else?], President Barack Obama denounced plans for a referendum on whether the occupied Crimea region should join Russia as a “violation” of international law.

A violation of Ukrainian law, doubtless; but how does international law get into it? And just who is it that deliberates on international law, passes it, and provides for its amendment? Doubtless “European leaders.” So can they decide that Crimea should be part of Ukraine, despite all evidence that the majority of its population doesn’t want things that way? But to continue:

“We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” he [President Obama] said.

I can’t make sense of that. Can you? Apparently, borders can be redrawn; that, in fact, is what he’s objecting to.

Now, there are strong arguments that borders should not be redrawn, no matter what. No matter what nationalisms are involved, no matter what petty religious or historical or linguistic disputes are available, the peace of Europe demands, or at least requests, that changes not take place in the continent’s frequently arbitrary borders. (I note, as I have before, that the Crimea became part of Ukraine by fiat of the Soviet dictatorship. So much for “law.”) Any people that wants to institute the kind of political changes that will bring it the blessings of prosperity would do well to drop its more exuberant forms of nationalism, accept whatever borders have been dealt to it, and think in terms of freedom for the individual, not vengeance for the ethnos.

None of this is a rational political philosophy. It’s just a dumber form of the old statist shell game.

But that’s not what Obama is saying. He’s saying, or seems to be saying, that “leaders,” who are also supposedly “democratic,” get to decide. Does that mean Putin? Apparently it must — though that’s not what Obama wants his words to mean. And how about the Ukrainian president, the one whom Ukrainian revolutionaries just kicked out? Also a democratic leader. Should he decide the fate of the Crimea? But what about the people who are being led? Do they get to say anything? No, they don’t. Not according to Obama. He wants no referendum. Does he suspect that it would be about as democratic as an election in Chicago? Or is he offended that he, the biggest of all democratic leaders, would have no say in its results?

None of this fits. None of it holds together. None of it is a rational political philosophy. It’s just a dumber form of the old statist shell game, in which the principle of legitimacy passes from “the people” to “the leaders” and back again, over and over, and where it lights is simply the place on the sidewalk where the politicians squat in a circle and play their games according to the rules they make up.

And what rules can we expect from a president who suggests, according to the same news report, that the Crimean crisis can be “resolved diplomatically in a way which would satisfy Ukraine, Russia and the international community.”

Satisfy them? Satisfy them all?




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