Evidence for Emerson

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In the olden days — say, the 1960s — college professors were still carrying on debates about something called the Influence of Great Men on History. Basically, they denied that there was any.

Emerson had written, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man . . . and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.” A century later, not many earnest professors, spending their lives in the lengthened shadows of the American Historical Association, cared to believe that. Even Bismarck and Napoleon were the products of social circumstances, etc.

Trump’s very deficiencies offer good evidence for the historical influence of personality.

Arrayed on the other side were the writers of popular history. Whether they were sincerely attracted to the Emersonian idea, or they knew that social history doesn’t sell, they busied themselves about topics that assumed the crucial influence of a few important people. The multitudes of What Would Have Happened articles exemplify the trend: what would have happened if Hitler had ordered more air attacks at Dunkirk? What would have happened if Lincoln had not been shot? What would have happened if Lee had occupied better terrain at Gettysburg?

Well, what indeed? But the academics just got more and more “social.” Today, if you want to publish historical articles with Emersonian assumptions, you will not, I repeat not, get tenure.

Yet although they don’t seem to realize it, the professors are now faced with a dilemma. Almost all of them hate President Trump, and lots of them spend their idle hours — which appear to be many — campaigning against him, asserting that if he is permitted to prevail, America will become a nationalist, white supremacist, xenophobic state. But this assumes that the political shape of the nation has a good chance of being irrevocably changed by the election of a single powerful personality. And this is contrary to what you think you believe.

Trump — because he is Trump — diverted himself with midnight messages, confused assaults on Obamacare, and puerile entertainment of his core supporters.

I’ll leave people who are so wise about history to discuss that problem among themselves. I simply wish to note that Trump’s very deficiencies offer good evidence for the historical influence of personality. If Trump’s personality were not significant, wouldn’t the social movement that elected him have the professors and the other members of the ruling class on the run by now?

A person of normal discernment could have followed up his victory, which was a triumph over the entrenched leadership of both political parties, by getting at least three or four parts of his agenda immediately enacted. Every victory would have strengthened his position for the next big effort to fulfill his movement’s social demands. But no. Trump — because he is Trump — diverted himself with midnight messages, confused assaults on Obamacare, and puerile entertainment of his core supporters. So far, none of his opponents’ fears, real or purported, have turned out to have been justified. Is this not evidence for the crucial importance of the individual personality?

And as to his opponents . . . Their strategy has depended on the socialist ideal of mass resistance among the populace. And what has this strategy accomplished? Nothing in particular. What has stymied Trump hasn’t been their Marches for Science and Marches for Women and Marches Against the Border and Marches for the Sake of Marches. It has been the lengthened shadow of Trump himself.




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Cruise Ship Books

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I’ve discovered some of my favorite authors while perusing the books other passengers have left behind in shipboard libraries. While cruising in Alaska, I discovered Michael Frayn and couldn’t stop until I had devoured all of his novels and then looked around hungrily for more.

Spies is perhaps my favorite. A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village, where he tries to make grownup sense of things that happened there so many years ago, while he and his boyhood friend hid in the privet bush pretending to be spies. The dual perspective of middle age and childhood, as well as the contrast between the WWII setting and the “present” of 30 years later makes the book particularly evocative, and the mystery of what actually happened drives the story.

Frayn’s books often present a tone of detachment and loss, as expressed in these opening lines from A Landing in the Sun:

On the desk in front of me lie two human hands. They are alive, but perfectly still. One of them is sitting, poised like a crab about to scuttle, the fingers steadying a fresh Government-issue folder. The other is holding a grey Government-issue ballpoint above the label on the cover, as motionless as a lizard, waiting to strike down into the space next to the word Subject.

These hands, and the crisp white shirtsleeves that lead away from them, are the only signs of me in the room.

The separation of the action performed by his hands from his intentional, sentient will is also reminiscent of the book-burning fireman, Montag, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “Montag . . . glanced to his hands to see what new thing they had done.” Both authors use synecdoche effectively to suggest the protagonist’s looming split with authority and his attempt to regain control over his life.

A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village.

It was on a cruise ship traveling around Australia and New Zealand that I discovered the historical novelist Tracy Chevalier. Her Girl With a Pearl Earring, in which she creates a compelling and poignant backstory for the supposed model of Vermeer’s famous painting, had recently been made into the film that launched Scarlett Johansson to stardom; but the book that hooked me was Fallen Angels, a name that refers to the memorial stones in a local graveyard but also to the fallen characters within the story. Beginning at the end of the Queen Victoria’s reign, the book’s multiple storylines focus on husbands and wives, friends and lovers, ruling class and servant class, and a gravedigger’s son.

From the moment I entered Chevalier’s world of shifting narrative perspectives set in turn-of-the-century England, I didn’t want to leave. I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century. Similarly, while viewing Manhattan from across the river in one of the books I review here, a character observes, “You wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.” That’s how I felt while reading many of the books I’ve mentioned in this review — I wanted to approach the end, but never quite arrive there.

This past month I was cruising the western Mediterranean when I discovered Rules of Civility by the talented author Amor Towles, whose fresh metaphors and unexpected developments delighted and surprised me. I had barely finished reading it when, craving more of his elegantly crafted sentences and trusting his storytelling skills, I downloaded his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, to my Kindle for the long flight home from Europe.

I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century.

The title Rules of Civility refers to George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, a dog-eared copy of which is discovered by the narrator, Katey Kontent, on the bedside table of the central character, Tinker Grey. Towles’ book is a novel of manners set in 1938 Manhattan and framed by a 1966 photography exhibition. As the book opens, a middle-aged Katey spies two candid photographs taken of her long-lost friend Tinker at the beginning and the end of 1938. This chance sighting becomes the catalyst for her recollection of that year, a year that became a turning point in her life as she navigated between boarding houses and mansions, trust-fund kids and dockworkers, the upper West side and the lower East side, in her journey to define who she would become.

Katey begins 1938 living in a women’s boardinghouse and working in a steno pool. She and her roommate, Eve Ross, meet the posh and elegant Tinker Grey at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve, and he becomes the direct and indirect catalyst for everything else that happens that year.

Like the original “novels of manners,” set in manor houses and often populated by governesses or impoverished heiresses who make satirical observations about the ruling class, Rules of Civility contains biting, cogent cultural commentary. Katey is paid well as a secretary, but when she decides to move on to a job in the literary world, she must accept a huge cut in pay. She wryly observes, “A secretary exchanges her labor for a living wage. But an assistant comes from a fine home, attends Smith College, and lands her positions when her mother happens to be seated beside the publisher in chief at a dinner party.” I worked under an executive director who landed her position in the same way, and it was just as galling. Katey also notes, after guests at a dinner party heap praises upon the hostess at the end of a fine meal, “This was a social nicety that seemed more prevalent the higher you climbed the social ladder and the less your hostess cooked.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer.

Katey is a philosopher by nature, and her thoughts begin to resonate with the reader. As she looks back on 1938, she recalls, “To have even one year when you’re presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course . . . shouldn’t come without a price. I have no doubt [my choices] were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance — in this case, from the bright optimism of making right decisions to the mournful grief of cutting oneself off from other options — permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer. Consider the span of emotion in moments like these: “I tore the letter into a thousand pieces and hurled them at the spot on the wall where a fireplace should have been. Then I carefully considered what I should wear.” And: “Something fell from my jawbone to the back of my hand. It was a teardrop of all things. So I slapped him.” And this cautionary reflection: “In moments of high emotion — whether they’re triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment — if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say.”

Katey wants everything to be neat and orderly and open. As a secretary, she “suture[s] split infinitives and hoist[s] dangling modifiers,” and she wants life to be as simple as that, with rules that allow no ambiguities and people who are who they say they are. But soon she realizes that “it’s a bit of a cliché to refer to someone as a chameleon, a person who can change his colors from environment to environment. In fact . . . there are tens of thousands of butterflies, men and women like Eve with two dramatically different colorings — one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage — and which can be switched at the instant with a flit of the wings.” Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Katey is not well-bred, but she is well-read, and her running references to such books as Walden, Great Expectations, Washington’s Rules of Civility, Agatha Christie novels, and others add depth to the story. I especially like the way she combines insights from Thoreau and Christie to deliver this:

In the pages of Agatha Christie’s books men and women, whatever their ages, whatever their caste, are ultimately brought face-to-face with a destiny that suits them. . . . For the most part, in the course of our daily lives we abide the abundant evidence that no such universal justice exists. Like a cart horse, we plod along the cobblestones dragging our heads down and our blinders in place, waiting patiently for the next cube of sugar. But there are certain times when chance suddenly provides the justice that Agatha Christie promises.

We all have turning point moments in our lives — moments that occur during the years when we’re deciding who we will be and making decisions so profound that they change our course completely and irrevocably. They often seem insignificant at the time, and the people who influence us most profoundly move on from our lives. Although we may never see them again, we think of them frequently. I have one such friend from my childhood who moved on from my life when we were 11, yet much of who I am today comes from the experiences I shared with her during the three profound years we spent together, just as Michael Frayn’s narrator in Spies is forever influenced by the events he experienced with his childhood chum.

Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Towles suggests the importance of these so-called minor characters when Katey begins reading a Hemingway novel from the middle rather than the beginning: “Without the early chapters, all the incidents became sketches and all the dialogue innuendo. Bit characters stood on equal footing with the central subjects and positively bludgeoned them with disinterested common sense. The protagonists didn’t fight back. They seemed relieved to be freed from the tyranny of their tale. It made me want to read all of Hemingway’s books this way.”

And Katey learns to read life that way too — paying more heed to the side characters who influence us unexpectedly. Eventually she discovers that “when some incident sheds a favorable light on an old and absent friend, that’s about as good a gift as chance intends to offer.” Reading Rules of Civility gave me cause to reflect on many an old and absent friend, and that’s one of the many good gifts of this book.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Spies," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2002, 261 pages; "A Landing on the Sun," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2003, 272 pages; and "Rules of Civility," by Amor Towles. Penguin Books, 2011, 338 pages.



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We’re Here!

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Thirty years ago, the first issue of Liberty appeared. It was dated August 1987, and it emerged from an old house high on a hill in the little town of Port Townsend, Washington, overlooking the Puget Sound.

Liberty was born at the moment when technology was making it possible to create a national magazine in one’s own home — if you were willing to perform the backbreaking effort necessary to get it to other people’s homes. R.W. Bradford and Kathy Bradford, who lived in the house on the hill, were willing to do that. Timothy Virkkala was their learned assistant in the project. And this, I suppose, is where I come into the story. I was Bill Bradford’s old friend from Michigan, our home state, who was privileged to become an editor-at-long-distance.

From the start, we had attracted most of the great names in the libertarian movement, and we continued to attract them, from Murray Rothbard to John Hospers to Milton Friedman.

One of Liberty’s first gifts to me was a svelte little plastic fax machine into which I could feed my handwritten copy (or copy embodied in a bad, bad computer printout), so it could be transmitted to Liberty HQ and retyped for publication. I spent many happy nights hand-feeding paper into the clicking, purring, squeaking machine with the cheerful blinking lights, then calling Bill to make sure he could read the results unrolling from his fax.

Within a few years, all copy became digital, human and financial costs-per-word decreased, and Liberty was being mailed to thousands of readers, all over the world. We started at six big issues a year, then went to 11 or 12 big issues. From the start, we had attracted most of the great names in the libertarian movement, and we continued to attract them, from Murray Rothbard to John Hospers to Milton Friedman. We also attracted debate, hostility, admiration, and friendship (often of the much-prized “I disagree with what you say but I like your writing anyway” variety) from libertarians and others.

It was our job to promote a play of ideas, and if we disagreed with what an author said, we helped him or her to present the disagreeable ideas in the most accessible and attractive way.

One of my most vivid memories is a conversation I had with Bill Bradford, who was a very great man, about whether we should publish a certain article. I said no, the subject wasn’t very important, and what the author said would only provoke anger from certain friends of Liberty. “Well,” he said. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” So we published it.

That’s not a unique instance. And I used to say that Bill published more articles that he disagreed with than otherwise. It was our job to promote a play of ideas, and if we disagreed with what an author said, we helped him or her to present the disagreeable ideas in the most accessible and attractive way. The one thing we wouldn’t stand for (still won’t) was an error of fact. In the days before the internet and during its infancy and adolescence we spent many days checking out purported facts about the history of South American railways, the origin of dogs, the use and regulation of helium in America, and other topics that turned out to be so interesting that we were happy we had disputed our authors’ facts.

But there were millions of facts that Bill didn’t need to look up. I suppose that nobody ever knew more about American political history than he did, or more about American and world geography. Sometimes my phone would ring at 1 a.m., and I would hear Bill’s voice, reporting on his current interests.

“Say, do you know what’s the tallest mountain in the world?”

“Mt. Everest?”

“Of course. From one point of view. But shouldn’t mountains be measured from where they start? I mean, if a mountain starts from the ocean floor, shouldn’t it be measured from the ocean floor? Well, in that case, the candidates are . . .”

Well,” Bill said. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” So we published it.

I think it was in that conversation that Bill introduced the topic of where you can see farthest on the surface of the earth, and developed a mathematical formula for calculating how far away a peak of such and such a height can be seen. He got the formula, which he supposed was the same as the one he had learned but had misplaced. Then he found that formula and discovered that it was different from his own, “but both of them work.” Not surprisingly, Bill wanted Liberty to encourage, not just articles about politics, but articles about the whole wide world. The journal should offer the best writing about liberty, or by libertarians, about anything . . .

Once, in the early days, Bill and I attended a libertarian convention called “The Culture of Liberty.” It was held in a typical conference center with a ballroom and breakout rooms, and in one corner of the ballroom there were six or seven paintings by some libertarian artist. Bill looked at them and laughed: “I guess that’s it; that’s the ‘culture of liberty.’” We both thought that if libertarianism was about getting the political power to leave people alone, so they would be free to do all the colorful and creative things they were able to do, then a libertarian journal should be warmly interested in those things; it shouldn’t stop with politics. Liberty never has — and if you want to see a magnificent exponent and exemplar of this idea, follow the contributions of Jo Ann Skousen, our entertainment editor.

When Bill and I were growing up, there were a few conservative journals, with National Review as their undisputed chief; an orthodox Objectivist journal; and a scattering of libertarian publications. At one end of that spectrum was The Freeman, an outreach publication with good analyses of economic questions. It was mailed out free, and it never, ever, reviewed a book it didn’t like. At the other end was Libertarian Connection, a cheeky product of early technology: you wrote whatever you wanted, mimeographed it, and mailed a ton of copies to the publisher, who stapled them together with other people’s mimeographed pages and mailed them out to everyone. Bill and I often hung out and discussed the latest Connection. It gave us a lot of laughs at some of its authors, and a lot of friendly feelings toward the others (and toward the first group, too).

If libertarianism was about people being left alone, free to do all the colorful and creative things they were able to do, then a libertarian journal should be warmly interested in those things.

In the late 1960s came Reason, which is still going strong, thank God, with a large foundation behind it, and a strong political agenda. And then came Liberty. Now — again, thank God — there are hundreds of libertarian online publications, pursuing various kinds of political agendas.

But Liberty was never that way. Bill was proud of the fact that, as he said, “Liberty has never advocated a single political position. Our authors have, but Liberty itself has not.” Don’t be mistaken: this is an important distinction, one of the most important in the world of journalism.

There is nothing wrong, and many things that are right, about publishing a journal whose purpose is to advocate certain specific ideas. Great political progress has resulted from the focused influence of libertarian, conservative, and civil-libertarian organs of opinion. But what is gained in influence may be lost in fun, and sometimes in trust. Liberty has never failed to publish something that’s unusual, attractive, or interesting, just because it wouldn’t help to produce the correct kind of political change.

And when you read Liberty, you may be bothered by many things, but you won’t be bothered by what I call the Church Bulletin Problem. Everything that’s written in the church bulletin may be true: the church may be doing great deeds; Satan may be on his last legs, and sinking fast; among the membership, all may be harmony and peace. But you know that if this were not true, the unfortunate fact would never appear in the bulletin. It just wouldn’t fit the agenda.

Liberty has never failed to publish something that’s unusual, attractive, or interesting, just because it wouldn’t help to produce the correct kind of political change.

Even the good stuff, the really individual stuff, the really inspiring stuff I see in some of the political sites and journals I enjoy, can make me wonder: is that really true? If not, how could I tell? And do the authors actually believe it’s true? With Liberty there has never been any question about that: our authors may have the wrong perspective, they may be making the wrong deductions, they may, at times, be riding their deductions over a cliff, but they believe exactly what they’ve written. This is especially noteworthy in cases in which libertarians are brave enough to challenge some libertarian “line.” You don’t do that unless you mean it.

But enough of preaching. The rest of the history (so far) is this. In December 2005, Bill died in his house on the hill, after a long and heroic struggle with cancer. One of his last concerns was the future of Liberty. We talked on the phone, a couple of weeks before his death, and I agreed to take the job as editor in chief. The good thing about me was that I had been an editor from the start and had been the only person, besides Bill himself, who had written something for every issue. The bad thing was that I lacked Bill’s gargantuan energy, his intimate knowledge of everything libertarian, and his . . . just everything that distinguished him as a great human being. For me, the good thing about my new job was that I got to collaborate with the amazing people who did the real work: Kathy Bradford, Mark Rand, Patrick Quealy, and Drew Ferguson.

In 2010, Liberty passed into its third technological era. Print journalism was on its way out. Fewer people wanted to wait for Liberty to arrive by mail. Bill had once been proud that we had subscribers in virtually every real country in the world, but changes in postal rates had nearly eliminated our worldwide audience. We needed to make a change, and we did: in late 2010, we became an online journal.

The effects were both good and bad. Good: we reclaimed our international audience. We became much more timely than a monthly print journal can be. We could link and be linked. We could make everything we publish and have published accessible for free. (OK, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You still have to spend time reading what we write. But you don’t have to pay any money. Although donations are always very acceptable.) Bad: we lost the wonderful heft and feel and smell of print, and with it many of our readers, who delight (as I do) in the enjoyment of words on paper.

Once we had subscribers in virtually every real country in the world, but changes in postal rates had nearly eliminated our worldwide audience. We needed to make a change.

So, we’re different today from what we were before, but we’re still the tough little boat in Captains Courageous, the “We’re Here.” We’re so substantially here that when I went looking through our online archives to find the locations of articles that I especially enjoyed, so I could recommend them to you, I got lost — lost in enjoyment of so many things I had read, and loved, and “forgotten,” and then discovered again, as fresh as the day they were written. You’re invited to go to the Liberty Archive and push the Search button and see for yourself. Substantial writing is writing that endures, and I think you’ll find that the great majority of the writing we’ve published retains its interest in a way that journal writing ordinarily does not.

I wanted to say, “If you follow this link, you’ll see the best writing by this author or that author.” But that idea was a nonstarter. There was just too much of the best, both of authors and of articles. And while I’m talking about the “best,” here’s the interesting thing about the authors of Liberty: every one of them is really an individual — which means that attempts at comparisons among them are all comparisons of apples and oranges.

Bill Bradford wanted writing that wasn’t valuable simply because of its subject or its political opinions. He wanted writing that showed you what individual people can do with words.

That is exactly what Bill Bradford wanted — individuality. A fervent admirer of H.L. Mencken — I can see Bill now, glowing with pleasure as he told me about one of the high points of his life, his visit to the Mencken house in Baltimore, where he sat in Mencken’s chair, behind Mencken’s desk — he wanted writing that wasn’t valuable simply because of its subject or its political opinions. He wanted writing that showed you what individual people can do with words.

I’ll speak for myself: If anyone asks me to identify my favorites among all the things I’ve written for Liberty, I’ll mention two items about animals: my Word Watch column on the death of Tatiana the tiger (April 2008, pp. 19–20), and my Reflection on the death of Adwaitya the tortoise (June 2006, pp. 9–11). I think those pieces are interesting because of what I did with them, not because I was expressing predictably libertarian sentiments. I also think they’re interesting because neither of them could possibly have appeared in any other journal. They are modest examples of what Liberty has always done to give liberty to its authors.

If you want more of the story of Liberty, I urge you to visit our March 2006 issue and read “A Life in Liberty,” our symposium on the life of Bill Bradford. Much of our history is conveniently available in our 20th-anniversary issue (August 2007), which offers accounts of the journal’s history written by Bill and me and the inimitable Bruce Ramsey. I hope you like what we’ve always tried to do. If you like it, please raise a glass to both Liberty and liberty. The second is always cause for tumultuous celebration. As for the first . . . we hope that it continues to merit a tumult, too.




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Buchanan the Wicked?

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Morbid curiosity tempts me to buy and read Nancy MacLean’s new book Democracy in Chains, but I have resisted so far; for I don’t want to add to the unearned wealth that her book’s notoriety will probably bring her. I know enough from reviews, favorable and unfavorable, and from a published interview with the author herself, to understand that one main theme is the supposed wicked influence of James Buchanan.

I knew Buchanan very well from 1957, when, as Economics Department chairman, he brought me to the University of Virginia. There I was his academic colleague and friend. After he left the University of Virginia (in honorable protest against the University administration’s maltreatment of a colleague), I kept in contact with him and often saw him at professional meetings and occasionally at his homes in Blacksburg and then Fairfax.

Buchanan took economics seriously. He wouldn’t waste time on conspiracies and was no apologist for the wealthy and powerful.

Buchanan took economics seriously. He drew inspiration from his admired professor at Chicago, Frank Knight, and from the writings of the Swedish economist Knut Wicksell. He encouraged the creative thinking of his graduate students. He was a fabulously hard worker whose collected writings fill 20 large volumes and whose Nobel Prize was amply deserved. He wouldn’t waste time on conspiracies and was no apologist for the wealthy and powerful.

I understand Buchanan’s economic and political philosophy quite well, for my own is close to his. He was more of an egalitarian than I am, favoring an extreme estate tax and pondering redistributionary taxation as an arrangement whereby people insure one another against economic distress. While not completely agreeing with John Rawls, who called for social and economic arrangements designed to maximize the welfare of the least-well-off stratum of the population, he admired Rawls and his writings.

As for his thought on limits to democracy, I could expound it at length and enthusiastically. He admired the American Founders, who wisely tried to create a constitutional republic charged with protecting people’s rights even against abusive majorities and government itself. (“Democracy” is a much abused word, sabotaging clear thought by cramming various and even inconsistent good things together under a single label.)

In short, James Buchanan was an entirely different person from the one that Ms. MacLean imagines. She did not bother to know what she was writing about. But historians and journalists have a professional duty to check the truth of what they write.




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Volo, Veni, Velo, Vidi

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Cosa ni pensi di Trump? (What do you think of Trump?)

It was a question my wife Tina and I were asked our very first day in Sicily and nearly every other day on our 30-day bicycle circumnavigation of the island this February. The question was usually prefaced by apologies, either verbal or physical, as if it were a too-personal intrusion (unusual for Europeans, who generally disdain small talk — unless it’s banter — in favor of meatier fare). It was always asked in earnest, never in a challenging manner.

One Dutch couple in the little town of Taormina combined both approaches. On finding out we were Americans, they kiddingly asked if we’d be able to return home. Trump had just issued his ill-conceived travel ban and we were unaware of it, news being an unnecessary intrusion when I travel. We joined in their kidding about America’s new president until I reminded them of Geert Wilders, the Netherlands’ version of the Donald, at which point they sheepishly concurred and demurred. Ditto for a Polish couple whose criticism of Trump was more earnest until I reminded them of the Kaczynski brothers’ populist policies. They said Poland was a new democracy, subject to mistakes, while they expected more from the US, a mature democracy. I replied that I was glad we were still, at least, young at heart.

The Italians, however, were transparently curious. They didn’t trust their media and wanted an eyewitness opinion. One averred that he’d heard Trump was another Hitler. I told him Trump wasn’t as bad as Mussolini or Berlusconi, with only a pussycat’s handful of “bunga, bunga.”

Taormina is a small, picturesque, ancient town atop an impossibly steep hill. It boasts the best preserved (outside of Greece) 3rd-century BC Greek theater. We were about two-thirds done with our counterclockwise bike tour of the island when we were taken aback by Italian soldiers in full deployment eyeing us at Taormina’s medieval gates. Curious, I approached one and politely asked the way to Corso Umberto I, the location of our lodging. He smiled and said we were on it.

At our B&B I asked our host why the town was occupied by the army. “Trump-Putin summit,” he answered.

Incredulous, I gesticulated, “Today? Two or three days . . . soon?”

When Tina and I had circumbiked Iceland, we’d visited the house where the Reagan-Gorbachev summit was held. We’d lingered long, savoring the very spot where the Cold War had ended. Would Taormina rise to the occasion?

Not a chance, according to The Economist. One anti-Trump acquaintance observed that it was fitting that Trump — a man of business who wants respect — and Putin, a gangster, should meet in the birthplace of the Mafia.

“No, no,” our host answered, “Maggio (May).”

The following morning we headed to the Greek theater. Next door, the Grand Hotel Timeo, an historic old hotel, was closed for renovations. The Timeo counted among its guests Goethe, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Edward VII, D.H. Lawrence, Truman Capote, and now, we assumed, either Trump, Putin, or both. Adjacent, the street was being dug up by workmen upgrading the communications infrastructure — with soldiers overlooking. Yet Italy never ceases to amaze. Between midnight and 6 AM, all the soldiers disappear. Go figure.

Our Thing

Today, according to one source, the Mafia lies dormant in Sicily, having moved what operations it still retains to Calabria, Italy’s boot toe. Many of the business establishments we passed sported a window sticker declaring that they’d joined Addiopizzo, an organization of businesses that refuse to pay protection money and that rally around one another when fingered. Tourist curio shops sell Sono il padrino (I am the godfather) T-shirts and coffee cups, many with your name custom printed. Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone character pictures are everywhere. There is even an anti-Mafia museum, the home of CIDMA (Centro Internazionale di Documentazione sulla Mafia e Movimento Antimafia), in the town of Corleone, 60 km south of Palermo.

Up until the mid-1990s the La Societa Onorata, or Cosa Nostra, was no joke. But then, in 1982, Tommaso Buscetta, a “man of honor,” turned rat when he was arrested. After four years of interrogation under magistrate Giovanni Falcone, 584 Mafiosi were put on trial — the maxiprocesso or supertrial — in a specially constructed bunker in Palermo, Sicily’s capital. The trial took two years and sometimes descended into farce with loud and disruptive behavior, some defendants acting as their own lawyers flamboyantly spouting nonsense, indulging in non sequiturs and endless sophistry, another one literally stapling his mouth shut to signify his commitment to omerta, the code of silence, and another feigning madness with outbursts so disruptive he had to be put into a straitjacket. The trial resulted in 347 convictions, of which 19 were life imprisonments.

It would surprise no libertarian that the Mafia’s roots lie in government failure, specifically a law enforcement failure.

The men of honor struck back, as they had every time in the past. In 1988 they murdered a Palermo judge and his son, then an anti-Mafia prosecutor, and finally, in 1992 Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, another courageous anti-Mafia magistrate. But this time they’d gone too far. In January 1993, the authorities arrested the capo di tutti capi, or boss of all bosses, Salvatore (Toto) Riina, the most wanted man in Europe. He was charged with a host of murders, including those of magistrates Falcone and Borsellino, and sentenced to life imprisonment, effectively decapitating the organization (which might turn out to be a Hydra).

It would surprise no libertarian that the Mafia’s roots lie in government failure, specifically a law enforcement failure. Sicilians had always sought independence and only reluctantly joined Italy in 1861 after Garibaldi promised them autonomy. Between 1200 and Italian unification, Sicily was ruled — usually at a distance and often as an afterthought — by Germany, France, Aragon, Spain, Savoy, Austria, Naples, and England, mostly in that order. Not strong enough to guard their independence, Sicilians would invite an outsider to help them rid themselves of the occupier du jour. The new bosses liked the island, refused to leave, and ruled desultorily, leading to revolt and a repetition of the cycle. It was a prime environment for the nurturing of brigands and private militias specializing in protection.

The word mafia was first used in 1863 to describe that special combination of thievery, extortion, and protection by organized groups. Serious anti-Mafia campaigns began in 1925 with Benito Mussolini, who promised to make government work. It didn’t work, at least permanently. The “men of honor” fought back, joining an unexpected ally: the US government.

Anticipating the Allies’ invasion of Europe through Sicily in 1943, the US wanted to ensure that the landings, launched from North Africa, would be greeted with respect. In 1936 Charles “Lucky” Luciano, capo di tutti capi of Mafia operations in America, had begun serving a 30 to 50 year sentence in federal prison, having been convicted of 62 counts of compulsory prostitution. In 1942 the US Office of Naval Intelligence approached Luciano, who was still running his operation from inside prison, seeking help with the Sicily landings.

Lucky and the Navy struck a secret deal: (1) East coast dockworkers, controlled by the mob, would not go on strike for the duration of the war and would actively resist any attempts at sabotage; and (2) the Sicilian Mafia would grease the skids for the Allies’ invasion through espionage, sabotage, and prepping of the local population. In return, Luciano’s sentence would be commuted and he would be deported to Sicily after the war.

It is worth pointing out here, for context and perspective, that this controversial but successful Mafia-US Government cooperation on national security set the precedent for (and reduced the absurdity of) the CIA’s 18-year-later Castro assassination attempt collaboration.

In 1968, the Italian government again went after the Mafia, following a protracted inter-Mafia killing spree that caught many innocents in its crossfire. However, out of 2,000 arrests only 117 Mafiosi were put on trial and most were acquitted or received light sentences. It was this First Mafia War, its subsequent acquittals — attributed to crooked politicians and policemen — and a Second Mafia War in the early 1980s that galvanized public opinion against the Mafia and invigorated magistrates Falcone’s and Borsellino’s prosecution.

Africans, Greeks, Romans, and Vikings

Sicily is indirectly one of my ancestral homelands. The Vikings, later known as Normans, invaded the island in 1061, only five years before their invasion of Britain. Gerhard, my original progenitor (on my mother’s side, as far back as I can trace) was one of those northern Germanic-Norse warriors who sacked and occupied Rome in the 8th century. His lineage, during Italy’s Norman invasion, became Gherardini and later, during Britain’s Norman invasion, Gerald. Soon thereafter, taking on the Welsh “son of” prefix, it became Fitzgerald, my mother’s maiden name.

The Greek city-states had no formal organization among them; they shared only a language and culture.

Sicily is at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Its indigenous people — about which little is known — were displaced and incorporated by invading Sicels, Elymians, and Phoenicians, who later became known as Carthaginians (in present-day Tunisia, only 96 miles away from Sicily, with a stepping-stone island in between). By 800 BC, Greek merchants had established trading posts that soon developed into colonies that later became independent, with Syracuse (the home of Archimedes), Himera, and Akragas (today’s Agrigento) becoming some of the world’s largest cities at the time. In all, there were seventeen major Greek cities on Sicily, entangled in ever-changing alliances and wars with one another, with cities in Greece proper, and with cities in the broader Greek world and even outside it.

It’s important to note the political structure of these entities. Unlike Rome, a unified, centrally administered empire, Greece consisted of independent city-states not only in the area of present-day Greece but extending from the Black Sea all the way to Spain, North Africa, France, and Italy. They had no formal organization among them; they shared only a language and culture.

Enter Rome. Between 264 and 146 BC, Rome fought Carthage (Tunisia) for control of the Mediterranean in the three so-called Punic Wars, eventually prevailing and, to prevent any resurgence, sacking and burning the city of Carthage, condemning 50,000 survivors to slavery. The victors took control of Sicily in 241 BC and turned it into Rome’s first province. Tragically, Archimedes became a casualtyof the conflict between Rome and Carthage.

During the disintegration of the Roman Empire, Sicily came under the rule of German and Norse tribes, first the Vandals and then the Ostrogoths. But as the Roman Empire reorganized itself in Constantinople, Byzantine Greeks returned to Sicily, turning it, for a short time, into the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire at Syracuse in 663.

And then came the Arabs. After defeating the Byzantine Greeks in 827, immigrants from all over the Muslim world settled and intermarried with the Sicilians. Palermo became the second-largest city in the world after Constantinople.

The Norman Conquest, begun in 1061, took ten years, but resulted in a golden age for the island under Kings Roger I and Roger II, until about 1200 when the female heir to the throne married a Hohenstaufen and the island came under the control of the Holy Roman Emperor. Under the Normans, Christians, Muslims, Byzantines, and everyone else got along splendidly, imparting to the island its unique Arab-Norman-Byzantine architectural style.

You’d think that with such a mixture of peoples Sicilians might resemble Polynesians. They don’t. They range from white to swarthy (with a few black Africans — recent arrivals — mostly from Nigeria and Ghana), with blonde, red, brown, and black hair. The only physical trait they all seem to share is a so-called Roman nose — large, protruding and sometimes sporting a hump a third of the way down the bridge.

Around Sicily in Low Gear

Sicily is at the same latitude as Salt Lake City. Tina and I chose February for our trip because we’re cheap, hate crowds, and love to bike in the cold and rain. In Milazzo we paid €40 per night for a fully furnished apartment, smack dab in the center of town. We took advantage of the deal and spent two nights there. But not just for that.

Milazzo, a city on a spectacular peninsula on the northeast of the island, is charming, clean, and delightful, with a lively passeggiata, or evening promenade, where seemingly the entire town dresses up and walks the sidewalks, streets, and waterfront, visiting, tippling, eating gelato, marzipan, biscotti, cannoli, and any of the dozens of sweets and pastries that Sicilians love. This pre-Lenten time being Carnevale, the children were outfitted in elaborate costumes.

Inhabited since prehistoric times, the town is dominated by a massive hilltop fortress built, in successive enlargements, by the Normans, Swabians, Aragonese, and Spanish. We were the only visitors to the fort. At one time it had held captured prisoners in its Spanish enclave. Inside, to our complete incredulity, there hung the purported skeleton of an English soldier inside “the coffin,” one of the most prevalent torture and execution methods, often seen invarious movies set in medieval Europe.The victimswerestripped naked andplaced inside a metal cage, roughly made in the shape of the human body.The cage wasthenhung from a tree, gallows,or city walls until the victim died of dehydration, starvation, or hypothermia. Birds and bugs ate the bones clean. No ropes or barriers separated this grisly exhibition from the fort’s visitors. Tina shook the Englishman’s phalanges reverently, not believing she could do so and thereby reach into the past, perhaps even into the poor man’s soul, so easily, spontaneously, and without a mediative ritual.

Was it real? The interpretive sign implied so. The bones were real enough, though the teeth and ribs were reconstructions, with the rib cage ligaments being some sort of plastic; the skeleton was held together with metal clips, as real skeletons usually are. Was it the Englishman’s actual bones, or a skeleton donated for the purpose of illustrating what had happened? Who knows?

 

Nino, the only person we met there, stopped to engage us. An elderly, scholarly gentleman with a wide Van Dyke sans mustache, he introduced himself as the resident historian. When I told him I was an American archaeologist, he invited us into his offices and collection of goodies: theater masks from the Arab period, erasable wax writing tablets from the Roman occupation, authentically-made replicas of trinacrias throughout the ages. The trinacria is the 3-legged symbol of Sicily, with a Gorgon’s head at the center. It graces the center of the Sicilian flag. Go ahead and Google it. Irrespective of what you’ll find there, Nino convincingly demonstrated its Celtic and Indian roots.

Daytime temperatures hovered in the low 50s; rain was not infrequent, though never torrential. We were aiming for 50 kilometers per day, average, including rest and tourist days, for the entire 1,123 km circumference. Traveling across or around a country by bike is to experience the country mano a mano, so to speak, with all its smells, sounds, and sights in slow motion — not to mention the many personal interactions that are inevitable in low gear.

The island is mountainous; we trained hard for two months before the trip, and it paid off, though the roads we chose — secondary, mostly — were expertly engineered for grade. Our objective was to hug the coast all the way around, counterclockwise. At one point, a landslide had obliterated a portion of the via nazionale upon which we were riding. The detour took us up into the mountains on a tertiary road. It was so steep that Tina and I had to push each loaded bike up with both of us pushing the handlebars. On the other hand, the freeways were engineering and construction marvels. One expressway girdles the island, cutting across peninsulas and corners, sometimes receding quite some distance from the coast. It is almost perfectly flat, achieving this miracle with long tunnels and impressively long and tall bridges.

Our biggest concerns were traffic and the problem of booking our lodgings, usually B&Bs or apartments. Many places were closed for the season; those that weren’t almost always presented a language problem. We preferred apartments. Sicilian restaurants don’t open until 8 pm and seldom serve before 9 pm — an impossible eating schedule for all-day bikers accustomed to eating dinner between 5 and 6 pm and getting an early start the next day. But we still sampled some of Sicily’s unique dishes. Here are two of them (don’t say Liberty has never published recipes):

Gnocchi

  • Potato and rice flour marbles
  • Crumbled Italian sausage
  • Chopped almonds
  • Pistachio paté — finely ground pistachios in extra virgin olive oil (pistachio butter?)
  • Garlic
  • Dry white wine
  • Garnish with halved cherry tomatoes and fresh mint

Linguine

  • Ground lamb and ground pork in equal proportions
  • Chopped pistachios
  • Almond paté — finely ground almonds in extra virgin olive oil (almond butter? sans sugar!)
  • Garlic
  • Dry white wine
  • Diced red bell peppers or pimentos
  • Serve with Sicilian Nero d’Avola wine (or blood-red orange juice)

Keep Calm and Pedal On

At Marsala, the town that invented its eponymous sweet wine, we gawked in wonder at the narrow medieval streets paved in marble. Feeling a bit lost, I asked a traffic carabinieri for directions.

Italian traffic cops are very friendly. They’re armed with ridiculous ping-pong paddles with a red circle in the middle, which are holstered in their boot cuffs when not deployed as badges of authority. They do not inspire or command respect. Whenever they wave that silly paddle I’m reminded of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail insisting he’s still effective in spite of his missing arms and legs. These cops are seldom seen except at accident sites and infrequent radar speed traps.

We’d been warned about Italian traffic being a heavy-metal roller derby without rules. In truth, Sicilian traffic was complete anarchy, with cars breaking every traffic rule imaginable, from speeding and running stop signs and traffic lights to double and triple (and even sidewalk) parking to driving backwards down one-way streets and up and down pedestrian-only venues — anything to get an advantage. Most drivers were talking on the phone, texting, eating, gesticulating, and even drinking. Many gas stations included bars! Some drivers drove with their heads out the window while smoking so as not to smoke up the car.

Italian traffic cops are very friendly. They do not inspire or command respect.

But the anarchy, to no libertarian’s surprise, works. Without adherence to rules, every driver is 100% aware of his environment and expects the unexpected at any time. Drivers are also very polite and have quick reaction responses. It’s as if every Sicilian driver had graduated from the Bob Bondurant School of high performance driving. It’s no exaggeration to say that we saw more driving schools in Sicily than we’ve seen anywhere else — by far.

Right of way is not determined by rules (though they do exist) but rather on a first-come basis. It takes nerve as a pedestrian, biker, or even car to gingerly nose out into traffic without the right of way. In the US, cars would honk, drivers flip the finger, and accidents ensue. In Sicily, traffic politely accommodates you.

Essential to this driving environment is the Italian car horn. Mastering its grammar is nearly as difficult as mastering tones in Mandarin. There are special toots and combinations of toots for nearly any situation, but almost none of them aggressive or panicky. When approaching from behind, vehicles would warn us — at a discreet distance — of their approach with a distinctive honk, never varying and never startling. It was different from a greeting honk, which also varied according to whether the greeted person was in a vehicle or on foot, a man or a woman. There were distinctive tootles for dogs, either as warnings or greetings. The claxon language of Sicily is so well developed and intuitive that we identified one honk as a question, “What are you going to do?”, with the anticipated accompaniment of a hand gesture. Traffic jams were not advertised by blasts and blares; they were considered unavoidable aspects of driving in congested conditions.

We couldn’t believe Italian bikers, all dressed identically in the latest biking gear, packed tightly together like a school of minnows, taking up an entire lane, oblivious to vehicles and racing at top speed on wheels skinny as dental floss. They all waved at us and shouted ciao! Even biking pairs would ride side by side taking up an entire lane, ignoring traffic. We never quite adopted that custom, nearly always riding in single file. But traffic would always treat bikes as full-fledged vehicles, passing only when appropriate and seldom crowding them.

One large group stopped to engage us. We’d noticed that no biking group ever included a female, so I asked, “Don’t Italian women ride bikes?” One fellow piped up that the women were home cooking. Everyone laughed.

Greeks, Fascists, Old and New Gods

Sicily’s most impressive ruins are its Greek temples and theaters. The one in Agrigento is where Aeschylus directed and presented his tragedies. It and the one in Taormina are still used annually for Greek play festivals. Most are well preserved and protected yet totally accessible to the public, unlike Stonehenge, which, understandably, is now cordoned off. The Temple of Concordia (440 BC) in the Valle dei Templi is the largest and best-preserved Doric temple in Sicily, and one of the best-preserved Greek temples anywhere.It was converted into a Christian basilica in the 6th century and dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul by the bishop of Agrigento.

Roman ruins are fewer. Their surviving mosaics are protected and cordoned off. Many Arab mosques, on the other hand, were converted into Christian churches, yet retained much of their Moslem flavor.

But it was the Fascist and German pillboxes along the south coast and edging up the west and east coasts that really struck a nerve. There were many, without signs or fences; they were simply abandoned, ignored, and often graffitied. One, outside of Messina, had been incorporated within the waterfront promenade and painted colorfully. The pillboxes recalled for us Tina’s uncle Bernie, who had participated in the US invasion of North Africa and then in the invasion of Sicily. Its south coast is invasion-friendly, with sandy beaches and a level hinterland. Approaching Gela, an old Greek city with a large, decommissioned petroleum refinery on its outskirts, we tried to put ourselves in Bernie’s boots. It was the first Sicilian city liberated by the Allies.

We pedaled across to Syracusa, looking forward to another rest and tourist day in Ortygia, Syracusa’s peninsular core and the nexus of its ancient Greek settlement. Right downtown, in the center, stand the remains of a temple to Apollo. The old gods still rule! Some of the narrow medieval streets can’t accommodate a classic Fiat 500, a smart car or, much less, a Mini.

Wending our way up the east coast, we were distracted by a road closure and detour that set us riding in circles. Finally — as in the old saying about “when in . . . do as . . .” — we cut through the closure, rode against traffic, and found a quiet spot for lunch. Suddenly, faintly visible in the distance but nearly taking up the entire horizon and the hazy sky above, loomed Mt. Aetna. At nearly 11,000 feet, rising right out of the water, it is an overwhelming sight, covered in snow and spewing smoke. Our plans to climb it came to naught: this winter’s snowpack had been exceptionally heavy, and all the approach roads were still blocked.

Just as well — soon after, Vulcan vented, spitting hot ash and lava onto the snowpack and causing spectacular explosions. Part of Aetna’s ski resort was destroyed. This is nothing new: 22 seismic stations monitor volcanic activity to defend Catania, the city at the mountain’s foot, and the surrounding towns. Signs along the road prohibit bikes, pedestrians, and motorbikes during eruptions.

Soon we hit the Riviera dei Ciclopi, where towering hunks of lava rise out of the sea. According to legend, these were thrown by the blinded Cyclops, Polyphemus, in a desperate attempt to stop Odysseus from escaping. One of the bigger blobs, La Rocca di Aci Castello, emerges from an underwater fissure and upholds a 13th-century black Norman castle built on an earlier Arab fortification. Inside, a small museum displays a bizarre collection of prehistoric skulls. From here on up and all across the north shore of Sicily, Norman lookout towers dotted high coastal salients, medieval parodies of the WWII pillboxes along the south coast.

Two days after Taormina we spotted the Calabrian coast, Italy’s boot toe. At the city of Messina, the Straits of Messina are only 1.9 miles wide at their narrowest, but plans for a cross-strait bridge have been put on hold in consideration of the prevalence of earthquakes and the strong currents. Appropriately, a huge and impressive statue of Neptune fronts city hall.

Turning the bird beak’s northeast corner of the island, we entered the mountainous north coast, where we were blessed by a constant tail wind. Cefalù, where we laid over for two days, is a compact medieval fishing town, nestling below the 1,000-foot La Rocca, a sheer-sided limestone mountain upon which previous embodiments of the town were built. Only one line of weakness provides an approach to the top — the endless steps that lead to the old fortifications. Imagine a fully kitted-up medieval soldier, laboring under a barrage of rocks, arrows, and hot oil, scaling his way up the then-stairless acclivity that today (with steps) takes a good half hour to negotiate.

The Moslems conquered the town from the Byzantines in 858, after a long siege. After another long siege, the Normans, under King Roger I, captured the city in 1063. To celebrate his victory, Roger commissioned what is regarded as Sicily’s finest mosaic, Christ Pantocrator, in the apsis of the cupola.

Heading back to Palermo we stopped at the old Greek city of Himera, supposedly one of Hercules’ (or Herakles’) early haunts. Little remains of the once-important and sprawling city-state. For nearly a century Carthage tried to capture the place, and to fend off the attackers — initially 300,000 strong, it is said — Himera had to cede its independence to Gelon, ruler of Syracuse. In 409 BC, Hannibal finally conquered it and razed it.

As we approached Palermo we were torn by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, we were energized by our sense of accomplishment and anticipation of celebration. On the other, we dreaded navigating Palermo’s choked and complicated streets — both good reasons to spend a day playing tourist. But bike travel in congested medieval cities is ideal. Not having to negotiate one-way, six-foot wide streets in a car or find parking is a tremendous advantage.

Palermo holds many treasures. Palazzi of past nobility illustrated the fact that, In spite of the long roster of foreign rulers, it was only through the indigenous aristocracy — which, being Sicilian, commanded more allegiance than the actual rulers — that each conqueror was able to exert any control over the island. The Spanish, first as Aragonese and then as subjects of a unified Spain, ruled Sicily for about 500 years, deeply influencing the Sicilian dialect — a boon to my lack of Italian and knowledge of Spanish. But they also brought the hated Inquisition, which targeted the landed gentry, the rich, and the educated in order to try to break their informal control of the island.

Our tour guide (required) through the dungeons of the Inquisition preserved an extraordinary chronicle that required interpretation: the prisoners’ graffiti. Some were simple groupings of four vertical lines with a diagonal slash — tallies of days. Others were elaborate paintings, hiding subtle anti-Spanish messages. One was a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion with the Roman soldiers outfitted as Spaniards. Another was the Nicene Creed in English.

Interrogation, always under torture, was called “a conversation with God.” No prisoner was ever released except for forced labor. All were executed, most of them burnt at the stake. One prisoner managed to kill an Inquisitor, a unique event that ended our tour on a righteously vengeful note. The prisoner’s revenge, for all the outrage it caused, actually prolonged the poor man’s life; the only punishment the prelates could muster was to delay his death and prolong his torture. But demands that the Inquisitor be canonized came to naught.

Sicily has subsequently managed to separate church and state, for the most part, although an actual, physical bridge still exists. Palermo’s cathedral and parliament are connected by two arches. Vaguely reminiscent of the Palace of Westminster, the buildings are a striking example of the Norman-Arab-Byzantine style. Inside the cathedral we visited the tombs of the Norman kings, still revered as having presided over a Sicilian golden age.

Walking along the waterfront on our last evening in Sicily, we stood at the seaside railing and gazed out over the Mediterranean, reflecting on a wonderful trip. A woman across the street behind us, cleaning her house, was taken by the sight and snapped our picture with her phone, out the open window. As we walked away she motioned us over. She showed us the photo and indicated that she wanted to send it to us, explaining in Italian that she was “a romantic” and the sight of us touched a chord.

Arrivederci!




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Hungary 1956

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Some years ago, at a used-book store, I found a book that got my immediate attention. It was Cry Hungary! Uprising 1956, a pictorial history of the Hungarian Revolution, and included a day-by-day summary of events. The pictures showed the death and detritus of battle along with closeups of the Freedom Fighters, often young men and women shouldering weapons, some grim, some smiling. There were pictures showing clusters of citizens riding the streets of Budapest on captured tanks they had decorated with fall flowers or painted with the Arms of Kossuth. And yes, there were pictures of AVO men, the hated Hungarian secret police, being shot down in the street, or hanging from trees.

The book’s author was British writer Reg Gadney. Its publication date in 1986 was the 30th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. This past October 23 was the 60th anniversary of the first shooting and killing. I was a junior in college when it all began. While I was absorbing chemistry and English letters, Hungarians my age were setting Soviet tanks afire and shooting their escaping crews. And while thus engaged, many of the rebels died.

The image of one young girl, Erika Szelez, became a symbol of the Revolution. Her picture has often accompanied articles and books on the uprising: a 15-year-old girl carrying a submachine gun with its straps across her shoulders. Alas, her story is a sad one. The picture was first published on the cover of a Danish magazine, Billet Bladet, on November 13, 1956. By that time Erika was already dead, shot five days earlier on a Budapest street by a Russian soldier.

While I was absorbing chemistry and English letters, Hungarians my age were setting Soviet tanks afire and shooting their escaping crews.

The events leading up to the Revolution, and the characters involved, all read like Tolstoy inventions. The key event was the Soviet “liberation” of Hungary in 1945. Russian soldiers raped and looted their way across the country, making enemies instead of friends. Under the Horthy Regency, Hungary had allied itself with Germany. It did so not so much from shared convictions as from a desire to recover territories lost in the previous world war. Stalin’s chosen leader for Hungary was Matayas Rakosi, who proceeded to move Hungary step by step toward a Stalinist dictatorship, a regime of murder and exceptional cruelty. Under Rakosi, collectivization of agriculture and attempts at industrialization impoverished the broad citizenry. Hungarian uranium went exclusively to the Soviet Union. Added to this, the Soviets had taken Hungary’s industrial machinery and part of its precious-metal reserves as spoils of war.

Rakosi, “Stalin’s best pupil,” hardened by 15 years in Horthy jails, mimicked his master’s purges. Party members were tortured to gain bogus confessions and then put on trial, where the confessions were repeated for the edification of the masses. Then the offenders were punished with imprisonment or hanging. One of the victims of the purges was Laszlo Rajk, whose elegance, perhaps, Rakosi found annoying. Rajk himself was a devoted Stalinist, who claimed the Soviet Union as his cynosure. He was, in fact, hoist with his own petard, having set up the very agency that accomplished his arrest and torture. On October 15, 1949, he was hanged for his imagined sins — being a “Titoist spy” and an “agent of Western imperialism.” Another victim of the Rakosi terror was man-of-destiny Janos Kadar, who, ironically, had cosigned Rajk’s execution order. Kadar spent two years in prison, where he endured torture, reportedly involving his genitals.

But in February 1953, Joseph Stalin died. Nikita Khrushchev came to power, and with him came the first hints of de-Stalinization. Rakosi was summoned to Moscow and informed that Imre Nagy was to serve as Prime Minister. Rakosi was to remain as First Secretary of the Communist Party. Nagy had experienced battle in the Hungarian armies, a conversion to Communism, further military service with the Red Army in the Russian Civil War, and imprisonment in the Horthy era. Victor Sebestyen’s useful book, Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, describes Nagy as a loyal Communist and Party man, having survived for 15 years in the Soviet Union. And yet, avuncular, food-and-football-loving Nagy hadn’t reached the level of cruelty shown by fellow “Muscovite” Rakosi. Perhaps this was why he fell out of favor in Moscow and why, in 1955, Rakosi seized power once again, installing his own man, Andras Hegedus, as Prime Minister. But the Stalinist Rakosi couldn’t throttle Hungary or Hungarians as he had once done — especially after a famous Khrushchev speech.

By that time Erika was already dead, shot five days earlier on a Budapest street by a Russian soldier.

On February 26, 1956, Nikita Khruschev gave a six-hour speech before the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. In it, he denounced Stalin and his “Cult of Personality” and detailed his enormities. The speech was given in secret, but its contents became widely known and sent an unintended signal to the Soviet-satellite nations. Rakosi was suddenly given to speeches denouncing the “Cult of Personality” — one more irony in the Communist world of kaleidoscopic truth.

Students and intellectuals were showing greater freedom in expressing their discontents. Soviet Ambassador Yuri Andropov informed the Kremlin of “destabilizing influences” among the Hungarian populace. One such influence was the Petofi Circle, a group of students and intellectuals who discussed and debated such issues as “Socialist Realism” (a state-sponsored art style) and the theft of Hungary’s uranium deposits. Particularly significant was the speech given before the group by Julia Rajk, the widow of Lazlo Rajk.

October 6 is an important date in Hungarian history. On that day in 1849, the 13 generals who had led the Revolution of 1848 were hanged by the Austrian Empire. And on that day in 1956, the remains of Laszlo Rajk were reinterred in Budapest. Julia Rajk, Imre Nagy, and perhaps 100,000 other Hungarian citizens witnessed the ceremony. The late Rajk, a dogmatic Stalinist, had become a symbolic victim of Stalinist lies and brutality.

Nagy hadn’t reached the level of cruelty shown by fellow “Muscovite” Rakosi. Perhaps this was why he fell out of favor in Moscow.

At last, Budapest’s militant students met and agreed on a list of 16 demands. They hoped to get radio time to publicize them, but chose instead to publish them as pamphlets and post them all over town. The list included demands for the removal of Soviet troops, foreign insignias, and Stalin’s statue, and for free elections, free speech, a better run economy, and international marketing of Hungarian uranium. And there was one truly fateful demand — the restoration to power of Imre Nagy.

Thus, on the morning of October 23, 1956, the student demands were everywhere and easily read by the public. That afternoon, crowds gathered for demonstrations preplanned by those same dissident students. Perhaps 200,000 people eventually joined in a procession that marched to the statue of poet Sandor Petofi. There, they heard a reading of his famous call to arms, written in 1848. The Gadney book provides this translation:

Magyars, rise, your country calls you!
Meet this hour, whate’er befalls you!
Shall we free men be, or slaves?
Choose the lot your spirit craves!

Then the crowds marched to the statue of Josef Bem, a Polish general who fought for Hungary in the Revolution of 1848. Someone placed a Hungarian flag — the tricolor, without any Communist emblem — in the arms of the statue.

Pictures of the demonstration show participants smiling, apparently in a festive mood. The march across the Margaret Bridge involved a huge procession, though ahead of it was a small advance guard carrying rifles. Later, at the Parliament Building, Imre Nagy was brought in to address the demonstrators. On his way, Nagy reportedly noticed a Hungarian flag with a donut-like hole in the center — the superimposed Soviet red star had been cut out. By that time, many Hungarian flags bore a similar vacuity. Nagy’s words to the crowd have escaped preservation, but it’s known that he asked them to sing the national anthem.

Someone placed a Hungarian flag — the tricolor, without any Communist emblem — in the arms of the statue.

Erno Gero, the reptilian Stalinist who replaced Rakosi as Party First Secretary, had made an earlier radio broadcast that merely compounded the hatred people felt for him. Part of the crowd ended up at the radio station. They demanded a microphone, and when it was refused, some of them tried to break into the building. The AVO members defending the building threw tear gas and finally opened fire, wounding and killing some among the crowd. The unarmed demonstrators quickly acquired weapons, perhaps from local policemen or Hungarian soldiers, many of whom were in sympathy with the protesting crowd. More weapons arrived, brought by workers from Csepel, the industrial district. The armed demonstrators, now blooded Freedom Fighters, occupied the Radio Building, hunted down the sequestered AVO men, and shot them.

That same evening, another group arrived at the huge bronze statue of Joseph Stalin, intent on removing it. Obtaining metal-cutting equipment, they brought the statue down and carved it up for souvenirs. Only the boots remained, affixed to the marble plinth. Someone stood a Hungarian flag in one of them.

At midnight or soon thereafter, Imre Nagy learned that he was, once again, the Hungarian Prime Minister. By that time there was fighting in the streets. Soviet armor arrived in the very early morning of October 24. In his memoirs, A.I. Malashenko, then a colonel and acting Soviet Special Corps Chief of Staff, wrote that his formations were greeted with “stones and bullets.” Although Nagy eventually became a hero of the Revolution, his early statements urging a ceasefire weren’t in keeping with the mood of many Hungarians. Indeed, pictures show Freedom Fighters pulling a red star off one building, removing a portrait of Lenin from another, and, most startling of all, summarily shooting members of the AVO or jeering at their hanging corpses or those of their paid informants. Peter Fryer, a reporter for the British Daily Worker and himself a Communist, described “scores of Secret Police hung by their feet from trees” in Budapest. He tells of people spitting or stubbing their cigarettes on the bodies.

The unarmed demonstrators quickly acquired weapons, perhaps from local policemen or Hungarian soldiers, many of whom were in sympathy with the protesting crowd.

Other pictures show streets torn up and trolley cars capsized, their tracks pulled from the ground, to impede Soviet armor. Seen more than once is Pal Maleter’s tank, a T-34 stuck in the door of the Kilian Barracks. Maleter was a tragic hero of the Revolution. A colonel in the Hungarian Army, once decorated by the Soviets, he was in command at the barracks when, encountering the Freedom Fighters, he decided to join them rather than fight them. He later became a general and the Defense Minister in the Nagy government. On the night of November 3, while attending sham negotiations with the Soviets, he was arrested by the KGB head, General Ivan Serov, accompanied by the Soviet police. Maleter was later tried and, like Imre Nagy, executed by the new, Soviet-endorsed government.

There were two more mass shootings of unarmed demonstrators. One occurred at the Parliament Building on October 25. It began with the AVO opening fire, apparently responding to insults from the crowd. Soviet armor joined in with its firepower. The other shooting happened in Magyarovar, a small town in northwestern Hungary, close to both the Austrian and the Czech borders. A demonstrating crowd — men, women, and children — arrived at the AVO headquarters. The AVO was ready with grenades and machine guns and used both on the crowd, killing a reported 82 people and wounding and maiming many more. Peter Fryer described the aftermath at the town’s cemetery: the bodies in rows, including women, a young boy, and an infant. The surviving demonstrators obtained weapons, found some of the AVO men, and killed them.

Considering the eight-year ordeal of the Hungarian people, it’s tempting for a Westerner to ask why they endured tyranny for so long. One reason is that during those years Hungary was an efficient police state. A secret army of paid AVO informants lived and worked as ordinary citizens. Any attempt to communicate dissatisfactions or to plan a rebellious act or organize a dissident group could easily come to the attention of the secret police. Even those marginally associated with suspicious words or deeds could face arrest, exile, jail without trial, or even torture and execution. As Lenin maintained, individual rights are incompatible with equality, and equality was his ultimate value.

Added to the police-state terror was the authoritarian tradition of Hungary and Eastern Europe. Before the Soviets seized Hungary, the country was ruled by the Horthy Regency, and Admiral Miklos Horthy maintained his own oppressive system — referred to as the White Terror. Perhaps a tradition of overbearing government blinded Hungarians to the importance of individual freedom, and its logical companion, free-market capitalism. Indeed, the Freedom Fighters maintained their loyalty to socialism. The heroic Pal Maleter could be arrogant in its defense.

Even those marginally associated with suspicious words or deeds could face arrest, exile, jail without trial, or even torture and execution.

Still, from October 29 to November 4 the Freedom Fighters believed they had won their battle, they had achieved their immediate ends. An agreed-upon Soviet withdrawal had begun on the 29th. Tanks and trucks were leaving Budapest with dead Soviet soldiers upon them. In a radio broadcast Imre Nagy proclaimed, “Long live free, democratic, and independent Hungary.” There were more shootings and lynchings of AVO men.

But then, the Soviet withdrawal began to slow. As early as the night of October 30, Nagy realized that the Soviet forces were returning. It’s likely that Pal Maleter was the first to so inform him.

Khrushchev had changed his mind — a free, democratic, and independent Hungary meant its possible Westernization and a capitalist country on the doorstep of the Soviet Union. The Revolution had to be crushed. Nagy and his associates faced a crisis reborn, though the smooth-talking Ambassador Yuri Andropov, later General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, continued to reassure them that the withdrawal would proceed. And yet, on the night of November 1, 1956, Janos Kadar, a member of the ruling Committee, fled the scene, after pledging to fight Russian armor with his bare hands and broadcasting his support for the Nagy government. His statements were a smokescreen, behind which he vanished, ending up in the Soviet Union with two fellow defectors. One of them was Ferenc Munnich, who would eventually join Kadar as his deputy in the new Soviet-approved government. Victor Sebestyen described Kadar’s reluctant climb into that final Soviet automobile, goaded by Munnich — and perhaps by the thought that if he stayed, he was a dead man.

Malashenko described meeting Kadar at the Tokol Airport and providing him with quarters there. When Kadar finally enplaned and flew away, it was with KGB head General Serov. Once installed as leader, Kadar, like the good Communist he was, set about eliminating his rivals. He was impatient to see Nagy hang, along with others. He ruled Hungary for the next 32 years, eventually creating a mixed economy and a measure of prosperity. Khrushchev referred to the Kadar system as “goulash Communism.”

Peter Fryer wrote of the final moments of the Hungarian Revolution:

In public buildings and private homes, in hotels and ruined shops, the people fought the invaders street by street, step by step, inch by inch. The blazing energy of those eight days of freedom burned itself out in one glorious flame. Hungry, sleepless, hopeless, the freedom fighters battled with pitifully feeble equipment against a crushingly superior weight of Soviet arms. From windows and from open streets, they fought with rifles, home-made grenades, and Molotov cocktails against T-54 tanks.

Much has been made of the West’s, and especially America’s, reluctance to intervene in Hungary, despite pleas for help broadcast over Hungary’s Radio Kossuth. Often blamed is our preoccupation with the Suez crisis, precipitated by Egyptian President Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal. Forgotten is the prevailing 1950s fear of nuclear war. The Eisenhower administration kept bombers in the air, prepared to administer a “second strike,” should the Soviets or Red China drop The Bomb first. A direct confrontation with the Soviets was to be avoided, and “containment” became the chosen policy toward the Evil Empire. Thus, we maintained troops and missiles in Western Europe, and fought limited wars in the world’s backwaters. Our government’s preoccupation was with America’s interests and security — as it should have been.

Khrushchev had changed his mind. The Revolution had to be crushed.

Did Radio Free Europe, by advocating the Western version of freedom, actually encourage the crushing of the Revolution? Perhaps it did, at that moment in history. But as James Q. Wilson wrote in The Moral Sense, westerners consider their version of freedom an ultimate good. He quoted a superb passage composed by Professor Orlando Patterson, which begins with these words: “At its best, the valorization of personal liberty is the noblest achievement of Western civilization.” A greater problem for the Hungarian dissidents was their own faith in socialism. They remained willing to submit to a system that Hilaire Belloc warned must lead to the Servile State — that is, to slavery. As he said, “The control of the production of wealth is the control of human life itself.”

And as Ludwig von Mises pointed out, under socialism there is no organic pricing system, no marvelous supercomputer that, under capitalism, signals production and distribution. Socialism can only exist by making plans and enforcing them with punitive regulations. Of course, its inevitable failures must lead to stiffer regulations and punishments and new theories that predict but never achieve abundance.

Still, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 hangs heavy on the mind — with its images of men, women, and even children battling the Soviet tanks and, implicitly, the worst enemies of human freedom. Perhaps they were seeking a kind of freedom they couldn’t quite define. Finding it nowhere else, neither in the everyday world nor as a promise in their political tradition, they found it, at last, in mortal combat.

* * *

SOURCES

Belloc, Hilaire. The Servile State. London: T.N. Foulis, 1912. www.archive.org/stream/servilestate00belluoft/servilestate00belluoft_djvu.txt
“Cry Hungary! By Reg Gadney.” Kirkus Reviews. http://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/reg-gadney-3/cry-hungary/
Douglass, Brian. “On the Road to the Servile State.” Mises Institute: Mises Daily Articles. 3 Dec. 2009.
“Erika Szeles.” The Female Soldier, 21 April 2015. www.thefemalesoldier.com/blog/erika-szeles
Flynn, John T. The Road Ahead: America’s Creeping Revolution. New York: Devon- Adair, 1949.
Fryer, Peter. Hungarian Tragedy. London: New Park Publications Ltd., 1986.
Gadney, Reg. Cry Hungary! Uprising 1956. Introd. Georges Mikes. New York: Athenum, 1986.
Garrett, Garet. “Belloc’s Puzzling Manifesto.” Mises Institute: Mises Daily Articles, 13 Jan. 2003.
Gessmer, Peter K. “General Josef Bem: Polish and Hungarian Leader.” Info Poland: Poland in the Classroom, 8 June 1958. www.info-poland.buffalo.edu/classroom/bem.html
Gyorki, Jeno, and Miklos Horvath, eds. Soviet Military Intervention in Hungary 1956. Budapest: Central European Univ. Press, 1999.
Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents. Ed. Bruce Caldwell. London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007.
Lenin, V.I. State and Revolution. New York: International Publishers, 1943.
Mises, Ludwig von. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Third Revised Ed. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1966.
“Sandor Petofi.” Encyclopedia.com. www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/russian-and-eastern-european-literature-biographies/sandor-petofi
Saxon, Wolfgang. “Janos Kadar of Hungary Is Dead at 77.” Obituaries. The New York Times, 7 July 1989. www.nytimes.com/1989/07/07/obituaries/janos-kadar-of-hungary-is-dead-at-77.html
Sebestyen, Victor. Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.
“This Hungarian Woman Was Already Dead When her Photo Became Symbol of the Revolution.” Hungary Today, 12 Oct. 2016. www.hungarytoday.hu/young-hungarian-woman-already-dead-photo-became-symbol-revolution
Wilson, James Q. The Moral Sense. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997.




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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 him if we could print parts of his work. Robert agreed. We are featuring it in several segments, of which this is the second. The first was published in Liberty in February.

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.

Part II begins with the reactions of Robert’s father (Pop) and mother (Mina) to Castro’s war against the Batista regime, which he eventually overthrew. — Stephen Cox

Part II

Mina was a skeptic; Pop was a fan. Optimistic about Castro, he was later to contribute money and property to the Revolution both before and immediately after its victory. But revolutions, no matter how well-intentioned, are inherently disruptive and unpredictable. This didn’t stop Pop. The urgency of his ambitions was fueled by the specter of the grim reaper. With the addition of rheumatoid arthritis, a crippling and disfiguring disease, his chronic malaria and angina pectoris became a threesome.

After the Bug took root, he partnered up with a German colleague from Volkswagen and launched a brand new enterprise in early 1958. Though he’d been Controller of the Oxford Paper Company for only a short time, back in 1940, he must have felt confident in opening Cuba’s first big paper products factories, Envases Modernos S.A. and Industrias Cello-Pak S.A. He wanted to give Dixie’s or Lilly’s (I don’t remember which) de facto monopoly a run for its money. When the paper cup assembly line became operative, he proudly took the family out to the factory to watch the process and presented us each with a waxed paper cup as if it were a votive offering.

Less than one month after Castro’s victory, when euphoria and grandiose schemes still permeated the Cuban atmosphere, Fidel proposed planting a thousand trees along the avenues that had hosted the rebels’ triumphant procession. Pop immediately offered to donate 1,000 paper cups to hold the seedlings. He not only did not receive an answer, but no trees were ever planted.

Pop proudly took the family out to the factory to watch the process and presented us each with a waxed paper cup as if it were a votive offering.

Nineteen fifty-eight also brought television to our home. Instantly it became hypnotic. Rin Tin Tin, Annie Oakley, Sea Hunt, Bat Masterson, Gunsmoke, all dubbed in Spanish, became staples, keeping us kids indoors in the evening, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

After Castro’s victory, however, all broadcasting became live news, 24/7, way before CNN. Though initially spellbinding, Fidel’s speeches soon tired us: the endless narration; the panoramic shots of crowds supporting this or that, or protesting this or that; the mass televised trials; and the endless coverage and speculation over the explosion of La Coubre in Havana Harbor in March 1960, a ship bearing an arms shipment — with Fidel’s endless rhetorical question, “Armas, para que?” “Arms, for what?” The arms were intended for the new revolutionary government, but Castro spun the sabotage to his advantage.

But to return to the events that put Castro in power: in May 1958, with three active guerrilla fronts operating on the island, Batista finally decided to get serious. He dispatched 10,000 troops to destroy Castro’s 300 guerrillas in Oriente Province, and the Directorio Revolucionario’s Escambray front, now also numbering in the hundreds. But it was not to be.

Throughout June, July, and August government troops suffered defeat after defeat, surrendered en masse, or switched sides. Huge amounts of equipment, including tanks, fell into the hands of the rebels. By September 1, the two Oriente fronts, one under Che Guevara, the other under Camilo Cienfuegos, had begun a two-pronged advance westward, toward the center of the island. It would be only a matter of time before they reached the capital.

With the steamroller now nearly unstoppable, Cubans began letting down their guard. No longer was Radio Rebelde listened to clandestinely; it was openly monitored and discussed. Young men — and some women — from all over the island rushed to join the advancing rebels, jumping on the bandwagon as it picked up momentum.

Headed over to the Castellanos’, in search of distraction, I ran into one of the young guys — related somehow to the ex-mayor — who were often there. He was a guy who had actually paid attention to me, shown friendship and kindness even — behavior that, to a young boy, instantly made him a role model. Now he was dressed in full olive green army fatigues, with backpack and sidearm, and was walking down the street nonchalantly. Since the regular army wore khakis, either this guy was foolish or fearless, or the risk was minimal.

Fidel's physical seclusion in the mountains but unquestioned leadership and tenacity gave him an Olympian air, abetted by his curly Greek beard — one he would never again shave.

I stopped dead on the sidewalk in front of him, speechless, eyes bugging out. The only soldiers I‘d ever been this close to were my little toy soldiers. He said he was off to join the rebels. I asked if I could go with him, even though I knew that was impossible. He smiled, metaphorically (or perhaps actually) patted my head, and kindly said no, that I was too young. When I told my parents about the encounter, they shuddered, grimacing that his behavior was beyond foolish.

In September, Guevara’s and Cienfuegos’ troops, advancing separately, met up in Camagüey province and continued their westward march as one large force. Government resistance to the advance was mostly limited to aerial bombardment, intermittent at best because of the heavy rains of the fall hurricane season.

On October 7, the now-combined Castro forces crossed into Las Villas province and encountered the forces of the Directorio Revolucionario in the Escambray Mountains under the field command of Faure Chaumont. Though Castro’s 26 of July Movement and the Directorio Revolucionario had heretofore been completely independent enterprises, Chaumont agreed to a coordinated offensive. The news ignited Cubans; hundreds of men volunteered to join the rebels.

In November, government forces concentrated behind defensive positions in the cities of Las Villas province. Rebel forces, meanwhile, worked out operational plans for the new joint command, planned the next offensives, trained new recruits, and awaited drier weather.

Fidel himself remained ensconced in his headquarters in the Sierra Maestra, coordinating military and political strategy. His physical seclusion in the mountains but unquestioned leadership and tenacity gave him an Olympian air, abetted by his curly Greek beard — one he would never again shave.

Nearly all the rebel forces sported beards and long hair, starting a sartorial trend, with philosophical implications, that would take the world by storm in the 1960s. Raul Castro, with his skimpy fuzz of a beard, gave rise to rumors that he was either homosexual or illegitimate — or both. Camilo Cienfuegos, on the other hand, hirsute as a Tolkien character in Lord of the Rings, with a beard that made one wonder whether it housed legions of unidentified critters, was beginning to upstage Fidel. Handsome, with a seductive and ready smile, and a twinkle in his eye under his black cowboy hat, he would later die in a suspicious plane crash in 1959 on a fool’s errand for Fidel.

On December 20, the final rebel offensive began. In quick succession, the cities of Cabaiguan, Placetas, Remedios, Cruces, and Sancti Spiritus fell to the onslaught. Two days later, Camilo Cienfuegos began an assault on the army garrison at Yaguajay; while Guevara’s and Chaumont’s combined forces attacked Santa Clara, capital of Las Villas province.

After nearly two weeks of intense combat and aerial bombardment, 250 government soldiers surrendered Yaguajay to Cienfuegos on New Year’s Eve, and 1,000 more surrendered to Guevara and Chaumont on New Year’s Day, 1959.

* * *

New Year’s Eve 1959 was a memorable one and not soon to be forgotten! Word passed around like wildfire that Batista and his cronies had fled, throwing in the sponge at last. The island had been cut in half at the now famous Bay of Pigs and the Escambray rebel troops were headed for Havana. On New Year’s day it became a reality and while many mobs roamed the streets seeking revenge against the hated dictator’s cronies who had not as yet left, we were not molested. I personally did not leave the house, carefully following the advice given over the local radio.

So begins my father’s account of those fateful days between Batista’s exit and the rebels’ arrival, an account he wrote for Time magazine but that was never published.

When Batista fled the country at 2 AM on New Year’s Day, 1959, Havana erupted into an orgy of celebration. The metropolitan police, technically members of the old regime, kept a low profile. We children weren’t allowed to get near the windows, much less leave the house. All the prisons were thrown open, and riotous mobs roamed the streets wreaking havoc on anything associated with the old regime, especially casinos. Another favorite target was parking meters, a hated source of government income. My sister Nani remembers one passing car peppering our living room with bullets. My mother, ever cautious, concocted a Molotov cocktail “just in case.”

Days later, when Castro’s tanks rolled into the city, mobs lionized the long-haired, bearded rebels. Contingents of the olive-clad, Thompson-submachine-gun-wielding soldiers ringed all the embassies to prevent “enemies of the people” from escaping. With the Mexican ambassador’s residence only a block from our house, I couldn’t keep away. Armed with my pellet gun — for solidarity and fun — I’d hang out for hours with the militiamen, target shooting at birds and passing the time. For a 9-year-old kid, it just didn’t get any better. As I’d later say when I learned English in Mississippi, “I was shitting in tall cotton.”

My mother, ever cautious, concocted a Molotov cocktail “just in case.”

CMQ, Channel 6, went to round-the-clock programming. Though I preferred outdoor activity, the novel, continuous TV coverage of events mesmerized us. Abuela, we kids, and the household staff — whenever they managed time between chores — gathered in the TV room to watch the Revolution unfold.

On January 2 Manuel Urrutia, the judge who had tried Castro sympathetically after his July 26, 1953 uprising, became President of Cuba. He was appointed to the post behind the scenes by Castro, no doubt because his reputation for probity and his spotless record wouldn’t cause any ructions domestically or internationally. Jose Miro Cardona became Prime Minister. Days later the US recognized the new government and appointed a new ambassador, Phillip Bonsal.

I asked Abuela how Urrutia became president without an election. She shrugged her shoulders and mumbled something I can’t remember. She’d seen so much. It would have taken too much effort and too long a time to try to explain it all to a 9-year-old kid.

Then on January 8, Fidel Castro, with his now-mechanized No. 1 Jose Marti Column slowly rolled into Havana amidst a stately procession of troops and army vehicles. It was beautifully scripted to appear spontaneous — which, to some degree, it was. Not riding atop a tank — as has often been reported — along Havana Harbor’s Malecon seawall and waving to the ecstatic crowds, Castro seemed to have turned out all of Havana — along with busloads of provincials — to line the streets.

Castro stopped in front of the Columbia Army Barracks and ceremoniously approached the podium and microphones that awaited him. It was the biggest crowd ever along the streets of Havana. After he’d begun talking, three white doves alighted on his podium, one landing on his shoulder. The crowds went absolutely wild. Most thought it was a sign from Providence: Fidel was “untouchable.” We were glued to the TV, in spite of just being little kids listening to a politician.

Mina’s cousin Eddy, a mostly unemployed bon vivant, was there also. Afterward he set out to regale the extended family about the event, to little response. He’d make the rounds of relatives ingratiating himself and cadging what he could. Mina didn’t care for him and called him a Communist. Chuchu, just a kid at the time but later to marry into our family, got to watch the procession from the balcony of his nearby home.

After Castro had begun talking, three white doves alighted on his podium, one landing on his shoulder. The crowds went absolutely wild.

In three days the TV spectacle switched to military tribunals set up to deal with members of the old regime, followed by executions before firing squads with screams of “Al paredon!” (To the firing wall!) This prime-time TV tableau vivant continued through January and into February, and trickled into March, with a break during Easter Week, by which time 483 “war criminals” had been executed — a little over half the total number of war dead on both sides during the two-year revolutionary war. Near the end of January, 100 “women in black” demonstrated against the executions. As many as 500 Batistianos — Batista partisans — were executed, with the US calling it a “bloodbath.” Had we not lost interest in the repetitive, propagandaish, and predictable drama, I sensed that Abuela might have tried to distract us with a game of cards.

In spite of this — after all, the nuances of the rule of law and due process were slippery to nonexistent in 9-year olds, and excused by most adults in the excitement of a well-intentioned revolution — all my family were middling-to-sympathetic Castro supporters. But one detail nagged me: Castro held no formal role in government. How did he wield so much influence? Perhaps it was a naïve question for a child, but it was prescient.

On February 16, Fidel replaced Miro Cardona as Prime Minister with himself. With Castro now holding a formal government post, things started to make sense to me. Kids just don’t understand power without position and titles. Twelve days after his appointment, Castro announced that “elections could not be held now because they would not be fair. We have an overwhelming majority at present and it is in the interest of the nation that the political parties become fully developed and their programs defined before elections are held.”

Revolutions, no matter how radical, always provide opportunities for profit. Sometime that winter or spring, the Felices Company, a sweets and canned guava producer, decided to sponsor a new idea — a set of 268 “baseball” cards that commemorated the Revolution and its leaders. The events depicted on the cards were rendered in colored line drawings, while photographs — like real baseball cards — depicted the Revolution’s leaders. Fidel was number 126; Raul, 127. The full collection, pasted into a bespoke album, traced the Revolution from 1952 to 1959. Production of the individual cards was dribbled out, both in time and quantity, to create a sense of drama and expectation. A flat slab of bubble gum accompanied each little packet of cards, the exact content of which was always somewhat indeterminate.

In three days the TV spectacle switched to military tribunals set up to deal with members of the old regime, followed by executions before firing squads with screams of “Al paredon!” (To the firing wall!)

This indeterminacy was a stroke of genius for the Felices Company. Kids might end up with many duplicates of the same card or a few hot-off-the-presses new cards. The resulting oversupply and scarcity created a hot trading market among kids, who were all racing to be the first to fill their albums and complete their set.

“I’ll give you two Almedias for one Che Guevara!”

“No way! Che is worth much more. One Almedia, one Chibas, and one Cubelas, and you can have Che.”

“OK, deal.”

Kids who had absolutely no interest in baseball — me included — became avid collectors of the Revolution cards. Recess at St. Thomas became a swap meet for cards. Fights and impromptu games ceased. I don’t remember anyone not participating. Even my nerdy, chubby, reclusive, almost-albino friend, Urzurrun — nicknamed bola de nieve for his glaringly white complexion — started collecting the cards and pasting them in his album.

But it was the educational (some might say propaganda) benefit that these cards provided that was most overlooked. Little kids don’t read much; and what they overhear adults saying about current events is discrete, discontinuous, out of context, usually boring, and often misunderstood. These cards made history and current events come alive. Some of us memorized the names of all 16 Rebel Comandantes. We’d argue about the cause and effects of the events depicted on the cards, marvel at the deeds and atrocities, and elaborate speculatively about the events given short shrift.

Some of us even went so far as to read Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech — his summing-up at the end of his trial in 1952 — that was printed in full on the inside back cover of the album. Had the speech been assigned reading for an eighth-grader, eyes would have glazed and rolled, homework would have been put off, and stern admonitions from teachers would have poured forth. But the Felices Company managed not only to make fourth-graders read and reread the speech, but to do it voluntarily and with enthusiasm.

I have no idea how much the Felices Company profited from this venture or even if they ever got to keep their profits, as money and property were confiscated bit by bit. But a recent Google search for Album de la Revolucion Cubana revealed that one leather-bound, mint condition, completed album sold for $100,000 at Sotheby’s. An old, ratty one like mine goes for about $1,500 on Ebay.

In mid-April Castro visited the US on a ten-day trip, where he was greeted everywhere by exuberant crowds. TV had more or less returned to normal broadcasting, but special events always received full coverage. Because the month before Castro had expropriated the properties of ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph Company) in Cuba and had taken over control of its affiliate, the Cuban Telephone Company (CTC), some of the reporters of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, his hosts, asked him outright whether he was a Communist. Castro publicly denied the allegations.

As the future would later reveal, Castro’s grudges would rival his speeches in endlessness.

Pop must have been somewhat reassured, in spite of owning 50 shares of CTC valued at $5,000 (about $50,000 in 2010 dollars). The Cuban Telephone Company was, after all, a public utility with a de facto monopoly — to many, an excusable target for government takeover. Telephone rates dropped.

But then, in mid-May, Castro signed the Agrarian Reform Act, which in a little over one year, expropriated nearly half the land in the country, forbade foreign land ownership, and nationalized cattle ranches. Farms were restricted to 13 km2 with other real estate holdings limited to 993 acres. The majority of expropriated property was retained by the government for state-run communes, while the remainder was redistributed to peasants in 67-acre parcels.

To implement the new law, Castro established the National Agrarian Reform Institute and named Che Guevara as its head. Expecting some resistance, Guevara created a special militia to enforce the reforms. Though he supported agrarian reform, Pop began to worry about the foreign ownership bit.

We owned a small 13.75 acre piece of rural land, Finca Leon, valued at $7,000. It was well below the maximum allotment and was not a farm, but it was definitely “foreign” owned.

By this time, Pop was hedging his bets — probably a strategy he would have used no matter how confident of the future he was. As a good businessman, he tended to minimize risk by not putting all his eggs in one basket. This took the form of creating diverse partnerships, limiting capital outlay, never becoming the official CEO of any enterprise, etc.

Meanwhile, President Urrutia, to allay growing fears of Communist infiltration of the government, declared himself a strong anti-Communist and began attacking the ideology. In response, Fidel Castro theatrically resigned as prime minister, demanding Urrutia’s resignation. In mid-July, Urrutia and his entire cabinet, pressured by Castro, newspapers, and a 500,000-strong protest march, resigned the presidency. A week after his own resignation, and in the presence of great public consternation, Castro resumed his post as prime minister, giving long speeches both when he resigned and again when he resumed the office. He replaced Urrutia with Osvaldo Dorticos Torrado, an obscure Cuban Communist Party lawyer, again without a vote.

Six months after gaining power, Castro made his first foreign revolutionary foray, in part to distract public opinion from the Urrutia cock-up: he attempted an invasion of the Dominican Republic. But it was an ill-planned, pathetically executed affair. Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator — and a truly sadistic butcher — was perceived in Cuba as the twin of the much more benign Batista. Castro proudly declared that it was his duty to extend his revolution to the sister republic. It was a wildly popular move, because Trujillo had helped Batista. But the real reason was revenge. Trujillo had done everything he could to derail Castro’s revolution and, as the future would later reveal, Castro’s grudges would rival his speeches in endlessness.

Castro’s expeditionary force of 200 men was wiped out by Trujillo’s army, which had been tipped off and was awaiting them. (The ancillary irony is that when Batista fled, he sought refuge in Santo Domingo from Trujillo; but Trujillo held him hostage for months until Batista paid him a ransom of many millions of dollars from his ill-gotten gains. Then the Dominican President allowed him to fly into permanent exile in Portugal.) Undeterred, a month later Castro launched an identical operation against Haiti’s dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier. There were practically no survivors.

More troubling than the Agrarian Reform Act was the establishment of the ironically titled Ministerio de Recuperacion de Bienes Malversados (MRBM), or Ministry for the Recuperation of Ill-Gotten Gains. Established in January 1959, it at first focused on the recovery of the previous regime’s illicit proceeds. But it didn’t hit full stride until later that year, when it began going after exiles’ property. Its remit extended over every type of private property, owned by just about anybody, down to personal jewelry and silverware. Historian Herminio Portell-Vila says that it “functioned capriciously, without the rule of law, anarchically, settling cases hastily . . . and without the protection of [the courts].” It even ransacked banks’ safe-deposit boxes — without warrants — for loot. By the end of 1959, the MRBM had confiscated $58 million worth of property, a figure that would, by 1961, rise to over $400 million.

Pop hadn’t quite become like the proverbial slowly boiled frog, but he decided to take a break from the increasingly bad omens in Cuba with an old-fashioned car trip in the US with the family, visiting the recently opened Disneyland in California before the start of the 1959–60 school year.

The most absurd stretch of military rank protocol was Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s conferral of a state funeral with full military honors to his amputated leg.

Next to Fidel, 27-year-old Camilo Cienfuegos was the most popular Comandante in the Revolution — and he was probably more trusted, because of his unassuming, transparent demeanor. Che Guevara wasn’t even in the same league. Though popular, not only was he a foreigner, he was also an idealistic ideologue who wasn’t affected by the limelight. Not far down that line stood Comandante Huber Matos, who had been made military commander of Camagüey province.

Cuban military ranks had been subjected to curious political manipulations ever since 1933, Sergeant Fulgencio Batista led his non-commissioned officers’ coup against both the higher echelons and, by later, behind-the-scenes machinations, the government. He’d then promoted himself incrementally to colonel, then general.

Throughout Latin America, rank inflation since the wars for independence had gotten out of control, like incontinent old men engaging in a pissing contest. Titles such as field marshal, emperor, dictator-for-life, and most serene highness, all self-conferred and bandied about to a degree that relegated the rank of general to dogcatcher. Probably the most absurd stretch of military rank protocol was Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s conferral of a state funeral with full military honors to his amputated leg.

Fidel Castro took a different approach, even though his rank of Comandante, Commander, was also self-conferred. Comandante was the highest rank in the rebel army. There were only 16 Comandantes including Fidel. It was a stratagem that implied humility and equality, a fiction that the primus inter pares didn’t take long to dispel.

In late October 1959, Comandante Huber Matos, along with 14 of his officers, resigned, citing the appointment of Communists to key positions of power in the government. Suspecting that Matos was organizing counterrevolution, Fidel dispatched Camilo Cienfuegos to arrest him. But after talking to Matos, Camilo didn’t want to arrest him. He argued with Castro that Matos was an honorable man and should be allowed to resign for reasons of conscience, that Matos was no danger to the Revolution, that he was not planning an uprising, and that he was a man who kept his word. But Castro wasn’t moved. So Camilo arrested the 15 men and had them incarcerated. Afterward, he boarded a plane for Havana.

The plane never made it back.

Some believe Castro ordered it shot down, perhaps because Camilo was becoming too popular or because he questioned Castro’s orders after talking with Matos. Others think it simply disappeared over the ocean during the night flight. A few days’ search yielded nothing but speculation; speculation that, to this day, has only caused both sides to reach for more tenuous extremes of supporting evidence.

Though others were questioning Castro’s intentions, it was the Cienfuegos-Matos affair that put the first doubts about the Revolution in my 10-year-old mind. Matos was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in the Carcel Modelo on the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Pines). He served his full sentence, 16 years of it in solitary confinement, subjected to multiple beatings and torture. Afterward, he joined the Miami-based anti-Castro CID (Cuba Independiente y Democrática).

I wasn’t the only doubter. Matos’ conviction marked the end of the “revolutionary coalition” between moderates and radicals, and put the great Cuban exodus that continues to this day into high gear.

By mid-December, only nine of the original 21 ministers of the revolutionary government remained. With Raul Castro as Minister of Defense, Dorticos in the presidency, Guevara in charge of the Central Bank, and himself as Prime Minister, Castro had concentrated all the reins of power in his hands.

Money, instead of being the root of all evil, is the tangible, distilled essence of a person’s best efforts, a repository that allows him to store his labor and talents in tiny bits of otherwise useless paper and metal for later conversion to food, housing, clothing, transportation, dreams, and even love. For safekeeping, once the reservoir exceeds, say, a month’s earnings, people resort to the safety of a bank, where funds are guarded and insured. It is a sacred trust.

How Che Guevara, an Argentine doctor, became head of the Cuban National Bank owes more to ideology than to expertise. Soon after taking power, Fidel had to transition his confidants from military duties to civilian appointments. During one brainstorming session — according to a story Guevara told David Atlee Phillips (Pop’s CIA tenant) at a popular Cuban coffee house — Fidel asked who among them was a dedicated economist. Che Guevara, for some unknown reason, heard “dedicated communist.” His arm shot up, so Castro appointed him first, minister of industries, then Finance Minister, and finally, in November 1959, president of the National Bank.

The Argentine immediately began a series of draconian currency controls that, in effect, stole depositors’ money. But he did it incrementally, so that depositors wouldn’t withdraw all their money and run. Much later, between June and October 1960, these controls culminated in the nationalization of all the banks, and then, in a quick sleight-of-hand move, the introduction of a new currency, convertible only in limited amounts. Most Cubans’ life savings suddenly shrank or even disappeared.

Fidel asked who among them was a dedicated economist. Che Guevara, for some unknown reason, heard “dedicated communist.” His arm shot up, so Castro appointed him head of the Cuban National Bank.

I cannot begin to imagine the stress Pop and Mina were undergoing towards the end of 1959, but I’m certain they were no longer at all sanguine about the direction the Revolution was taking. I seldom saw either one — not that they’d confide their worries and troubles to us kids. In his action against the Cuban government, filed under the International Claims Settlement Act of 1949, Foreign Claims Settlement Commission of the United States, Pop would file a subclaim of $24,219 for “Impairment to health & loss of ability to work.”

It wasn’t just his immediate family that Howard was worrying himself sick about; it was also his employees, their families, their livelihoods. These were the people who depended on him and his businesses for a living. He was concerned about all of them equally. Pop came from a family who took in stray cats; who, upon encountering an upside-down beetle would stop to right it; who shooed away flies instead of killing them; who wrote poetry to pass the time — a family so shy, sensitive, quiet, and self-effacing that few of his siblings ever married, preferring to continue living together for the rest of their lives.

Christmas of 1959 revealed little of the brewing storm. The big public controversy was Castro’s suggestion that true Cuban patriots should decorate a palm tree for Christmas instead of an imported pine tree and should relegate Santiclos to the dustbin of history. We stuck to a locally grown pine tree.

Pop and Mina went all out. When we kids awoke at 5 AM and tiptoed down the stairs to see what Santiclos had brought, there were more presents under that tree than I had ever seen. But the pièce de résistance was the elaborate, full-scale Lionel train set with my name on it; one which, when it came time to leave the island, I was forced to leave behind.

I well remember New Year’s 1960. Alone, at the end of one of the streets that butted up to the Almendares Barranca, I reflected on my life thus far, and on the new decade and the changes that might come. As I sat on the inner barricade, when midnight struck I said goodbye to the ’50s, realizing in amazement that they were forever gone and would never return — their events now part of the past. And I wondered what the new decade, the ’60s, would bring. It was so curious, so concretely surreal, to stand at the exact threshold between my first and second decade. At the moment the clock struck 12 (not that I had a watch; the instant was marked by distant bells, bangs, and fireworks) I felt the pang of the irreversible passage of time, forever irretrievable.

A few minutes after midnight, I wandered home. No one questioned my whereabouts.

* * *

Not everyone welcomed the New Year as reflectively as I had.

Now that Che Guevara held the three most important economic portfolios in Cuba — president of the National Bank, minister of industry, and head of Agrarian Reform — he began rapidly extricating the Cuban economy from world markets and bringing it into dependence on the Soviet Bloc. His first moves, to sever Cuba’s ties with the Inter-American Development Bank and from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (aka the World Bank), were coupled with a sweetheart trade agreement with the USSR.

On February 6, Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan visited Cuba and signed a preferential Trade and Payments Agreement worth $100 million in oil, petroleum products, wheat, iron, fertilizers, and machinery for . . . sugar. With the exits from the IADB and the World Bank, the Castro regime destroyed the traditional geopolitical ties between Cuba and the Western world. Full diplomatic relations with the USSR were established in May after having been severed by Batista seven years previously, after his coup in 1952. Ironically, it had been Batista who first established diplomatic relations with the USSR, back in 1943, and who had brought a number of Communists into his government, albeit without voting rights.

United States responses to these moves began as early as October 1959 with preliminary studies, and took actual form in January 1960. Concerned about the possibility of another attempted Soviet military base in the Western Hemisphere only five years after the overthrow of the Marxist Arbenz regime in Guatemala, President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to create a Cuba Task Force to draft overt and covert response scenarios to the deteriorating diplomatic and human rights situation.

There are many misconceptions surrounding the US Central Intelligence Agency. Its basic remit is to gather information about foreign governments in order for the US to design an effective and appropriate foreign policy. Since the US cannot depend on CNN and Fox News for its information, it must depend on on-the-ground, on-the-spot sources abroad, along with satellite and electronic surveillance. This is called “spying” — an essential operation for a practical and engaged foreign policy. It is not a “government onto itself,” is not a military organization, does not have any law enforcement capabilities, took no part in Watergate, and is very limited in its domestic intelligence gathering. Its operatives have a GS 1-15 government employee rating and are subject to normal federal regulations.

The CIA, under specific executive branch orders, also promotes democracy in its wider sense: not just electoral democracy, but also individual rights and free markets. As to “overt” and “covert” actions, the first refers to US military operations; the second to aiding and organizing homegrown resistance against despotic regimes. Covert operations are impossible without credible and widespread domestic opposition within the target country. Since 1960, counterterrorism and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons have been added to the CIA’s priorities.

We kids had no inkling of the gravity of the impending changes until Nana, after playing at a neighbor’s house, came home one evening with trivial gossip. Marcia, her friend, had sat her down conspiratorially on the bed to confide something her mom had told her: that “everyone will soon be leaving Cuba by boat because of the Communists.”

Nana’s talk with Mina produced more of a shotgun shell of hidden queries than a comment: What did Marcia’s mom mean? How could everyone leave Cuba by boat? Were we going to leave Cuba in a boat?

Mamá approached her response slowly and thoughtfully, first saying that talking politics was impolite, but then, after a long pause, adding that it was “dangerous to talk politics.”

Whether 9-year-old Nana could make the connection between politics — as in elections and voting on the one hand — and leaving Cuba by boat on the other hand (this also being a kind of “politics“) is questionable, though she already had a healthy fear of Communism, not just from her catechism classes but from watching movies of the Spanish Civil War. At that age Nana was too slow and shy for followup questions. Nonetheless, Mamá’s response and the way she delivered it made a deep and lasting impression on Nana.

An even more blatant incident went completely over my own head. I had been assigned a poem to memorize and recite at an upcoming public forum at St. Thomas, celebrating something I can’t recall. When the day arrived, Mina was present, sitting with all the proud parents and attendees on movable bleachers. In between presentations, the St. Thomas Military Academy brass band played martial music. For a short while, I took center stage.

My father arrived at his Envases Modernos paper factory to be welcomed by big red graffiti on the yellow walls urging “Miller al paredon!”

I don’t remember being nervous or even the gist of the poem, but there was only perfunctory applause afterward, even though my recitation had been flawless. At the close of the ceremonies, Mina was nowhere to be found. I waited patiently by the car for her appearance. After a while I spotted her marching around the corner, headed for me, all four horsemen of the Apocalypse in one big bundle of angry woman. Steam was coming out of her head, but she said nothing during the drive home. I retreated into inconspicuousness, unwilling to experience any collateral damage from that critical mass.

Later, I overheard her and Pop discussing the incident. Mina thought the poem was un-American. But not just “un-American” — it was a load of scurrilous lies made to be delivered by a 10-year-old American kid to a Cuban audience. Mina took it personally. But she also didn’t take it as an isolated incident. She was connecting dots that led all the way up from a poem at St. Thomas through the new public policy ukases now filtering into education at even private schools, to Fidel Castro himself.

I was later to glean that it was this incident that, for Mina, sealed our exit. Trivial as it seemed, compared to the conflicts Pop must have been struggling with, forthcoming events were to indicate that he doggedly insisted on reconciling irreconcilable views. His concern for the family butted up against his optimism that everything would not turn out as bad as the Cassandras perceived. Mina’s insistence convinced him to leave, yet he remained frustratingly diffident. He took no concrete steps to divest himself of Cuban assets, thinking that his businesses and expertise would be beneficial to the new order — or, since I’m trying to delve into a mind long gone — he did not want to raise any red flags with the regime by appearing to think about leaving the sinking ship.

But a sinking ship it was. By March 1960 the New York Times had reported five serious anti-Castro groups operating out of Miami. Soon after, President Eisenhower initiated the by-now 55-year-old embargo. The embargo terminated US Cuban sugar purchases, ended US oil deliveries to the island, continued the arms embargo of 1958, begun so as not to take sides in the Revolution, and authorized a “Covert Action Plan Against Cuba,” which included the organization of a paramilitary force of Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro — what was to become the Bay of Pigs invasion.

One week after Eisenhower’s authorization, David Atlee Phillips, our old tenant, was appointed Director of Propaganda for the Cuba Operation. He immediately began the project to set up and run Radio Swan, the disinformation arm of the operation. This powerful CIA anti-Castro radio campaign was based on Swan Island, an uninhabited tiny dot in the Caribbean halfway between Nicaragua and Cuba, but claimed by Honduras. Starting out with 40 CIA operatives, nearly 600 noncombatants were to be involved in the Bay of Pigs operation — as trainers, organizers, technical experts, and all-round fixers.

Just before the Easter holidays of 1960, Castro ordered an island-wide strike against foreign-owned businesses. My father arrived at his Envases Modernos paper factory to be welcomed by big red graffiti on the yellow walls urging “Miller al paredon!” (Miller to the firing squad wall). He realized that it hadn’t been painted by his workers; he knew them all too well and shared a mutual trust and affection with them. To him, it looked more like Fidel’s handwriting on the wall — a much more troubling scenario. His diffidence disappeared.

Pop drove to the AIC offices downtown and told Hilda Navarro, his secretary, “I’ve got to leave.”

Hilda, a large, fun-loving, twinkle-in-her-eye woman, was incredulous. She responded, “Nonsense, I can live under any government,” and agreed to hold down the fort for what they both believed would only be a temporary interlude. Later, after the “temporary” became wishful thinking, she wrote to Pop asking for help in seeking exile. She successfully escaped from Cuba.

Two days later, under the guise of going on vacation, my father and mother and we three kids left for Merida, Yucatan, carrying a suitcase apiece and $25 each. My grandmother, Ana Maria Diaz y Otazo, stayed. She was too old and too Cuban to leave, and too parsimonious to abandon our grand mayoral residence to the clutches of Castro, as the new revolutionary law was very soon to require.

Over the course of the spring and summer, Cuba nationalized all US companies and properties, singling out oil companies and banks. Meanwhile, Eisenhower’s Covert Action Plan Against Cuba went into full swing. Work began on a 5,000-foot runway at an airfield at Retalhuleu in Guatemala to supply the Cuban exile force that was training in the nearby mountains on the Pacific coast of Guatemala.

Pop didn’t even leave the airport. An associate who met him there warned him to leave immediately, as there was a warrant out for his arrest.

Although the entire operation was meant to be top secret, almost from the start it became an open secret, with Castro’s secret police and even journalists discovering and reporting on the operation. But I doubt that Pop was aware of it.

In a vain attempt to salvage some of his business interests, he flew back to Havana in the fall. He carried 5-year-old Patsy with him. Why, I can’t fathom. Either Pop was still in a state of partial denial as to the danger he was in, or it was a temptation to draw Abuela into exile with us. Either way, it was foolhardy.

On October 13 — virtually coinciding with his visit — the Urban Reform Act took effect. This legislation effectively outlawed the sale or rental of residential property. Existing rents that were not covered by the act were cut in half. Additional protocols stipulated ratios of inhabitants to floor space. To hang on to our big house — and to avoid eviction — Abuela invited the remaining servants’ relatives to move in with her. Most of Carmen’s immediate family took up the offer. Other, separate legislation nationalized nearly 400 Cuban companies.

Pop didn’t even leave the airport. An associate who met him there warned him to leave immediately, as there was a warrant out for his arrest. Later, my father was to successfully lobby the Kennedy administration to pass legislation to allow the deduction of Cuban property losses through the federal income tax.

* * *

Uncle John was more bullheaded — in spite of Aunt Marta’s persistent nagging about the fact that Howard and Mina had left, that Howard was smart, that Mina wouldn’t do something stupid, that he didn’t want his sons to come to any harm, and that blah, blah, blah . . . But Uncle John was a tough operator and took pride in obstinately resisting Marta. In October he finally relented and sent Marta and his sons Johnny and Richard off to the US. He, however, stayed behind, hoping to salvage something of his rapidly disappearing life’s work.

Even worse was the shipping of 1,000 kids to the Soviet Union in January of 1961 for schooling.

What he thought of Operation Pedro Pan, I’ll never know. Over the course of the summer and fall, the Castro regime had closed all parochial schools and expelled the nuns and priests who ran them, taking over the operation of all primary and secondary schools. Cuban parents were aghast. They feared the indoctrination of their children by the government; they feared that the Castro regime would take away their parental authority. Remembering the airlift of Spanish children to the USSR during the Spanish Civil War for “safety and education,” and paying heed to the alarming rumors going about, over 10,000 worried parents, led by James Baker, the headmaster of our kindergarten alma mater, Ruston Academy, and with the help of the Catholic Church and the US government — to the tune of a million dollars and visa waivers — organized an airlift of 14,000 children to Miami the day after Christmas.

Their fears turned out to have been altogether too true. Under the guise of the Literacy Campaign of 1960 and School Goes to the Countryside, thousands of kids were removed from their homes for 45-day periods to camp with their teachers in farming cooperatives, combining education with productive work. According to Flor Fernandez Barrios in her book, Blessed by Thunder, the abuse and punishment for nonconformity at the camps was nearly as bad as having to eat your own vomit.

Even worse was the shipping of 1,000 kids to the Soviet Union in January of 1961 for schooling.

When, on January 3 of 1961, the US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, Uncle John finally left, in the vanguard of what was to become an exodus of over one million Cubans during the next two decades.




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Only Nostrums Need Apply

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The "Great Depression" began with the stock market crash of 1929. In all previous depressions, there was little, if any, federal government intervention to extricate America from economic travail. It was held that the federal government possessed neither the knowledge nor the constitutional authority to meddle with the free-market capitalist economy that had propelled America from a fledgling agricultural enclave to a global industrial power in less than 150 years.

Everything was about to change. The 1920s experienced at once the reckless expansion of credit by the Federal Reserve and economic thought by the liberal elite. The former produced an enormous margin-driven stock market bubble that burst in October 1929; the latter produced a remedy that burst any chance of recovery from economic distress. Unlike all previous economic downturns, the calamity in 1929 invoked intense federal government intervention; it also invoked the longest depression in American history. The days of limited government — so expressively and resolutely defined by the Constitution — would be gone for good.

Then-president Herbert Hoover transformed the ensuing mild recession (from which the economy was already recovering by June 1930) into a depression, which, in 1932, was delivered to newly elected president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With his Brain Trust of lawyers, journalists, and college professors and the freshly minted ideas of Keynesian scholars, he concocted an unprecedented grab-bag of nostrums known as the "New Deal" and parlayed Hoover's depression into a prolonged Great Depression. The American economy would not return to its pre-crash prosperity until 1946.

Unlike all previous economic downturns, the calamity in 1929 invoked intense federal government intervention; it also invoked the longest depression in American history.

In fairness, the bungling of both presidents was enhanced by the Federal Reserve System. The primary function of the Fed was to ensure that US banks could withstand "runs" by depositors attempting, en masse, to withdraw their assets during financial downturns. The Fed was established in 1913 to act as the lender of last resort (LLR) for banks. It replaced the private clearinghouse system that had successfully provided LLR services prior to 1913. But between 1930 and 1933, when stressed banks were desperate for liquidity, the Fed followed a tight money policy. This inexplicable neglect of its primary function contributed to the collapse of more than10,000 banks between 1930 and 1933. Then, in 1936 and 1937, its insistence on raising bank-reserve requirements (once again shrinking the money supply), contributed to the severe recession of 1937–38 — the recession within the Depression.

Unlike President Harding, who did not intervene in the depression of 1920, Hoover believed that not intervening in 1929 "would have been utter ruin." Accordingly, he increased federal spending 42% by 1932, boasting that his administration had embarked on "the most gigantic program of economic defense and counterattack ever evolved in the history of the Republic." Hoover was then excoriated by FDR for extravagant spending and excessive taxing, for entertaining the idea that "that we ought to center control of everything in Washington as rapidly as possible,” and for “leading the country down the path of socialism.”

FDR's public objection to Hoover's intervention was, however, merely a ploy to win the election of 1932. Privately, he believed that Hoover's most gigantic program was not gigantic enough. Roosevelt’s New Deal would put Hoover's reckless extravagance to shame. And while Hoover's intervention was to be temporary and limited, FDR's would become permanent and unlimited. FDR radically transformed government's role in the economy to "center control of everything in Washington as rapidly as possible" and "lead the country down the path of socialism."

By all accounts, the intentions of the New Deal were noble and praiseworthy. To an objective observer, little else can be said that is favorable. Although Democrats hail the welfare and regulatory state that FDR created, the establishment of a welfare and regulatory state was not a New Deal objective. Its objective was economic recovery — which was never achieved under New Deal programs. Unable to restore the American economy, the charismatic FDR gave only ironic hope to a nation in despair: the hope that it could endure the seemingly endless hardship that his policies inflicted.

Hoover believed that not intervening in 1929 "would have been utter ruin." Accordingly, he increased federal spending 42% by 1932.

If not for World War II, FDR's intervention "would have been utter ruin" for the nation. As economist Larry Summers, former director of President Obama's National Economic Council, admonished: “Never forget, never forget, and I think it’s very important for Democrats especially to remember this, that if Hitler had not come along, Franklin Roosevelt would have left office in 1941 with an unemployment rate in excess of 15% and an economic recovery strategy that had basically failed.”

The New Deal was the paragon of nostrums: a political fantasy whose probability of success was inversely proportional to the conceit of its exaggerated claims. Blaming both capitalism and his predecessor for the nation's economic plight, FDR felt compelled to rely on untested Keynesian concepts for stimulating the economy. What emerged was a haphazard torrent of elixirs, boondoggles, and utopian schemes ("a saturnalia of expropriation and waste," to H.L. Mencken) whose only centering force was a frenetic shove to expand federal power. Brain Trust professor Raymond Moley, a close FDR advisor who eventually became critical of the New Deal, found FDR a rank amateur in such matters. Said Moley in 1939, “To look upon these programs as the result of a unified plan, was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator.”

Brain Trust professor Alvin Hansen (aka the "American Keynes"), who favored "highly centralized collectivism" as the optimal method to "command and direct the productive resources," also became frustrated. According to Hansen, "Every attempt at a solution involves it in a maze of contradictions. Every artificial stimulant saps its inner strength. Every new measure conjures out of the ground a hundred new problems."

FDR set the precedent for government by nostrum, and demonstrated that the only thing worse than a liberal nostrum is a well-funded liberal nostrum. Said FDR's Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau: "We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. I say after eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started . . . And an enormous debt to boot!"

The charismatic Roosevelt gave only ironic hope to a nation in despair: the hope that it could endure the seemingly endless hardship that his policies inflicted.

The spending continued until after WWII. Keynesian economists such as Hansen were beside themselves with fear that postwar budget cuts would drastically harm the New Deal goal of pre-crash prosperity. If the spending did not continue, warned Paul Samuelson, America would experience “the greatest period of unemployment and industrial dislocation which any economy has ever faced.”

To their intellectual dismay, once tax rates were cut and price controls removed, the private sector (i.e., capitalism) took over, and the American economy soared. According to economist Steven Moore, "personal consumption grew by 6.2% in 1945 and 12.4% in 1946 even as government spending crashed. At the same time, private investment spending grew by 28.6% and 139.6%." Unemployment dropped to 4% in 1946 and "stayed that low for the better part of a decade . . . during the biggest reduction in government spending in American history."

The Great Depression finally ended, when the spending finally stopped. It was not the New Deal that ended the depression. Nor was it WWII. It was the curtailment of the New Deal that ended the depression, 17 years after it started.

What has America learned from this tragic ordeal? Libertarians and conservatives have learned that there is no better argument for limited government than the New Deal. Prior to 1929, the federal government did not intervene in times of economic distress. Recovery was left to the forces of capitalism; individuals and businesses were left to fend for themselves, receiving relief primarily from private charities, occasionally from state and local governments. During that long history, the federal government nostrum was peddled only by snake-oil salesmen, and recovery from economic downturns averaged four years. It often occurred in two years or less. Capitalism did not produce depressions, and less intrusive means of intervention, including no federal intervention, produced far superior results.

After the Panic of 1893, President Grover Cleveland did virtually nothing, except to arrange the repeal of interventionist laws; the ensuing depression, which, according to many, was every bit as devastating as the Great Depression, ended in about four years. (On the contrast between the two depressions, see an essay by Stephen Cox in Edward Younkins, Capitalism and Commerce in Imaginative Literature.) After the Crash of 1920, in which the stock market fell further than it would in 1929, President Harding did less than nothing interventionist. He cut taxes for all income groups, cut the federal budget by almost 50%, and reduced the national debt by 33%. The ensuing depression ended in less than two years and was followed by eight years of unprecedented prosperity, the "Roaring Twenties." Harding succeeded where FDR failed. "Wobbly" Warren Harding!

From this evidence, libertarians and conservatives conclude that nostrums should be avoided at all costs. Chances are, that without nostrums, the Great Depression would have ended in four years, instead of 17. With its return to prosperity, America would have had more than enough money to finance all the roads, schools, parks, and bridges that were built under FDR's make-work programs. But it is critically important to understand that it wasn't the fact that it took 17 years for the nostrums to work. They never worked. The idea that the New Deal succeeded is a myth. The Great Depression did not start until after politicians intervened and did not end until their intervention finally stopped, after subjecting the nation to more than 17 years of want and despair.

Capitalism did not produce depressions, and less intrusive means of intervention, including no federal intervention, produced far superior results.

But liberals, who live in a world in which ideology trumps evidence, missed the tragically abysmal failure that was the New Deal. To them the lesson of the Great Depression was the power of the nostrum: once established, nostrums never go away; they stay and breed more nostrums. In the hands of liberals, a nostrum is a ratchet. While libertarians and conservatives are appalled by the failure of FDR's economic assistance programs, liberals are enraptured by the welfare state that they established: the vibrant, lucrative poverty industry and the languid, needy underclass that it services, both intractable, both agitating for more and bolder nostrums.

This is why the New Deal consumes liberal thought, and why a nostrum is modern liberalism's only thought. The New Deal spawned the "Great Society," Lyndon Johnson's New Deal. And today America endures Barack Obama's "saturnalia of expropriation and waste." Today's liberal can conceive of neither a problem that does not require government intervention nor a solution that does not require a nostrum. Liberals do not care that their nostrums do not work (if one did, it wouldn't be a nostrum). A nostrum's main value lies in its ratcheting effect. As noted historian and FDR worshiperArthur Schlesinger, Jr. put it, "There seems no inherent obstacle to the gradual advance of socialism in the United States through a series of New Deals.”

When Republicans took power in 1953, even President Eisenhower, the architect of our victory in World War II, was afraid to scale back New Deal legislation. In 1969, President Nixon was afraid to cut back already failing Great Society legislation. He was warned by the friendly, and sincere, advice of Democrat Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “All the Great Society activist constituencies are lying out there in wait, poised to get you if you try to come after them, the professional welfarists, the urban planners, the day-carers, the social workers, the public housers. . . . Just take [the] Model Cities [program], the urban ghettos will go up in flames if you cut it out.”

FDR gave us Social Security, the largest and most popular program of his legacy — the “most successful government program in the history of the world,” as Democrat Senator Harry Reid exclaimed. Johnson gave us Medicare, an even larger program. In retirement, all but the wealthiest among us depend on the benefits paid out by these two programs. But both are colossal Ponzi schemes, on track to go broke by 2034. This is not to say that a "social safety net" is unimportant or unnecessary. But, despite their laudable intentions, such entitlement programs, as they have been formulated by pandering politicians, are nostrums that have created an unfunded liability of $90 trillion and threaten to bankrupt the nation.

Today's liberal can conceive of neither a problem that does not require government intervention nor a solution that does not require a nostrum.

Let’s review the history of intervention in another way. When the market crashed in 1920, unemployment increased from 4% to 12%. By August 1921, the economy began its recovery. When the market crashed in 1929, unemployment increased from 4% to 9%, where it lingered for one month, before gradually decreasing to 6.3% in June 1930. The economy was recovering on its own from a mild recession. But that June, Republican President Hoover and a Democrat Congress enacted the Smoot-Hawley tariffs, the first in a long series of heavy-handed federal interventions. Unemployment soared to 16% in 1931. Massive federal spending, debt financing, tax increases, the denial of liquidity (by the Federal Reserve) to failing banks, and numerous other forms of federal tinkering crushed US GDP growth for the rest of the decade. Throughout the 1930s, the median annual unemployment rate was 17.2%. Unemployment did not fall below 14% until the early 1940s, when 12 million Americans were hired by the military.

In June 1930, had the federal government pursued the limited-government policies of the Harding-Coolidge administrations, the depression would have been over by 1932. But the nostrums that were pursued instead prolonged the depression, and, in the process, writes Robert Higgs (in “The Mythology of Roosevelt and the New Deal”), revolutionized "the institutions of American political and economic life," changed "the country’s dominant ideology," and created a leviathan that is "still hampering the successful operation of the market economy and diminishing individual liberties." The New Deal agencies, whose supreme ineptitude caused America to suffer more than ten years longer than it would have under limited-government policies, remain today. Notes Higgs:

One need look no further than an organization chart of the federal government. There one finds such agencies as the Export-Import Bank, the Farm Credit Administration, the Rural Development Administration (formerly the Farmers Home Administration), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Housing Administration, the National Labor Relations Board, the Rural Utility Service (formerly the Rural Electrification Administration), the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Social Security Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority — all of them the offspring of the New Deal. Each in its own fashion interferes with the effective operation of the free market. By subsidizing, financing, insuring, regulating, and thereby diverting resources from the uses most valued by consumers, each renders the economy less productive than it could be — and all in the service of one special interest or another.

Yet the myth — the pernicious myth — of the New Deal lives on. Today, as FDR blamed his predecessor and capitalism for America's economic plight, Mr. Obama, who won election waving the New Deal banner against the "Great Recession" of 2008, blames capitalism and George W. Bush. Obama even blamed Bush for adding $4.9 trillion to the national debt (money borrowed during eight years of Bush's tenure to finance establishment-Republican nostrums), calling it "irresponsible" and "unpatriotic" — just before he [Obama] went on to borrow $10.6 trillion for his nostrums, running up the national debt to an unprecedented $19 trillion.

With almost one year left for Mr. Obama to enlarge this staggering arrearage, both Democrat candidates for the 2016 presidential election propose the only thing that liberalism allows them to offer: more nostrums.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, ever ready to put taxpayer money where their mouths are, clamor for a new New Deal — no doubt to build on the success of Obama's New Deal. A new New Deal is needed, they say, because "for too long,” as one activist put it, “the federal government has tolerated and perpetuated practices of racial and gender discrimination, allowed rampant pollution to contaminate our water and air, sent millions to prison instead of colleges and permitted Wall Street and CEOs to rig all the rules." Correcting the deficiencies of existing big government nostrums calls for a new New Deal with bigger Big Government.

Sanders has a new New Deal for $19.6 trillion (paid for with a 47% tax increase). Clinton even has one for "communities of color" — perhaps to lock in the votes of Americans, who, with Job-like patience, have been waiting more than 50 years for the ruthlessly inept Great Society programs to eliminate poverty and racial injustice, reconcile immigration, and improve public education.

Both Democrat candidates for the 2016 presidential election propose the only thing that liberalism allows them to offer: more nostrums.

After almost eight years of suffering Mr. Obama's nostrums (the Wall Street bailout, the auto industry bailout, the Stimulus, Quantitative Easing, the Green Economy, Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, Middle Class economics, the profligate regulatory morass . . . ), all of America waits, its economy in chronic stagnation— for bigger, better nostrums. We might as well wait for the Treasury Secretary finally to admit, "We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. I say after eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started . . . And an enormous [$19 trillion] debt to boot!"

Willfully oblivious to the evidence, we resign ourselves to a stifling federal patrimony, where no problem escapes a New Deal style nostrum and "every attempt at a solution involves it in a maze of contradictions. Every artificial stimulant saps its inner strength. Every new measure conjures out of the ground a hundred new problems."

* * *

Further Reading

Articles

1920: The Great Depression That Wasn't by C.J. Maloney
The Depression You've Never Heard Of: 1920–1921
by Robert P. Murphy
Great Myths of the Great Depression
by Lawrence W. Reed
The Great Depression
by Hans F. Sennholz
The Mythology of Roosevelt and the New Deal
by Robert Higgs

Books

FDR's Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression by Jim Powell
The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression
by Amity Shlaes
New Deal or Raw Deal?: How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America
by Burton Folsom
A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960
by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz




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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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