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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Refugee Screening

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The Bears and the Bugs

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James Bowman is a good writer, and he wrote a very good article about the recent British elections for the June issue of The New Criterion, which is a good magazine. In that article there are a number of memorable observations, such as the idea that politics is usually and traditionally a matter of “the orderly management of the hatred between social factions.” I’m not sure that’s strictly true, but it’s certainly relevant to the current state of American political affairs. It’s also well phrased. I like reading Bowman’s stuff.

So it’s a sad indication of the state of our language that even such a good writer as James Bowman should refer, in the same article, to “the problem that eventually sunk the [British] Labour campaign.” Sunk? The past tense of “sink” is “sank.” “Sunk” is the past participle. Bowman doesn’t know that?

But oh, what a small thing! Why pick on that?

I’ll tell you why. Look at it this way. You go to a picnic, and just when everyone is having fun, a troop of bears comes out of the woods and eats ten of the children. It may be the first time it ever happened, but it shows that you have a bear problem. Neglecting all caution, you turn up at the next picnic, and there are no bears. But the mosquitoes drive everybody crazy. That shows you have a mosquito problem. It’s not as bad as a bear problem, but it’s bad nonetheless.

If you have kids, ask them whether they’ve ever learned the verb forms in school. You’ll find that they haven’t — and neither have the professional writers.

This column is usually occupied with bear problems. This time, let’s think for a moment about mosquito problems, such as the difficulty that many professional writers of English have in getting nouns to agree with verbs. It generally doesn’t keep you from understanding what they mean, but it’s . . . annoying. And unnecessary. Thus, on August 19, CNN finally raised its eyebrows about Mrs. Clinton and reported, “There have been a constant stream of stories about Clinton's emails for the better part of five months.” I’m glad CNN isn’t ignoring those stories (provided by other news organizations), but can’t it make its subjects and verbs agree? “There have been a stream”? There have also been blunders.

Another mosquito problem is the one I started out with — the inability of English speakers to remember what strong verbs are like. A strong verb is any that does not create its past and perfect forms with an -ed ending. Originally, Indo-European verbs were strong. Then the –ed form became influential (“productive,” as the linguists say), partly to assimilate borrowings of verbs from foreign languages. It was easier to use, so it spread to other verbs. But strong verbs still sound, well, stronger, and they are very useful in poetic and generally emotive language. It sounds better to say, “She strove to succeed” than “She strived to succeed.” It would have sounded still better if Tammy Bruce, one of America’s most cogent spokesmen for liberty, hadn’t told Fox News (August 15), “Carly Fiorina has weaved that fact into her presentations . . .” Tammy! I love you! But haven’t you heard of that word woven?

The hitch is, you have to know what you’re doing. Imagine that! You actually have to know that a person not only strove to succeed, but having striven, he sang his heart out. These days, however, he will have strived, and it’s an even chance that he sung his heart out, while the hearts of his enemies sunk. It’s more than an even chance that he had fit himself for his role. Here is an opposite, though not an insuperable, problem. Fit is a normal weak verb; it’s fit-fitted-fitted. Strange but true. This doesn’t mean that last week somebody (in San Francisco, it would be hundreds of people) shit on the doorstep. Shit is still a strong verb; somebody shat on the doorstep last week — and isn’t that a more forceful way of describing it? People spat in the subway, too.

Experience has convinced me that at least seven of the Muses have left the university, and the other two have been beaten into nescience.

Why can’t people keep this in mind? Why can’t professional writers (distinguishing them, for the moment, from actual people) figure it out? Well, if you have kids, ask them whether they’ve ever learned the verb forms in school. You’ll find that they haven’t — and neither have the professional writers. If your kids are troublemakers, get them to ask the English teacher what the past tense of fit may be. Or shit. Then they can ask the teacher whether he has ever read the King James Bible. And if he hasn’t, they can ask him how he ever got to be an English teacher. Should be interesting.

Moving on from the inevitable after-school detention, oft visited on the overly articulate . . . You can tell that people aren’t reading anything, let alone the King James Bible, when their spelling reproduces what they hear, or think they hear, not what they’ve read. Witness the non-word alright. This has been with us for quite a while (which doesn’t make it good — remember the Dutch Elm Disease). It’s the product of people who have never seen all right in print, or if they have seen it, have never wondered whether those two mysterious words could possibly have the same meaning as the things you see on post-it notes: “Henderson party: parking in Alley alright tonite.” In this never-saw-that, never-noticed-that category you can also file all those people who write things like, “Invitees can signin for the conference now” and “To hookup/test software, turnoff browsers, then turnon.” I’m quoting the kind of communications I get in my academic email. Experience has convinced me that at least seven of the Muses have left the university, and the other two have been beaten into nescience.

Of course, reading is no longer a prerequisite for writing of any kind, even professional writing about professional writing. Consider an article in The Wrap (April 6) about the aftermath of (or “fallout” over) Rolling Stone’s smear story on a University of Virginia fraternity. The article cited an observation by Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren (whose own English is pretty good):

The Fox anchor invoked a former president’s infamous phrase to tie a bow on Rolling Stone’s missteps: “As Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust but verify,’” she told TheWrap.

If you read books, and you notice what you read, you know that infamous does not mean famous — no, not at all. And if you enjoy reading books, you usually have some interest in noticing how authors get their effects. A person rattling along in conversation may say, “Our first idea went flat, but that’s all water over the dam,” and this may have some effect. But it won’t work in print, because people who read actually have to take a moment to look at what they’re reading. If they’re conscious (which admittedly, many “readers” are not), and they see the word missteps, they probably picture steps, going the wrong way. They won’t worry about the picture of a magazine making missteps; they’ll accept that as a little imagistic oomph. But when you ask them to picture somebody tying a bow on missteps, they won’t do it, because they can’t do it. It isn’t colorful; it’s stupid. The best audience, the audience most likely to appreciate an effective use of language, will move on from trying to picture the bow to the easier task of picturing the author, smiling with self-satisfaction after having, shall we say, tied that metaphoricbow on his misstep.

Anyone familiar with letters written by average Americans a hundred and fifty years ago knows that they tied a lot of those bows. They also wrote alright, very frequently, and worse things, much worse things, all the time. And anyone who has read a typical sermon or political address from the same period can see how many lofty phrases could be expended on practically nothing. The difference between that period and ours is that back then, nobody mistook average, unmeditated English for anything you’d want to use when you really got serious. People expected serious writing to be literate. Literacy was something they not only appreciated but enjoyed. Perhaps they even overenjoyed it.

In 1850, President Zachary Taylor was held in contempt by other politicians for his lapses from standard grammar. Compare President Obama, who is lauded by the political class as a great public speaker, despite his refusal to master the like-as distinction, his success at filling sentences with uhs and ums (sometimes 30 to the minute), and his constant attempt to reach the sublime by talking about folks and dropping his final g’s.

It’s hard to say whether this year’s presidential candidates are better or worse with language than he is: are rotten apples worse than rotten oranges? Some are more literate, but is there one of them, any one of them, whose speeches you want to hear, as opposed to reading the one- or two-sentence news summary? Trump, I suppose — but that’s because it’s fun to hear him abusing the other candidates. The format of his speeches, if you want to call it that, is exactly the same as the others’: he makes a series of 50-word declarations, apparently unconnected with one another, “highlighting” the positions — or, more accurately, the slogans — he wants you to remember. In this sense, there’s not much difference between Trump and those two yammering old coots, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (who are just as abusive, but stupefyingly dull at it).

Compare President Obama, who is lauded by the political class as a great public speaker, despite his constant attempt to reach the sublime by talking about "folks" and dropping his final g’s.

Nor is this merely a problem of politics. When Clinton and her surrogates claim that Republicans are trying to block healthcare and are waging war on women’s health, when Sanders and his gang of Post Office retirees announce that, because the government takes no action, women are paid only 78% of what men are paid, there’s also a problem of language. If you saw that in a book, you’d be shouting at the page: “What do these words mean? Are Republican mobs blockading hospitals? Are all the statisticians lying? Are women paid $78,000 for the same jobs for which men are paid $100,000?” If the author didn’t explain his statements, you would dismiss the book as incomprehensible. You wouldn’t think, “Ah, that’s interesting — here’s the slogan these people are pushing today. Must be because of that poll about women going Republican.” You wouldn’t think, “Good move! Sanders is playing to the welfare crowd. He’s prying them away from Hillary.” You’d think, “This is a bad book,” and that would be the end of it.

This defines the difference between normal readers and members of the political class. One group is jealous of its intellectual health and safety; the other doesn’t mind going to a picnic and being bitten by mosquitoes or gnawed by bears. In fact, it prefers that kind of picnic.

On March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster gave a speech in the United States Senate. It was about an issue of great importance: the attempt to reach a compromise between Northern and Southern claims to power. But although people could have read a summary in the paper next day, and it was at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the Senate chamber, the place was packed. Ladies stood for three hours to hear Webster’s remarks — because that was the length of his speech: three hours and 11 minutes. Webster closely reviewed the long history of legal provisions and political negotiations regarding the status of slavery. He analyzed the geography of the western United States, assessing the possibility that slavery might become a paying proposition there. He reviewed his own history of opposition to slavery. He then considered what would happen — indeed, what did happen — in the event of a Southern secession.

Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffing the surface! Who is so foolish, I beg every body's pardon, as to expect to see any such thing? Sir, he who sees these States, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without causing the wreck of the universe. There can be no such thing as peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility. Is the great Constitution under which we live, covering this whole country, is it to be thawed and melted away by secession, as the snows on the mountain melt under the influence of a vernal sun, disappear almost unobserved, and run off? No, Sir! No, Sir! I will not state what might produce the disruption of the Union; but, Sir, I see as plainly as I see the sun in heaven what that disruption itself must produce; I see that it must produce war, and such a war as I will not describe . . .

Many people hated Webster’s speech. It earned him the scorn of powerful voters in his own state, agitators against compromise. Yet its words were continuously informative. They were continuously interesting. They were continuously entertaining. They were, by the end, exciting. They weren’t talking points. They weren’t spin. And they weren’t three hours and 11 minutes of subliterary, unorganized sounds.

The ability to give literary interest to political words wasn’t confined to the greatest orators. Even Warren Harding, who is, perhaps unfairly, regarded as a mere politician, a nothing among statesmen, had that ability. On May 14, 1920, Harding outlined his political program:

America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality. . . .

Out of the supreme tragedy [of the Great War] must come a new order and a higher order, and I gladly acclaim it. But war has not abolished work, has not established the processes of seizure or the rule of physical might. Nor has it provided a governmental panacea for human ills, or the magic touch that makes failure a success. Indeed, it has revealed no new reward for idleness, no substitute for the sweat of a man’s face in the contest for subsistence and acquirement.

For the past 95 years, Harding’s reference to “normalcy” has been panned by the intellectuals. A few dispute his use of that word instead of the normal “normality.” More, alas, sneer at his idea that war, revolution, and the ambitions of the progressive state should not be regarded as normal parts of the American condition. You can judge between Harding and his foes. My point is that Harding, known as one of the weakest of presidents, could deliver a speech that has approximately 100,000 times the word power of any contemporary political communication. He knew that big things come of small — that “dispassionate” is a valuable word, although you see it only in serious books, and that it presents an interesting contrast to “dramatic”; he knew that a sentence containing not one but eight sharp but serious conceptual distinctions can be a contribution to thought and argument, and certainly to literary interest.

You want a good meal? Here it is. Bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado. Ketchup and mustard on the side. Fries, fruit, cottage cheese . . . right there at the end of the table. Rather have the roast beef? We’ve brought that too. This is survival food. No bugs, no bears.

So, how do I get to that picnic? Easy — all you have to do is read.




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The Top Films Every Libertarian Should Know

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Film has the power to change minds, often by changing hearts. Libertarian films are about choice, opportunity, and knocking down obstacles — in any setting. They demonstrate the power of persuasion over the force of authority. Libertarian films often point out the unintended consequences of government intervention, but they are just as likely to present a protagonist's personal struggle for self-expression. They show us how to make the world a better place simply by making our own lives better.

At this year’s Anthem Libertarian Film Festival, at FreedomFest in Las Vegas, 18 films were screened to packed audiences. We also presented several panels on topics related to film. For one of our sessions I invited four film enthusiasts to present their recommendations of the top films that every libertarian should know. Then, as a follow-up to the panel, I asked each participant to send me his recommendations for this article. Here are their selections, from the messages they sent.

***

Gary Alexander, who has served as an Anthem Libertarian Film Festival judge since its first season, is a music and movie historian whose weekly radio show provides insightful background as well as provocative music choices. He offered his top libertarian films in chronological order, presenting an historical look at the way freedom and individualism have been presented in film. He began with 1939, the year often called “the golden age of movies.”

Gary:

Last year I watched all the major films of 1939 because it was their 75th anniversary. My pick from that year is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, director). It was #3 in box office that year, behind only Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. It reveals political corruption in an era of idealism.

1963: America, America (Elia Kazan, director). This is the American Dream personified in a young man. The protagonist, an ethnic Greek living in 19th-century Turkey, is entrusted with the family fortune to start a carpet business in Constantinople, but he dreams of emigrating to America.

1965: Shenandoah (Andrew V. McGlaglen, director) was in the top ten for box office receipts in a year dominated by The Sound of Music, Dr. Zhivago, and James Bond. Set during the Civil War but made at the height of the Vietnam conflict, it presents draft resistance in an honorable light.

1988: Tucker: The Man and His Dream (Francis Ford Coppola, director). Tucker was a maverick car designer who faced crony capitalism as he tried to bring his revolutionary car to market.

2011: Atlas Shrugged 1 (Paul Johansson, director). This film has to be included for its pure libertarian theme. The film’s producer, John Aglialoro [who spoke at FreedomFest on “Wall Street Goes to Hollywood: The Risks and Rewards of Making Movies”], said that he wants to do a 13-week mini-series based on "episodes" within Objectivism, Ayn Rand's works, or even Atlas Shrugged, thoughnot based in a linear storytelling narrative, per se. This might provide a better way to present the overarching themes of Rand’s works. We the Living (1942, Goffredo Alessandrini, director) would be a superior Rand film, but I want to give Atlas a belated boost.

Libertarian films show us how to make the world a better place simply by making our own lives better.

As an aside to the power of libertarian movies, I was just watching a taped Stossel show when a member of the audience asked Lawrence Reed [President of the Foundation for Economic Education and another speaker at FreedomFest] how he found the courage to spread freedom literature behind the Iron Curtain. Reed said, "It may sound corny, but it came from a movie." Stossel responded, "Yes, that sounds corny. What movie?" and Reed replied, "In 1966, when I was 14, my mother dragged me and my sister to Pittsburgh to see The Sound of Music. Then, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, I saw that Austria was next door and I wanted to help undermine the communists as the von Trapps did to the Nazis.”

So . . . I don't feel so silly bringing up musicals on the panel, including Sound of Music.

***

Doug Casey, an entrepreneur and investment specialist known to libertarians everywhere, was one of the original judges for Anthem and always provides interesting insights for the film panels. This year he focused on genre rather than specific films.

Doug:

There are two genres that are overwhelmingly libertarian: westerns and sci-fi. That's likely because they both deal in frontiers, where the individual is responsible for a situation’s outcome. They tend, therefore, to be morality plays. And libertarianism is essentially a moral philosophy. One favorite Western is High Noon. And in sci-fi it's tough to beat V for Vendetta. Characters within films are very often libertarian as well, in particular Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind, which is kind of a western. And Han Solo from Star Wars. It's odd, and counterintuitive, to me that Hollywood is a hotbed of statism and collectivism, while so many of its best products have libertarian themes or characters.

***

Marc Eliot is known as “Hollywood’s biographer” because he has written biographies of many of its biggest names, including Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant, and John Wayne. He has served as an Anthem judge for four years and is a popular speaker at FreedomFest. His choices run the gamut of Hollywood’s best films.

Marc:

1. A Face in the Crowd (1957, Elia Kazan, director). A premier libertarian film about, among other things (many other things), the insidiousness of big government, how it has tentacles in every aspect of our culture. It examines the link between politics-free entertainers and how they affect the popularity of candidates. A supremely important film, and highly entertaining.

2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel, director). One of the strangest and most intense love stories of the ’50s, set in a world where everyone is supposed to be the same. The loss of individuality here is a bold metaphor for the infliction of political correctness via big government. Should be seen by all. Love is the film's solution, and its shocking ending underscores that real love is the antithesis of imposed sameness. The tacked-on opening and closing were mandated by the studio, Allied Artists, after the film tested too frightening. It still is, filled with all the fear and paranoia of the glorious ’50s, Hollywood style.

3. The Best Years of our Lives (1947, William Wyler, director). The first and still the best film that looks at the way the Greatest Generation was treated after it helped save America and the world from Fascism. What was it like when the soldiers came home, and how difficult it was for them to readjust? What role did the government play, if any, in making their transition back to civilian society? The harsh way the three principal characters are treated is an eye-opener, and perhaps even more relevant today. Also, Wyler's use of deep focus allows the film to remain ambiguous in its depiction. One of the great ’40s Hollywood films.

It's odd, and counterintuitive, that Hollywood is a hotbed of statism and collectivism, while so many of its best products have libertarian themes or characters.

4. The Godfather (I and II, but not III) (1972, 1974, Francis Ford Coppola, director) is the story of a mob family that is the story of Corporate America ("It's business, Sonny, business"). One might wonder where the government is in all of this, apparently invisible because the Corleones are the government. Even in the second film, when the hearings into organized crime take place, the senators are already in the family's pocket. These are cautionary films; some government is needed to prevent corporations from taking over every aspect of our lives.

5. Modern Times (1936, Charlie Chaplin, director). The final appearance of The Tramp, caught in a world so mechanized that he becomes a living machine. Chaplin's vision of oppressive authority and an ever-increasing mechanical, or technological world, is well worth watching. One of the funniest and most profound films of the ’30s.

6. The Ten Commandments (1957, Cecil B. DeMille, director) deals with a higher authority even than big government, and one of the very few films to deal with Jews as victims. The film was made in the decade following the Holocaust and serves as both a memorial and a cautionary tale. Hitler was the ultimate non-libertarian, and this film reminds us that religion, faith, and righteousness will prevail over governmental enslavement. Still holds up; actually gets better with age.

7. The Searchers (1957, John Ford, director). The individual lost in a society that services the big government of the post-Civil War. Ethan (Wayne) was on the losing side of the war and as a result has lost everything. He returns home to retrieve the last of his life. Ford lets us know that Ethan's sister-in-law is probably his former lover, and that Debbie is not just his niece but, in fact, his daughter. When the house is burned down by the Comanches and they take Debbie, what follows is the ultimate chase film. Ethan tracks down Debbie to preserve his own past, or to destroy it. We don't know until the end of the film if he will kill Debbie or save her; if he will preserve the values of the union or make it, and him, slip into spiritual anarchy. A great film.

These are cautionary films; some government is needed to prevent corporations from taking over every aspect of our lives.

8. Vertigo (1957, Alfred Hitchcock, director). Not a libertarian film, but everybody should see Vertigo at least five times in life. The only film that treats lost love as something that is never truly lost. Hitchcock may have resembled Burbage but he was the 20th-century Shakespeare.Vertigo is the kind of deep, beautiful, and profound experience the Bard would have approved of. A lesson in repressed feelings, delusional love, fetishistic fatalism, and blind worship. There is simply no other film like Vertigo. I could teach an entire semester on Hitchcock and hardly scratch the surface. A Brit, he flourished in his American period, when British filmmaking came under threat of Nazi attack and much of the best talent fled to America. See it!

9. High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann, director). The granddaddy of Dirty Harry, this is a film that shows how the invisible hand of big government controls our lives. When it becomes known that the bad-guy Miller gang (led by Frank Miller, who has been pardoned from life imprisonment) are returning to town to seek their vengeance on Marshal Will Kane who arrested Miller, the judge who sentenced him packs his bags and flees, warning Kane that when tyrants who have been defeated return, they are always treated like heroes. Life is always better, for a while, when tyrants rule. Sure enough, the town fails to help Kane, because "the boys up north are watching, and they won't want to invest in a town that is still having shoot-outs in the streets." So much for friendship, loyalty, and support. When Kane throws his badge on the ground (an act that got the writer of the film, Carl Foreman, blacklisted), he turns his back on the town that left him to die. The best ride off into the sunset forever. A must-see. And a very libertarian film.

10. All The President's Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula). Film follows history; it is not avant garde. Here is the ultimate story of government gone crazy, and the power of journalism to help keep democracy intact. Not really a political film, more of a spy-type thriller. Enjoyable even if you've never heard of Watergate. Perhaps too liberal for libertarians, it nevertheless says that tyranny is vulnerable to a constitutionally protected free press.

***

Stephen Cox is editor-in-chief of Liberty and professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego. He also is a film buff who knows the classics. He approached the panel assignment thematically.

Stephen:

Let’s begin with Rosalind Russell movies. If you want an uncompromising satire of (elected!) political power, His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks, director) is it. "Aw, go on, you'd hang your own mother to be reelected — and you know it" is one of my favorite lines. Auntie Mame (1958, Morton DaCosta, director) is the apotheosis of a free individual. Best of all, for libertarians, is Roughly Speaking (1945, Michael Curtiz, director). Roz is an entrepreneur whose investments, but not her individualism, always fail. She keeps coming back. "This is America!" she says.

I also like movies with challenging problems for libertarians. In Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles, director) Kane is simultaneously a power-hungry politician, of whom one of his friends says, “It seems we weren’t enough; he wanted all the voters to love him, too,” and an individualist who says, "There's only one person in the world to decide what I’m going to do — and that's me." Red River (1948, Howard Hawks, Arthur Rosson, directors) is a story constantly concerned with problems of property rights. It’s also fraught with theological issues, although that's off topic: the Red River is the place where blood is sacrificed so that the protagonist can continue to the land of promise; the father figure resembles the judgmental Old Testament God and the son figure resembles the heroically self-sacrificing New Testament God; etc.

Movies that represent a world beyond political concerns — demonstrations that there are comedies and tragedies beyond the reach of politics — are also libertarian, in implication. I would include The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, directors), which is the ultimate drama of ballet, and All About Eve (1950, Peter Sullivan), which is the ultimate drama of the theater.

***

And now for me, Jo Ann:

I was fascinated by the scope of films offered by our panelists, and I was pleased to see that they reached beyond the obvious films about opposing government. Libertarian heroes are not necessarily activists working for a cause. They are individuals who follow their own paths. They do not conform to the expectations of others. When something goes wrong, they fix it themselves. When something goes right, they give credit where it is due. Libertarian stories may occur within any family, community, or industry. They do not have to be set in a dystopian future! Here are some modern films that ought to become libertarian classics:

A perfect example from 2013 is 42 (Brian Helgeland, director), the movie about how Jackie Robinson (Chad Boseman) broke the race barrier in sports. It wasn't a government edict that integrated baseball; in fact, the cops tried to keep Jackie from taking the field in some venues. No, it was a businessman, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), who recognized that he could sell a lot more tickets, win a lot more games, and possibly earn the World Series title, if he hired some talented African-American ballplayers. No one forced him to do it, and no one forced the other managers in the League to follow suit when they saw that they couldn't compete successfully without black ball players. It was just plain good business.

Movies that represent a world beyond political concerns — demonstrations that there are comedies and tragedies beyond the reach of politics — are also libertarian, in implication.

Another great example appears in the Oscar-nominated movie Winter's Bone (2010, Debra Granik, director). The protagonist, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), is a 17-year-old girl living in the backwoods of Missouri and struggling to keep her family together after her father skips out and her mother becomes incapacitated. When her little brother notices the neighbors skinning a freshly killed deer, Ree cautions him, "Don't ever ask for what ought to be given freely." That night the neighbor brings over a shoulder of meat and some potatoes and onions. On her way out, the neighbor says, "I noticed your woodbox is low. You can use our splitter if you want." As the neighbor leaves, Ree says to her little brother and sister, "Who wants stew?" When they look up eagerly she adds, "Then get over here so I can show you how to make it."

This is the story of "The Little Red Hen" in action. Ree knows the importance of teaching her siblings self-reliance. The neighbor brings meat because the Dollys don't have any. She doesn't cook it into a meal, however, because Ree is capable of doing that herself. The neighbor lends the splitter but doesn't offer to cut the wood, because Ree and her brother can do that too. The neighbor helps the Dollys of her own free will and choice, but she respects Ree's dignity and character too much to offer her more than what Ree can't do for herself. What a great example of libertarian values.

Another unlikely libertarian hero appears in the Saudi Arabian film Wadjda (2012, Haifaa Al Mansour, director, previously reviewed in Liberty. The title character (Waad Mohammed) is a 10-year-old girl living within the orthodox community of Saudi Arabia, but she has very unorthodox desires. She does not openly defy the values and practices of her community; indeed, she wears her scarves and abaya as though they were as natural as her hair, and she nods nonchalantly when her mother tells her she is old enough to start covering her face with her ayallah when she goes outside. She attends a religious girls' school and works hard to learn her lessons about the goodness of Allah.

But Wadjda has her own values as well. She wears sneakers under her abaya, and inside those shoes her toenails are painted candy-apple blue. She listens to Western music on an ancient cassette tape player in her room, and she often wears a t-shirt emblazoned with "I am a great catch" in English (although we never know for sure whether she understands what the words mean).

Most of all, Wadjda wants to own a bike. She wants to know the freedom of riding faster than she can run, and the satisfaction of racing against her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who happens to be a boy. All the boys have bikes. In many ways the bike represents what girls can do, given the same tools and opportunities as boys.

Wadjda is determined to buy the shiny green bike on display at the local sundries store. She becomes an entrepreneur by making bracelets to sell to her friends. She charges acquaintances for running errands and, with a determined voice and a winning smile, convinces them to pay her extra. She forgoes current gratification when she no longer buys treats and trinkets from the corner store in order to save for her big purchase.

Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through.

Eventually she realizes that she will never save enough money by doing menial tasks, especially when the local store begins selling Chinese-made bracelets at a fraction of the former price. So she does what every good entrepreneur must do: she uses her savings as seed money to capitalize a larger business venture. Lured by the prize money of 1,000 riyals, she decides to enter the school's Koran recitation contest (sort of like a spelling bee or Geography Bowl). But since she has never been a good student of the Koran, she invests all her savings to purchase "capital goods": an expensive electronic study aid. It is a big risk, but it is the only way that she can turn her 80 riyals into the 800 riyals she needs to purchase the bike.

Wadjda presents one of the spunkiest and most charming protagonists to come along in quite a while. Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through. Wadjda is a film that will warm your heart even as it breaks it.

But to return to our panel discussion — what happened then is what always happens: all too soon we were ushered from the room by the next event, just as our audience was warming up with selections and offerings of their own. So what are your favorite libertarian films? What did we leave out?




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The Top Films Every Libertarian Should Know

 | 

Film has the power to change minds, often by changing hearts. Libertarian films are about choice, opportunity, and knocking down obstacles — in any setting. They demonstrate the power of persuasion over the force of authority. Libertarian films often point out the unintended consequences of government intervention, but they are just as likely to present a protagonist's personal struggle for self-expression. They show us how to make the world a better place simply by making our own lives better.

At this year’s Anthem Libertarian Film Festival, at FreedomFest in Las Vegas, 18 films were screened to packed audiences. We also presented several panels on topics related to film. For one of our sessions I invited four film enthusiasts to present their recommendations of the top films that every libertarian should know. Then, as a follow-up to the panel, I asked each participant to send me his recommendations for this article. Here are their selections, from the messages they sent.

***

Gary Alexander, who has served as an Anthem Libertarian Film Festival judge since its first season, is a music and movie historian whose weekly radio show provides insightful background as well as provocative music choices. He offered his top libertarian films in chronological order, presenting an historical look at the way freedom and individualism have been presented in film. He began with 1939, the year often called “the golden age of movies.”

Gary:

Last year I watched all the major films of 1939 because it was their 75th anniversary. My pick from that year is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, director). It was #3 in box office that year, behind only Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. It reveals political corruption in an era of idealism.

1963: America, America (Elia Kazan, director). This is the American Dream personified in a young man. The protagonist, an ethnic Greek living in 19th-century Turkey, is entrusted with the family fortune to start a carpet business in Constantinople, but he dreams of emigrating to America.

1965: Shenandoah (Andrew V. McGlaglen, director) was in the top ten for box office receipts in a year dominated by The Sound of Music, Dr. Zhivago, and James Bond. Set during the Civil War but made at the height of the Vietnam conflict, it presents draft resistance in an honorable light.

1988: Tucker: The Man and His Dream (Francis Ford Coppola, director). Tucker was a maverick car designer who faced crony capitalism as he tried to bring his revolutionary car to market.

2011: Atlas Shrugged 1 (Paul Johansson, director). This film has to be included for its pure libertarian theme. The film’s producer, John Aglialoro [who spoke at FreedomFest on “Wall Street Goes to Hollywood: The Risks and Rewards of Making Movies”], said that he wants to do a 13-week mini-series based on "episodes" within Objectivism, Ayn Rand's works, or even Atlas Shrugged, thoughnot based in a linear storytelling narrative, per se. This might provide a better way to present the overarching themes of Rand’s works. We the Living (1942, Goffredo Alessandrini, director) would be a superior Rand film, but I want to give Atlas a belated boost.

Libertarian films show us how to make the world a better place simply by making our own lives better.

As an aside to the power of libertarian movies, I was just watching a taped Stossel show when a member of the audience asked Lawrence Reed [President of the Foundation for Economic Education and another speaker at FreedomFest] how he found the courage to spread freedom literature behind the Iron Curtain. Reed said, "It may sound corny, but it came from a movie." Stossel responded, "Yes, that sounds corny. What movie?" and Reed replied, "In 1966, when I was 14, my mother dragged me and my sister to Pittsburgh to see The Sound of Music. Then, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, I saw that Austria was next door and I wanted to help undermine the communists as the von Trapps did to the Nazis.”

So . . . I don't feel so silly bringing up musicals on the panel, including Sound of Music.

***

Doug Casey, an entrepreneur and investment specialist known to libertarians everywhere, was one of the original judges for Anthem and always provides interesting insights for the film panels. This year he focused on genre rather than specific films.

Doug:

There are two genres that are overwhelmingly libertarian: westerns and sci-fi. That's likely because they both deal in frontiers, where the individual is responsible for a situation’s outcome. They tend, therefore, to be morality plays. And libertarianism is essentially a moral philosophy. One favorite Western is High Noon. And in sci-fi it's tough to beat V for Vendetta. Characters within films are very often libertarian as well, in particular Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind, which is kind of a western. And Han Solo from Star Wars. It's odd, and counterintuitive, to me that Hollywood is a hotbed of statism and collectivism, while so many of its best products have libertarian themes or characters.

***

Marc Eliot is known as “Hollywood’s biographer” because he has written biographies of many of its biggest names, including Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant, and John Wayne. He has served as an Anthem judge for four years and is a popular speaker at FreedomFest. His choices run the gamut of Hollywood’s best films.

Marc:

1. A Face in the Crowd (1957, Elia Kazan, director). A premier libertarian film about, among other things (many other things), the insidiousness of big government, how it has tentacles in every aspect of our culture. It examines the link between politics-free entertainers and how they affect the popularity of candidates. A supremely important film, and highly entertaining.

2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel, director). One of the strangest and most intense love stories of the ’50s, set in a world where everyone is supposed to be the same. The loss of individuality here is a bold metaphor for the infliction of political correctness via big government. Should be seen by all. Love is the film's solution, and its shocking ending underscores that real love is the antithesis of imposed sameness. The tacked-on opening and closing were mandated by the studio, Allied Artists, after the film tested too frightening. It still is, filled with all the fear and paranoia of the glorious ’50s, Hollywood style.

3. The Best Years of our Lives (1947, William Wyler, director). The first and still the best film that looks at the way the Greatest Generation was treated after it helped save America and the world from Fascism. What was it like when the soldiers came home, and how difficult it was for them to readjust? What role did the government play, if any, in making their transition back to civilian society? The harsh way the three principal characters are treated is an eye-opener, and perhaps even more relevant today. Also, Wyler's use of deep focus allows the film to remain ambiguous in its depiction. One of the great ’40s Hollywood films.

It's odd, and counterintuitive, that Hollywood is a hotbed of statism and collectivism, while so many of its best products have libertarian themes or characters.

4. The Godfather (I and II, but not III) (1972, 1974, Francis Ford Coppola, director) is the story of a mob family that is the story of Corporate America ("It's business, Sonny, business"). One might wonder where the government is in all of this, apparently invisible because the Corleones are the government. Even in the second film, when the hearings into organized crime take place, the senators are already in the family's pocket. These are cautionary films; some government is needed to prevent corporations from taking over every aspect of our lives.

5. Modern Times (1936, Charlie Chaplin, director). The final appearance of The Tramp, caught in a world so mechanized that he becomes a living machine. Chaplin's vision of oppressive authority and an ever-increasing mechanical, or technological world, is well worth watching. One of the funniest and most profound films of the ’30s.

6. The Ten Commandments (1957, Cecil B. DeMille, director) deals with a higher authority even than big government, and one of the very few films to deal with Jews as victims. The film was made in the decade following the Holocaust and serves as both a memorial and a cautionary tale. Hitler was the ultimate non-libertarian, and this film reminds us that religion, faith, and righteousness will prevail over governmental enslavement. Still holds up; actually gets better with age.

7. The Searchers (1957, John Ford, director). The individual lost in a society that services the big government of the post-Civil War. Ethan (Wayne) was on the losing side of the war and as a result has lost everything. He returns home to retrieve the last of his life. Ford lets us know that Ethan's sister-in-law is probably his former lover, and that Debbie is not just his niece but, in fact, his daughter. When the house is burned down by the Comanches and they take Debbie, what follows is the ultimate chase film. Ethan tracks down Debbie to preserve his own past, or to destroy it. We don't know until the end of the film if he will kill Debbie or save her; if he will preserve the values of the union or make it, and him, slip into spiritual anarchy. A great film.

These are cautionary films; some government is needed to prevent corporations from taking over every aspect of our lives.

8. Vertigo (1957, Alfred Hitchcock, director). Not a libertarian film, but everybody should see Vertigo at least five times in life. The only film that treats lost love as something that is never truly lost. Hitchcock may have resembled Burbage but he was the 20th-century Shakespeare.Vertigo is the kind of deep, beautiful, and profound experience the Bard would have approved of. A lesson in repressed feelings, delusional love, fetishistic fatalism, and blind worship. There is simply no other film like Vertigo. I could teach an entire semester on Hitchcock and hardly scratch the surface. A Brit, he flourished in his American period, when British filmmaking came under threat of Nazi attack and much of the best talent fled to America. See it!

9. High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann, director). The granddaddy of Dirty Harry, this is a film that shows how the invisible hand of big government controls our lives. When it becomes known that the bad-guy Miller gang (led by Frank Miller, who has been pardoned from life imprisonment) are returning to town to seek their vengeance on Marshal Will Kane who arrested Miller, the judge who sentenced him packs his bags and flees, warning Kane that when tyrants who have been defeated return, they are always treated like heroes. Life is always better, for a while, when tyrants rule. Sure enough, the town fails to help Kane, because "the boys up north are watching, and they won't want to invest in a town that is still having shoot-outs in the streets." So much for friendship, loyalty, and support. When Kane throws his badge on the ground (an act that got the writer of the film, Carl Foreman, blacklisted), he turns his back on the town that left him to die. The best ride off into the sunset forever. A must-see. And a very libertarian film.

10. All The President's Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula). Film follows history; it is not avant garde. Here is the ultimate story of government gone crazy, and the power of journalism to help keep democracy intact. Not really a political film, more of a spy-type thriller. Enjoyable even if you've never heard of Watergate. Perhaps too liberal for libertarians, it nevertheless says that tyranny is vulnerable to a constitutionally protected free press.

***

Stephen Cox is editor-in-chief of Liberty and professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego. He also is a film buff who knows the classics. He approached the panel assignment thematically.

Stephen:

Let’s begin with Rosalind Russell movies. If you want an uncompromising satire of (elected!) political power, His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks, director) is it. "Aw, go on, you'd hang your own mother to be reelected — and you know it" is one of my favorite lines. Auntie Mame (1958, Morton DaCosta, director) is the apotheosis of a free individual. Best of all, for libertarians, is Roughly Speaking (1945, Michael Curtiz, director). Roz is an entrepreneur whose investments, but not her individualism, always fail. She keeps coming back. "This is America!" she says.

I also like movies with challenging problems for libertarians. In Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles, director) Kane is simultaneously a power-hungry politician, of whom one of his friends says, “It seems we weren’t enough; he wanted all the voters to love him, too,” and an individualist who says, "There's only one person in the world to decide what I’m going to do — and that's me." Red River (1948, Howard Hawks, Arthur Rosson, directors) is a story constantly concerned with problems of property rights. It’s also fraught with theological issues, although that's off topic: the Red River is the place where blood is sacrificed so that the protagonist can continue to the land of promise; the father figure resembles the judgmental Old Testament God and the son figure resembles the heroically self-sacrificing New Testament God; etc.

Movies that represent a world beyond political concerns — demonstrations that there are comedies and tragedies beyond the reach of politics — are also libertarian, in implication. I would include The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, directors), which is the ultimate drama of ballet, and All About Eve (1950, Peter Sullivan), which is the ultimate drama of the theater.

***

And now for me, Jo Ann:

I was fascinated by the scope of films offered by our panelists, and I was pleased to see that they reached beyond the obvious films about opposing government. Libertarian heroes are not necessarily activists working for a cause. They are individuals who follow their own paths. They do not conform to the expectations of others. When something goes wrong, they fix it themselves. When something goes right, they give credit where it is due. Libertarian stories may occur within any family, community, or industry. They do not have to be set in a dystopian future! Here are some modern films that ought to become libertarian classics:

A perfect example from 2013 is 42 (Brian Helgeland, director), the movie about how Jackie Robinson (Chad Boseman) broke the race barrier in sports. It wasn't a government edict that integrated baseball; in fact, the cops tried to keep Jackie from taking the field in some venues. No, it was a businessman, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), who recognized that he could sell a lot more tickets, win a lot more games, and possibly earn the World Series title, if he hired some talented African-American ballplayers. No one forced him to do it, and no one forced the other managers in the League to follow suit when they saw that they couldn't compete successfully without black ball players. It was just plain good business.

Movies that represent a world beyond political concerns — demonstrations that there are comedies and tragedies beyond the reach of politics — are also libertarian, in implication.

Another great example appears in the Oscar-nominated movie Winter's Bone (2010, Debra Granik, director). The protagonist, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), is a 17-year-old girl living in the backwoods of Missouri and struggling to keep her family together after her father skips out and her mother becomes incapacitated. When her little brother notices the neighbors skinning a freshly killed deer, Ree cautions him, "Don't ever ask for what ought to be given freely." That night the neighbor brings over a shoulder of meat and some potatoes and onions. On her way out, the neighbor says, "I noticed your woodbox is low. You can use our splitter if you want." As the neighbor leaves, Ree says to her little brother and sister, "Who wants stew?" When they look up eagerly she adds, "Then get over here so I can show you how to make it."

This is the story of "The Little Red Hen" in action. Ree knows the importance of teaching her siblings self-reliance. The neighbor brings meat because the Dollys don't have any. She doesn't cook it into a meal, however, because Ree is capable of doing that herself. The neighbor lends the splitter but doesn't offer to cut the wood, because Ree and her brother can do that too. The neighbor helps the Dollys of her own free will and choice, but she respects Ree's dignity and character too much to offer her more than what Ree can't do for herself. What a great example of libertarian values.

Another unlikely libertarian hero appears in the Saudi Arabian film Wadjda (2012, Haifaa Al Mansour, director, previously reviewed in Liberty. The title character (Waad Mohammed) is a 10-year-old girl living within the orthodox community of Saudi Arabia, but she has very unorthodox desires. She does not openly defy the values and practices of her community; indeed, she wears her scarves and abaya as though they were as natural as her hair, and she nods nonchalantly when her mother tells her she is old enough to start covering her face with her ayallah when she goes outside. She attends a religious girls' school and works hard to learn her lessons about the goodness of Allah.

But Wadjda has her own values as well. She wears sneakers under her abaya, and inside those shoes her toenails are painted candy-apple blue. She listens to Western music on an ancient cassette tape player in her room, and she often wears a t-shirt emblazoned with "I am a great catch" in English (although we never know for sure whether she understands what the words mean).

Most of all, Wadjda wants to own a bike. She wants to know the freedom of riding faster than she can run, and the satisfaction of racing against her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who happens to be a boy. All the boys have bikes. In many ways the bike represents what girls can do, given the same tools and opportunities as boys.

Wadjda is determined to buy the shiny green bike on display at the local sundries store. She becomes an entrepreneur by making bracelets to sell to her friends. She charges acquaintances for running errands and, with a determined voice and a winning smile, convinces them to pay her extra. She forgoes current gratification when she no longer buys treats and trinkets from the corner store in order to save for her big purchase.

Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through.

Eventually she realizes that she will never save enough money by doing menial tasks, especially when the local store begins selling Chinese-made bracelets at a fraction of the former price. So she does what every good entrepreneur must do: she uses her savings as seed money to capitalize a larger business venture. Lured by the prize money of 1,000 riyals, she decides to enter the school's Koran recitation contest (sort of like a spelling bee or Geography Bowl). But since she has never been a good student of the Koran, she invests all her savings to purchase "capital goods": an expensive electronic study aid. It is a big risk, but it is the only way that she can turn her 80 riyals into the 800 riyals she needs to purchase the bike.

Wadjda presents one of the spunkiest and most charming protagonists to come along in quite a while. Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through. Wadjda is a film that will warm your heart even as it breaks it.

But to return to our panel discussion — what happened then is what always happens: all too soon we were ushered from the room by the next event, just as our audience was warming up with selections and offerings of their own. So what are your favorite libertarian films? What did we leave out?




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Boswell Gets His Due

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What is Enlightenment? The title of Immanuel Kant’s most famous essay asks that question. Kant suggests that the historical Enlightenment was mankind’s release from his self-incurred tutelage, an intellectual awakening that opened up new freedoms by challenging implanted prejudices and ingrained presuppositions. “Sapere aude!” Kant declared. “Dare to be wise!”

Tradition maintains that the Enlightenment was an 18th-century social and cultural phenomenon emanating from Paris salons, an Age of Reason that championed the primacy of the individual, the individual’s competence to pursue knowledge through rational and empirical methods, though skepticism and the scientific method. Discourse, debate, experimentation, and economic liberalism would liberate society from the shackles of superstition and dogma and enable unlimited progress and technological innovation, offering fresh insights into the universal laws that governed not only the natural world but also human relations. They would also enable individual people to attain fresh insights into themselves.

Boswell was a garrulous charmer with Bacchanalian tendencies, and a fussy hypochondriac raised Calvinist and forever anxious, perhaps obsessive, about the uncertain state of his eternal soul.

Robert Zaretsky, a history professor at the University of Houston and the author of Boswell’s Enlightenment, spares us tiresome critiques or defenses of the Enlightenment by Foucault and Habermas and their progeny. He begins his biography of James Boswell, the great 18th-century biographer, with a historiographical essay on the trends and trajectories of the pertinent scholarship. He points out that the Enlightenment may have begun earlier than people once believed, and in England rather than France. He mentions Jonathan Israel’s suggestion that we look to Spinoza and company, not Voltaire and company, to understand the Enlightenment, and that too much work has focused on the influence of affluent thinkers, excluding lower-class proselytizers who spread the message of liberty with a fearsome frankness and fervor. And he maintains that Scotland was the ideational epicenter of Enlightenment. Boswell was a Scot.

All of this is academic backdrop and illustrative posturing, a setting of the stage for Zaretsky’s subject, Boswell, a lawyer and man of letters with an impressive pedigree and a nervous disposition, a garrulous charmer with Bacchanalian tendencies, and a fussy hypochondriac raised Calvinist and forever anxious, perhaps obsessive, about the uncertain state of his eternal soul. He marveled at public executions, which he attended regularly. He also had daddy issues, always trying to please his unpleased father, Lord Auchinleck, who instructed his son to pursue the law rather than the theater and thespians. When word arrived that his son had been sharing his private journals with the public, Lord Auchinleck threatened to disown the young James.

Astounded by the beauty and splendor of Rome and entranced by Catholicism, Boswell was never able to untangle the disparate religious influences (all of them Christian) that he picked up during his travels. He was equally unable to suppress eros and consequently caught sexual diseases as a frog catches flies.

Although the Life of Johnson is always considered one of the most important books in the language, Boswell himself has been relegated to the second or third tier of the British literary canon.

Geography and culture shaped Boswell’s ideas and personality and frame Zaretsky’s narrative. “With the European continent to one side, Edinburgh to the other,” Zaretsky intones, “James Boswell stood above what seemed the one and the same phenomenon: the Enlightenment.” This remark is both figurative and literal, concluding Zaretsky’s account of Boswell’s climbing of Arthur’s Seat, a summit overlooking Edinburgh, and his triumphant shout, “Voltaire, Rousseau, immortal names!”

Immortal names indeed. But would Boswell himself achieve immortality? Boswell achieved fame for his biography of Samuel Johnson, the poet, critic, essayist, and wit — who except for one chapter is oddly ancillary to Zaretsky’s narrative. Although the Life of Johnson is always considered one of the most important books in the language, Boswell himself has been relegated to the second or third tier of the British literary canon and treated, poor chap, as a celebrity-seeking minor figure who specialized in the life of a major figure. If Dr. Johnson is Batman, Boswell is a hobnobbing, flattering Robin.

Boswell’s friends have fared better — countrymen and mentors such as Adam Smith and David Hume, for instance, and the continental luminaries Voltaire and Rousseau. But there are many interesting relationships here. To cite only one: Thérèse Levasseur, Rousseau’s wife or mistress (a topic of debate), became Boswell’s lover as he accompanied her from Paris to England. The unsuspecting Rousseau, exiled in England, waited eagerly for her arrival, while a more astute Hume, who was Rousseau’s host, recognized matters for what they were.

Zaretsky believes Boswell was an exceptional talent, notwithstanding his weaknesses, and certainly worthy of our attention. Glossing several periods of Boswell’s life but closely examining his grand tour of the Continent (1763–1765), Zaretsky elevates Boswell’s station, repairs Boswell’s literary reputation, and corrects a longstanding underestimation, calling attention to his complicated and curious relationship to the Enlightenment, a movement or milieu that engulfed him without necessarily defining him.

The title of the book assumes plural meaning: Boswell attained a self-enlightenment that reflected the ethos and ethic of his era.

Zaretsky’s large claims for his subject might seem belied by the author’s professedly modest goal: “to place Boswell’s tour of the Continent, and situate the churn of his mind, against the intellectual and political backdrop of the Enlightenment.” To this end, Zaretsky remarks, “James Boswell and the Enlightenment are as complex as the coils of wynds and streets forming the old town of Edinburgh.” And so they are, as Zaretsky makes manifest in ten digestible chapters bristling with the animated, ambulatory prose of the old style of literary and historical criticism, the kind that English professors disdain but educated readers enjoy and appreciate.

Zaretsky marshals his evidence from Boswell’s meticulously detailed missives and journals, piecing together a fluid tale of adventure (meetings with the exiled libertine John Wilkes, evenings with prostitutes, debauchery across Europe, and lots of drinking) and resultant misadventure (aimlessness, dishonor, bouts of gonorrhea and depression, and religious angst). Zaretsky portrays Boswell as a habitual performer, a genteel, polite, and proud socialite who judged himself as he imagined others to have judged him. He suffered from melancholy and the clap, among other things, but he also cultivated a gentlemanly air and pursued knowledge for its own sake. The title of the book, Boswell’s Enlightenment, assumes plural meaning: Boswell attained a self-enlightenment that reflected the ethos and ethic of his era.

Zaretsky’s book matters because Boswell matters, and, in Zaretsky’s words, “Boswell matters not because his mind was as original or creative as the men and women he pursued, but because his struggle to make sense of his life, to bend his person to certain philosophical ends, appeals to our own needs and sensibilities.” We see ourselves in Boswell, in his alternating states of faith and doubt, devotion and reason. He, like so many of us, sought to improve himself daily but could never live up to his own expectations. He’s likeable because he’s fallible, a pious sinner who did right in the name of wrong and wrong in the name of right, but without any ill intent. A neurotic, rotten mess, he couldn’t control his libido and didn’t learn from his mistakes. But he could write like the wind, and we’re better off because he did. He knew all of us, strangely, without having known us. God help us, we’re all like him in some way.

is always considered one of the most important books in the language, Boswell himself has been relegated to the second or third tier of the British literary canon and treated, poor chap, as a celebrity-seeking minor figure who specialized in the life of a major figure. If Dr. Johnson is Batman, Boswell is a hobnobbing, flattering Robin.


Editor's Note: Review of "Boswell’s Enlightenment," by Robert Zaretsky. The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2015, 269 pages.



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