The Long Goodbye

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On April 19, on the eve of his 90th birthday, Fidel Castro delivered his “farewell” address to the Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana. Fidel’s farewells now rival Francisco Franco’s farewells — or notices of his departure from this world — in both length and credibility. Though he first temporarily stepped down as president of Cuba in 2006, and then retired permanently in 2008, Fidel Castro’s influence as his successor’s elder brother, his continuing physical presence, and his moral standing as the “conscience of the Revolution,” preclude any serious change in Cuba’s political system.

The good news is that something inside is whispering to him that his time on earth is done. As a consequence, he’s urging his successors to keep the faith. No one expects the country’s first vice president, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, 56, to succeed in any meaningful way. Though Raul Castro has said that he’d step down in 2018 when his term is up, his second-in-command, José Ramón Machado Ventura, 85, is expected to continue wielding power by leading the Party. So, Fidel: rest assured — for now.

Word on the street is more nuanced. Raul was head of the armed forces and security organs before becoming president. His G2 security apparatus is second only to the CIA and Mossad (forget the KGB according to Juan Reynaldo Sanchez, Fidel’s personal bodyguard of 17 years). As head of the Armed Forces, Raul designed and engineered the very first tourism joint ventures with foreign governments and firms, loosely following the model of the People’s Liberation Army in China, whose commercial interests are widespread. The effort helped Cuba overcome the difficulties of the Special Period imposed by the implosion of the Soviet Union.

The good news is that something inside is whispering to Fidel that his time on earth is done.

Raul and his late wife, Vilma Espin, have three daughters. One is married to a general whose public persona is so behind-the-scenes that my informant couldn’t recall his name. The general is not a politician and doesn’t wish to draw attention to himself. However, he is the architect of most of Cuba’s successful mid-to-large state enterprises. His military, family and commercial positions endow him with unrivaled power; power that in my informed informant’s opinion he will not easily give up, but will continue to wield behind the scenes.

In spite of the government’s efforts to encourage self-employment in its own passive-aggressive way, again — according to this informant — the state is terrified of mid-level independent enterprises gaining a foothold on the island. Disincentives, from limits on the number of employees to accelerated taxation schemes, abound.

On March 28, as a response to President Obama’s visit to Cuba, Fidel opined in an editorial in the official organ of Cuba’s Communist Party, Granma, that “we do not need the empire to give us anything.” This time, Fidel, rest unassured: one of the primary sources of foreign exchange in Cuba is family remittances, to the tune of $2.5 billion annually (2014 figures; probably more now). But rest even more unassuredly, Fidel, because some of the money indirectly comes from US taxpayers, i.e., the government.

Though my group knew my objective and knew that I wrote for Liberty, I warned them to stick to our formal purpose if asked, and mention nothing of my other intentions.

Here’s how it works: Cuban refugees are automatically granted asylum in the US and are provided with food stamps, heath care, and a stipend, i.e., welfare. Some of this is sent back to family in Cuba. With Cuban hustle, many refugees get jobs but continue to collect benefits. The remittances give a whole new definition to Cuba’s being a “welfare” state — in this case, one that’s dependent on the US dole. Cuban refugees who came to the US in times past recognize the problem and are urging the US government to change the automatic acceptance rule for Cubans and apply normal asylum procedures to present-day Cuban immigrants.

This past February, I contributed to the remittances motherlode.

On my recent trip to Cuba I was bringing a small laptop computer to a relative — allowed, but ordinarily subject to declaration and a 100% tariff, something that would make the laptop unaffordable. At Jose Marti airport, and before I crossed passport control, a clipboard-wielding functionary spotted my group of five and targeted us as an irregular group. We were coming legally from Miami, as opposed to illegally through Mexico or Canada, venues from which American tourists aren’t the subjects of much concern. Our US State Dept. category was “Educational.” We were in Cuba to assess the opportunities for running bicycle-based adventure education courses covering history, environment, anthropology, etc. However, my personal objective was research for a proposed book, a purpose that would raise much concern with the Cuban government, and a travel category that would have required a Cuban government minder to accompany and “help” me at my expense. Though my group knew my objective and knew that I wrote for Liberty (a quasi-journalistic position — another category the government is wary of and upon which they impose many requirements), I warned them to stick to our formal purpose if asked, and mention nothing of my other intentions.

The functionary walked up to one of our group and asked our purpose in coming to Cuba. My partner blithely and absent-mindedly said he was a writer. My wife, ever alert, rushed to the scene and corrected the impression, saying we were there for educational purposes. By now our whole group surrounded the man. He asked for our itinerary and formal proposal. I dazzled him with paperwork which I’d painstakingly composed with every computer tool available: detailed schedule, educational purpose of the trip, lengthy resumes of each participant along with their professional positions, and letters of support and intent from three universities.

The man (his English being only passable) glanced at the professionally printed matter and, satisfied, returned it to me. He then asked if we were carrying any electronic devices, cameras, computers, etc. reassuring us that these were permissible for personal use. Going round the circle, each participant pulled out camera, laptop, phone, whatever. By the time he got to me and I’d pulled out my camera and was about to declare the laptop for my relative, the man lost interest and dismissed us, figuring we were what we appeared to be.

I’d successfully taken a laptop into Cuba — one small ruse for a man; one satisfying step for liberty in Cuba.




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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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The Less You Know, the Better

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My daughter Hayley wrote her senior thesis demonstrating an inverse relationship between how much a movie trailer reveals about the movie’s plot and the quality of the film; if you can predict the whole plot just from watching the trailer, it’s likely to be a dog. Conversely, the less you know about the plot from the trailer, the more likely it is to be a great movie. Test her theory for yourself, and you’ll see that you could save yourself a lot of money on predictable (and predictably bad) movies.

Better yet, test the reverse of her theory by going to see the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! this weekend. As I watched the trailers over the past month, I had no idea what the movie would be about. Roman epic? Backstage musical? Film noir? Time travel sci-fi? Hayley’s theory holds up: Hail, Caesar! is one of the wittiest and most enjoyable comedies to come along in ages.

What’s not to love about this movie? Channing Tatum tap-dancing in a sailor suit. Wayne Knight (Seinfeld’s nemesis, Newman) reclining in a toga. Scarlett Johansson struggling out of a mermaid suit. Ralph Fiennes keeping his upper lip stiff as a snippy, officious, British director. A producer named Skank. A singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) who is simply swoony with his curly hair, dimpled chin, and aw-shucks accent. Tilda Swinton portraying not one, but two, gossip columnists. Frances McDormand cameo-ing as a gruff, chain-smoking film editor. And let’s not forget George Clooney, whose kidnapping early in the film drives the plot (yes, there is one.)

The less you know about the plot from the trailer, the more likely it is to be a great movie.

Anchoring the frivolity are two meaty themes that kept my audience-mates — mostly intellectual film buffs — chortling for two hours. (Who but intellectual film buffs comes to the movies in the middle of the afternoon on opening day in a college town and laughs knowingly throughout the film?) I laughed knowingly right along with them.

The first theme has to do with the film’s inside look at the art of filmmaking in the 1950s, and despite the fact that it’s a self-deprecating comedy, we observe some serious skills displayed by the fictional directors, actors, and editors of the movies being made within the movie. It is an impressive reminder that moviemaking is a true art form, one that we often overlook as we are drawn into the magical world presented to us on screen.

The other theme involves a decision that studio exec Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) faces. As a production manager, his job is to keep every film on schedule and under budget. That means he has to wrangle thespians who drink too much, box-office stars who can’t act, extras who aren’t paid enough, starlets who get into trouble, and gossip columnists who could torpedo a movie with one disparaging article about its leading man — and that’s just what Eddie does before lunch. Meanwhile, he’s being courted by a big corporation that wants to hire him as a top executive with job security, high pay, good retirement benefits, and the promise that he can be home in time for dinner with the missus every night and baseball with the kid every weekend. Should he take the offer?

His dilemma leads to a powerful speech about the factors of production that would make the whole film worthwhile — even if it wasn’t one of the wittiest films I’ve seen in months.

Oh — and did I mention those communists from The Future?

 

Hail, Caesar!, directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. Mike Zoss Productions, 2016, 106 minutes.




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Cuba and the Yanqui Dollar

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Now that the United States has restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, the communist government is insisting that the US pay reparations for the gigantic economic losses allegedly caused by America’s long refusal to trade with the island state. Undoubtedly the Obama administration is hard at work figuring out how to provide disguised subsidies to the communist regime and to crony capitalists who would like to make money on “free trade” with the kleptocracy. “I feel very much at home here. . . . We wish each other well,” proclaimed John Kerry, at his August 14 lovefest in Havana. When American officials say things like that, communists and their capitalist shills hear cash registers starting to ring.

It’s highly unlikely that “reparations” will be openly paid. Nevertheless, the demand for reparations illustrates some of the global Left’s most mesmerizing fallacies. These fallacies have nothing to do with the interesting question of whether economic embargoes ever “work,” in the sense of penalizing those whom they’re supposed to penalize. That’s a matter for empirical research, which no ideologue can bear to do, except to “prove” some pre-existing notion. I’m talking about the perennial war of faith — faith in the state — against logic.

Of course, it’s always helpful to have someone else to blame for this morally stimulating poverty.

Every communist state has initially justified itself as an economic enterprise. That’s the point of communism, isn’t it? It’s an economic philosophy designed to deliver economic prosperity. Soon, however, there comes a surprise. Who woulda thunk it — communism turns out to be economically disastrous! But, this having been established, the communist state doesn’t slink off to the side and wither, demoralized by its failure to do what it proposed to do. Instead, it loudly justifies itself on opposite principles — heroic endurance of poverty, disdainful rejection of the good life, the prosperous society.

Of course, it’s always helpful to have someone else to blame for this morally stimulating poverty. For Cuban communists and their sympathizers around the world, and for many unthinking noncommunists as well, the United States is the one to blame. First the US was to blame for ruthlessly exploiting Cuba, by trading with it and investing in it; then, and still worse, the US was to blame for ruthlessly refusing to trade with it or invest in it.

It’s useless to say that you can’t have it both ways. Of course you can, if you refuse to think. In fact, if you’re an American leftist, you can even have it four ways: Cuba is prosperous; Cuba is impoverished; isolation from capitalism made Cuba prosperous; isolation from capitalism made Cuba poor. With these comforting thoughts packed away in all relevant heads, pity for Cuban communism and outrage over US imperialism can continue, with no reduction of self-righteousness. They will come in handy whenever the New York Times notices that post-embargo Cuba is cursed (like pre-embargo Cuba) with that worst of all evils, income Inequality. Again we will witness the catastrophic effects of exploitative free enterprise.




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Hong Kong in Context

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Taking a casual survey of American political rhetoric, one would suspect that we were at the dawn of a new age — or at least that this nation had a poor memory. Somehow everything has become unprecedented. Unprecedented healthcare reform; unprecedented opposition to healthcare reform; unprecedented Republican victories in the midterm elections; unprecedented demonstrations in Hong Kong. But China has a long memory.

The recent protests in Hong Kong have adhered to the choreography of Chinese politics in at least one important respect: the Communist regime has accused its political opponents of being unpatriotic. Xinhua, the state news agency, recently published a commentary denouncing celebrities who supported the protests for the putative crime of challenging the authority of the Party, and — by a heroic leap of logic — of betraying a lack of love for the motherland. CY Leung, the Chief Executive, has accused foreign actors of orchestrating the demonstrations. He did not specify who these foreign actors were, but we all know that he means the United States, as if we weren’t content with the existing friction in bilateral relations and decided on a whim to make life more difficult for the Chinese government.

The democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong should be framed, by them and by their friends abroad, not in terms of their unique identity, but in terms of universal values that all Chinese can share.

Such hamfisted tactics could be dismissed, were it not for the real danger that the accusations might actually be taken seriously. There is an ugly history of antagonism between the people of Hong Kong and their estranged brethren on mainland China, inspired by subjects ranging from the status of the Cantonese dialect to patriotic education to reports of tourists doing unseemly things in unseemly places in Hong Kong. To people from mainland China, the aloofness of people from Hong Kong often smacks of arrogance and snobbery. But the Chinese can put up with snobbery. It plagues Beijing and Shanghai, and nobody seems to mind. In the case of Hong Kong, the danger is that the protests may be viewed in light of this antagonism and interpreted as a posture of “more-democratic-than-thou.”

Hong Kong has always been viewed as an enclave of wealthy, westernized Chinese, enjoying a wide measure of civil liberties that have been resolutely denied to people from the mainland. There is a significant possibility that they will be regarded as spoiled children, not content with their privileges and clamoring for more. The Communist regime will avail itself of every opportunity to cast aspersions on the pro-democracy demonstrators, and any indication that this is a struggle for Hong Kong’s exclusive rights will only serve to alienate it from the rest of China.

The democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong should be framed, by them and by their friends abroad, not in terms of their unique identity — for that would invite references to their former status as a colony of the West — but in terms of universal values that all Chinese can share. To Americans nurtured on the idea of universal values, this should not seem unprecedented.

/p




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Kennedy and Communism

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On November 22, it will be 50 years since I sat in my typing-for-infants class and heard a radio voice coming over the PA system. “There are reports,” it said, “that shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas, Texas.” My teacher, a model of business efficiency, concluded very plausibly that someone in the principal’s office was playing around with the equipment. Unfortunately, she was wrong.

I can’t say that I regard Kennedy’s death as a world-historical event. He was a brighter and, to me, a much more interesting and sympathetic personality than his kinfolk or most of the other political figures of the time. Several times in his life he faced the virtual certainty of death, and faced it with courage and cheerfulness. He learned enough about economics to advocate a large tax cut that vastly increased the nation’s wealth. He also helped to get us into the Cuban missile crisis — and then rather skillfully got us out of it. I don’t know what he would have done about Vietnam. I do know that he fostered a cult of military masculinity (fifty-mile hikes!) that produced some very sorry thinking and acting. He believed that Robert McNamara was a real smart guy; he had a soft spot for can-do fools like that. The scion of a gangsterlike family, he plotted to make his brother Robert and then his brother Edward presidents after him. He lied habitually and outrageously about almost every aspect of his own life. He accepted the Pulitzer Prize for a book he didn’t write, and became angry when people suggested that he hadn’t written it. There is reason to believe that in 1960 he was able to defeat his good friend Richard Nixon because his allies in Texas and Illinois stuffed the ballot boxes for him. Sadly, the evil part of Kennedy’s legacy was passed along, and amplified; most of the good died with him.

About the assassination I have little to say. To my mind, David Ramsay Steele made a conclusive case for Oswald as the sole assassin; see his article in Liberty in November 2003. Since then, no evidence has been discovered that threatens Steele’s argument, and much analysis has confirmed it. I am bothered, however, by something closely connected with the assassination (but not with Kennedy himself), something that appears not to bother anyone else. It is a strange idea: the idea that communism was never of any significance in America; that either there weren’t any communists or they never really did much of anything (such as killing President Kennedy). Even intelligent and well-disposed people believe this.

Sadly, the evil part of Kennedy’s legacy was passed along, and amplified; most of the good died with him.

But of course there were communists, and they did lots of things. They were very busy bees. It’s not for nothing that the 1930s were once called the Red Decade in American intellectual life, or that a ton of intellectual autobiographies were written from the standpoint of “I was a communist although later I quit.” About communist influence in the popular media during the 1930s and 1940s, take a look at Red Star Over Hollywood by Ronald and Allis Radosh — and even the Radoshes couldn’t get all the red influences into a book. In 1948, the Democratic Party was split by a conflict between anticommunists, communists, and communist stooges; out of it came the Progressive Party, an outfit managed by communists and their friends. Its presidential candidate was the former vice president of the United States, Henry Wallace. In 1956, there were still American intellectuals fighting it out over the issue of whether Khrushchev should have trashed the memory of Stalin.

How does all this connect with Kennedy? The connection is that the person who shot him, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a communist activist. Oswald defected to the Soviet Union and upon returning to the United States became a professional defender of Castro. He denied being “a communist” but proclaimed himself “a Marxist.” He had his picture taken holding a gun in one hand and militant literature in another; his wife wrote “Hunter of fascists” on the back of it. Oswald lay in wait for and attempted to murder Edwin Walker, a rightwing general. When the fervently anticommunist President Kennedy came to Dallas, Oswald succeeded in murdering him. Now, why do you think he did that? Do you think that communism might not have had something to do with it?

According to most conspiracy theories, however, Oswald either didn’t shoot Kennedy at all, or he was the least important member of a murder group that had nothing to do with communism. The theorists believe that Kennedy was murdered by rightwing CIA operatives, or rightwing oil companies, or rightwing militarists — anyone on the right will do. Even sensible people have trouble with the simple notion that Oswald was a freak for communism. Consider Fred Kaplan, writing for the Washington Post on November 14. Kaplan says that he himself, in his callow youth, accepted various conspiracy theories, only to discover that they weren’t decently based on fact. (I can say something similar about my own intellectual development.) But then he says:

The only remaining mystery, really, is Oswald’s motives — and yet, here too, no convincing evidence has emerged that links his action to the Mafia, the CIA, the Cubans, or anything of the sort. The most persuasive theory I’ve read — first put forth in a New York Review of Books article by Daniel Schorr (later reprinted in his book Clearing the Air) — is that Oswald killed Kennedy, believing the deed would earn him favor with Castro. But who knows? The mystery at the heart of the matter (why did Oswald do it?) remains unsolved.

“Really”? Do people talk this way about Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley because Czolgosz was an anarchist and McKinley wasn’t? Do people talk this way about Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President Garfield because Garfield failed to gratify Guiteau’s insane idea that he deserved to be appointed ambassador to France? Do people talk this way about John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln because Wilkes was a supporter of the Confederacy and Lincoln had just destroyed it? Do people talk this way about . . . oh, why go on? If a member of the American Nazi Party, or the NRA, or even the PTA had killed John F. Kennedy, there would be no “unsolved mystery.”

The real mystery is why even well-meaning, well-educated Americans can’t just accept communism for what it was (and is): a political movement capable of interesting people and inspiring them, even inspiring them to violent action — which it has often praised and rewarded. Oswald killed Kennedy because Oswald was a communist, and acted up to it.

So silly is the cover-up-the-communists routine that the hosts of movies on my beloved Turner Classics are always alleging that someone was “blacklisted” or otherwise injured by “accusations” of communism, without ever wondering — just as a subject of curiosity, now that we’re discussing old so-and-so’s difficult life — whether he or she may actually have been a communist.

And speaking of cultural authorities, I recently (don’t ask me why) looked up the Wikipedia article on Ed Sullivan, the prune-faced impresario of early television song-and-dance shows, and discovered that its account of Sullivan’s life occupies itself mightily with the question of whether Sullivan excluded communists from his program. I have to admit that I am an agnostic on this grave moral issue. If I were Ed Sullivan, maybe I’d have had communists on my show, and maybe I wouldn’t have. I probably would have, if they were good enough dancers — but if you substitute “Nazis” for “communists” in this thought experiment, fewer people would say that my decision should be obvious. But look at what the Wikipedia entry says: “[A] guest who never appeared on the show because of the controversy surrounding him was legendary black singer-actor Paul Robeson, who . . . was undergoing his own troubles with the US entertainment industry's hunt for Communist sympathizers.”

If a member of the American Nazi Party, or the NRA, or even the PTA had killed John F. Kennedy, there would be no “unsolved mystery.”

All right; I guess so. But Robeson didn’t need to be “hunted”; everybody knew where he was on the ideological spectrum. And his politics ensured that he had other troubles, of the intellectual and moral kind, troubles far worse than not getting on the Ed Sullivan show. The facts are simple. Robeson had a great voice. He could even act. He was also America’s best-known communist. He was proud of this morally repellent role. Accepting the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953, he said, among many other things:

I have always insisted — and will insist, even more in the future on my right to tell the truth as I know it about the Soviet peoples: of their deep desires and hopes for peace, of their peaceful pursuits of reconstruction from the ravages of war, as in historic Stalingrad; and to tell of the heroic efforts of the friendly peoples in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, great, new China and North Korea — to explain, to answer the endless falsehoods of the warmongering press with clarity and courage.

For Robeson’s tribute to the “deep kindliness and wisdom” of Joseph Stalin, go here.

Wikipedia’s own page on the “Political Views of Paul Robeson” does its best for him, but it concludes, “At no time during his retirement (or his life) is Paul Robeson on record of mentioning any unhappiness or regrets about his beliefs in socialism or the Soviet Union nor did he ever express any disappointment in its leaders including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Moreover, only a few sources out of hundreds interviewed and researched by two of his biographers Martin Duberman and Lloyd Brown agreed with the claims made in the mainstream media of Robeson's supposed embitterment over the USSR.”

Why bring these things up? Mainly because there’s a significant historical question at stake: were there communists or not, and were they important or not? That’s enough, but there are political reasons too. The abolition of communism from American history has been a way of arousing sympathy for the authoritarian Left and any ideas or people associated with it. It has been a way of keeping the Left from self-criticism, the kind of criticism that, one is given to believe, would automatically lead to such excesses as “witch-hunts” against “alleged communists.” Denying the presence of communism has been a way of obeying the old slogan, “No Enemies on the Left.” There is a danger here, similar to the danger of forgetting the sometime appeal of fascism.

This month witnessed another anniversary besides that of the Kennedy assassination. Thirty-five years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978, a man named Jim Jones engineered the murder-suicide of more than 900 people, mostly Americans, at Jonestown, Guyana. People think of Jones as some kind of offbeat Christian who got a little more offbeat. What he did is regarded as a warning against religious cultism. But he wasn’t, and it isn’t. Jones was a political agitator who used a pretense of religion — and it was a pretty feeble pretense — to sell what he called “revolutionary communism.” This approach enabled him to become a major player in San Francisco politics. Some of his fellow politicians covered up for him, ignoring or denying his communism; others were actually inspired by him — by his politics, not by his “religion.”

If you go to yet another Wikipedia page — “Peoples Temple” — you will learn a lot of things about this, although you won’t learn why the Jonestown episode isn’t seen as Americans’ most impressive and also most disastrous attempt to build a communist utopia. Yet the take-home message can still be found. It appears in the clichéd slogan that was posted behind the speaker’s stand from which Jones delivered his death decrees: “Those Who Do Not Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It.”




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Confessions from China II

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I just had lunch at the local food court in Guangzhou, a city of 1.3 million people in southern China. The price of the regular meal was 25 Yuan. I did not want rice, so they politely returned 10 Yuan, despite the fact that I didn’t ask for it. My meal cost me about $2.25. This is my sixth visit to China over the past three years; each one has been for about a month. I have traveled to many cities. While I have not been to many rural places, I have travelled enough to have my own views on China.

My experience of the food vendor returning me 10 Yuan no longer surprises me. I cannot think of a time when I have been cheated in China. I speak no Chinese. When I am stuck at restaurants, I am often offered eager translation help by other guests. Success in business is evidently exerting a strong influence, making people civil, honest, and compassionate.

I indulge in haggling at local shops and manage to pay what a regular Chinese would. Were I not to haggle, I would leave the shopkeeper dissatisfied. Taxis seldom overcharge me. When a shop is open, the well-dressed shop-assistant comes to me to get my business. She smiles and greets me. If her shop isn’t open, she ignores me and sometimes waves me off, a bit rudely.

People in many parts of the world refuse to acknowledge the rapid progress of China, because they see it as a communist country. Libertarians and those with free-market inclinations are particularly prone to this. They don’t want to accept the idea that an officially communist country has achieved human progress at a combined scale and rate that is unprecedented. But ignoring something does not change the reality.

Although China is a dictatorship of the “Communist Party,” that does not make it economically communist. No, China is not a democracy. People have a habit of imagining “democracy” as synonymous with “freedom,” but these are totally separate concepts. “Democracy” is a form of government, and government is by definition anti-freedom. “Freedom” is a word that applies to what is allowed by the institutions and culture of a country.

Libertarians and those with free-market inclinations don’t want to accept the idea that an officially communist country has achieved human progress at a combined scale and rate that is unprecedented.

I actually find myself very free in China. You can drink openly in public (as you can in most of Asia). You can trade, and even scam people, right in front of the police, who are not trained to be busybodies. In many places cute girls approach you with scams, offering to take you to bars. They talk openly within hearing distance of the police. In major cities, there is a rampant market in fake diplomas or ID cards. At night, I often saw several business cards shoved under the door of my hotel room, offering the service of an evening rendezvous.

Chinese traders always seem to say, “Yes, I have what you want. Now, tell me: what do you want?”

There has been much talk about the X-ray machines that check your bags at Chinese subways and at the entrance to Tiananmen Square. In my experience, the authorities are never serious about checking your bags.

“But you can’t protest against the government in China.” There are hundreds of thousands of recorded protests every year in China. You ought to see the Chinese protesting. I have seen them hurling abuse at policemen, shouting and screaming, throwing their arms and legs around. Yes, they can’t make a democratic change in China. But in Canada, my vote — one among millions of other votes — wasn’t worth spare change. In my view, “democracy” is a farce at best. It has a strong tendency to degenerate into the dictatorship of the masses. Compared with that, Chinese protest is real. People who protest in Canada mostly lobby for government favors — they protest to steal from me. And people like me are always on the sidelines, refusing to make jackasses of themselves, worried about any inconvenience their protests might cause to others.

Every time I deal with a bureaucrat in China, I am offered the chance to participate in a quick electronic assessment of his performance: Was he courteous and efficient? Where else in the world are you asked to evaluate a public servant? When I don’t care to participate in the survey, I often see the hand of the bureaucrat himself coming out of the window to do the assessment on my behalf — ironic proof that the surveys have real value.

Having been in Guangzhou for a week, I have seen virtually no foreign tourists. Yet downtown Guangzhou is among the most modern cities I know. Its skyline competes with the very best in Hong Kong, New York, and Singapore. Yet a closer inspection of those modern buildings shows that a lot of them are partially or fully empty. And the quality of buildings falls off rapidly once you are outside the downtown area. BMWs and Audis parked outside the grim apartment buildings in the outskirts show how important the public face is for many Chinese. The hazy air, the expensive shops, where rich people likely won’t shop unless they overpay, and the massive Pearl River, which for all practical purposes is the main sewage and industrial-waste artery, all remind me that I am in China.

Chinese women have probably shed their clothes faster than any other women in history, so much so that during my initial visits I thought more than once of asking them if they had forgotten something. Yet ugly buildings are often hidden behind massive posters or some other kind of façade. Packaging is more important than substance in China. The well-dressed people on the streets often share a room with several others — no air-conditioning, and the bathing facility in an adjoining building, with hot water carefully rationed.

The ultra-modern subway systems and extremely modern buildings calibrate people’s thinking, leading them to assess China as if it were a fully modern economy. Alas, China is still a developing economy, which can best be judged by comparison with where it was (a mere) two decades ago.

There is much talk about increasing nationalism in China, yet it is hard to believe that a society that had grown as fast as China would not at the same time grow nationalistic. A local acquaintance tells me that a mere 15 years back there were cows roaming the streets of what is now the modern city of Guangzhou. You can see how Guangzhou changed over the last few decades using the time-function on Google Earth.

This is a society that thinks in herds, and I have had neither the occasion nor the courage to discuss these issues in a group.

Was there a lot of pain involved in these sweeping changes in the city? Yes. Of course. The property of poor people was confiscated for little or no compensation. Such people increasingly protest, sometimes with violence against public officials. And property confiscations can be worse in democratic countries, where short-term politicians have incentives to cater to their corrupt connections, fund-providers, and lobbies.

The Chinese do have a visceral anti-Japanese sentiment. They are heavily indoctrinated, through movies and the educational system, to hate Japan. But when I challenge people about their views, I have never seen an individual refuse to engage in a rational discussion. I say “individual,” because this is a society that thinks in herds, and I have had neither the occasion nor the courage to discuss these issues in a group.

The political systems of China, the Koreas, and Japan have been heavily influenced by Confucian culture. In these hierarchical societies, creative thinking doesn’t have much place. Their culture and social systems make people shining cogs in a big machine, the better for them to work diligently and unworryingly in their boring jobs and studies. Even in Vancouver, the library is packed with Chinese students, cramming away from books. Libraries in China are similar.

But one must take a walk to the multi-story bookstores in China. They have scores of self-improvement books, proving that Chinese people increasingly read outside assigned academic works. You see covers showing the faces of Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Dale Carnegie, and Stephen Covey. In a country where illegal copying is believed to be rampant, there must still be considerable profit from legally marketed translations. Could the Chinese be becoming more creative? I have no doubt they are. Even if you look through the lenses of “communism” (with all kinds of fancy connotations) that you might wear in China, you cannot ignore the fact that there are many modern, creative solutions to be found in predominantly Confucian countries.

People are forever comparing China with India. Thirty years ago, when China had a per capita GDP that was lower than India’s, this would have made sense. It no longer does. Today, an average Chinese is three times richer than an average Indian. And strangely, I find India a lot more expensive than China, and a lot less free. India is stagnating. China continues to grow. China wants to make money.

But am I not over-romanticising China? I witnessed an old lady, who was selling fruit at a corner in the small city of Lijiang, being hit hard on her stomach by Chengguan, government goons — a vivid reminder that all is not well. It is very hard to trust the quality of food in China. I love the 30 cent, nicely-cut pineapples, but I do ask myself if they are unnaturally sweetened. Cheap massages, usually for less than $10, are great for me. But what about the people who render those services? What about all the people who live in extremely congested spaces? What about all the people who work in extraordinarily exploitative situations under “greedy” businessmen? What about the sweatshops? What about the ruthless abortion of the second child?

Governments, irrespective of whether they are democracies or single-party dictatorships, are institutions of heartlessness, inhumanity, and freedom from accountability. State and nationhood are unnatural concepts, designed by crooks and sociopaths to control the sheeple. The smaller the state, the fewer the regulations, and the better the society. I am not in a situation to compare China with truly stateless societies, because today’s world offers no examples. But China has very little regulatory control — the biggest reason behind its low costs. And, yes, I do feel for small children living and working under tough situations, or my masseurs who work for a pittance. But I gladly use their services, for the choice they have is not between a good job and a bad job. If they had that option they would have chosen the good job. Their choice is between a bad job and hunger. Trading with them, I get my massage and they get food. China understands this concept well. And that is the only way to move up economically.

China has moved up. Chinese salaries are rising much faster than the nation’s growth rate or inflation rate, meaning that the benefits of continued growth are accruing increasingly to the workers. Workers are fighting for better conditions. People are increasingly resisting work in factories where other people have been used like automatons. In fact, the increasing worry is that as China becomes a more expensive place to operate, some manufacturing is moving back to the West. A lot of clothing factories have already moved to Vietnam and Bangladesh. This is how human conditions improve. Not by increasing demand, in the way that Keynesian Western governments think things happen, but by working hard, by slogging along and creating the supply first. Sweatshops then go away naturally.

Governments, irrespective of whether they are democracies or single-party dictatorships, are institutions of heartlessness, inhumanity, and freedom from accountability.

My guess is that manufacturing that is moving back to the US is not necessarily doing that for economic reasons but to keep Obama happy and possibly to access earmarked money. It would be erroneous to think that China had lost its competitive advantages and that the short-term, democratic Western world had learned anything, for that world continues to do more of what created its current problems. I continue to be bullish about the future in China.

Except in Beijing and Shanghai, I usually pay $10 for a hostel bed or $30 for a three-star hotel. My fabulous hotel in Guangzhou has a price tag of $30, but it does offer some kind of, I think very strange, cup of coffee for $30. Only a nouveau riche Chinese or someone with a company account will pay for this. I of course don’t abuse the latter. A full meal costs $10 or less. The subway, one of the best I have seen anywhere, costs between 50 cents and 75 cents. Unless I fall for the temptation to waste money, I can live a luxurious life here for less than $50 a day.

But China is not only a place for cheap goods. It is a treasure trove for anyone seeking an education in economics. Just be prepared to accept a few Chinese idiosyncrasies. And don’t let the “communist” tag on China stop you from going there.




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North Korea: A Mirror unto Myself

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I went to North Korea.

Why?

I travel to self-reflect, to challenge my own conditioning, and to question my irrational beliefs and patterns. The more extreme my new surroundings, the more challenges my psyche gets. Laughing at others and considering them backward might be a self-satisfying reason to go abroad, but mostly futile.

Do I accept paying half of what I earn in taxes, making myself a slave for half my life and a bit more, filling up forms and chasing bureaucrats, and then make fun of others who slave under a different pretext?

Do I find women wearing veils in Islamic cultures deplorable but not girls who wear virtually nothing while lining up outside discos in the frigid night of Canada?

At the death of Princess Diana, whom I had always considered rather stupid, hundreds of thousands of people in England, a relatively sophisticated society, went into hysteria. These were exactly the same people who until a day before had lived for the next issue of the tabloids so they could practice voyeurism on the intimate details of Diana’s life. Of course there was another subgroup — of do-gooders — that was more interested in watching Diana photographed with starving African kids, while she was flying around in the most luxurious jets. Unable to see the contradictions, that subgroup firmly believed she was doing a service to society.

When Prince William and Kate Middleton visited Canada, thousands of girls wanted to touch them. When Kim Jong Il died, virtually everyone in North Korea mourned.

My question is why North Koreans should be made fun of if they grieve over the death of someone they consider their savior? The shallow thoughts of starving people are perhaps more understandable than those of people who live in comfort.

Apart from always trying to provide myself tools for understanding my own thinking as rationally as possible, I went to North Korea assuming that this last pure Communist country was not going to last for long, so I should see it while I could. And I was in for a treat, an educational one.

By keeping its troops south of border, America has given rationalizations for the Kims’ regime.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not difficult to visit North Korea. Also, I had enough to eat and felt very safe. There were spies all around, but I never felt threatened. They were normal human beings playing out their indoctrinations. Despite my initial, strong worries, the fact is that in virtually any dictatorship, you are safer than you would be elsewhere.

North Korea is developing missile and nuclear technology. I am not sure why this should merit moral condemnation, at least by the United States. I recall that not too long back, the US promised Gaddafi that he would not be attacked if he gave up biological and nuclear weapons. The promise was forgotten the moment the risk of those weapons went away.

I find it remarkable that North Koreans have partly developed such high technologies. North Korea has a population of only 24 million people; it occupies a hilly part of its peninsula, making agriculture difficult. Under sanctions it has very limited trade with outsiders, something that seriously harms and constricts its economy. And it is forced to spend an absolute fortune to defend its border. The military expenditures of its enemies at that border may be higher than the GDP of North Korea (so far as it is possible to estimate that).

I was told that I would meet very heavy-handed soldiers in North Korea. In contrast, I found it easy to have a laugh with them. And even at the DMZ, they allowed quite a bit freedom of movement. I had my arms on the soldiers when photographing with them. At the least they are just normal human beings.

It was a week later, when I went to exactly the same part of the DMZ, from the South Korean side, that I faced heavy-handedness. American soldiers dictated our moves in minute detail; we were asked not to smile at the North Korean security, because that might be taken as a hostile signal. The drama Americans create at the DMZ is their way of instilling fear in people and perhaps their way of legitimizing their presence in South Korea. By keeping its troops south of border, America has given rationalizations for the Kims’ regime.

Ironically, the room you visit at the DMZ when coming from the north is exactly the same one you visit when coming from the south; it is just that the control of that room keeps changing between the two countries. Of course despite their denials, both sides talk with each other to orchestrate events at the DMZ. The televised posturing that they do at DMZ — with alert army men — is only a show, for there is only one side present at any point of time, all based on negotiations. In the end, I could not shake off the feeling that it is not the North and the South that are enemies; it is as if the two governments and their allies ganged up together to keep fear and hostility between the two forcibly separated societies.

North Korea is a giant theater, where the actors have no recollection of the fact that they are acting.

People keep talking about the huge size of the North Korean army. In truth, a lot of work that would be classified as civilian jobs is done by the army; for example, all construction and infrastructure work is army work. You could easily halve the size of the North Korean army to compare like to like.

So do I think North Korea is a great place? Actually, it is by far the worst country I have ever visited. Its personality cult is water-tight. Its government has perfected tyranny. North Koreans have virtually no access to outside information. Even the North Korean air hostesses on their planes bound for Beijing are not allowed to leave their planes when they land there.

For a tourist, it is not possible to travel in North Korea independently. You must be escorted by two “guides” provided by the state-run travel agency. I joined a tour group from Beijing. This was almost a year ago, in April 2012, when Kim Il Sung’s centenary celebrations were being held. Wherever we went, spies followed us. We had no freedom of movement.We could not even leave our hotel unaccompanied. In fact, whatever we did was closely monitored.

Not allowed into local shops, we had to use euros or US dollars at foreigners-only tourist shops at highly elevated prices, making it impossible for any local to convert his currency into dollars and to put it to any good use. Locals not only cannot go to another city without a permit but they usually cannot even move within their cities freely. The army is everywhere and it keeps checking ID cards.

Army units are not allowed to travel much — they don't have much means of transportation anyway, making any coup almost impossible. You often see army men walking from one city to another. The nice looking vehicles that you see on TV seem mostly for propaganda purposes. The army trucks I usually saw were the broken-down old vehicles on the side of the roads.

There is virtually no concept of private property. Everyone works for the government, in a position decided by the government. Every hospital is owned by the government. Every house is owned by the government. People can own cars, but you don't see vehicles. Sometimes you can go a kilometer within the capital and not see a car.

Most North Koreans have no money left to save at the end of the month. They have no incentive to save anyway, as they can keep their savings only at the bank — remember there is no other means of investment possible — where it can be devalued at any whim of the government. Some people might save in gold, illegally, but imagine the repercussions in a country where 50% of the people have at one point or another denounced their family or friends. You can imagine what moral effect the lack of possibility to save would have on you.

Many houses have pots of beautiful flowers, particularly of the two kinds named after the Kims. They look very bright and nice. On closer inspection I realized that a lot of them are plastic.

We were taken to a laboratory filled with colorful chemicals, but all evidence showed that they were never used. It was the same with the big computer room. The keyboards had never been used.

A year or so back, all the universities were closed. Students were asked to report for road work. You can see families — parents and kids — mending roads and electricity poles outside their houses. They are asked to do this, under threat. But really they just accept it as normal life. They don’t seem to know of any other way.

All fun activities have a strong dose of patriotism and Kim-ism in them. There are statues of Kim Il Sung all over the country, statues that must be kept sparkling clean at all times. Early in the freezing morning, I could see tens of thousands of people everywhere descending, on foot or on their bikes, to the statues of Kim Il Sung to pay their respects. You might encounter a group of women singing praises of Kim Il Sung in front of a spellbound audience of locals, while I stood shivering. If one is a local, one must either sing or join the audience or go to the gulag. The system offers none of these people the option of distinguishing between enjoying what they are doing or doing it as a compulsive action. Their thinking and emotions are certainly very numbed, making North Korea a giant theater, where the actors have no recollection of the fact that they are acting.

A North Korean citizen can exist only by complete subversion of his humanity in the interest of the state.

Locals are mostly kept out of the way of tourists. But sometimes actors and actresses appear to create a fake environment for outsiders. You might see a group of locals playing “tourist” at the DMZ, when you know you did not see any tourist bus apart from yours. At the store, you might see a couple of women in traditional clothes browsing the books — all of them “written” by the Kims — and when you turned back after leaving you would see them switching off the lights. At the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, everything is new and fake. The furniture, the cutlery, the walls and the thatched roof cannot be more than a few years old. But perhaps everything touched by Kim Il Sung defies aging.

North Korea is a true 1984, and may even have exceeded it. Piped revolutionary music from loudspeakers installed all over the city is virtually compulsory for everyone. You wake up with it. The same music runs on the TV and, it seems, the locals must switch it on as soon as they wake up. The only vehicles that look in decent shape are propaganda vehicles, with loudspeakers on top of them. A citizen can exist only by complete subversion of his humanity in the interest of the state. He must from his birth learn thought control, or life would be unbearable and a continuous reminder of humiliation.

I have been to Myanmar (in 1996 at the height of its military dictatorship), Laos (where I traveled with early-teen insurgents), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Belarus, and so on. But none has the kind of perfect tyranny and lack of personal freedom that North Korea has established.

I feel sorry for North Koreans. I don't travel to feel better than other people. I do it to understand human nature, mostly mine. And it is sad that in North Korea virtually everyone has been made a puppet and a parrot. It is a totalitarian state on top of cultural Confucianism. The elites have structured it so well that I can see no way for any revolution to happen. And people's minds have been so indoctrinated and their development so constrained that they would feel hugely insecure about not having a firm leader. But that is exactly the path the West is increasingly on now, isn't it? The irony is that Western people laugh at North Korea but cannot see themselves in the mirror.




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Democracy: A Western Religion

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On November 21, a Mumbai political goon, Bal Thackeray, died. His party, or gang, is so formidable that the state has, for decades, bent its rule to accommodate its members. If they want the city closed, the police take the lead in closing it, to avoid violence. If you challenge the gang, the police put you under “protective custody.” For decades his gang has extracted protection money. You cannot speak his name without showing the highest possible respect, unless you want to get beaten up, sometimes very ruthlessly.

When Thackeray died, his gang instructed the city to be closed. Everyone who was someone in Mumbai — actors, sportsmen, businessmen, politicians (even of the opposing parties) — had to go to his funeral to pay his condolences. If any had not, he would have had to explain to the gang or leave Mumbai and see his career destroyed.

One girl posted this message on her Facebook page and another “liked” it:

With all respect, every day, thousands of people die, but still the world moves on. Just due to one politician died a natural death, everyone just goes bonkers. They should know, we are resilient by force, not by choice. When was the last time, did anyone showed some respect or even a two-minute silence for Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Azad, Sukhdev or any of the people because of whom we are free-living Indians? Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced. Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect.

The two Facebook girls were arrested, their faces covered by the police, and the court asked them to be imprisoned. Unless they want to be raped and then beaten up, they are unlikely to return to Mumbai. Even their extended families might have to leave Mumbai now. Not easily given to tears, I had some. These girls deserved the respect of society. For me they are heroes despite the fact that they erroneously believed they were “free-living Indians.”

These were two cute, educated, middle-class girls, so their case came out in public. In rural India, however, events like these are non-events. There the normal guy lives in utter fear of the police and the local strongman and must grovel. He talks with folded hands and bent head. He has no sense of his rights. He accepts what he can get away with. He concedes what the local strongman wants.

Those Westerners who visit only Mumbai and who can never stop comparing India’s democracy (with some mystical favorable connotations) to Chinese dictatorship (with only evil connotations) should have seen that India is not a country of the rule of law, unless you employ million-dollar lawyers.

Really we see what we want to see, what fits in with our pre-conceived notions. Given that Western people fanatically believe in their religion of democracy, they will rationalize the Mumbai incident as a case of India’s “aggressive” democracy. There are hundreds of recorded protests in China every year. The same people who have very romantic opinions about India call protests in China a sign of the fragile nature of its “dictatorship.” Then they proceed to contradict themselves by saying that there is no freedom of speech in China. They find reasons why China’s economic progress is not real or why China is not a free country, as it would be, were it a democracy.

Recently in China, a very well-known, successful businessman, who was taking me around rural places, told me why he did not want his country to become a democracy. He said that if local democracy were encouraged in China, it would very rapidly make China a place run by strongmen. He described how this would void whatever “rule of law,” predictability, and stability now exists. China is not a perfect country, and I do recognize that my guide wants dictatorship to continue for his personal interests, but I couldn’t agree with him more.

p




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Cambodia: Not to Be Forgotten

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The Nazis killed Jews, Gypsies, gays, Polish cavalry, retarded people, and assorted other specific groups, intending to annihilate them. The Khmer Rouge killed anyone and everyone, indiscriminately, to make “ecologically sound” fertilizer.

First, the raw materials for the fertilizer — human beings — were made to dig a giant trench. Second, they were made to kneel along the edge. Third, Khmer Rouge soldiers went from one to another ”useless mouth” delivering a sharp blow with an axe to the nape of the neck — to save ammunition.

Over the first layer of bodies, rice husks would be spread, followed by a sprinkling of gasoline. This procedure would be repeated, layer upon layer, until the pit was full. It was then set ablaze. After the pit cooled, the bones were separated from the ashes, ground on giant mortars and pestles, then recombined with the ashes and packaged in jute sacks to fertilize paddy fields.

Denise Affonco, an ethnic Eurasian French citizen, was convinced by her husband, a Vietnamese Communist, to stay in Phnom Penh and welcome the liberators. She lost everything, including her entire extended family, except one son. Hers is a story of a miraculous four-year survival under the Khmer Rouge’s countryside resettlement policy.

What makes this book special is that there aren’t many Cambodian genocide survival stories in English. It is a miracle that the story has been written and published. Days after they arrived to liberate her, the Vietnamese insisted — and paid her — to record an account of her four years in hell, to be used in a subsequent trial-in-absentia of Pol Pot and Ieng Sery. She did; and as an afterthought squirreled away a carbon copy of what she had written. Twenty-five years later, in Paris, she heard an academic opine that the Khmer Rouge did “nothing but good” for Cambodia. She then realized it was time to publish her account.

The book has the immediacy of something written on the fly. There are quite a few translation and run-of-the-mill typos, but they do not detract — you’ll not easily lay it down. Reportage Press is a small UK outfit. A portion of the proceeds are contributed to a scholarship fund, set up in memory of Affonco’s daughter, who died of starvation. The book is available from Amazon and Amazon.uk.


Editor's Note: Review of "To the End of Hell: One Woman’s Struggle to Survive Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge," by Denise Affonco. Reportage Press, 2005, 165 pages.



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