If Cuba needed a Berlin Wall, Fidel Castro would have built one. Fortunately for him—though not for his much-abused subjects—one of the world’s last communist regimes is surrounded on all sides by water, cruelly trapping its people. Thus Castro’s totalitarian state, Cuban exile Humberto Fontova wrote, “gave rise to psychic cripples beyond the imagining of even Orwell or Huxley: people who hate the sight of the sea.”
But the sea can’t restrain all of them. Thousands have shoved off into the water on devices as small as inner tubes, desperately seeking refuge in the United States. One in three die attempting to cross the Florida Straits, either from drowning, thirst, shark attacks, or exposure.
Until recently, possessing anything that might float could get a person thrown into prison. Things are slightly more relaxed now, so the likes of bicycle tires aren’t contraband, but Cubans still aren’t allowed to use boats. Only tourists can enjoy such subversive luxuries.
Try—just try—to imagine how repressive a government has to be before thousands of its citizens will risk death in order to flee and where millions more would rather reside within the borders of their home country’s worst enemy.
It’s no mystery why so many want out. Cuba’s human rights record is by far the most dismal in the Western Hemisphere, and as a predictable consequence has triggered one of the largest refugee crises in the hemisphere. I can think of nothing positive to say about Fulgencio Batista, the tyrant who preceded Castro, but at least he didn’t drive people en masse into the sea. Faint praise, to be sure, but I can’t say even that much about Castro.
It’s a unique story in the Western Hemisphere, but a familiar one elsewhere in the world.
Totalitarianism is a radical departure from the standard-issue authoritarianism of men like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the Chinese communists-turned-capitalists currently ensconced in Beijing, and the former Shah of Iran. Jeanne Kirkpatrick explained the difference in a landmark essay in Commentary in 1979.
“Traditional autocrats,” she wrote, “leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other resources which in most traditional societies favor an affluent few and maintain masses in poverty. But they worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos. They do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill. Such societies create no refugees.
“Precisely the opposite is true of revolutionary Communist regimes. They create refugees by the million because they claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands in the remarkable expectation that their attitudes, values, and goals will ‘fit’ better in a foreign country than in their native land.”
Communism isn’t the only ideology that produces such explosive results. Hitler’s Nazi regime did the same, as do radical Islamists when they seize power. Iran’s Islamic Republic regime triggered such an enormous refugee crisis that the Westwood area of Los Angeles (where almost a million exiles reside) is nicknamed Tehrangeles.
And you’re almost as likely to hear Spanish spoken in South Florida as English.
“There is a damning contrast between the number of refugees created by Marxist regimes and those created by other autocracies,” Kirkpatrick wrote. “More than a million Cubans have left their homeland since Castro’s rise (one refugee for every nine inhabitants) as compared to about 35,000 each from Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. In Africa more than five times as many refugees have fled Guinea and Guinea Bissau as have left Zimbabwe Rhodesia, suggesting that civil war and racial discrimination are easier for most people to bear than Marxist-style liberation.”
Paul Berman, in his masterful book Terror and Liberalism, wrote one of the best descriptions of totalitarian movements I’ve ever read. In a single paragraph he managed to describe fascists, Nazis, communists, and Islamists simultaneously and captures why so many ordinary citizens can’t coexist with them.
“Each of the movements,” he wrote, “in their lush variety, entertained a set of ideas that pointed in the same direction. The shared ideas were these: There exists a people of good who in a just world ought to enjoy a sound and healthy society. But society's health has been undermined by a hideous infestation from within, something diabolical, which is aided by external agents from elsewhere in the world. The diabolical infestation must be rooted out. Rooting it out will require bloody internal struggles, capped by gigantic massacres. It will require an all-out war against the foreign allies of the inner infestation—an apocalyptic war, perhaps even Apocalyptic with a capital A. (The Book of the Apocalypse, as André Glucksmann has pointed out, does seem to have played a remote inspirational role in generating these twentieth-century doctrines.) But when the inner infestation has at last been rooted out and the external foe has been defeated, the people of good shall enjoy a new society purged of alien elements—a healthy society no longer subject to the vibrations of change and evolution, a society with a single, blocklike structure, solid and eternal.”
Ideas such as these are not indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. They are imports from the old world.
I recently spoke to political science professor Alfred Cuzán at the University of West Florida, himself an exile from Cuba. “Latin America had a liberal golden age from the last quarter in the 19th century and into the early 20th century,” he said. “But after World War I they were infected with the European ideologies of fascism and communism that seemed to be the wave of the future at that time. And they haven’t quite shaken it. They also have the traditions of populism and demagogic caudillos like Juan Peron in Argentina. These kinds of regimes always have a caudillo-like figure that can exploit the yawning social and economic inequalities that persist in Latin America.”
His family fled to the United States when he was a kid, but he remembers the journey and everything that led up to it vividly.
“For the first few months of 1959,” he told me, “we had high expectations. Castro said he was going to restore democracy. The middle class went back to work and their private lives, lulled into complacency by Castro’s reassuring words and the respectable people appointed to a provisional government—a facade, really, that he had put in place. Those who were paying attention to what the Castros were doing, however, picked up the signals.”
Castro said he didn’t want a top government job. He only wanted to be commander-in-chief of the army. But the prime minister resigned within two months and Castro took over, and a few months later he drove the president out. He sentenced one of his commanders to 20 years in prison for criticizing communist infiltration—which only goes to show it was worse than he had any idea.
“In the spring of 1959,” Cuzán said, “a friend of my father who had been a member of the Granma expedition told him that the army was being indoctrinated with communist literature. Also, one of my cousins, who was around 20 years old, complained to his parents about a similar development at university. Most people did not know it at the time, but as it had turned out, the Castros had imported Spanish-speaking Soviet agents into Cuba very early in 1959.
“The middle class was initially blind to all this. Life for the middle class before communism was fairly idyllic. We were not rich. We didn’t even own a house. Instead, we rented a unit in a triplex. I attended a small Catholic school in the neighborhood. Our life centered in the extended family and a few family friends. Even as agitation against Batista increased, the middle class could manage to avoid being dragged into it. Cuba had a long tradition of turbulent politics, with eruptions in the 1900s, the 1930s and, of course, the 1950s. But politics didn’t intrude all that much into our family. With the Castros, all that was about to change, for our extended family, as so many in Cuba, was split under their totalitarian regime.”
I asked him what, specifically, triggered his family’s decision to leave the country. The broad strokes are obvious, of course, but it took some Cubans longer than others to figure out what was happening. Cuzán’s family noticed it early.
“There was a decided change in the political climate from 1959 to 1960,” he said. “Early in the second year Anastas Mikoyan, a Soviet Politburo member, arrived in Havana, supposedly on a trade mission. Before the year was out all Cuban media was under Castro’s control and fiery denunciations of the United States were the order of the day. So by that time anybody who had eyes to see and ears to hear could divine where the country was headed. We could tell that Castro was hell bent on imposing a dictatorship with the help of the Soviet Union, so we felt we had to get out before the exits were shut. Many people realized what was coming and did everything they could to leave to any country that would have them, the United States being the preferred destination for most. We tried to get a visa to come directly to the United States, but the lines to file an application were incredibly long. My mother spent hours in a slow-moving line, but it never moved far enough that she could get into the embassy. So she wrote to her uncle in Mexico and he helped us get visas. Once in Mexico we applied to come to the United States as residents. We arrived here in 1961.”
At least Cuzán got to leave with his family.
In the early 1960s, under a project called Operation Peter Pan, 14,000 Cuban children were sent alone by their parents to the United States, not because they weren’t wanted or loved, but because their parents would rather permanently break up their families than have their children suffer a lifetime of repression. Castro gladly cooperated because, as one of his henchmen later admitted, “anything that broke up the bourgeois family was music to our ears.”
The regime later let Cuban adults leave the country in order to relieve itself of the internal pressure.
In 1980, Hector Sanyustiz and three of his friends crashed a bus through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy. Cuban guards opened fire, but they made it past and requested political asylum.
The Cuban government demanded Peru hand over the asylum seekers, but Lima told Havana to shove it.
When Cuban citizens heard what happened, 10,000 people swarmed the embassy grounds and likewise demanded asylum.
Castro had a serious crisis on his hands. His very legitimacy was at stake. He knew as well as you and I do that this sort of thing is unthinkable in a properly functioning and prosperous liberal democracy. Citizens of the United States, Canada, Belgium, Chile, and New Zealand are not clamoring by the thousands to flee persecution by their own government.
So Castro said, fine, anyone who wants to leave can leave—a wise move on his part. He needed these people out of his hair. And he needed to be able to say later that everyone who wanted to leave Cuba had left. (An obvious lie, but that never stopped him.)
More than 100,000 people sailed to Florida on American boats from the Mariel port with the Cuban government’s blessing. Castro also packed ships with criminals and the mentally insane—again, to get them out of his hair, but also because it was an easy way to poke the United States.
Hardly anyone wants to move to Cuba. People vote with their feet. Before Castro took over, Cuba was richer than half of Europe and accepted more immigrants from the old world per capita than the United States. Today not even Haitians bother to seek refuge there anymore. Americans sure as hell aren’t clamoring to move down there, though Havana used to have a sizeable American population before it went off the rails.
There have been a handful of exceptions, however.
In 1971, Garland Grant, a member of the Black Panthers, hijacked a flight from Milwaukee to Washington DC and demanded to be taken to Algeria, a Soviet-style military dictatorship and a client of Moscow’s. But the plane didn’t have enough fuel, so he said “Take me to Havana” instead.
He was arrested on arrival for air piracy and thrown into prison. Guards beat him mercilessly and he lost an eye.
Grant would never have gone there had he known he’d be sent directly to jail, nor would he have gone if he had the first clue what the place is really like. He swallowed all the bullshit about the island being a worker’s paradise and was shocked to discover, when the authorities let him out, that he’d been released from one prison only to discover the entire country is a prison.
“I just want to get back to the United States,” he told a reporter in downtown Havana. “I’m living like a dog in Cuba. There are more racism problems here than in the worst parts of Mississippi. I’ve been in the place six years and I’m out of my mind. Believe me, I’m all for the United States now. I’d even wear a Nixon button.” He did finally return home and spent more time in prison. He lives now as a chastened free man in Wisconsin and will not speak to the media.
Armando Valladares is convinced that Fidel Castro’s hatred of the United States partly explains his longevity.
“The old dictator’s proximity to the U.S.,” he wrote in his book, Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag, “and his confrontational attitude have given him undeserved support from the press, governments, politicians, and intellectuals of this hemisphere. I believe that if Castro had established his dictatorship in Africa or Asia, far from the U.S., he would have disappeared years ago.”
Cuba wouldn’t even need to be located in Asia or Africa for Castro to have disappeared years ago. It’s entirely possible that if the country’s geography were different—if it had a land border with another nation, or if it weren’t so near the United States, that the regime could have been dispensed with already. Surely it would be history if it were located in Europe alongside so many now-formerly communist countries, none of which long outlasted the fall of the Wall, not even Enver Hoxha’s in Albania, which was considerably nastier than Castro’s.
Yet the regime shambles on, zombie-like, and things aren’t likely to get much better any time soon if the government has its way.
I visited Cuba on a tourist visa and couldn’t book interviews with officials, but I managed to speak to one anyway. His name is Carlos Alzugaray Treto. He is a former ambassador and now a professor, and he gave a lecture at my hotel.
I put him under surveillance. Why not? His government puts everyone else under surveillance, including foreigners, so he has no right to complain. It was easy. All I had to do was clandestinely press “record” on my iPhone.
He was speaking in public, so he wasn’t strictly under surveillance I guess, but he had no idea I’m a journalist or that I intended to quote him. And not content to just passively sit there in the audience, I repeatedly pressed him as though I were formally interviewing him. It was my only chance to ask hard questions while I was in Cuba. He was a good sport about it, too, so I felt a little bit dirty for recording him without his knowledge and without telling him I’m a journalist. So I contacted him when I got home, told him what I had done, and asked for permission to quote him. He said fine. So here we are.
His lecture was about relations between the Cuban and American governments. He also spoke about relations between the Cuban government and its people, and what he said at first even sounded encouraging.
“We are in the middle of a reform process in Cuba,” he said. “We need to change the minds of people and the way they have been accustomed over the last fifty years to deal with their problems. The government is saying we have to change, to open up to a more market-oriented economy, and we have to decentralize. We have to open public spaces for debate. We’ve been working on this for the last ten years.
“I wouldn’t say everyone here supports the government,” he continued, “but many people do support the government and are happy with the government and think the government should stay. Yesterday I met with a bunch of university kids who saw a documentary called Offline, about the fact that there is no Internet in Cuba. They were complaining about it. These things are happening. The Cuban leaders are not stupid. They know what they’re dealing with.”
A Cuban restaurant for locals (not tourists)
That sounds nice and all, and it’s true that the government is implementing micro-capitalist reforms, but don’t kid yourself into believing political reform is coming. It isn’t. The regime will not share power. He admitted it openly.
Before I asked him anything, though, he spent a good deal of time complaining about the Republican Party in the United States. Anti-Castro policies have always been bipartisan in Congress, but at the same time the Cuban government has always had friends on the far-left fringe in the United States, and the Republicans are more vocally anti-Castro than the Democrats, so naturally he spared the Democrats and slagged the Republicans. And he spoke about inter-party and intra-party squabbling in such a way that suggests he’s better informed about American politics and where each party stands than even most Americans. So he set himself up for my first question.
I raised my hand. “You’re talking about the tension within and between the two American political parties, and I can’t help but wonder when Cuba is going to have the same problems. When are you going to have multi-party elections? If you take just that one step, so many issues here will work themselves out, not only internally but also with your relations with the United States. The United States would lift the embargo immediately.”
His answer wasn’t encouraging.
“The problem here is this,” he said. “Most people believe it was Fidel Castro who eliminated the political parties. But that’s not what happened. Batista destroyed Cuba’s political parties.”
“That was a long time ago,” I said. “The current government also doesn’t allow other parties.” He can’t blame that on Batista, who has been out of power longer than I’ve been alive.
“It’s not a question of allowing political parties or not,” he said. “It’s a question of allowing free opinion or not. The government allows a lot of free opinion. There is more free opinion here than you would believe.”
Oh, I half believe him. Every Cuban I met—present company excepted, of course—who breathed even a word about the government had nothing nice whatsoever to say. I heard nothing—nothing at all—but complaints. The Castros remained unmentioned, as was Che Guevara, but support for the government in general seems in my anecdotal experience to have evaporated entirely.
“I am a member of the Communist Party,” he said. “Some people tell me I’ve moved beyond that, but I am a member of the party. And I discuss things inside the party. I debate. I have opinions. Sometimes I have opinions that go directly against the majority, but here I am. Nobody has told me I have to leave the party because I’m saying things against the party line. Nobody tells me that. And whenever there is a discussion, I say what I think. Do I think there should be political parties? This is a question that’s on the table, but I don’t know how that would work, how we would do it.”
“Every other country in the entire Western Hemisphere has more than one political party,” I said. “Cuba is the only exception.”
“Something is starting to happen here,” he said. “We’re seeing countries that are friendly to Cuba that have multi-party systems, and that’s new for us. It will probably have some influence in Cuba. Some people here are saying yes. But it’s not on the agenda.”
He tried, and failed, to make me feel like I’m excessively America-centric.
“You come from a political culture that associates political systems with multi-party elections,” he said.
“Latin America has the same political culture,” I said. “Except here in Cuba.”
“But it failed,” he said. “The political systems in Latin America have all failed and they’ve been reconstructing themselves. It’s when the left has achieved power—in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia—that things have changed in Latin America.”
Things have certainly changed in Latin America when the far-left achieved power. But things have not gotten better. They’ve only gotten better when the far-left and the far-right have been removed from power and replaced with mainstream center-left and center-right parties, as in Panama, Costa Rica, and Chile.
“Think about this,” he said. “One of the problems in Cuba is the United States still supports only certain kinds of Cubans. I have been denied visas to visit the United States several times, but Yoani Sanchez always gets the visa.”
He’s referring to dissident blogger and author of the outstanding book, Havana Real, whom I’ve quoted before. Sanchez was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the entire world. Her book was blurbed by Barack Obama.
“She is never denied a visa,” he said. “She goes to the United States and is welcomed. She’s the icon of the opposition. She gets to meet people in the White House and the Secretary of State for Latin America. The best I could get is meetings with lower officials in the State Department. Come on. I am a 70-year old scholar in Cuba. I’ll bet more people know about me and what I say here in Cuba than have heard of Yoani Sanchez. She’s traveling all over the place, but do people read her?”
This from a man who has 112 followers on Twitter. Sanchez has 556,000. She’s much more widely read outside Cuba than he is.
But of course Cubans don’t read her. How could they? She’s a blogger and the government denies them Internet access. Communist Party newspapers sure as hell aren’t going to give her a column. Bookstores can’t stock Havana Real until the Castro regime is overthrown or reformed out of all recognition.
“We have invited her to our debates,” he said. “She once went with a blonde wig so she could fool everyone, but we all knew it was her. The person moderating the panel said Yoani Sanchez has the right to talk, but you know what she did? She said what she said and then she left. She didn’t stay to hear what people had to say about what she said. So I don’t think she’s very democratic, really.”
My face flushed red. “Cuba is a one-party state,” I said. “An official from a one-party state shouldn’t tell a dissident that she’s not democratic.”
He tolerated my questions and criticism. I’ll give him that much.
And I had one more question to ask him. What does he think about the fact that a million and a half Cubans live in the United States thanks to his government’s policies and that millions more want to join them?
“How many Puerto Ricans live in New York?” he said.
A clever response! He’s suggesting that the United States also can’t govern a Caribbean island well enough that people wish to stay, therefore it’s unfair to single out Cuba for doing no better.
I have no doubt he has used that line plenty of times to good effect, but it’s a dodge. A clever dodge, but a dodge. He might as well ask how many people from Kansas live in New York.
“Puerto Ricans are Americans,” I said. “And Americans move around. New York is full of people from other parts of America. When Puerto Ricans move to New York, it’s internal migration, no different, really, than Minnesotans moving to California or New Yorkers retiring in Florida.”
He nodded and smiled. It was a nice try, but I had him.
Visiting Cuba as a journalist without permission and under the radar is about hanging out and casually interacting with as many people as possible and patiently waiting for moments of truth. Those moments build up over time.
I met a Cuban woman in her early twenties. She told me she had 35 people in her high school class. Only seven still live in the country. Everyone else has left, including her boyfriend, who lives in New York.
He didn’t abandon her. They’re still “together,” though a long distance relationship can’t be easy to manage, especially since one of them is isolated behind the regime’s wall of water and iron. She plans to leave, too, when she can scrape up enough money to get herself to Mexico and from there to the United States.
I asked if she risked getting in trouble by talking about such things in public, though we spoke in English rather than Spanish, which offered her at least some protection from listening ears.
She shrugged. “Everyone wants to leave,” she said, “and the government knows it, so it doesn’t matter anymore if anyone hears.”
“How many people here actually want to move to the U.S.?” I said.
Her eyes widened and she looked at me like I was stupid even for asking. “A hundred percent,” she said. “Well, maybe not a hundred, but close.”
Yeah, maybe not a hundred. Fidel and Raul Castro are no doubt happy to stay. Che Guevara’s grandson Canek Sanchez left, though. He’s in Mexico now, calls himself an anarchist, and fumes against the regime. He is not allowed to return.
“People get to a certain point in life here and that’s it,” she said. “We’re done. We have to leave.”
The entire country has a glass ceiling and it’s only an inch off the floor. It doesn’t take long to reach that level, I’d imagine. She’s a lot younger than I am and reached it years ago.
I met another Cuban woman who is considerably older than I am. She told me she was in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell.
“What did you think about that at the time?” I said.
I expected her to say she was thrilled, but instead she said she was terrified.
“I thought it was brought down by enemy action,” she said. “You have to understand, I was ideologically conditioned. But that didn’t last. I was stunned to see that on the other side of the wall were not enemy soldiers, but friends and relatives of the East Germans.”
“Why didn’t the same thing happen here?” I said.
She paused before answering and lowered her voice. “The government had total control,” she said. “It still has total control. It has more control over Cuba than the Stasi had in East Germany. Of course, the government didn’t want us to know the Wall fell. I only knew because I was there. The government treats us like babies.”
She looked at me with quiet desperation. I could read it in her eyes and on her face. Body language is the same across cultures and time. She is no longer ideologically conditioned. Her facial expression said help. She’s trapped, possibly for the rest of her life, and she knows now what’s on the other side. But I can do nothing, and my hands shook when we parted.
Humans disagree with each other constantly. There’s no avoiding it. Mature societies design mechanisms for handling it—political parties, scheduled elections, the separation of powers, civil society organizations, trade unions, space for public debate, impartial courts that uphold the Rule of Law rather than the rule of a man or a junta. Cuba has none of these. It has an omnipotent overlord with his minions and his army.
In a way, I am excessively American. My country mounted a revolution against a tyranny far less oppressive than Castro’s. Anti-authoritarianism is culturally hard-wired into my being. I felt suffocated and claustrophobic in Cuba after a while, like I was never alone, like I was a mere ant in a gigantic machine.
The longer I stayed, the more I yearned to get out of this perpetually hot and humid prison and back to my mild and gentle Pacific Northwest where tyranny has been forever unknown and where the government is a government and not a regime.
I won’t go back any time soon. Why would I want to go back to a place where people are literally dying to leave? The government won’t let me in anyway, not if any officials discovered my work and put me on a list. They won’t give me a journalist visa. That’s for damn sure.
But I don’t care if the government blacklists me because I will not return to Cuba until it is free.
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