Ukraine's Opportunity for Genuine Democracy

After 23 years of formal independence, Ukraine stands poised to take the final steps toward genuine independence by liberating itself from what has become the legacy of Soviet communism throughout its former empire—rule by criminal and thuggish regimes and oligarchs. Ukraine finally has the opportunity to join the civilized world where constitutions and rule of law, not party hacks and bullies, reign supreme.

Italy's New PM and Old Unemployment Problem

With a 2 trillion euro public debt and thousands of companies going out of business, Italy isn’t exactly the most attractive venue for a leftist political leader of overweening ambition. And yet within almost no time, Matteo Renzi, a virtual unknown, grabbed Italy’s helm, having deftly ousted his do-nothing predecessor, Enrico Letta.

Here you have to ask yourself: why? Why would Renzi, or in fact anyone, want the job of running Italy, much less push out a member of his own party, as Renzi did, in order to get it?  Unemployment among young people—traditionally pretty high because employees in Italy are almost impossible to fire—is now at its highest: 42 percent.

Venezuela Violence and Latin America's Divide

The outbreak of serious political violence in Venezuela has illuminated the ideological fracture that divides Latin America and thwarts regional efforts to increase economic development through cooperation in trade and investments. Another reminder came last week when the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) between United States, Mexico, and Canada celebrated its 20th anniversary as an engine of growth that has produced, as of last year, a total annual trade of $17 trillion, making it one of the world’s largest trade unions, comparable to the European Union. In contrast, over the same two decades, the Common Market of the South (Mercosur), the main South American regional integration pact, involving Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela, has bogged down in economic disorder and internal political disputes that prevent opening up those economies through free trade with European and Asian partners.

The Only Way Out Is Exile

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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Israel and the 'Boycott, Divest, Sanction' Bandwagon

“Why should Israel, a nuclear power with a strong economy, feel so vulnerable to a nonviolent human rights movement?” the disingenuous Omar Barghouti wrote in a New York Times op-ed last month. Barghouti is a Palestinian human rights advocate and a big backer of an angry movement that has come to be called BDS, which stands for a three-part strategy: boycott, divest, sanction.

The aims of the BDS movement, which got going in 2005 but only recently reached its apogee of international fame—when poor Scarlett Johansson was basically told she was no longer welcome as the beautiful face of Oxfam because she isn’t boycotting Israel at all—are several. Some are absolutely straightforward and possible, and some—as BDS and Barghouti and a whole lot of others well know—are anything but.

An Excellent Resource on Ukraine

I spent a week in Ukraine a few years back when I traveled by car from the Polish border through Lviv to Kiev and down to Odessa and Yalta. I wrote about it at length in my book, Where the West Ends. So I feel obligated to write about it now that the capital is on fire.

Kiev is a magnificent city, and it pains me to see it like this, but I should not be surprised. Almost every country I’ve ever written about is either in hell, has only recently recovered from hell, or is on its way to hell. I hoped when I visited Ukraine that it was on its way out, but I did not have a good feeling about it, as you’ll recall if you read my book.

I’m reluctant to wade in as an analyst, though, because I don’t know the country on an intimate nuts-and-bolts level. Let me instead outsource my analysis to my World Affairs colleague Alexander Motyl who writes about nothing else. I do know the country well enough to say that what he writes seems exactly right to me.

Here’s an excerpt from one of his recent essays where he takes issue with Orlando Figes who says Ukraine should break into pieces because it’s diverse.

Figes, who should know better coming from the UK, writes about Ukraine’s divisions as if they were unique and as if diversity alone justified or led to breakup. He’s wrong on both counts. Ukraine’s diversity is pretty much the norm for all stable states everywhere.

Is there one United States or are the divisions between North and South and Red and Blue states indicative of many Americas? Try telling the Quebeckers that there is only one Canada. Is there one Germany—or two (East Germany and West Germany) or several (Bavaria, the Rhineland, Berlin, and the rest)? Needless to say, there are many Russias—one centered on the Moscow-Petersburg axis, another in Siberia, yet a third in the Far East. And that’s not even counting the non-Russian regions of the Russian Federation. How many Turkeys are there? I can name at least three: secular Istanbul, conservative Anatolia, and the Kurdish east. China? Go tell the Tibetans and Uighurs they’re Han Chinese. India? Let’s not even go there. Austria? Vienna, as anyone who’s been to the country knows, is a world apart from the Tyrol. Perhaps Italy is one country? Take a train from Milano to Palermo and then answer the question. Surely France is one? Mais, non—as the Bretons, Basques, Provençals, Parisians, and many others can tell you. Isn’t Israel a homogeneously Jewish state? Only if you disregard the Arabs and the enormous distinctions between secular and religious, Sephardic and Ashkenazy Jews. And so on and so forth. The only country that may be “one” country is, possibly, Japan, and that may be because it’s an island state.


What is unusual about contemporary Ukraine is that it’s exploited by a criminal gangster regime—Yanukovych’s— in cahoots with another criminal gangster regime—Putin’s. Many countries have the misfortune of being misruled by homegrown camarillas. Many countries have the misfortune of being dominated by predator states. Ukraine has the double misfortune of being misruled at home and “mis-dominated” abroad.

That’s why Figes’s suggestion—“Ukraine ought to consider applying a precedent from elsewhere in eastern Europe: deciding the country’s fate by referendum”—wouldn’t work. Personally, I have no doubt that Ukraine without its southeast would be much stronger, more stable, and more prosperous than Ukraine with its southeast. The southeast’s rust-belt economy needs either to be shut down entirely or to be refitted at the cost of trillions of dollars of non-existent investments. Moreover, the statistics plainly show that Kyiv subsidizes the Donbas, and not vice versa. The southeast also has a low birth rate, a high death rate, low life expectancy, high energy consumption, and high AIDS and crime rates. Last but not least, the southeast is home to the ruling Party of Regions and the Communist Party. Remove the southeast and Ukraine’s treasury experiences an immediate boon; its demographics, energy consumption, and health improve; and its politics automatically become more democratic and less corrupt.

Although lopping off the Donbas would benefit the rest of Ukraine, Yanukovych’s mafia regime desperately needs Ukraine to be whole. If Luhansk and Donetsk were to split away, their rust-belt economy would collapse without Kyiv’s financial support and the Regionnaires, trapped in their polluted bailiwick, would have nothing to steal. And what would Yanukovych’s multibillionaire pal, Rinat Akhmetov, do without easy access to Ukraine’s resources? A similar logic holds for Putin. What would he do with a rotten slice of Ukraine—a kind of mega Transnistria? Subsidize its dead-end economy? Spend valuable time and resources on jailing the corrupt Regionnaires and the troglodyte Communists? No, a weak Yanukovych regime in a weak Ukraine serves Putin’s interests perfectly.

There’s a lot more where that came from, so go over there, read, and scroll.

Japan’s Gigantic Stockpile of Plutonium

On Monday, Beijing said it was “extremely concerned” that Japan had resisted returning more than 300 kilograms of plutonium, most of it weapons-grade, to the United States. The material, purchased from America in the 1960s for research purposes, is enough to make 50 nuclear weapons.

Some think Tokyo will agree to hand back the fissile material in March, at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague. Even if it does so, the loss will hardly put a dent in its stockpile: the Japanese possess 44 tons of plutonium. Three-quarters of this fissile material is stored in other countries, but Japan has kept 10 tons on its own soil. Those 10 tons are enough to build about 1,500 nuclear weapons. 

Ukraine's Day of Infamy

Tuesday, February 18, 2014, will go down in European history as a day of infamy. It was then that Viktor Yanukovych declared war on his own people.

In retrospect, his decision to kill and maim Ukrainians looks inevitable. In 2010, he arrogated to himself the powers of a sultan. Thereafter, he progressively dismantled all of Ukraine’s democratic institutions and undermined all its freedoms. Finally, he and his cronies systematically looted the country to the tune of more than $10 billion. Having consistently treated the Ukrainian people as second-class citizens whose sole function consisted in serving the needs of the ruling Regionnaires, Yanukovych finally took his disdain for the nation to its logical conclusion: he began to butcher them.

Yanukovych claims that he is Ukraine’s legitimate president, that the protesters reject the constitutional solutions that he, the supposed moderate, supports, and that they are responsible for the violence. Don’t believe him for a second.

Let's Be Honest About Syria

Predicting events in the Middle East is for the most part a fool’s game, but once in a while it’s easy. When the Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Assad began, I warned that it the country would likely become Al Qaeda’s next project if Assad wasn’t quickly deposed.

It has happened before. Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, and Algeria have all been grotesquely disfigured by radical Islamists during protracted civil wars. Al Qaeda and like-minded extremists even volunteered to fight in Bosnia and Kosovo against Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian nationalist paramilitaries. More than 1,000 so-called “Afghan Arab” veterans of Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet Union were initially welcomed in Bosnia since no one else offered to help, but the bin Ladenists were rebuffed in Kosovo when NATO stepped in instead.

It was also clear, in the Syrian case, that if the United States and Europe would not at least try to oust Assad indirectly through proxies, that the Saudis and other illiberal Gulf Arab states would back their own proxies.

And that’s exactly what happened. The US did nothing, the conflict festered and worsened, and now an Iranian-backed state-sponsor of terrorism (Assad) is in a fight to the death with Al Qaeda and other like-minded jihadists. Syrian moderates are too outgunned and outnumbered to affect the outcome at this point.

I thought we should get involved in a limited capacity by backing moderate regime opponents when they still had a chance, but the White House didn’t want to, nor did the American public—not after Iraq and Afghanistan—so here we are. Perhaps it was inevitable considering everyone’s interests and mood.

And now that we’re here, staying out of it is the right call. We can’t back Assad, and we can’t back Al Qaeda. Whatever moderate forces still exist have been marginalized. The odds that a stable and non-hostile Syria can emerge after an Assad or a jihadist victory are zero.

So let’s be honest about it. We’re not doing anything real about Syria, we were never going to do anything real about Syria, nor will we do anything real in the future. Pretending otherwise just makes us look like bumbling incompetents at best.

Here is Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest:

The President can only count his one remaining blessing: the press is still busy trying to shield itself from understanding the full damage this administration’s painfully inept Syria policy has done. Our Syria response has harmed America’s position, our alliances in the Middle East, and our relationships around the world — to say nothing of the humanitarian disaster we’ve implicated ourselves in.

To bluster heroically about how ‘Assad must go’, then do nothing as he stays; to epically proclaim grandiose red lines and make military threats that fall humiliatingly flat; to grasp with pathetic eagerness an obviously bogus Russian negotiating ploy; to sputter ineffectually as the talks collapse…it is rare that American diplomacy is conducted this poorly for so long a period of time.

To some degree we sympathize with those in the mainstream media who turn their eyes from the sight. It’s not just the decomposing corpse of Obama’s Syria/Russia policy that’s stinking up the joint. The comforting assumptions and diplomatic ideas of a whole generation of ambitious Washington foreign policy wonks are being discredited. They thought to build a new Democratic consensus foreign policy on the tomb of George W. Bush’s failures, but “smart diplomacy” turns out to be deeply flawed. The left is moving toward the kind of meltdown moment that many neocons had as the Bush foreign policy went off the rails.

All that may be left for the US at this point is to do what the Israelis have done—adopt a defense policy instead of a foreign policy, which means we’ll shoot anyone who threatens us directly, but otherwise we’re staying out. And if that’s where we are, let’s just admit it.  

Should There Be One Ukraine?

As the criminal Yanukovych regime’s violence, terror, and repression are driving Ukraine to armed conflict and, possibly, fragmentation, it may be worth asking whether Ukraine might not be better off without some of its southeastern provinces.

First let’s consider the bad reasons for a breakup—Ukraine’s diversity in general and the regional, ethnic, confessional, and cultural divisions between its “West” and “East” in particular. A good place to start is a recent article by Orlando Figes, professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, “Is There One Ukraine?” Figes, who should know better coming from the UK, writes about Ukraine’s divisions as if they were unique and as if diversity alone justified or led to breakup. He’s wrong on both counts. Ukraine’s diversity is pretty much the norm for all stable states everywhere.

Spanish Royals Under Fire

Is the Spanish royal family facing one crisis too many? First it was King Juan Carlos, at the time honorary president of the World Wildlife Fund in Spain, going on a secret elephant shoot in Botswana, with a woman who was not his wife. Now it’s the continuing scandal of his younger daughter Cristina, the Duchess of Palma de Mallorca, appearing in court to answer questions in the embezzlement and money laundering case brought against her husband, Iñaki Urdangarín.

In between there has been public resentment at what is seen as the royal family’s high living even as Spain faces economic meltdown and a 27 percent unemployment rate. No wonder at least one recent poll shows 43 percent of Spaniards favor switching from a monarchy to a republic.

Drug Trade: What About the Big Guys?

Maxi-Blitz in Italia e negli USA,” reads one of the many headlines in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica heralding the collaboration between the two nations in capturing and arresting a bunch of drug mobsters. Twenty-six mobsters in all—and all of them, even those who belong to New York mafia families, harbor close business ties to a much feared crime organization based in Calabria.

Putin, East Asia’s New Power Broker

Russian President Vladimir Putin had a busy few days of diplomacy in Sochi as the Winter Olympics opened there last week, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday. Analysts say that, by scheduling the meetings as he did, Putin was using the occasion to expand his influence in East Asia.

Up until now, the dour Russian leader has shown little interest in that part of the world, preferring to devote himself to the “near abroad,” his country’s western border, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Yet an increasingly nasty struggle embroiling China and Japan has given Putin an opening in East Asia—and leverage. Says Liang Yunxiang of Peking University, “Both countries attach great importance to their relationship with Russia as they hope he will play an active role in regional security and they want his support amid the dispute over the uninhabited islands.”

The Truth About Che Guevara

Che Guevara has the most effective public relations department on earth. The Argentine guerrilla and modern Cuba’s co-founding father has been fashioned into a hipster icon, a counter-cultural hero, an anti-establishment rebel, and a champion of the poor. As James Callaghan once put it, “A lie can be halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”

The truth about Che now has its boots on. He helped free Cubans from the repressive Batista regime, only to enslave them in a totalitarian police state worst than the last. He was Fidel Castro’s chief executioner, a mass-murderer who in theory could have commanded any number of Latin American death squads, from Peru’s Shining Path on the political left to Guatemala’s White Hand on the right.

“Just as Jacobin Paris had Louis Antoine de Saint-Just,” wrote French historian Pascal Fontaine, “revolutionary Havana had Che Guevara, a Latin American version of Nechaev, the nineteenth century nihilist terrorist who inspired Dostoevsky’s The Devils. As Guevara wrote to a friend in 1957, ‘My ideological training means that I am one of those people who believe that the solution to the world’s problems is to be found behind the Iron Curtain.’…He was a great admirer of the Cultural Revolution [in China]. According to Regis Debray, ‘It was he and not Fidel who in 1960 invented Cuba’s first corrective work camp,’ or what the Americans would call a slave labor camp and the Russians called the gulag.”

He was killed in Bolivia by the army in 1967 when he tried to overthrow yet another government and replace it with a communist state.

I saw only a handful of posters of Fidel Castro in Cuba and none whatsoever of his younger brother, Raul, who is now Cuba’s president, but I saw hundreds of portraits of Che, as if he, rather than one of the Castros, were the acting dictator today. The cult of personality revolves entirely around the dead guy. It’s convenient and clever. He can’t do anything new to discredit himself and it gives the Castro family a false air of modesty.

My tour of the Cuban countryside took me to Che’s final resting place in a mausoleum behind an imposing momument on the outskirts of Santa Clara. Before I stepped off the bus I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t argue with a single person, Cuban or foreign, at the memorial—not so much out of respect for the dead, but because I didn’t want to be “that guy.” Better to just zip it for an hour and tell the truth about Che later in writing.

Not sixty seconds after I swore to keep quiet, an American tourist sitting next to me said something so naïve that I almost bled in my mouth. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? We don’t have anyone in American history who is loved like the Cubans love Che.”

Cuba is a police state and Che was its co-founder. Cubans “love” him the same way Romanians “loved” Nicolae Ceausescu and East Germans “loved” Berlin Wall architect Erich Honecker.  

You know what happens to Cubans who display open hatred of Che?

They get arrested.

When he was still alive, they were executed or herded into slave-labor camps.

So yeah, everyone “loves” him. It’s required by law. Woe to those who disobey State Security. 

The human spirit is a powerful force, though, and some Cubans can’t take it. A million and a half fled to the United States to escape the instruments of Che Guevara’s repression, many across the Florida Straits where the odds of survival are no better than two out of three. Others resisted at home, especially during the 1960s, the decade of global rebellion.

“They corrupt the morals of young girls!” Castro shouted against rebellious youth at the time, “and destroy posters of Che! What do they think? That this is a bourgeois liberal regime? NO! There is nothing liberal in us! We are collectivists! We are communists! There will be no Prague Spring here!”

Angel Ciutat advised Che about the construction of Cuba’s secret police, which he learned from the most sinister secret police chief of all—Lavrenty Beria, head of Josef Stalin’s NKVD. Nearly all Che’s victims were Cuban. Would Americans love a foreign implant who murdered thousands, forced thousands more into slavery, and drove more than a million to exile?

Of course not. 

The memorial is in a square the size of a shopping mall. There are no trees or shade. It’s an enormous heat trap that absorbs and reflects back the blazing tropical sunshine. An imposing statue of Che—complete with a cast on his broken left arm—is placed atop a gigantic pedestal. Standing below, it’s as if he’s a god. The steps leading up to it are huge. I felt tiny and low by comparison. Thomas Jefferson’s memorial this isn’t. The whole scene intimidates by design.

Up near the front is a billboard featuring the smiling face of the now-dead Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s wannabe communist-dictator, introduced to Cubans as “our best friend.” At the far end of the square is a billboard with a quote by Fidel Castro: “I want you to be like Che.”

I have to ask: Does Fidel want Cubans to be like the real Che or the fake Che?


A whole shelf of books have been written about Che Guevara. Most are hagiographic.

Humberto Fontova’s Exposing the Real Che Guevara is an exception. It’s relentlessly critical, not only of the killer himself, but of his fans. He spends hundreds of pages debunking Castro’s state mythology with footnoted sources and interviews with eye-witnesses, but Che’s own words are enough to condemn him.

“A revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.”

“We will bring the war to the imperialist enemies’ very home, to his places of work and recreation. We must never give him a minute of peace or tranquility. This is a total war to the death.”

“If the nuclear missiles had remained, we would have used them against the very heart of America, including New York City…We will march the path of victory even if it costs millions of atomic victims…We must keep our hatred alive and fan it to paroxysm.”

Here’s one more from Fontaine in France: “In his will, the graduate of the school of terror praised the ‘extremely useful hatred that turns men into effective, violent, merciless, and cold killing machines.’ He was dogmatic, cold, and intolerant, and there was almost nothing in him of the traditionally open and warm Cuban temperament.”

I could go on (and Fontova does for quite a long time) but you get the idea.

Che’s comrades and associates were equally ruthless. Venezuelan-born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, also known as Carlos the Jackal, was trained in one of Che’s guerrilla camps outside Havana. He emerged from his studies a monster and became the most wanted terrorist on earth. “Bin Laden has followed a trail I myself blazed,” he said following Al Qaeda’s assault on New York and Washington. “I followed news of the September 11 attacks on the United States nonstop from the beginning. I can’t describe that wonderful feeling of relief.”

He is serving a life sentence in the French penal system for murder.

And yet anti-establishment young people all over the world have Che’s face on their walls and their T-shirts. Most of them don’t know anything real about the man they admire. They have no idea he was one of the most violently illiberal establishment figures in the Western Hemisphere’s history. They admire the image, which is and always has been a fraud.

Fontova quotes a Cuban exile who goes by the moniker Charlie Bravo who says Che’s fans in the West need a kick in the ass by reality. “I’d loved to have seen those Sorbonne and Berkeley and Berlin student protesters with their ‘groovy’ Che posters try their ‘anti-authority’ grandstanding in Cuba at the time. I’d love to have seen Che and his goons get their hands on them. They’d have gotten a quick lesson about the ‘fascism’ they were constantly complaining about—and firsthand. They would have quickly found themselves sweating and gasping from forced labor in Castros and Che’s concentration camps, or jabbed in the butt by ‘groovy’ bayonets when they dared slow down and perhaps getting their teeth shattered by a ‘groovy’ machine-gun butt if they adopted the same attitude in front of Che’s militia as they adopted in front of those campus cops.”

I’m relying heavily on Fontova here because most of what has been written about Che is absolute horseshit. I spoke to him recently and asked him what’s up with that.

Is your book on Che the only one that exposes him? I couldn’t find any others.”

“Yes, he said. “It’s the only book of that sort. Jon Lee Anderson’s book is considered the bible on Che, but it was written in cooperation with the Castro regime while Anderson was living in Cuba. When William Shirer wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, he didn’t rely on Nazis for the information in his book, even though a lot of them were still around in 1957. He relied primarily on enemies and victims of the Nazis for his information. When Robert Conquest wrote The Great Terror about Stalinism, he didn’t rely on Nikita Khrushchev or any other Soviet communists. He relied on Russian and Ukrainian exiles. That’s the normal manner of writing books about totalitarian regimes. But when it comes to Cuba for some insane reason, you’re supposed to collaborate with the totalitarian regime to be considered scholarly.”

“How did that happen?” I said.

“I devoted my latest book to this issue. It’s about the mainstream media and Fidel Castro. Here is a quote from Fidel Castro in 1955 when he was in prison in Cuba. He said, ‘Propaganda is vital—the heart of our struggle. We can never abandon propaganda…Use a lot of sleight of hand and smiles with everybody. We must follow the same tactic we employed in our trial; defend our points of view without raising hackles. There will be plenty of time later to crush all the cockroaches.’

“And here’s Che Guevara from his own diaries in 1958. He said, ‘Much more valuable than rural recruits for our guerrilla force were American media recruits to export our propaganda.’ Castro and Guevara cultivated and shmoozed the foreign media. They made it a goal from day one. They needed to export their propaganda and make it not seem like propaganda.”

It worked too. Maybe because Cuban communism was seen, rightly or wrongly, as less severe than the Soviet version. Perhaps it’s because Che died at a young age, so the Cuban regime’s official state narrative was frozen in amber. Had he lived longer and committed yet more atrocities, perhaps the truth about him would be more obvious and well-known. 

There’s no denying Che’s charisma, at least in his photographs. Not even a propaganda genius like Castro could convince young Europeans and Americans to lionize the likes of Pol Pot, Leonid Brezhnev, or Castro’s own brother Raul.

Whatever the reason for the success of their ludicrous narrative, it drives Cuban exiles in the West over the edge when they see their tormentor lionized by naifs.

“If Cuban Americans strike you as too passionate, over the top, even a little crazy, there is a reason,” Fontova wrote in his Introduction. “Practically every day, we turn on our televisions or go out to the street only to see the image of the very man who trained the secret police to murder our relatives—thousands of men, women, and boys. This man committed many of these murders with his own hands. And yet we see him celebrated everywhere as the quintessence of humanity, progress, and compassion.”


Behind Che’s statue in Santa Clara is a factually-challenged museum celebrating his image. He’s portrayed as a doctor (though he had no medical degree), a kind soul who cared for the poor and the oppressed, and a brave guerrilla leader who helped liberate a long-suffering people from an oppressive tyrant. I’d think he was awesome if those things were true, or if I knew nothing about him except what I learned there.

That’s what Cubans are taught about him in school. Those who adore him are adoring a lie just like Westerners who emblazon his face on their t-shirts.

Most interesting about the museum is what’s not there. I found no mention whatsoever that Che was Fidel’s chief executioner, nor any reference to his construction of slave labor camps. The Cuban regime knows that the real Che was a despicable human being and knows that civilized people find villains like him appalling. Otherwise, those salient facts about his life and “career” would have been included. The truth is a dirty secret that the regime wants to keep buried. There’d be no point in lying by omission if the truth about Che made him look like a hero.

Older Cubans—especially those who fled to the United States—know the real story, of course, but younger Cubans might not. I have no idea, really, what they think or know about him. I asked a handful and they were cagey about it. Almost everyone I met complained about the government, but not about Fidel personally, and especially not about Che. 

One of the guides at the museum said something strange. “He invented a new kind of holiday,” she said. “He sacrificed everything for Cuba, so to honor him once a week we do extra work at our jobs for no pay.”

Extra work for no pay in Cuba? Cubans are hardly paid anyway. Most of them work for the state and earn a maximum wage of twenty dollars a month. Cuba’s maximum wage is less than one percent of America’s minimum wage. So they’re already working for free. What difference does a couple more hours make?

“It’s part of his philosophy of the New Man,” she added.

Che’s selfless and collectivist New Man is a utopian fantasy. Humans will only work long and hard hours for no pay if they’re forced—hence Cuba’s repressive political system.

Che’s body was returned from Bolivia in 1997. He is entombed in a mausoleum behind the memorial.

“You can go inside but you can’t talk,” a guide warned me. “It’s about respect. There are microphones inside and they are listening. You’ll be in big trouble if you say anything.”

I went inside feeling slightly nervous about the warning to keep quiet.

Inside is peaceful and candlelit. It looks and feels like a shrine. Photography is strictly forbidden. The walls are made of stone. They’re soundproof. I heard no noise whatsoever from outside. The air is cool and dry. The ambience itself inspires silence. I’d feel like an oaf if I opened my mouth.

A policewoman sat on a chair in the back. She looked severe, as if she’d punch me if I misbehaved.

She stood up and marched toward me and belted out a shattering sound.

“Aqui!” she said. Here.  

What? She’s talking? Why is she talking in here?

She pointed at the wall in the center of the room where Che is entombed. I was taking in the whole scene, but she wanted me to look there and not anywhere else, as if I were insulting Che’s legacy by paying attention to anything else. 

I nodded a silent thanks, looked at Che’s name carved into stone, and found it hard to believe that the remains of such an infamous person was mere inches in front of me.

I didn’t stay long. The policewoman made me uncomfortable, especially for yelling at me after I was told to shut up. So I left and returned to the hot and humid world outside that almost never cools off during the day. 

Down the road a ways from the memorial is a little park built around a derailed train. During the revolution, Che and his men supposedly forced it off the tracks by placing a bulldozer in its path. Across the street from the park is a large painted sign on a wall that says, “Our Socialism is Irrevocable!”

Who are they trying to convince? Tourists? The locals? Capitalist running dogs like myself?

All of the above, more likely than not. Either way, the regime’s defensiveness shows. You don’t see the governments of the United States, Canada, Belgium, or Switzerland shouting “Our Democracy is Irrevocable!” for the rather obvious reason that not even crazy people think it’s revocable. 

La Cabaña is the old Spanish military fortress above the east side of Havana’s harbor that Che turned into a prison. Fontova calls it the Caribbean Lubyanka. Thousands of men and boys were executed against its walls with firing squads.

“To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary,” Che famously said. “These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail.”

Contrary to conventional firing squads, where all rifles but one are loaded with blanks, Che ensured every executioner in the squad fired live ammunition.

“As soon as [Castro and Guevara] seized power,” writes Fontaine, “they began to conduct mass executions inside the two main prisons, La Cabaña and Santa Clara…In the words of Jeannine Verdes-Laroux, ‘The form of the trials, and the procedures by which they were conducted, were highly significant. The totalitarian nature of the regime was inscribed there from the very beginning.’”

The body count is hard to pin down with accuracy, but Che himself admitted to ordering thousands of executions at La Cabaña during the first year alone. Those who managed to survive say he frequently delivered the killing blow himself in the side of the victim’s head with his pistol.

Prisons are unpleasant places everywhere in the world. They’re supposed to be. But Che’s were as brutal and dehumanizing as the Soviet versions on which they were modeled.

Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, played by the magnificent Javier Bardem in the film Before Night Falls, spent some unpleasant time in Fidel and Che’s dungeons. Artists tend to be anti-authoritarian, and naturally police states fear and loathe them, so Arenas was hauled off to prison. A memorable bit of dialogue from the film sums up Cuban due process for him in eight words.

“You’re under arrest.”


“Because I say so.”

Arenas, in his book of the same name, writes about the conditions inside. “It was a sweltering place without a bathroom. Gays were not treated like human beings, they were treated like beasts. They were the last ones to come out for meals, so we saw them walk by, and the most insignificant incident was an excuse to beat them mercilessly.”

And he writes about the prison system’s crushing of his colleague in letters Heberto Padilla. “[He] was locked up in a cell, intimidated, and beaten. Thirty days later he emerged from that cell a human wreck. The night [he] made his confession was unforgettable. That vital man, who had written beautiful poetry, apologized for everything he had done, his entire previous work, throwing the blame upon himself, branding himself a despicable coward and traitor. He said that during his detention at State Security he had come to understand the beauty of the Revolution… Padilla not only retracted all he had said in his previous work but publicly denounced his friends and even his wife.”

Today La Cabaña is a tourist attraction. You can see the skyline of restored Old Havana across the harbor. The fort itself is well-preserved and aesthetically pleasing. Yet it lies by omission just like the museum at Che’s memorial.

I saw and heard no mention there about the thousands of people the regime killed even though so many were killed on one of its walls. I couldn’t even figure out which wall. It’s unmarked. The blood and gore are long gone.

One day—perhaps not soon, but someday—that is going to change. The myth of the kind and benevolent and compassionate Che will eventually slide into oblivion because a democratic government in Havana will not lie, by either omission or commission, about the man who co-founded Cuba’s final dictatorship. When that day arrives, tourists who visit will finally learn something real.

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A Russian Threat to Ukraine?

Let’s start with the alarming question many people are now asking and then consider other forms of possible Russian intervention in the ongoing Ukrainian Revolution. It was on January 31st that Vladimir Putin’s former adviser, the economist Andrei Illarionov, shocked Ukrainians with his claim that the Kremlin has already developed several scenarios ranging from “control over all of Ukraine” to “control” over several provinces. His views might have been dismissed as alarmist were it not for the fact that Ukrainians have been expecting a more forceful Russian response to the ongoing revolution for weeks.

Imagine two possible scenarios: (1) a full-scale invasion of all, most, or much of Ukraine and (2) a limited invasion of one or two provinces of Ukraine. In both instances, the point would presumably be annexation, occupation, or longer-term control.


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