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Failed Democracy Promotion in Cambodia

I’ve spent a great deal of time in Cambodia over the last 35 years, most recently in January. And to this day, I remain astounded by American and other Western aid agencies that fund and treat the place as if it were a democracy.

American democracy-promotion offices, government-funded and otherwise, continue providing money to prop up opposition candidates—even though none of them stand even the smallest chance of winning an election, so crooked is the government and its slavish National Election Commission.

Just look at the money spent over many years to prop up Sam Rainsey, the state’s most prominent opposition leader who, along with other aspiring opposition leaders, is still protesting last summer’s latest fixed election—to no avail.

But Prime Minister Hun Sen is a clever man. He allows a few human-rights groups to put out critical reports, in English, and an English-language press to publish an occasional critical article.

Lenin's Final Fall in Kyiv

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing “Euro Revolution” in Ukraine, future historians will view the destruction of the Lenin statue in downtown Kyiv as a milestone in the country’s move away from its Soviet past and Regionnaire present.

Vladimir Illich Lenin was a brilliant polemicist and strategist who arguably made the Bolshevik Revolution. But he was also a tyrant who countenanced, encouraged, and committed what we would today call massive crimes against humanity. Regardless of whether or not Leninism directly led to Stalinism, Lenin and Leninism made Stalin and Stalinism possible and, indeed, likely. No country claiming to be civilized would honor mass murderers in one of the most visible and central parts of its capital city. Until the evening of December 9th, Ukraine did.

Sign Up to be Notified of New Book Releases

I have two new books coming out in 2014.

One is a collection of dispatches from the Middle East called The Tower of the Sun. The other is a post-apocalyptic novel, specifically a zombie novel in the style of The Walking Dead.

I said before that I was going to write a zombie novel, and I finally did. And I'm quite pleased with how it turned out.

You will be the first to know when each of these books are available if you add your email address to my mailing list. Trust me: I will never spam you. I will only email you to tell you when I have a new book out, and I will never share your information with anyone.

I've created two mailing lists, actually—one for fiction and the other for non-fiction since not every reader is interested in both. You're more than welcome to sign up to both lists, of course.

Click here to sign up to be notified of new non-fiction releases.

And click here to sign up to be notified of new fiction releases.

And don’t forget that I have already published four books. I get a royalty check every month that includes money from every single copy that sells, so please, help me pay my mortgage, fatten your bookshelf, and order some for your friends!

 

Al Jazeera and the Poisoning of Arafat

I really never meant to weigh in on the international controversy on how Yasir Arafat died, but of late there’s no getting away from it. Suha Arafat, his very rich widow (thanks to the piles of millions left by the man she tried to divorce “over a hundred times,” as she put it this year) claims he was poisoned by polonium. Divorce or no divorce, her grief over his death is apparently so vivid she called on the Palestinian Authority to halt peace talks with Israel, the country she felt was behind Arafat’s death. Al Jazeera, in a documentary called Killing Arafat, claims the same, taking Suha pretty much at her word, which is an interesting decision on the part of a news organization.

Ukraine’s Multiple Crises

If current conditions in Ukraine look revolutionary to you, that’s because the Yanukovych regime has maneuvered the country and itself into a series of reinforcing crises. If the regime holds on to power, the crises will only deepen. If the opposition comes to power, with or without Regionnaire participation, it will face monumental tasks requiring almost superhuman wisdom and skill. In a word, whatever the denouement of the ongoing standoff between opposition and regime in Kyiv, Ukraine will be a mess for some time to come.

Crisis is a sexy word that means all things to all people, but, if used rigorously, it usually means a life-threatening condition, one in which, to pursue the medical analogy, the patient faces a 50-50 chance of recovery. It’s impossible to apply the word with equal precision to social reality, but the point is that we should use crisis only with reference to extremely serious conditions that appear to be unsustainable for more than the short term.

Is Beijing Stacking the Deck in Hong Kong?

On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s chief secretary, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, released the city’s first consultative paper on electoral reform (pdf). At stake is who gets to choose the next leader—the “chief executive”—of the freest place in the People’s Republic of China.

In the last “election,” which took place last year, Beijing essentially picked the chief executive by informally making its preference known to a select group in Hong Kong—1,200 notables in a city of more than 7 million—that constituted the Election Committee, which formally made the choice. The process was deeply unpopular and will surely change in time for the next election.

Which Ukraine?

The fallout from the failed attempt to conclude an association agreement between the EU and Ukraine last weekend is as radioactive as the Chernobyl plant. Between the diplomatic hangover and the frustration of tens of thousands of Western-leaning Ukrainians nobody’s eager to accept the blame for the fiasco. President Viktor Yanukovych vowed to continue the negotiations with Brussels and immediately demonstrated his commitment by leaving for China. There are reciprocal vague noises in some European capitals about the continuing determination to embrace Ukraine in further rounds of negotiations.

The pretension suits Yanukovych just fine, since it might help to dilute and attenuate the genuine anger of many Ukrainians over his decision, but to give it any credence would be walking into a fool’s paradise. The truth is there may have never been much to negotiate about with the current Ukrainian president. To argue otherwise is to believe that if the stingy Europeans and the miserly IMF could have sweetened the deal a little, Yanukovych would have kindly signed off on the dotted line.

Putin's Party Tricks and Puppet Democrats

Former mid-ranking United Russia party official Andrei Bogdanov does not hold any government posts or have a particularly high media visibility, but, over the past decade, his services have proved indispensable to the Kremlin in its campaign to keep the Russian opposition from the ballot box. Where official and (pseudo) legal tools were not available or sufficient, Bogdanov delivered. He is not shy about being the Kremlin’s errand boy—indeed, he is almost proud of it.

The Iran Deal's Ten Fatal Flaws

When people wonder why we have been so loud against this agreement with Iran it is because for us it is not academic or theoretical, it is existential. Here is a regime that has been loud, not about a dispute with Israel, but rather about its wish and commitment to the destruction of Israel.

—Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid

Yes, it is interim; and yes, we must now direct all our energies to the struggle to shape the endgame deal. Still, before we do, and so we know how tough that struggle will be, we should also register just how bad the deal struck in Geneva really is.

First, it legitimized the Iranian regime’s claim to a right to enrich (in the face of six UN Security Council resolutions demanding that enrichment stop).

Dear President Yanukovych, Resign!

Viktor Yanukovych!

You were elected president of Ukraine in 2010. After several years of ineffective rule by your predecessor, you had a golden opportunity. You could have become president of all the people. You could have committed yourself to promoting the well-being and dignity of the people who elected you. You could have dedicated yourself to setting Ukraine on the path of political and economic reform and European and global integration. You could have promoted democracy, freedom, tolerance, and human rights. You could have served the people selflessly.

Instead, you chose to use your office for your own ends.

Instead of becoming president of all the people, you turned Eastern Ukraine against Western Ukraine and promoted linguistic divisions.

Instead of promoting the well-being and dignity of the people who elected you, you chose to impoverish them, deny their identity, and treat them as chattel.

The Once Great City of Havana

“Havana is like Pompeii and Castro is its Vesuvius.”Anthony Daniels

Almost every picture I’ve ever seen of Cuba’s capital shows the city in ruins. Una Noche, the 2012 gut punch of a film directed by Lucy Mulloy, captures in nearly every shot the savage decay of what was once the Western Hemisphere’s most beautiful city.

So I was stunned when I saw the restored portion of Old Havana for the first time.

It is magnificent. And it covers a rather large area. A person could wander around there all day, and I did. At first glance you could easily mistake it for Europe and could kid yourself into thinking Cuba is doing just fine.

And yet, photographers largely ignore it. Filmmakers, too. It must drive Cuba’s ministers of tourism nuts. Why do you people only photograph the decay? We spent so much time, effort, and money cleaning up before you got here.

Perhaps the wrecked part of the city—which is to say, most of it—strikes more people as photogenic. But I don’t think that’s it. The reason restored Old Havana is ignored by photographers, I believe, is because it looks and feels fake.

It was fixed up just for tourists. Only communist true believers would go to Cuba on holiday if the entire capital were still a vast ruinscape. And since hardly anyone is a communist anymore, something had to be done.

But it doesn’t look fake because it looks nice. Czechoslovakia was gray and dilapidated during the communist era, but no one thinks Prague isn’t authentic now that it’s lovely again. The difference is that the Czechs didn’t erect a Potemkin façade in a single part of their capital just to bait tourists. They repaired the entire city because, after the fall of the communist government, they finally could.

Nothing like that has occurred in Havana. The rotting surfaces of some of the buildings have been restored, but those changes are strictly cosmetic. Look around. There’s still nothing to buy. You’ll find a few nice restaurants and bars here and there, but they’re owned by the state and only foreigners go there. The locals can’t afford to eat or drink out because the state caps their salaries at twenty dollars a month. Restored Old Havana looks and feels no more real than the Las Vegas version of Venice.

It’s sort of pleasant regardless, but it reeks of apartheid. The descendents of the people who built this once fabulous city, the ones who live in it now, aren’t allowed to enjoy it. All they can do is walk around on the streets outside and peer in through the glass.

The semi-fake renovation is, however, good enough that one thing is blindingly obvious: If Cuba had free enterprise, and if Americans could travel there without restrictions, the economy would go supernova.

“The touristy parts of Havana are lovely,” said a friend of mine who has been there many times and returned home with a Cuban wife a few years ago. “But if you get out of the bubble and look at the places the tourist busses don’t go, you will see a different Havana.”

That’s for damn sure.

I walked toward the center of town from the somewhat remote Habana Libre Hotel and found myself the only foreigner in a miles-wide swath of destruction.

I’ve seen cities in the Middle East pulverized by war. I’ve seen cities elsewhere in Latin America stricken with unspeakable squalor and poverty. But nowhere else have I seen such a formerly grandiose city brought as low as Havana. The restored part of town—artifice though it may be—shows all too vividly what the whole thing once looked like.

It was a wealthy European city when it was built. Poor nations do not build capitals that look like Havana. They can’t. Poor nations build Guatemala City and Cairo.

“Havana” Theodore Dalrymple wrote in City Journal, “is like Beirut, without having gone through the civil war to achieve the destruction.” Actually, it’s worse even than that. Beirut pulses with energy. Parts of it are justifiably even a little bit snobbish like Paris. Even its poorest neighborhoods, the ones controlled by Hezbollah, aren’t as gruesome as most of Havana.

Yet the bones of Cuba’s capital are unmatched in our hemisphere. “The Cubans of successive centuries created a harmonious architectural whole almost without equal in the world,” Dalrymple wrote. “There is hardly a building that is wrong, a detail that is superfluous or tasteless. The tiled multicoloration of the Bacardi building, for example, which might be garish elsewhere, is perfectly adapted—natural, one might say—to the Cuban light, climate, and temper. Cuban architects understood the need for air and shade in a climate such as Cuba’s, and they proportioned buildings and rooms accordingly. They created an urban environment that, with its arcades, columns, verandas, and balconies, was elegant, sophisticated, convenient, and joyful.”

But now it looks like a set on the History Channel’s show Life After People, only it’s still inhabited. Baghdad in the middle of the Iraq war was in better shape physically. I know because I spent months there and wrote a book about it.

Roofs have collapsed. Balcony doors hang not vertically but at angles, allowing passersby to see inside homes where the interior paint is just as peeled as it is on the outside. I could even see inside some people’s homes through gashes in exterior walls. The weight of rain water knocks whole buildings down as if they were dynamited.

When your roof caves in, you can’t just call a guy and have him come over and fix it. You have to wait for the government.

You will wait a long time.

Trust me: you would not want to live there, especially not on a ration card and the government’s twenty dollar maximum salary. Not that additional money would do you much good. Where would you spend it? Not even in the slums of Mexico have I seen such pitiful shops. They are not even shops. They are but darkened caverns on the ground floor which stock a mere handful of items that could be scooped up and placed in one box.

That is the real Havana, and it is soul-crushing. Life there is a brutal scramble for scraps to survive amidst ruins. The city looks like it was hit by an epic catastrophe…and it was.

The only hope is escape.

Dalrymple thinks Fidel Castro destroyed Havana on purpose. I don’t know. He’s speculating, of course, and it seems like a stretch, but he makes an interesting point. The city’s former magnificence, he says, is “a material refutation of [Castro’s] entire historiography… According to [Castro’s] account, Cuba was a poor agrarian society, impoverished by its dependent relationship with the United States, incapable without socialist revolution of solving its problems. A small exploitative class of intermediaries benefited enormously from the neocolonial relationship, but the masses were sunk in abject poverty and misery.

“But Havana,” he continues, “was a large city of astonishing grandeur and wealth, which was clearly not confined to a tiny minority, despite the coexistence with that wealth of deep poverty. Hundreds of thousands of people obviously had lived well in Havana, and it is not plausible that so many had done so merely by the exploitation of a relatively small rural population. They must themselves have been energetic, productive, and creative people. Their society must have been considerably more complex and sophisticated than Castro can admit without destroying the rationale of his own rule. In the circumstances, therefore, it became ideologically essential that the material traces and even the very memory of that society should be destroyed.”

*

Dr. Carlos Eire is a professor of history at Yale University. He specializes in late medieval and early modern Europe. His best-selling books, however, are memoirs about growing up in Cuba and adjusting to exile in Florida. His first, Waiting for Snow in Havana, won the National Book Award in 2003. The sequel, Learning to Die in Miami, was published in 2010.

He came without his family to the United States as a child, along with 14,000 other young Cubans, as part of a CIA project called Operation Peter Pan that rescued children from the regime so they wouldn’t become the brainwashed property of the state.

“The question I always get,” he said in a talk at Harvard University’s book store, “is why would any parent do that? Our parents really felt they had no choice. They had Sophie’s Choice to make. Either we stayed there and faced another form of being taken away from them, or they could exercise some choice in where we would end up. By 1961 the Cuban government was already taking Cuban children away from their parents. Education in state-run schools was compulsory. And the education was heavily laced with indoctrination of communist principles.”

Castro collaborated in Operation Peter Pan and allowed the United States to take Cuban children away because, as one former regime official later told Eire, “anything that destroyed the bourgeois family was music to our ears.”

His first memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, describes in loving detail the place of his birth before the communist wrecking ball flattened it. None of us can return to our childhoods, but that’s more true for Eire than it is for most people. And he’s angry about it.

“Until full democracy is restored,” he told me,” I will never set foot in my native land. The mere disappearance of the Castro dynasty will not be enough. My convictions aside, even if I wanted to go, I simply can't. The Castro regime has declared me an enemy of the state and banned all of my books. I consider that the greatest honor ever bestowed on me.”

I’m always afraid I’m going to make stupid mistakes when I visit a country for the first time and write about it in a tone that suggests I know everything. I don’t know everything. I’m not always even sure what I’m looking at. So I asked Eire for help.

“What are the most common mistakes journalists make when they write about Cuba?” I said.

“American and European journalists tend to accept and parrot the Castro version of Cuban history unquestioningly,” he said. “At best, the Castro version of Cuban history is an awful caricature. Anyone familiar with the real thing has to strain to recognize the features rendered by the caricaturist in order to make the connection between the drawing and what it represents. Like all caricatures—even very bad ones—it skews all proportions.”

He insists Cuba was not a Third World nation before Castro seized power. That’s not hard to believe. Havana is not like San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the old part of town is relatively small. In Havana, exquisite European architecture stretches block after block after block after block for miles in every direction. The city could not possibly have been poor when it was built. It might have been a bit shabby during the pre-Castro Batista era—that wouldn’t surprise me—but Eire grew up there at that time and insists that it wasn’t.

“Havana had a prosperous economy and a middle class proportionately larger than some European countries,” said. “Hence the fact that over one million Europeans (and many Asians and Middle Easterners) migrated to Cuba between 1900 and 1950. When this massive wave of migration began, the population of Cuba was only around 3 million. To put these statistics in perspective: this would be the equivalent of the USA attracting 100 million immigrants over the next half century. People do not migrate in such proportions to a benighted nation.”

But surely not everyone prospered. Revolutions tend not to break out in countries where everyone is doing just fine.

“Yes,” he said, “pre-Castro Cuba had poverty (every country in the world has poverty), but the city of New Haven, Connecticut has a sharper divide between rich and poor and a higher percentage of poor people per capita in 2013 than Cuba did in 1958, and so do about ten other cities in Connecticut.”

Havana outside the tourist bubble is painful to look at. It actually hurt me and brought to mind a line from Dustin Hoffman’s character in Andy Garcia’s film The Lost City. “She was a beautiful thing, Havana,” he said. “We should have known she was a heartbreaker.”

It hurts because, unlike in liberal capitalist countries, poverty is imposed. Abolishing private property and implementing a dismal maximum wage requires extraordinary repression. Free people would never vote for it, which is why Cuba hasn’t had a single free election since Castro came to power.

“The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution,” Eire said, referring to the network of neighborhood spies, “are the gatekeepers for everything, especially for the future of everyone’s children. One bad report and your child’s life can be ruined—which means that instead of living in the fifth circle of hell like everyone else, they will have to live in the thirteenth circle which is deeper than anything Dante ever imagined. Then there is the colossal apparatus of State Security. At least with the CDRs you know who your neighborhood spy is, but the State Security operatives infiltrate everything, everywhere, especially the workplace. And they can turn anyone’s life into a nightmare with the snap of their fingers.”

CDR propaganda, Havana

Cuban exile Valentin Prieto in Miami shares Eire’s disgust of the CDRs and the government’s child abuse.

“Imagine if the state police came knocking on your door because your CDR neighbor smelled that black market chicken you fried last night to feed your kids,” he said. “You would tend to be surreptitious in everything, including thought and expression. You’d put up a false front, act like you’re the happiest, luckiest guy on Earth. The biggest problem with foreign journalists when it comes to Cuba is that they take everything at face value. ‘So-and-so said he’s very happy that the revolution gave him an education and that he has free healthcare.’ Yet so-and-so ain’t so happy because his daughter has to sell her ass to tourists because while he’s educated, he can’t earn a decent wage. And so-and-so isn’t so happy that he’s got to find medicines and other medical supplies to take to his daughter while she’s in the hospital. That kind of stuff never gets reported.”

 He told me about what happened at his sister’s elementary school a few years after Castro took over.

“Do you want ice cream and dulces (sweets),” his sister’s teacher, a staunch Fidelista, asked the class.

“Yes!” the kids said.

“Okay, then,” she said. “Put your hands together, bow your heads, and pray to God that he brings you ice cream and dulces.”

Nothing happened, of course. God did not did not provide the children with ice cream or dulces.

 “Now,” the teacher said. “Put your hands together and pray to Fidel that the Revolution gives you ice cream and sweets.”

The kids closed their eyes and bowed their heads. They prayed to Fidel Castro. And when the kids raised their heads and opened their eyes, ice cream and dulces had miraculously appeared on the teacher’s desk.

“Notwithstanding the murders and assassinations and tortures and such,” Prieto said, “the indoctrination and exploitation of children is the worst thing the regime has done and continues to do to this day. A student’s file in Cuba doesn’t just have information on their attendance and education. It’s more like a dossier on that child’s family and their revolutionary ‘ardor.’ Kids are made to spy on their families. They’re questioned as to whether the family speaks ill of Fidel and the Revolution, on whether or not they attend meetings, or whether they have more than their allotted share of milk, etc. This is why the Cuban American community created such a ruckus over Elian Gonzalez. Kids don’t belong to their parents in Cuba, they belong to the state. Period.”

He says the worst thing about the CDR spies is that they don’t even work for the government. They volunteer to rat out their neighbors for an extra handful of beans every month. “It is literally citizen spying on citizen,” he said. “I’ve heard of cases of a brother snitching on a brother, or a son snitching on a father. Once the regime comes to an end, things in Cuba are going to get ugly and bloody, especially with and against those CDR bastards. If I were a father living in Cuba trying to feed my family and had the CDR make my life a living hell every time I happened upon a black market piece of meat, or milk for my children, you can bet your ass that the first guy I’m coming for once the government goes down is that CDR SOB that’s been snitching on me for years. People are always talking about reconciliation when it comes to Cuba, how Cubans outside of the island are going to have to reconcile with Cubans still on the island. There will, of course, be some of that. But the real reconciliation needed will be between those ‘haves’ like the CDRs and the ‘have nots.’”

*

Though I learned all kinds of things from random encounters with everyday Cubans, I had no choice but to supplement my field work by interviewing exiles like Eire and Prieto. I’d risk arrest if I reached out to high-profile dissidents. Regime officials wouldn’t speak to me, and they’d just ladle bullshit up anyway. The people I casually met know Cuba on a granular level better than the exiles possibly could, but they have to be careful.

“Cuba is full of dissidents,” Eire said. “Most of them are silent, however, and will remain silent. Conditioned to fear the omnipresent ears and eyes of Big Brother, they will not speak their minds to foreign journalists. Highly skilled in the arts of deception, they will praise the regime while seething inside. Those who are not silent are constantly under siege or in prison. Contacting these visible outcasts means losing one’s chance to be in Cuba: expulsion is certain for any journalist who seeks out the opposition.”

His analysis might be slightly out of date at this point. I never did meet a Cuban, seething or otherwise, who praised the regime. I’m sure it still happens, but I get the sense it happens a lot less often now than it used to. Criticism is more open, though it’s sometimes elliptic.

Let me give you an example.

I visited a small art gallery inside the home of famous photographer Jose Figueroa and his wife Cristina Vives. When I first stepped into the living room I thought I might have made a mistake, that I was not where I wanted to be, because the first photographs I saw on the wall by the front door featured Castro’s chief executioner, Che Guevara. The most prominent wasn’t actually a photo of Che Guevara, per se. Rather, it showed a cigarette lighter embossed with that famous image of Che taken by Alberto Korda.

Figueroa himself seemed a shy man, but his wife Cristina is happy to show tourists around.

“Jose was visiting the United States on 9/11,” she said. “He was in New York City. It was a frightening time, and he had that lighter with him.” She pointed at her husband’s photograph on the wall, the one with the Che lighter. “Because of what had just happened, the lighter was confiscated in the security line at the airport. That famous lighter with that famous image is gone forever because of Osama bin Laden. It’s a shame, but it’s a great story, isn’t it? Think about it.”

Wait. Why, exactly, is that a great story and why was she telling me to think about it? What did she mean? That the United States has a heavy-handed government, too? That the Americans got in one last swipe at Che Guevara before moving on to the Terror War? That the ripple effects from Al Qaeda’s assault on New York City reached as far as Havana? That an object showing the face of one mass murdering sonofabitch was indirectly destroyed by another mass murdering sonofabitch?

I don’t know what she was trying to say, but she made one thing loud and clear: she wanted me to think about what she was telling me, and she was leaving some things unsaid. That’s often how people talk to each other in totalitarian countries. Foreigners who aren’t used to it need to know and pay close attention.

Most of Figueroa’s pictures on the wall were taken in the 1960s and the 1970s. They feature bourgeois middle class people doing bourgeois middle class things during a time of proletarian collectivism. His photos are in black and white, which suggested a bygone era even at the time they were taken. 

“I’m sure you’ve seen other pictures from Cuba at that time,” Cristina said. “They probably showed bearded revolutionaries with guns. But most Cubans were not bearded revolutionaries with guns. Most of us were middle class. And we were here, too.”

Figueroa’s black and white images of Cuba’s vanished middle class are as sad as they are arresting. An entire class of people—my class—was murdered, imprisoned, forced into exile, or forced into poverty. Fidel Castro didn’t only destroy Havana’s buildings. He destroyed the lives of the people who live in them. 

Here is one of Jose Figueroa’s photographs. He is waving goodbye to his friend Olga, possibly forever, as she prepares to board her flight to exile in Florida

Many of Figueroa’s pictures seem to me quietly subversive in the most subtle of ways, not because they’re anti-communist but because they’re non-communist. That’s my take, anyway. Neither he nor his wife said a single word critical of the regime. Maybe I’m wrong. This is my interpretation. I own it.

But listen to what Cristina said next.

“You should go to the art museum,” she said, “the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Everyone who goes there is struck by a Flavio Garciandia painting from 1975. You have to realize that everything was political then. Cuban art was required to serve socialist principles. The Beatles were banned. Yet Garciandia painted a picture of a pretty girl laying in a field of grass and called it ‘All You Need is Love’ after the Beatles song. The museum immediately bought the painting for a small sum and prominently displayed it. Things started to change after that.”

So Garciandia the painter and the art museum curators mounted a protest. Not only did they get away with it, it had the desired effect.

Only in a communist country or an Islamist theocracy would such acts be considered rebellious. Few in Europe or the United States would even notice that painting. It certainly wouldn’t be a political lightning bolt. Only in a totalitarian country where every damn thing under the sun has to be ideological can such a blatantly apolitical painting be considered political.

Is that what Jose Figueroa was doing with his photographs in the 60s and 70s? Being anti-communist by being non-communist at a time when everything had to be communist? Did he get away with it because he used a camera instead of a canvas and because he covered his ass once in a while by including Korda’s image of Che?

I don’t know. Nobody said that to me. He certainly didn’t, nor did his wife. Maybe I only saw what I wanted to see. It happens.

Displaying non-communist art is allowed now, and they said nothing “negative” about the revolution or government, so nothing they’re doing in that gallery is technically subversive at all, nor is anything either of them said to me. For all I really know, they’re both regime sympathizers.

(You can get a coffee table book of Figueroa’s photos, by the way, from Amazon.com and see for yourself.)

But there was more to see in their gallery. Figueroa and his wife had mounted a television screen on the wall above a doorway into one of the back rooms. On the screen played a video shot from a hand-held camera out the window of a commercial airplane at cruising altitude. I could see the wing jutting out the side of the plane above clouds far below, and I could hear the roar of the engine, but that was it. Nothing was actually happening on screen.

“What am I looking at here?” I said. The film, if I could call it that, seemed incredibly dull, but there had to be a point I wasn’t seeing.  

“That,” Cristina said, “is a film of the entire flight in real time from Havana to Miami.”

Oh. Well. That was certainly interesting.

“The flight takes less than an hour,” she said. “It feels like a long time if you stand here and watch it, but it’s no time at all if you’re on the plane. We are so close, and yet so far. It all depends on your perspective.”

Most photographs on the wall in their home were black and white, but I’ll never forget one color photograph in the very last room. The image struck me with great force before I even knew what it was.

It shows a man inside what appears to be a Cuban house. The main room is sparsely furnished. Paint is peeling off the walls. The man is opening his front door just the tiniest crack and carefully peering outside. The image conveyed to me a feeling of fear and hope at the same time.

“Do you know what that is?” Cristina said. “On his television screen?”

I hadn’t really noticed that inside the man’s house in the photograph was a small black and white television set. The image on the screen was grainy and vague.

“No,” I said. “I can’t tell what’s on the screen.”

“It is the fall of the Berlin Wall,” she said, “broadcast on Cuban television.”

I felt a jolt of adrenaline. It was my body’s way of telling me I was seeing and hearing something important, something I’d have to remember and later write down.

“But there’s something wrong with the picture,” Cristina said. “Do you know what it is?”

I looked intently at it again. What was wrong with the photo? All I saw was a Cuban man peering with tremendous caution outside his front door while communism self-destructed in Europe. 

“Tell me,” I said.

“The fall of the Berlin Wall was never broadcast on television in Cuba,” she said. “The picture is fake.”

*

 In Havana I met an elderly Jewish couple from Austin, Texas. They travel a lot, especially now that they’re retired.

She escaped Nazi Germany when she was a child. She’s old enough to remember Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, the prologue to the Holocaust when mobs of rampaging brownshirts shattered the windows of Jewish-owned buildings and stores.

Her family fled to Cuba, of all places, before moving again to the United States. She and her husband have been married for more than sixty years now.

“I’ve seen poverty in other countries,” she said, “but here it bothers me more. I’m not sure why.”

“It bothers me more, too,” I said. “And I know why.”

She has personal experience with totalitarian governments, so I wasn’t surprised when she agreed with my analysis after I shared it. 

“In most countries,” I said, “no one has to live in a slum. It’s difficult to get out, but it’s possible to get out. Here people get twenty dollars a month and a ration card and that’s it. They’re forced by law to be poor. Exile is the only way out.”

She nodded and thought about what I said. I could see from the look on her face that she was remembering terrible events in her own life that I can never relate to.

“I’m glad I came,” she said. “It has been quite an experience. But you couldn’t pay me enough to come back here.”

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On the Brink of Failure in Afghanistan

US Pentagon officials reported last week that as yet no plans have been designed for a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan. But the very fact that the Obama administration is openly discussing the possibility of total withdrawal is the result of three important factors:

A Dispatch from South Sudan

My sometimes traveling companion Armin Rosen (he went with me on reporting trips to Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring) visited the world’s newest country—the Republic of South Sudan—when it declared independence after its long bloody struggle with the regime in Khartoum that costs the lives of more than two million people.

Armin has written for us an astonishingly literary and detailed portrait of a place most people still don’t realize even exists.

In [the capital] Juba itself, you expect to see graves. A friend who visited Sarajevo once told me that the city offered little evidence that a war had been fought there less than two decades earlier—only cemeteries that blanketed the surrounding hills, visible from virtually any sector of the city, serve as testimony to some horror or another, though they are silent as to which horror. And while you expect to see the residue of war, ruined buildings and charred vehicles and craters, you’ll in fact see none of these things in Sarajevo. But death, or at least the fact of some recent mass death, nevertheless beams from grey reservations of the newly and prematurely dead, a ubiquity that makes grim demands on the imagination, inflicting the image of a hecatomb upon the same physical space as a city that suddenly appears unnervingly normal.

But in Juba there aren’t even graves, or at least there weren’t any that I saw. The war dead are somewhere; disturbingly, that somewhere isn’t obvious or apparently visible. Neither did I see ruined buildings, nor all that many charred vehicles (that wrecked fighter notwithstanding), and I certainly didn’t see any craters. I didn’t see any formal war memorials, no ostentatious public displays of triumphalism or regret, no murals or statues, no eternal flames surrounded by wreaths.  At the roundabouts there are already-fading posters from the previous July’s Martyr’s Day—exhortations to remember “the 2.5 million whose sacrifice formed our national foundation”—along with very occasional propagandistic reminders that “the SPLA stands on guard for the nation.” These reminders are weather worn and admirably discreet, considering that the country’s origins lie in violent revolutionary struggle, and that its government ministers and even its president began their careers as guerilla fighters rather than politicians, per se. A traveler arrives in a city already at odds with an unfathomable and bloody recent past, a past that commands no subjective, physical presence, at least not immediately, not in those first confused hours of choking humidity and flickering cell-phone signals. But already emerging is the sense of a city half-finished, a place whose atrocities remain guiltily archived in the darker regions of the visitor’s mind, even as they’re given few tangible reference points in the external world, where exhortations to proper health and hygiene far outnumber state-sanctioned reminders of the war. “New country, new beginning,” read several large billboards. “Have an HIV test today.”

Yet the war endures in subterranean form: figuratively, in mind and memory; and literally, in the tens of thousands of landmines that ring the city. Bombs of either variety lie buried under the dominating facts of the city’s physical existence: the smattering of high rises encased in scaffolding, white Land Cruisers (NGO and UN, mostly) clogging smooth and newly-paved streets, pop-up shanty-neighborhoods of freshly-arrived migrants, palm-shaded riverside hotel bars where Dutch consultants and Ugandan businessmen gather to waste their evenings—all of it evidence of a place exploding into a novel and unfamiliar normality.

[…]

In Juba, muddled geography is a tyranny in the sense that any basic, seemingly insurmountable fact is a tyranny. One morning at a nearly-empty hotel bar I met a South Sudanese man who had fled to Kenya during the civil war and then moved on to Australia, where he became a successful computer engineer. When the war ended he had no desire and no conceivable reason to return to a homeland that was still in a state of violent transition, but when independence came, he felt pinched by obligation, and his conscience could not allow him to simply enjoy a comfortable life in a borrowed corner of the earth. So for the last few months he had been on a consultancy with the Ministry of Tourism. In the deep south, down near the Kenyan border, are grasslands that rival the Serengeti in diversity—there are elephant herds and even lions, and each spring, antelopes migrate there, thousands of them, fur and hunched spines stretched to the horizon. It was the largest land migration in the world before the war scared them away—nature, it seems, has an instinct for human troubles. But it’s been seven years, and they’re beginning to come back. Had there been many tourists in South Sudan since independence? No, he said, chuckling and shaking his head.

Another thing about the deep south, he added: pineapples grow in the wild there. You don’t even have to try to cultivate them. Just dig them out of the ground. The land in our country is the most fertile in Africa.

Later in the day I found myself at yet another hotel bar (for a western visitor, Juba is a city of hotel bars). Remembering what the man had told me, I ordered a pineapple juice. I was given a can of Rani brand pineapple juice, from Yemen.

In all likelihood, the can had been taken by container ship from Yemen—thirsty, suffering Yemen—through the piratical waters of the Gulf of Aden, then to Kenya, then trucked through Uganda along miles of maraudering clay roads. It was a paragon of wasted effort and wasted local capacity, and in this respect, the humble can of pineapple juice was not alone: There is a national airline, but its planes are supposedly registered in Kenya. There is a national beer (White Bull—a Toast to a New Nation), but there are whispers that it’s owned by a Kenyan company as well. There’s an excellent weekly newspaper called The New Nation—but it’s a project of a European NGO, and its editor in chief is Belgian (even though most of its writers and columnists are locals). The woman who sold me phone cards at a roadside stall was Kenyan. The bartender at the Bedouin is Ugandan. What about the man scanning a fully-uniformed Bangladeshi UN peacekeeper’s groceries at the JIT Mart? It’s well known that the JIT Mart—the only “western” style grocery store in town, and as fine a place as any to spend $9 on a box of Frosted Flakes—is owned by Kenyans (or possibly South Africans), and the man looks as if he could be from India or Pakistan, which in this part of the world means he’s probably from Kenya, which means that he, like virtually every other laborer and businessman and piece of commercial produce in Juba, is not from anywhere that’s even particularly near Juba.

That was but the tiniest sample. Be sure to read the whole thing.

North Korea Detains 85-Year-Old American Veteran

On October 26th, two uniformed North Korean officers marched Merrill Newman off his plane just before it departed the regimented state for Beijing. The 85-year-old Korean War veteran has not been heard from since. Bob Hamrdla, who traveled with him on the 10-day trip, said his detention “has to be a terrible misunderstanding.” Newman’s wife, in a statement issued from her home in Palo Alto, California, used the same word.

What the Mass Demonstrations in Ukraine Mean

Whatever the outcome of the mass demonstrations that rocked capital city Kyiv on Sunday, November 24th, their meaning is clear. The spirit of the 2004 Orange Revolution is alive and well in Ukraine, and the Yanukovych regime had better watch out.

Some 100,000 to 150,000 Ukrainians assembled in downtown Kyiv to protest the regime’s rejection of an Association Agreement with the European Union. (Another 20,000 to 30,000 marched in Lviv on November 25th, and hundreds of Crimean Tatars set out for Kyiv on November 26th.) For them, and for countless others, the agreement represents much more than a trade pact and access to European goods. It was, first and foremost, a “civilizational choice”—an irreversible move by their country toward European democracy and away from Russian despotism. In snubbing the agreement, the regime effectively told Ukrainians that they would never be free and independent.

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