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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.

Is Time on Iran's Side?

Diplomacy, unlike sex, lends itself poorly to sensationalism. The agreement with Iran reached by the foreign ministers of six countries (or, in the diplomatic jargon, P5+1, the European Union being not quite a country and not quite a union) in Geneva at 3 a.m. on Sunday is neither a beginning of a new era, a major step forward “to a final, comprehensive solution,” nor a new Munich. It is neither a “historic achievement,” as the White House seems to suggest, nor a “historic mistake,” as Benjamin Netanyahu asserts. It is something in between, too transient to be historic. It is hard to read the agreement as anything but a stopgap measure, an expression of a stalemate between the real but cunning determination of the Iranian theocracy to make itself, its ideology, and its designs abroad immune to any external threat and the equally real but half-hearted desire of the West to prevent this from happening. Other things staying equal, six months hence the agreement will bring us to roughly the same spot where we are now, except that other things have a tendency of not staying the same.

Both Ukraine and Russia Belong in Europe

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to cancel the signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union—undoubtedly taken under pressure from the Kremlin—is yet another reminder of the post-imperial complexes of Vladimir Putin, who once infamously described the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” Examples of these complexes are abundant, from the Kremlin’s previous spats with Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova to its continuing hostility toward the Baltic states.

Yet the shorthand references to Kiev acting “under pressure from Russia” and “choosing Russia over Europe,” used by many analysts and journalists in the past few days, are an all-too-familiar oversimplification. While Putin’s authoritarian and increasingly unpopular regime has indeed opposed Ukraine’s quest for European integration, Russia’s civil society and democratic opposition have backed it—a fact all but ignored by the international media.

Colombia’s President Santos: Architect of Peace

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, buoyed by some advances in peace negotiations with the FARC guerrillas, launched his candidacy for reelection to a second four-year term as an opportunity for “peace and prosperity” in his war-torn country. If a pacification agreement is finalized in time, the presidential election in May will be accompanied by a referendum in which voters will accept or reject the terms of the settlement, a controversial political issue in Colombia.

The Hypocrisy of the UN's Human Rights Council

It’s time to disband the United Nation Human Rights Council.

Just look at the latest appointees to the council, whose job is to promote universal respect and protection for human rights around the world. This month, Russia, China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia were elected to three-year terms. On the council, they join more than 40 other states, including Pakistan, Congo, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, and Venezuela—some of the world’s worst human-rights malefactors.

Think about it: China right now is helping Russia prop up Bashar al-Assad, the murderous Syrian dictator. Russia has held members of the Pussy Riot punk band in prison for almost two years because of a protest performance in which they dared to criticize Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.

Not long ago, a teenage Saudi girl was gang raped by seven men—and then sentenced to 90 lashes and six months in prison for being alone with a man. The international outrage was so great that Saudi King Abdullah had little choice but to pardon her.

Cuba, of course, is a longtime unremitting dictatorship that does not allow freedom of speech, movement—even professional occupation.

Russia and the US's Afghan Exit

At the heart of the Obama administration’s 2014 Afghanistan exit strategy is the decision that almost all of what went in must come out. That involves Russia, even more than it did going in. With relations with Pakistan so volatile, the United States is not going to trust the transportation of weapons and other military equipment to the traditional supply route from landlocked Afghanistan through Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the Taliban can help itself. Instead, a large-scale airlift of personnel and lethal cargo will cross Russian airspace, homeward bound.

The UN's Absurd Stigmatization of Israel

What is it with the UN’s treatment of Israel? I am not referring simply to Joshua Muravchik’s superb essay in the current issue of this journal regarding the UN’s age-old antipathy toward the nation. I’m suggesting the UN’s single-minded attacks on Israel have of late intensified and grown even worse. Yes, it’s possible.

Yanukovych Chooses Russia over EU for Ukraine

So how are we to interpret the decision by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, to turn his back on an Association Agreement with the European Union?

The underdevelopment of Ukraine’s economy will now be accelerated, as the country becomes even more isolated from that of the world; its population will become significantly poorer. The opposition will become more implacable, more radical, and more intransigent, and its popular support will grow. The polarization within Ukraine between Europhiles and Russophiles will intensify and major civil disturbances are now quite possible, especially in the run-up to the 2015 presidential elections, which Yanukovych cannot possibly win fairly, freely, or even quasi-fairly and freely.

As Ukraine descends into poverty, ungovernability, and instability, what could Yanukovych have possibly been thinking?

Remember that Yanukovych acts on the basis of two simple principles:

Welcome to Cuba

Fidel Castro made a liar out of me.

Okay, I didn’t have to lie to immigration, customs, and security officials at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. I could have just applied for a journalist visa and hoped they’d approve me. But colleagues warned I’d have to wait months for an affirmative, and the authorities wouldn’t tell me if the answer was no. They’d simply toss my application into the trash if they thought I’d write anything “negative.” Six months, nine months, a year would finally pass and I’d still be waiting and wondering if I’d ever hear from them.

I have a job to do. I can’t wait six to twelve months in bureaucracy hell. So I lied.

“Tourism” I said when the nice woman at Passport Control asked what I was doing there.

The Cubans knew I was coming. My name was on the flight manifest. If anyone Googled me, they’d find out at once that I work as a journalist. And if they checked their records they’d know I didn’t have the right visa. Reporters who work in Cuba on tourist visas are arrested, interrogated, and deported. It makes no difference whether or not off-the-books journalists are friendly to the government. They must register with and—more important—get permission from the proper officials.

I had to stay off their radar. Freedom House ranks Cuba as the sixth worst country in the entire world for journalists. The Castro government creates a more hostile working environment than even the Syrian and Iranian governments. The only countries on earth that repress reporters more ruthlessly are, in order, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, and Belarus. All are either communist or post-communist in-name-only.

Some of my colleagues in the media weren’t sure I’d get away with it. “You’re pretty high profile,” said one. “And it’s not like you can hide.”

Several who have worked in Cuba in the past warned me not to bring a laptop. “That alone will be a red flag,” said one. “They’ll put you under surveillance.”

I’d also have to hide my notebook.

“Cuban security agents from the Ministry of Interior will sweep through your hotel room,” warned a veteran American visitor to Cuba, “so lock all your note-taking materials up in your room safe.”

“The Castro government already knows who you are and what you’ll be doing,” said Valentin Prieto, a Cuban exile in Miami and founder of the blog, Babalu. “And make no bones about it, the KGB, Stasi, et al have nothing—and I mean nothing—on the Cuban security apparatus. It may seem primitive, but it is highly effective. You will be monitored from the moment you step on the tarmac. You will never be alone while on the island, even in your hotel room if not especially so. Be careful and keep in mind that you are in a very closed society whose fuel is fear.”

So I tensed up a bit when the nice woman at Passport Control typed my name into her computer. Something appeared on her screen. Her eyes tracked back and forth as she read.

What did it say? What did they know about me? Had they looked me up in advance? Prieto’s concerns to the contrary, I figured they probably hadn’t or I wouldn’t have bought a plane ticket and entered the country this way, but I couldn’t know for sure they’d let me in unless they actually let me in. If they kicked me out on arrival, my entire project would be axed and I’d be out thousands of dollars.

It was an absurd moment. I was standing there sweating while trying to sneak into a police state that hundreds of thousands of people have risked their lives to escape from.

“Stand back, please,” the Passport Control lady said. “And look into the camera.”

They had a web cam mounted over the counter. It dropped down from the ceiling. I grinned at the thing like a stupid tourist on holiday. It clicked.

She finally stamped my passport and smiled. “Welcome to Cuba.”

I smiled back. Suckers.

*

Wait.  I was not yet in the clear.

While waiting for my suitcase to arrive on the Baggage Claim belt, a young policemen seized my passport and would not give it back. “I need you to answer some questions.”

Shit. 

“What are you doing here?”

I lied.

“Where are you staying?”

But told him the truth about that.

“Which parts of Cuba will you be visiting?”

Havana, of course.

I'll also be visiting the Bay of Pigs, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Santa Clara to see Che Guevara’s memorial.

“What do you do for a living?” No choice but to lie.

“What’s the name of the company you work for?” I had to lie about that one, as well. I hated having to do it, but overcontrolled police states make liars of everyone.

“Are you planning to visit any schools or medical facilities?” he said.

“I hope I don’t have to visit a medical facility,” I said to lighten the mood.

He smiled and laughed. “Yes. Let’s hope not.”

He was so unfailingly friendly and polite that I didn’t worry he’d catch me. And he didn’t drill down into granular details or ask any follow-up questions. He just dutifully wrote down my answers.

They had no idea I’m a journalist or that I intended to write about Cuba, and they weren’t going to find out. That was clear. And when the policeman finished questioning me, he did something unprecedented in all my years of crossing borders.

He returned my passport and said “sorry about that” with a sheepish look on his face.

He was sorry? Really?

“I hope you have a nice time in Cuba.”

Yes, he really was sorry. He meant it. I could tell. He felt bad about questioning me. He’d rather leave people alone.

Does that say anything about the revolutionary commitment of Castro’s security people? I have no idea.

*

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara overthrew the squalid and bloody dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 with support from a broad swath of Cuban society. I would have supported the revolution, as well, if I were living there at the time because here’s the thing: it wasn’t communist. Castro described himself as a freedom fighter and promised political liberalism.

“Democracy is my ideal, really,” he said in 1959. “There is no doubt for me between democracy and communism.” That first sentence was a lie, but the second sentence sure wasn’t. 

Even after he took power and formed a new government, even as Che Guevara lined thousands of men and boys against the blood-soaked walls of La Cabaña and had them executed by firing squad, Castro kept his communist designs to himself. Later, however, he boasted about it with a terrifying ferocity.

“They corrupt the morals of young girls!” he shouted in 1968 against Cuba’s version of hippies, “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!”

To this day there has been no “spring” in Havana, so I felt a bit apprehensive about showing up there, especially under false pretenses. But it’s softened somewhat by three things—by the warmth of its people, by the beauty of its architecture and setting, and by ideological tiredness.

“Cuba is gorgeous,” said my journalist pal Terry Glavin up in British Columbia when I told him where I was going. “Although I expect it's gone to shit in some respects since I was there. The regime is that much more decrepit with the absence of Daddy Warbucks in Moscow. The things you will most love about Cuba, I bet, are the Cubans and the ravaged beauty of the place. I can't imagine any people on earth putting up with such bullshit with as much grace and humor and decency as the Cubans have managed, God love ‘em. Were it not for the regime I'd happily live in Havana.”

The Cubans do seem to handle it well, though I have no idea how. “You would make a fortune,” writes Havana-based journalist Mark Frank in his book Cuban Revelations, “if you could patent as an antidepressant whatever brain chemical kept the Cubans’ spirits up through the hard times.”

I wonder, though, how much of it’s real. Val Prieto warned me that to an extent it is not. “You will most likely see many smiling faces while you’re there,” he said. “Lots of laughter and dancing, too. But there will always be something much more profound behind all the smiles and laughter. Every Cuban, regardless of how content they may appear, lives with two underlying things—sadness and fear, the latter being more prevalent. Most Cubans will not openly display it as you are a foreigner, but read between the lines when they speak to you.”

I know what it’s like to wear a false face. Not only did I have to lie at the airport, I had to conceal my identity from every single person I met in the country, including other Americans, lest someone say the wrong thing about me in public in front of the wrong person at the wrong time. I vowed to myself before I even left the United States that I wouldn’t tell a single human being in Cuba who I am or what I was doing no matter how much I felt like I trusted them. I hated having to do that, and I felt a little self-loathing because of it, but I had to be careful and consoled myself with the fact that I could be honest about everything later in writing.

Likewise I have little choice but to conceal the identities of many people I spoke to. Occasionally I can quote Cubans by name—especially if they’re in exile—but for the most part I can’t. Those on the island had no idea they were speaking to a journalist and that I might quote them, and I won’t risk their safety.

However, I will tell you this much: None of the Cubans I quote are high profile dissidents except when I cite what they’ve written for public consumption. Those who aren’t in prison live under total surveillance. The regime posts guards outside their houses and points cameras at their windows and doors. I’ve been told by reliable sources that state security agents will sometimes commandeer next-door apartments and houses to tighten the screws even more. If I were to walk into that kind of surveillance umbrella, there’s virtually no chance I’d get in and out without being questioned and tailed, and there was a strong chance I’d be arrested.

Before I could talk to anyone, though, I had to get into Havana. The international airport is located outside the city, and the ride in was a little unusual.

There is no product advertising in Cuba. Every billboard in the entire country is plastered with propaganda from the Communist Party.

The first one I saw featured a hangman’s noose and said “BLOQUEO -- El genocidio mas largo de la historia.” BLOCKADE – The longest genocide in history.

The government is referring to the embargo, or sanctions, put in place against Cuba in 1962 after Castro nationalized US property. But the sanctions are not a blockade—which is an act of war—and they certainly don’t constitute genocide.

Another billboard showed the logo of the UJC, the Union of Communist Youth, which is composed of the faces of three communist leaders—Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Julio Antonio Mella—men who are dubbed “The protagonists of our time.” The UJC’s motto is “study, work, rifle.”

I groaned to myself at these absurd slogans and images, but was delighted when I later heard Cubans dismiss it all as “state propaganda.”

Aside from the billboards on the way in, Havana doesn’t look like a communist city. It has not been transformed into a sullen drabscape of gray concrete towers like so many capitals in the former Soviet bloc. Small one-story homes in a state of mild disrepair appeared through jungle-like foliage. Hundreds of people stood on the side of the road waiting for busses or to be picked up by one of the cars that passed periodically. Once I reached the city proper, all I saw, aside from a few faded high-rises, was European architecture in every direction. Most of Havana was built before the communist era when Cuba was still a rich country.

I am not into cars, but I nevertheless grinned like a kid when I first saw the classic American Chevys and Fords from the 1940s and 1950s that Cubans manage to keep working even though they no longer have parts.

“You wouldn’t believe what they have under the hoods of those things,” said one Cuban, who was clearly not a backyard mechanic himself. “They use pieces from old Russian washing machines.”

I felt more like I was driving into a time warp than into a tropical version of the Soviet Union. But I had just entered a tropical version of the Soviet Union. And much to my surprise, some people grumbled about it in public, at least in English.

“Is there any private enterprise in Cuba?” I heard an American man in my hotel lobby say to his Cuban tour guide.

“No,” said the tour guide—which is not strictly true, but it might as well be.

I couldn’t resist butting into their conversation.

“How do people here feel about that?” I said. “Honestly.”

“We hate it, of course,” she said. “But there’s nothing we can do about it but leave.”

Like the rest of the country, Havana’s hotels are time warps. I stayed at two. The more interesting of the pair was the Habana Libre, or Free Havana, which was a five-star Hilton before Fidel Castro seized it and turned it into his headquarters. It has been under communist management ever since and has been downgraded to three stars.

It’s not a bad hotel. It’s certainly better than the ghastly Soviet tower I stayed at in Borjomi, Georgia, during the Russian invasion in 2008. The Habana Libre, like the classic cars out on the streets, just hasn’t been updated since the 50s. It’s a modern-day throwback to the era of Mad Men.

The lights work, the air conditioning didn’t crap out, and the hot water heater never ran cold, but I woke every morning in pain. The mattress, like the rest of the furniture, also dated back to the 1950s and was at least half as firm as the floor.

And I felt like I was being spied on the minute I stepped into my room.

I knew I wouldn’t find any surveillance equipment, but I couldn’t help looking. I didn’t look hard, though. I didn’t want anyone to see me looking for bugs, wires, or cameras if they were watching. A colleague told me they place cameras as well as microphones in the rooms, and that the cameras point at the bed. I don’t know how he’d know that bit about cameras or if it’s even true. Perhaps it’s just a paranoid rumor. Maybe the regime started the rumor itself to make people paranoid. Who knows?

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if it’s true because I had little choice but to behave as though it is true. And it affected my job. Not only did I have to leave my laptop at home, I couldn’t sit on the bed and take notes with pen and paper. I had to look and behave exactly like a tourist even in the “privacy” of my hotel room, and tourists don’t generally sit down and write for long stretches.

I had no laptop and no notebook, but I had to take notes. How?

I could have typed something up in the business center and emailed it to myself, but incoming and outgoing Internet traffic is heavily monitored, so that solution was out. I know of two people who got in trouble doing that sort of thing, and one of them really was just a tourist. All he did was criticize Fidel Castro on Facebook.

But there are other ways to take notes. If you know a month in advance that you’re heading into a situation like this, you’ll think of something. I did. And I figured out how to do it in such a way that no one would know what I was doing even if they watched me do it on a video feed, nor would I be caught if my belongings, including the images on my camera, were thoroughly searched.

I may be the only person in the history of journalism who has used this particular method, partly because it’s bizarre, partly because I used a product designed for a different purpose entirely, and partly because that product didn’t even exist until recently. (Don’t ask me how I did it. I may need to use the same system again in the future.)

Even if the business center downstairs had been a viable option, the experience is miserable by design.

Private Internet is banned. You can only get online in hotels, Internet cafes, and government offices. Regular citizens are effectively prohibited from accessing the Web by the price. It cost me seven dollars an hour to use a dial-up connection. The government caps Cuban salaries at 20 dollars a month, so it costs a citizen ten days of income just to get online for an hour. Once they do get online, the connection will be so slow that surfing around is impossible. It took me the better part of my hour to get connected, to open my inbox, and to send a single email to my wife telling her I had arrived safely and without incident.

The government strangles the Internet because it fears free information. There can be no other reason. That’s also why they vet journalists in advance and require special visas. Information can barely get in and barely get out. There can be no Twitter or Facebook revolution in Cuba’s near future.

And there are apparently no real newspapers or magazines, at least none that I saw. No International Herald Tribune. No Newsweek and Time in the dentist’s office. No Google News since there is no Google. Certainly not the Wall Street Journal or The Economist.

I hadn’t even been there a full day and I already felt umbilically severed from the rest of the planet. My awareness of the world narrowed to what I could see right in front of me. I felt as though I had lost one of my senses. I had no real access to the Internet. No CNN, no New York Times. No blogs, not even my own. Nothing at all. I could not use my iPhone. I may as well have been at the bottom of the ocean.

The only newspaper I saw was Granma, the official organ of the Communist Party. Juventud Rebelde supposedly exists somewhere, as well, but I didn’t see any copies.

That, by the way, is the most outrageously named newspaper I know of. The English translation of Juventud Rebelde is Rebel Youth—as if it’s Cuba’s version of Rolling Stone. But God, no. It’s not that at all. Rebel Youth indoctrinates young people with the zombie ideology of walking dead men. Youthful and rebellious it ain’t. It is the most tired, stale, old, and establishment “newspaper” in the hemisphere.

Want an example? Here’s an excerpt from a recent interview with Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2008. It reads like an interview with the Secretary General of Hezbollah. “These 50 years have been ones of resistance,” Raul said to the journalist who doesn’t even merit a name, “years of survival, years of the determination of the people, in which we have maintained our strength, and that refers to the vast majority of the country.” He goes on and on like that for pages. “We have not had peace, we have not had tranquility. The enemy says that socialism has been a failure. Why don’t they leave us in peace to fight on equal terms? But it has not been a failure, not even under these conditions. It has been an incessant battle.”

I never heard a single human being speak that way in Cuba. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt it even happens at Communist Party meetings these days.

Granma, the newspaper aimed at adults, is sold by men standing on street corners. I never saw anyone buy it or read it.

*

I smiled the first time I stepped out for a walk. I was not supposed to be there, but nobody stopped me.

The air was warm and humid but not oppressive as long as I walked in the shade. Direct sunlight, however, made me feel like I was standing next to a bonfire on a blazing hot afternoon. Tropical sunshine is a serious force to be reckoned with, especially for someone like me whose ancestors hail from the North Atlantic and who lives now in the Pacific Northwest. The Spaniards who first settled the place without sunscreen must have looked like angry red lobsters before their bodies adjusted and their skin started producing additional melanin.

The city is reportedly safe, especially for visitors. Crimes against tourists are punished with tremendous severity. I felt secure everywhere. Not a single person looked or felt sketchy. Individuals approached and spoke to me once in a while, but they never seemed to want anything. They did not ask for money. They weren’t trying to lure me into their shop like touts in the Middle East often do. (Cuba doesn’t really have any shops.) With but a single exception, they weren’t pimping prostitutes.

What struck me most while walking around Havana for the first time is how dead and quiet it is. This was unexpected, though in hindsight I should have known. Where has communism ever been lively?

Michael Frayn visited Cuba on the tenth anniversary of its revolution and wrote an essay at the time titled “Farewell to Money.”

“No representation—but, then no taxation. No bars—but then, no drunks. No news, no institutions to protect the rights of the individual, nothing in the shops. Often no water in the pipes, occasionally no electricity in the wires. ‘No liberalism whatsoever! No softening whatsoever!’ (Castro.) Havana is the saddest sight—shabby, blank, full of nothingness.”

Little has changed. That’s the defining characteristic of Cuba since 1959. It doesn’t change. The water and electricity seem to work better, and parts of Old Havana have been fixed up for tourists, but otherwise Frayn’s description still stands.

The city feels languid, slow, inert. It is eerily quiet all the time as if it has been partly depopulated. You hardly have to look before crossing the street because there is so little traffic. Every day feels like Sunday used to feel in the United States when more people went to church and fewer establishments were open.

But Havana’s establishments are not closed. There just aren’t very many of them. You cannot go shopping. There’s nothing to buy. If you had millions of dollars, you would not be able to spend it. The city would be horrifying if were in a cold climate with dismal architecture like much of the former Soviet Union, but it didn’t strike me as horrifying. It’s just static. And vaguely post-apocalyptic.

Nobody hurries. They have all the time in the world. And it’s a good thing, too, because, as one Cuban said, “our national sport is standing in lines.”

It reminded me a bit of Libya under Moammar Qaddafi, which I visited for the first time in 2004, only Cuba is better educated, more advanced culturally, and—even though much of its architecture is thoroughly ravaged—more pleasing aesthetically.

But there’s a reason I’m comparing it to Libya under Qaddafi and to the Soviet Union. Qaddafi modeled his government on Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime in Romania. The Brother Leader of the Al-Fateh Revolution never called himself a communist; he insisted his Libyan brand of socialism was the “third way” between liberal capitalism and Soviet-style collectivism. But he was effectively a communist in all but name, and Libya at the time looked even more the part than Havana.

“Cuba looks exactly like its photos,” wrote writer and translator M.J. Porter in 2011, “and yet if feels different. I fell in love with Cuba and Cubans. Something felt like home. Completely unforeseen, however, was the weight of the totalitarian state.”

She wrote those words for the Introduction to the outstanding book Havana Real by Cuban dissident Yoani Sanchez. I read it before I went to Cuba myself, and I had to wonder: How on earth could the weight of the totalitarian state not be foreseen, especially if Porter has read Yoani Sanchez? Cuba has been totalitarian for more than fifty years now. Raul Castro is liberalizing the economy slightly, but it’s still more like North Korea’s than anyone else’s, and there has been no political opening whatsoever.

I understand now. The totalitarian state does weigh heavier than expected. At least it did for me and for M.J. Porter despite having read Yoani Sanchez and so many others. Which is strange because the totalitarian state is all in the shadows.

After the revolution the State Security Department, known locally by some at the time as the Red Gestapo, recruited thousands of chivatos (rats), internal secret police who operated more or less like the Stasi did in East Germany. Repression was out in the open back then. Thousands were murdered and tens of thousands thrown into prison for political reasons.

In an essay titled “Interminable Totalitarianism in the Tropics,” collected in The Black Book of Communism by Harvard University Press, French historian Pascal Fontaine describes the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, Castro’s ruthless enforcers of ideological correctness. One was set up on each block in urban areas to keep watch on everybody. Everything about them intimidates. Next to the front door of one CDR office I saw the image of a faceless man wielding a sword above the words “Always in combat.”

Always in combat against whom, you might ask?

The neighbors.

“The surveillance and denunciation system is so rigorous,” Fontaine writes, “that family intimacy is almost nonexistent.”

Family intimacy is almost nonexistent.

Aside from the slave labor camps and the staggering body counts, I can think of no more devastating an indictment of totalitarian government than that sentence. Something broke inside me when I read it.

I certainly wasn’t intimate with anybody in Cuba—and I don’t mean physically any more than Fontaine did. I had to lie by omission every minute of every hour of every day just like the Cubans. A person could get used to this sort of thing, I suppose, but that does not make it less alienating. That’s the counterintuitive thing about totalitarian systems. They herd people into Borg-like collectives, yet every individual is savagely atomized.

I never felt so alone in my life.

Cuban state repression also functions in banal and ludicrous ways as Sanchez illustrates in her book. “Busses are stopped in the middle of the street,” she writes, “and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.”

I couldn’t help feeling watched in that kind of environment, especially since everyone I know who has been there told me the hotels are bugged.

I wasn’t paranoid about it. Security personnel weren’t going to bust into my room and take me away. There was not much to fear, really. People weren’t getting shot in the streets. No one pointed a gun at anybody in my presence, nor did I see anyone get hauled off to prison. Cuba is not a war zone. It is not the Cambodian Killing Fields. Nor is it North Korea, which Christopher Hitchens once described as a place “where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden.” It’s not that bad.

But it is a total surveillance police state.

And so I felt watched, not by thugs but by yawning functionaries who probably would rather do something else like the policeman who questioned me in the airport. Maybe they were watching or listening some of the time and maybe they weren’t. I’ll never know.

Since I couldn’t see anyone watching or following me, the tingling sense of being observed was self-generated. In a way, it was all in my head. I wasn’t imagining things—the hotels really are bugged—but I still don’t know if anyone ever actually spied on me. It took me a while to figure out what to make of that, and my blood ran cold when I finally did.

*

British philosopher Jeremy Benthem devised an ingenious low-tech system of total surveillance two hundred years ago. It would work in hospitals, schools, and mental institutions, he argued, but it would work even better in prisons.

The idea was straightforward: build a circular prison with a tower in the center so the guards can see inside any and every cell from a single location. The watchtower could even be obscured in some way so that prisoners would have no idea who the guards were looking at. Since prisoners would know they might be watched at any given moment, they’d act as though they were being watched at all moments.

Cuba's Presidio Modelo prison

“Morals reformed,” Benthem wrote, “health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burdens lightened, economy seated—as it were—upon a rock, the Gordian knot of the poor-law not cut but untied, all by a simple idea in architecture!” He touted his prison as “a mill for grinding rogues honest” and “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

He called it Panopticon.

French philosopher Michel Foucault assailed it as a cruel, ingenious cage. “The panoptic schema makes any apparatus of power more intense,” he wrote. “It’s strength is that it never intervenes, it is exercised spontaneously and without noise.”

Prisoners collaborate in their own surveillance because their heads are haunted by the thought of an all-seeing eye. 

No prison was ever designed to all of Benthem’s specifications, but dozens were constructed around the world that met most of them. The one that most closely resembles Benthem’s Panoptic regime is in Cuba.

Fidel Castro didn’t build it. The Presidio Modelo complex was built in the mid-1920s when Gerardo Machado was still president.

Castro and his brother Raul were incarcerated there for a few years after attacking the Moncada military barracks in 1953 in their first botched uprising against the Batista regime. Fidel gleefully turned things around in the 1960s and used the Presidio complex to warehouse political prisoners, gays, dissidents, and those who promoted the counter-culture.

Today it’s no longer a prison. It stands now as a national monument and, like almost everything else on the island, is in a state of decay.

Why did Castro close the Presidio complex?

Because, why not? It’s superfluous.

An oblivious tourist could be blissfully unaware of all this and have a nice time in Cuba, I guess, but I was not an oblivious tourist and knew perfectly well that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara turned the entire island nation into Benthem’s Panopticon.

 

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The US-Iran Deal

I’m wrapping up a long piece about Cuba which I’ll publish later tonight, so I’m going to outsource my reaction to the US-Iran “deal” first to Mike Doran at the Brookings Institution and second to the Canadian government.

You should definitely read Doran’s entire analysis, but here’s the bottom line:

The nuclear deal will further subject the Arab world to the tender mercies of the Revolutionary Guards. Iran will now have more money — our money — to channel to proxies such as Hezbollah. Washington cannot expose the mailed fist of the Qods Force without endangering the nuclear rapprochement, so it has a positive incentive to ignore all Iranian subversion and intimidation in the region.

Whether he realizes it, Obama has now announced that the United States cannot be relied upon to stand up to Iran. Therefore, Israel and our Arab allies will be forced to live by their wits. Some actors, like the Saudis, will prosecute their proxy war with Iran with renewed vehemence. Others will simply hedge. They will make a beeline to Tehran, just as many regional actors began showing up in Moscow after the Syrian chemical weapons deal. American influence will further deteriorate.

That, in sum, is the true price that we just paid for six months of seeming quiet on the nuclear front. It is price in prestige, which most Americans will not notice. It is also a price in blood. But it is not our blood, so Americans will also fail to make the connection between the violence and the nuclear deal. It is important to note, however, that this is just the initial price. Six months from now, when the interim agreement expires, another payment to Ayatollah Khamenei will come due. If Obama doesn’t pony up, he will have to admit then that he cut a bad deal now. So he we will indeed pay — through the nose.

America’s Arab and Israeli allies aren’t the only ones who refuse to go along with this. Canada is taking a hard line, as well.

The Canadian government released the following statement: “Canada has long held the view that every diplomatic measure should be taken to ensure Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon. We appreciate the earnest efforts of the P5+1.

“Effective sanctions have brought the regime to present a more moderate front and open the door to negotiations. Today's deal cannot be abused or undermined by deception. The Iranian people deserve the freedom and prosperity that they have been denied for too long by the regime's nuclear ambitions. Until then, Canadian sanctions will remain tough, and in full force.”

Ottawa’s Foreign Affairs minister John Baird added that “past actions best predict future actions, and Iran has defied the United Nation Security Council and defied International Atomic Energy Agency. Simply put, Iran has not earned the right to have the benefit of the doubt.”

UPDATE: My first dispatch from Cuba is up now if you're interested.

Lost EU-Ukraine Deal: Blessing in Disguise?

Many people today profess shock over the Ukrainian rejection to sign an association agreement with the European Union at a summit in Vilnius next week. Others, including this writer, are shocked that anyone should be shocked. Going back over the many rounds of negotiations, talks, incentives, and cajoling, it is patently clear that the Ukraine has never committed to conclude a deal with the EU but was rather playing a clever game to raise the bids from both of its suitors, one to the East and one to the West. At the end of the day, it is hard to even blame President Yanukovych for employing this time-tested strategy of unscrupulous brides and merger specialists.

A Guide to Russia’s Opposition

The Russian opposition has long been divided into those who genuinely oppose Vladimir Putin’s corrupt and authoritarian regime, and those who imitate political pluralism while never crossing the Kremlin’s path where it really matters. The worldwide campaign to adopt the Magnitsky sanctions—the ban on Russian officials implicated in corruption and human rights abuses from traveling to, and keeping assets in, the West—has become a litmus test for those who call themselves Kremlin opponents. These individual sanctions strike at the very heart of the Putin system, ending the impunity for those who violate the rights and plunder the resources of the Russian people. This idea is supported by 44 percent of Russian citizens and by most of the country’s leading opposition figures.

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