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An Excellent Resource on Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Let's Be Honest About Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest:

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

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

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

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

The Truth About Che Guevara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They get arrested.

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

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

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

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

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

Of course not. 

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did that happen?” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aqui!” she said. Here.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re under arrest.”

Why?

“Because I say so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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Is Obama Bluffing on Iran?

Mike Doran at the Brookings Institution thinks Barack Obama is bluffing on Iran.

President Obama has repeatedly promised to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. If there is no other choice, he says, he will resort to force. In a March 2012 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, the president famously rejected the alternative policy, namely, allowing Iran to go nuclear and then trying to contain it. He emphasized the point dramatically: “[A]s president of the United States,” he said, “I don’t bluff.”

Really? Suppose this statement was just a show of toughness, timed to keep supporters of Israel on his side during the 2012 campaign season. Suppose that, when it came to Iran, in his heart of hearts, the president actually preferred a strategy of containment to a strategy of prevention. Suppose that was actually his policy aim from the outset—but, for obvious reasons, he couldn’t say so. How would he proceed?

He would proceed exactly as he has been proceeding—trumpeting his intention to roll back the Iranian nuclear program while actually avoiding confrontation at all costs.

I think this is right. If you’re not convinced, read Doran’s whole argument. It won’t take long. The case is easy to make.

I never believed the president intends to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. Middle Eastern governments—Arab and Israeli alike—don’t believe it either. Maybe everyone’s wrong. It happens.

We could and should have a discussion about this, whether containment and hope is preferable to prevention and risk, but instead we’re getting foreign policy theater.

Israeli Doctors Treat Wounded Syrians

The Israeli army opened a field hospital on the Golan Heights next to the Syrian border and has so far treated 700 patients wounded in the war next-door.

Working there, and being treated there, must be quite an experience. I don’t know of any nation on earth that’s lied about as much as Israel is in most Arab countries. The misconceptions average Middle Easterners have about the Jewish state is otherworldly. They hate an Israel that doesn’t exist, has never existed, and never will exist. I can’t even imagine how shocking it must be to get shot at by your own government and taken care of by an enemy government.

But it’s happening. And Yifa Yaacov at the Times of Israel interviewed a couple of Syrian patients.  

The patients…cross the border armed with gross misconceptions about Israel and its people.

“They say that before the previous week, before they came, they thought we were the Great Satan, the enemies, and looked for the tails between our legs,” Zoarets said.

[…]

Firas, a rebel fighter who was being treated at the hospital at the time of filming, blasted Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government for neglecting and oppressing the people of Syria.

“Every day there are aerial bombings of cities. Each city is bombed three or four times by fighter planes,” Firas, who defected from Assad’s army to join the rebels fighting to topple him, said.

“Bashar [Assad] didn’t take care of us. Here, in Israel, we are being taken care of. Bashar doesn’t care about us, whereas Israel does. Bashar fires shells at us, he doesn’t care about us at all.”

Another patient, Latif, said, “They taught us about the Zionist enemy, the Zionist oppressor. But when we saw the Zionists, [we realized] they were nothing like what we’d been told. They’re human beings just like us, human, and even more than that.”

Ahmed, who was also being treated at the hospital at the time of filming, said that in the aftermath of the uprising against Assad, “we came to understand who is an enemy and who is a friend.”

He said that as the fighting raged on, many Syrians began to doubt what they’d been taught about the countries across the border from their own.

The Lost World, Part II

This is the second in a two-part series about Cuba beyond Havana. Click here for Part I.

Most of Cuba is flat with low rolling hills, but after leaving Cienfuegos and heading toward Trinidad, I saw the Escambray Mountains—home of the anti-communist insurgency known as the Escambray Rebellion—off in the distance.

The island finally had a skyline.

Those mountains might be a nice place to camp or go hiking (you would not want to camp or hike in the sweltering lowlands), but the overwhelming majority of Cubans have no way to get there. They aren’t prohibited from traveling to or in the mountains, but hardly anyone owns a car. Salaries are capped at twenty dollars a month. Driving to the mountains for a day hike from Havana would cost more than a month's salary just for the gas. A bus ticket likewise costs more than a month's salary.

Then it hit me, ton-of-bricks style. Most Cubans have never seen those mountains. Nor have they seen Trinidad, one of the oldest Spanish colonial cities in the hemisphere which lies on a narrow coastal plane between the Escambray and the Caribbean.

The city threw me off balance when I stopped there for a day and a night. I had absolutely no idea what to make of this place. My preconceived notions and assessment of the country thus far got smacked in the side of the head with the force of a knock-out punch.

Cuba is a total surveillance police state and Havana has fallen to ruin, but Trinidad is both delightful and charming.

And I don’t just mean Trinidad has the potential to be delightful and charming. It’s delightful and charming right now. Even under communist rule.

How was this possible?

The regime wants me to describe the city this way, which makes me not want to do it, but I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to tell you every place in the country is dreary and drab when it’s not.

Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, conqueror of Cuba, founded Trinidad exactly 500 years ago, in 1514. It’s older than almost every building in Paris. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1988, and for good reason. Hardly any colonial city in the world is preserved as well as Trinidad.

The streets are made of stone, the roofs beautifully tiled. All the buildings and houses are colorfully painted. Every visible structure in every direction pre-dates the Industrial Revolution. The city is a living museum piece, not just of Cuba before communist rule, but of Latin America during the Conquistador era, of the world before industry and machines, before globalization and standardization and the mass society changed politics and culture for everybody forever.

Havana is also stuck in the past. Cubans themselves call it a time machine. It’s largely unchanged by modern high-tech civilization—what Alvin Toffler calls the Third Wave in his landmark book of the same name. Hardly anyone has a computer, the Internet is banned in private homes, email addresses are for foreigners, cell phones are for the elite, no one can order anything from Amazon.com, and so on. Havana is firmly stuck in the Second Wave, the industrial mass society era of the assembly line, centralized bureaucracy, and the Cold War.

Trinidad is still in the First Wave, the period between the invention of agriculture in the Middle East thousands of years ago and the Industrial Revolution.

No part of the city—none that I saw, anyway—is falling apart like Havana. Communism seems to look somehow less communist in smaller areas. I felt the desire to live there, at least for a while, then checked myself.

Wait.

What?

Trinidad is ruled by police state. I can’t live there. I wouldn’t want to live there for even a month, let alone a whole year or—God forbid—longer.

What was the matter with me? How could I entertain such a thought for even five seconds?

*

If you went to Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia during Yugoslavia’s communist period, you might have had a similar first impression. A friend of mine went there in the 1970s and said it was magnificent even then. I believe him. I only spent a few hours there in 2008 on my way to Kosovo from Bosnia-Herzegovina, but that was nevertheless long enough for me to say Dubrovnik is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.

My memory of Dubrovnik, and what my friend said about it during that era, resolved my cognitive dissonance about Trinidad. It’s forehead-smackingly obvious. I just had to wait until the initial surprise wore off.

Trinidad is not a nice place because of its communist government. Trinidad is a nice place despite its communist government.

It’s five hundred years old. None of it was built by the communists. The city looked as it does now centuries before Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto. Fidel Castro is responsible for precisely nothing I love about it.

All he did was fail to destroy it. That’s not progress or a point scored for the revolution. It’s just damage control.

But I will give Cuban communists this much—they feel a connection with the pre-communist past and aren’t trying to obliterate it from the earth or from memory. They are not at war with every single last thing that predates them. There was no Year Zero in Fidel Castro’s Cuba like there was in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The colonial buildings of Trinidad were not razed and replaced with horrifying tower blocks as was so much of the Soviet bloc. Cuban communists did build some ghastly new structures, but not at the expense of what came before, and not in the old center of Trinidad.

That’s a low bar for praise, to be sure, but so many communist regimes failed to live up even to that. Look at what the Soviet Union did to Chisinau in Moldova, which is even older than Trinidad.

Nicolae Ceausescu turned the Romanian capital into an anthill. He razed whole swaths of the center of Bucharest and replaced gorgeous classical European neighborhoods with Godzilla-sized concrete towers and blocks.

I spent a week or so in Romania in 2008 and couldn’t wait to get out of that city. It felt inhuman and oppressive even decades after Ceausescu and his Lady MacBeth of a wife were executed on television. It could take a hundred years or more before their totalitarian legacy is finally torn down in Bucharest, and what came before it is gone now forever.

So when I say it’s terrific that Castro did not take a bulldozer to Cuba—I mean it. It’s important. He’s letting most of Havana collapse from decades of contemptuous neglect, weather, and entropy, but Trinidad, at least, is still a jewel.

Not only does the city look like it did hundreds of years ago—it sounds the same as it did hundreds of years ago. A great and wonderful hush hangs over it always. It is far and away the quietest city I have ever visited, mostly because it’s almost entirely free of automobile traffic. I stayed there for more than 24 hours, and I doubt I saw more than two dozen cars—and that’s including the parked cars.

Nor did I hear loud music or televisions. And when I climbed a terrifying exposed spiral staircase to the rooftop of a museum and looked down onto the roofline, it struck me for the first time that not a single person in Cuba has a satellite dish. The world’s poorest cities are bristling with satellite dishes, but not Trinidad or anywhere else in the country.

So I went downstairs and asked somebody about it.

“Satellite dishes aren’t allowed. We only get six channels, five from Cuba and one from Venezuela.”

Of course. Venezuela. The late Hugo Chavez’s socialist paradise, now one of the world’s most violent and dangerous countries.

That’s only part of the price Cubans must pay to keep that city stuck in a time warp. The only reason Trinidad is still free of automobiles, electronic stores, satellite dishes, cell phone towers, and so on, is because it’s governed by a totalitarian state. Preventing those things from transforming the city requires extraordinary repression and violence. Trinidad doesn’t look oppressive—no one is getting shot in the streets—but no one who affixes a satellite dish to their roof will last very long either, so they know better than to even make the attempt. The population is thoroughly cowed.

Even if Trinidad could be preserved against time without repression and violence, it’s neither realistic nor reasonable to expect Third World people to live in backward conditions for the amusement of foreigners who want a break from modernity.

Would you be willing to live primitively so rich foreigners can spend a few days in your town and enjoy the silence and the dearth of corporate billboards and Starbucks?

Cuba is the most oppressive country for thousands of miles in any direction, but I understand now why many tourists return home and say it’s fantastic. Parts of it are if you don’t think about it too much. Unlike me, tourists don’t go there to pull back the curtain or peer behind the façade. They don’t spend hours and days contemplating how and why Cuba is frozen. They simply enjoy the fact that it is. It’s understandable. They’re on holiday and they want to relax. But I was not there on holiday, and my cognitive dissonance didn’t last very long.

Trinidad is surprisingly nice for a communist city, but a resident explained to me that most of the local economy is not even technically communist anymore. The majority of residents, or so I was told, no longer work for the state. They run tiny businesses for themselves or work for family members who do.

Though most of the national economy is still in government hands, Raul Castro began implementing micro-capitalist reforms a few years ago when his ailing brother Fidel stepped aside. Apparently, Trinidad has benefited from these reforms disproportionately. Perhaps that’s because it’s a destination for tourists and Raul understands that concentrating reforms there and in similar locations is necessary for the same reason people clean the house before having guests over.

But soon enough I’d have to revise my opinion again.

A woman at one of the city’s museums told me she and her neighbors still struggle mightily to survive, despite the structural reforms.

“We can’t get simple things like cooking oil and diapers and soap. None of us can afford having more than one child. Getting to the end of the month is almost impossible.”

“What kind of changes would you like to see?” I said. “Do you want political and economic reform?”

“We want both,” she said. “But mostly we want economic reform. We’d be happy if we could just have the things we need to survive.”

So it turns out even Trinidad’s bubble of private enterprise can barely hobble along when it’s encircled by communism and cut off from the rest of the world. In hindsight, that’s obvious. I showed up in Cuba on a middle class salary, and I even brought emergency money, but I still couldn’t buy anything. Nothing’s for sale. Everything is in short supply everywhere. It doesn’t matter how much money you have in your pocket or your account. Cash isn’t as worthless as it would be after the end of the world, but it’s close.

I’ve spent the last ten years visiting, researching, and writing about the broken parts of the world, and I can’t help but compare Cuba with the Middle East, the broken part of the world I’m most familiar with.

Cuba is better off in some ways. For one thing, there are more women out and about, even in the countryside. Cuban men have no reason to keep their women trapped behind the walls of their houses. It’s certainly easier to get a drink in Cuba than it is in most parts of the Middle East—as long as you are not Cuban. A beer costs a local person an entire week’s salary, but enough tourists show up from Europe and Latin America that adult beverages are easy enough to come by in even small towns.

Cuba’s art scene is more advanced than in the Middle East, too. It’s as advanced or even ahead of the rest of Latin America. Communism doesn’t appear to have had any negative effect on Cuban music, painting, or dancing—though it has unquestionably stifled Cuban writing with its smothering censorship.

Cuba at least appears to be ahead of even the United States in at least one area—racial integration.

Spanish imperialists obliterated the indigenous population hundreds of years ago, so almost everybody in Cuba is of European or African ancestry. Many are a mixture of both, including Fulgencio Batista whom Castro overthrew in 1959. Afro-Cubans are a large minority, and at least on the surface appear to be fully integrated socially with the descendents of white Europeans. (Politically, they are all oppressed equally.) Mixed race groups of friends are common, even ubiquitous. If they fear or resent each other, they sure don’t act like it outwardly. I saw this in small towns as well as in Havana, and I found it encouraging. Race relations are at least one potential problem Cuba has handled adequately, or so it appears.

I didn’t even detect any political tension aside from never-ending complaints about the overbearing state and the shortages, which is both good and bad. Good because political tension often leads to catastrophe, but bad because Cuba does not feel—at all—like it’s in a pre-revolutionary mood. Cubans could theoretically rise up tomorrow to overthrow the communist system as Eastern Europeans did in 1989, but at no point did I feel such a movement is imminent. I felt instead a calcified frozenness and a sense that Cuba has no imagined future, that the country is forever lost to time and to progress, that it’s a place where no one strives to do anything except flee to America, where “empowerment” is not an irritating pop psychology buzzword but something everybody desperately needs. It’s an island where information from the outside world is so restricted that it feels like a surreal science-fiction story or the island in the show Lost, but with a cast of millions instead of just dozens. Miami is so close, but it might as well be in another dimension. Every day and every month is exactly the same, even when it comes to the weather. The only real change is biological aging.

*

My bus pulled out of Trinidad and headed directly up and into the Escambray Mountains. At the top of the first ridge facing the sea was a lookout tower that can be reached by climbing a staircase.

“Can we stop there for a few minutes?” I said to the driver.

He nodded.

No one else on the bus cared to go up there, so I hustled to the top by myself. The climb was not strenuous, and the view at the top is spectacular. Trinidad looked tiny below me while the sea stretching onward toward Colombia and Venezuela appeared as vast as the Pacific.

The air is much thinner and cooler up there, and it’s dry. I felt no humidity. Cuba’s mountain air felt and tasted the same as the mountain air in the Pacific Northwest. I would love to have a house in such a splendid location, and I felt a brief pang of envy for the few Cubans who live there in scattered homes amid such rural splendor. But my elation was dashed when I remembered that most Cubans will never once in their lives get to see this.

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The Lost World, Part I

I needed to go on a road trip in a country where hardly anyone can go on a road trip.

“Don’t even think about driving in Cuba.”

That’s what I was told by an American man and travel industry pro who has visited the Caribbean people’s republic more times than I’ve left my home country combined. 

“But I’ve driven in Lebanon,” I said. “And Albania.” No one drives as badly as the Lebanese and Albanians, bless their hearts. Even the Iraqis and Israelis drive like Canadians by comparison. “Besides, Cuba hardly has any cars. How bad could the traffic possibly be?”

“The roads are dark at night and filled with pedestrians, bicycles, and animals,” he said. “There are no signs and you’ll be arrested if you get in an accident.”

Getting arrested in a communist police state ranks on my to-do list alongside being stricken with cancer and getting snatched off a Middle Eastern street by Al Qaeda.

I wanted to rent one of Cuba’s classic American Chevys from the 1950s and roam at will through the countryside, but who would I call if the car broke down or I got a flat tire? My cell phone does not work in Cuba. I can’t fix a Cuban car by myself—that’s for damn sure. Cubans improvise with all kinds of random things under the hood, including, as one resident told me, parts from old Russian washing machines.

Capital cities are bubbles. And much of Havana is in ruins after decades of hostile neglect by Fidel Castro. Most of it looks like a war zone minus the bullet holes. What does the rest of the country look like? Is it better? Or is it somehow even worse?

I had to get out of town. Renting a car wasn’t advisable, so I took a bus. I don’t like traveling that way, but it seemed like the best option. First stop: Bay of Pigs.

 *

The warning to eschew renting a car, I have to say, was a bit overblown. I could have driven myself where I wanted to go without too much trouble. Traffic outside the city was miniscule, including pedestrian, bicycle, and animal traffic. The roads are smooth and wide open. Just ten minutes outside the Havana metro area, my bus had the road to itself. And the bus came with a guide, so I didn’t have to just guess what I was looking at.

It was an easy road, too. Most of Cuba is more or less flat. I could see off in the distance outside the window because the landscape is not forested. It consists mostly of grass, stray palm trees, sad little agricultural plots, and unused fields gone to the weeds.

Taking a bus came with another advantage I hadn’t foreseen. I didn’t have to stop at the checkpoints.

I’m used to seeing military and police checkpoints when I travel abroad. Every country in the Middle East has them, including Israel if you count the one outside the airport. The authorities in that part of the world are looking for guns and bombs mostly. The Cuban authorities aren’t worried about weapons. No one but the regime has anything deadlier than a baseball bat.

Castro’s checkpoints are there to ensure nobody has too much or the wrong kind of food.

Police officers pull over cars and search the trunk for meat, lobsters, and shrimp. They also search passenger bags on city busses in Havana. Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote about it sarcastically in her book, Havana Real. “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.”

If they find a side of beef in the trunk, so I’m told, you’ll go to prison for five years if you tell the police where you got it and ten years if you don’t.

No one is allowed to have lobsters in Cuba. You can’t buy them in stores, and they sure as hell aren’t available on anyone’s ration card. They’re strictly reserved for tourist restaurants owned by the state. Kids will sometimes pull them out of the ocean and sell them on the black market, but I was warned in no uncertain terms not to buy one. I stayed in hotels and couldn’t cook my own food anyway. And what was I supposed to do, stash a live lobster in my backpack?

I did see animals once in a while, but nothing I couldn’t have handled in a rental car. Cows sometimes wander across the road on open ranch land in the American West where I live. No big deal. In the forested parts of the West, deer dart in front of cars every day. That can be fatal for deer and driver alike. Cows on the road in Cuba were no kind of problem.

I was actually glad to see cows on the road because the bus slowed enough that I could get a good look at them and even take pictures. Whatever the Cubans are doing with cattle, it’s wrong. The poor things are skeletons wrapped in leather. No wonder milk, meat, and cheese are so hard to come by.

I know next to nothing about cattle ranching, but the eastern (dry) side of my home state of Oregon has plenty of ranches, and I can tell you this much: Oregon cows have a lot more land to roam free on. They wander for miles eating scrub out in the semi-desert.

Agricultural fields in Cuba are microscopic, whether they’re for ranching for farming. They’re misshapen and haphazardly planted as if they’re amateur recreational farms rather than industrial-scale operations that are supposed to feed millions of people. My father grows pinot noir grapes in a vineyard no larger than these, but he really is doing it for recreational purposes in his retirement. He’s happy if he breaks even.

Cuba doesn’t even break even—hence the checkpoints to ensure no one is “hoarding.” The country could produce many times the amount of food it currently does. Deforestation wouldn’t be necessary. Most of the Cuban landscape I saw is already deforested. It’s just not being used. It’s tree-free and fallow ex-farmland. I’ve never seen anything like it, though parts of the Soviet Union may have looked similar.

Imbecilic communist agriculture practices aren’t the only problem. An invasive weed from Angola is choking half the farmland that would be in use, and no one seems to have a clue how to get rid of it.

More interesting than the cows and the fields were all the people on the side of the road. I saw hundreds between Havana and Cienfuegos waiting for someone with a car to stop and pick them up.

I would have picked somebody up if I had a car and would have enjoyed it tremendously. I’ve hitchhiked in the Middle East plenty of times. It’s not as reckless as it sounds. You won’t just stand there all day until a predator comes along. The first car you flag will probably stop, and if not, the second or third almost certainly will.

Americans think hitchhiking is dangerous, and it can be in the US, but in many parts of the world it’s perfectly ordinary. In Cuba it’s sometimes the only way to get anywhere. Asking for and giving rides are as casual and routine as letting a stranger read the newspaper in an American coffeeshop after you’re finished with it.

My driver blew right on past the poor Cubans. The government-owned bus was strictly for foreigners who booked the ride in advance. No ragged peasants allowed!

 *

Playa Giron is a small town next to a beach of the same name on the Bay of Pigs—Bahia de Cochinos—where 1,500 Cuban exiles mounted a botched invasion in 1961 with CIA backing.

How on earth might 1,500 exiles overthrow a regime all by themselves, you might ask? They expected Cubans to join them.

The Bay of Pigs was not the ideal insertion point.

It’s a remote rustic backwater. It’s pleasant in a rustic backwater sort of way, but it’s a backwater. It’s on the south side of the island and faces Panama rather than Florida. The only real industry down there right now is tourism, but back in the 60s they didn’t even have that.

Most of the residents live in strictly functional houses built by the government during the 70s. Before they were given government housing, most of them lived in squalor. Havana was relatively wealthy before Castro seized power and wrecked it, but the countryside wasn’t. And shortly after he took command, he enacted a land reform law that broke large properties into pieces and doled them out to peasants and to the state. Most of the people around the Bay of Pigs had nothing before Castro gave them something (though not before he took it from somebody else.)

The government says that’s why the exiles weren’t welcomed by the locals when they hit the beach. Maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not.

Whatever the reason, local people laid low during the invasion, and the exiles faced the entire Cuban army alone. There were, however, extraordinarily well-trained and motivated. Before they lost 118 men they killed more than 4,000 soldiers and militiamen on the government side.

President John F. Kennedy abandoned them to their fate and they eventually ran out of ammo.

Cuba’s southern shore is protected from wind and storms off the Atlantic, so the water is flat as a lake and clear as a swimming pool. It sparkled with light. I could see why European scuba divers converge there. I had a powerful urge to get off the bus and hit the beach myself before swarms of orange insects the size of baby birds put that idea to rest. And anyway, I did not go to Cuba to hang out on the beach. I headed down from Havana to Playa Giron to see the museum Castro built to commemorate his side’s victory in the Bay of Pigs war.

I wouldn’t describe the town as a nice place, exactly. The architecture is utilitarian, as one should expect from communist housing, but it was a relief after the devastation wrought by neglect in the capital.

Almost every structure in Playa Giron was built in the 70s, and the 70s were the 70s everywhere. The entire human race lost its sense of aesthetics back then. But at least Playa Giron hasn’t had time to decay like Havana.

Much better to live in a generic box in the boondocks than in an inhuman tower block or a ravaged once-beautiful slum. Playa Giron’s general ambience is bucolic. At least its residents can enjoy the pleasures of nature, which in Cuba can be considerable.

The weather, though—that’s something else. When I got off the bus in front of the museum and stepped onto the blacktop, I felt like someone had opened a blast furnace.

“Does it ever get cold here?” I said to the guide.

She laughed and shook her head. “You should feel Cuba in August.”

Cuba feels like August even in January.

Every day I thought how miserable I’d be if I lived in a place that never gets cold. I don’t like the cold—who does?—but there will be no spring or fall without winter. It’s a fair trade. For the cost of one uncomfortable season, you get two that are delightful. But Cuba has only two seasons—hot and boiling.

Perhaps Cubans like it this way. Miami residents love the fact that their city is balmy while the rest of us freeze. Maybe they’re glad they don’t have to put up with winter.

“Do you wish it got cold?” I said to the guide.

She nodded. “It’s hot here all the time.”

I felt like a bit of a wuss, but Cuba’s climate is objectively stifling. It’s not Saharan hot, but it’s humid, and the tropical sun burns more than mid-latitude sun. Out in the countryside I saw people walking on the sides of the roads using rain umbrellas to keep the blazing sunshine off their heads. Havana’s buildings provide shade during the day, but the landscape outside the city takes merciless punishment from dawn until dusk.

So I ducked inside the air-conditioned museum and paid a dollar to be propagandized about the Bay of Pigs by Fidel Castro’s ministers of “information.”

There wasn’t much to it, alas—some photographs, a few confiscated weapons, a couple of maps, scraps of clothing and insignia from Cuban soldiers. Placards referred to the exiles as “mercenaries” and “kooks,” though the latter was misspelled in English as “cooks.”

I was hoping for something outrageous and hysterical like the October War Panorama in Cairo, built by North Korea and identical to one in Pyongyang, celebrating Egypt’s victory against Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War—a conflict Egypt actually lost.

But Cuba is not North Korea, nor is it politically deranged in quite the same way as Egypt, so the museum was less ideologically bent than it could have been. It is not Playa Giron’s greatest attraction.

I mentioned to a Cuban woman inside the building that Playa Giron seemed like a great place for diving, swimming, and boating. “It’s the main industry here,” she said. “Of course, tourists can go out on boats but we can’t.”

I just looked at her for a moment without blinking, then said, “Is that for the obvious reason?”

Cuban communism triggered one of the biggest refugee crises in the history of the Western Hemisphere. More than a million people have fled Castro’s regime, many by water across the Straits of Florida clinging to anything at all that might float. One in three drowns, dies of thirst, or is torn to pieces by sharks before reaching Miami, yet they try anyway.

She nodded. “Yes, we’re banned from boats for the obvious reason.” Then she paused. “We probably shouldn’t discuss this in here. They have the place wired.”

I looked at her without blinking again. “Seriously?”

She smiled. “I’m just kidding.”

Okay.

Kidding or not, banning Cubans from the water leads to another story I can’t confirm but seems at least plausible.

Some time ago, the ferry operator who takes passengers from the Cuban mainland to the Isle of Youth decided to take the boat to Miami and request political asylum. Problem was, the ferry moves s-l-o-w-l-y and he couldn’t escape. The authorities figured out what he was up to, met the ferry in the open water, and arrested him. The boat has GPS on it now so the government will know if anyone hijacks it again, and they can flip a kill switch that shuts off the engine remotely.

One thing that did catch my attention in the museum was a little exhibit about Fidel’s Comision Nacional De Alfabetizacion, the program to teach illiterate rural people to read. He wasn’t the only person who could have done it, and a project like that certainly doesn’t require a totalitarian police state, but it got done with help from young volunteers from the cities.

I’m not sure why the literacy campaign was featured in the museum, but I can hazard two guesses. First, Fidel can’t resist bragging about it to tourists. Second, Playa Giron is in a rural part of Cuba, and it’s possible that the CIA-backed Cuban exiles who landed there were rejected in part because of Castro’s literacy campaign as well as his land reform. The exhibit made the exiles look mean by comparison.

They weren’t fighting to keep the peasants illiterate, nor was that why President Kennedy initially backed them, but it may have affected the hearts and minds of the people who live there. I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone knows what the people in that particular area were thinking a half century ago. The citizens of Playa Giron probably don’t know anymore. They know what they’re thinking right now, and they know what the government says they were thinking back then, but what did they really think? Maybe most of them were communist partisans before they knew what they were in for. Perhaps they had no idea what to expect from Fidel Castro—he billed himself as a liberal democrat, not a communist, in the beginning—and they may have thought the Cuban exiles wanted to reinstate the awful Fulgencio Batista who preceded Castro. Maybe they hated the government and were afraid to rise up because they’d be killed if they lost.

If that was the case, they were right.

Some people in the area did rise up. And they paid.

The Escambray mountains are a leisurely drive from Playa Giron. They aren’t as tall as the majestic Sierra Maestra where Fidel, Che, and Camilo Cienfuegos hid for years during their guerrilla war, but they were home to a different guerrilla movement—the anti-communist insurgency known as Escambray Rebellion that lasted from 1959 to 1965. As Humberto Fontova put it in his book about Che, the collectivization of agriculture was no more voluntary in Cuba than it was in Ukraine.

The leaders of the Escambray Rebellion knew how to fight in the mountains because most of the leaders fought alongside Che and Fidel in their war against Batista. They backed the revolution initially only because they thought it wasn’t communist. They did not risk their lives to replace one dictatorship with another, especially not a Soviet-style regime that was worse than the old one.

So when Castro consolidated power for himself and outed himself as a communist, the Escambray Rebellion set south-central Cuba on fire.

If the Cuban exiles who landed at the Bay of Pigs had linked up with these people, they might have changed history. We’ll never know. Either way, plenty of Cubans in the countryside did not support Fidel Castro’s government, nor did they just sit back and take it. They fought to the death.

Nearly everyone involved in the Escambray Rebellion was killed in the fighting. Those who surrendered were executed by firing squad.

The museum didn’t mention any of this, nor did my guide. 

 *

Twenty miles east of the Bay of Pigs, the city of Cienfuegos makes a ghastly first impression. The outskirts are ringed with soul-crushing apartment blocks.

They’re shorter and less dehumanizing than their Soviet counterparts in Europe, but they’re not at all the kinds of places anyone would ever want to call home, especially since the old part of town reminds them every day what a proper urban environment looks like. The city center is vaguely European and it’s not all falling apart like most of Havana.

If you hang out in a communist country in the 21st century you’ll encounter strange incongruities that never had a chance to exist in the Soviet Union. For instance, the waiter at the restaurant where I had lunch handed me a card indicating the establishment has a page up on Trip Advisor in case I felt like writing a review once I got home.

The Internet scarcely exists in Cuba. It’s banned in private homes. No Cubans surf Trip Advisor when they wonder where they should go out to lunch. Who can afford to go out to lunch? The government imposes a Maximum Wage of twenty dollars a month. These people have been crushed into poverty and are kept there by force. The restaurant is strictly for foreigners from nations with minimum wages rather than maximum wages. The staff have probably never seen their own Web site. And yet, they have 157 reviews. You might think, if you looked it up on the Internet, that eating out and vacationing in Cuba is no stranger than doing so in Puerto Rico or Aruba or anywhere else in the Caribbean. Yet Cuba is little different from East Germany when it was still cut off from West Berlin by the Wall.

I ordered fish and lobster. (Why not? Unlike at home, it’s inexpensive for foreigners.) The fish wasn’t good, but at least it was edible. The lobster, on the other hand, taught me something I didn’t know. It’s possible to boil one into rubber. You could make a bicycle tire out of this stuff. Even with my steak knife, I couldn’t cut it. I eventually had to give up and push it aside. 

So no, I will not write a review of that restaurant.

But the staff were friendly and the local Bucanero beer isn’t bad. Of Cuba’s two national beers, Bucanero is the “dark” one—Fuerte it says on the bottle—but it’s neither dark nor strong compared with any other beer I’ve ever had. An Irishman would laugh at this stuff. But it’s better than the generic Pilsner which is no more flavorful or robust than Bud Light. 

Most Cubans have no more access to lobster or beer than they have to the Internet. The only meat most of them can eat even semi-regularly is chicken—and even that is a luxury item.

Beef is reserved for the elite and those who get tips from tourists or remittances from abroad. A Cuban who kills a cow is supposedly in big trouble. “You’ll be charged with murder,” one person told me. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, and the closest I can come to verifying it is an article in The Economist published in 2008. “In a place that before 1959 boasted as many cattle as people, meat is such a scarce luxury that it is a crime to kill and eat a cow.”

Another person told me that farmers will sometimes push a cow onto the road around a blind corner when they hear a car coming. That way the animal (though possibly also the driver) will be killed “naturally” and can be eaten without the threat of a prison sentence.

I can’t verify this sort of thing, so take it with the requisite salt, but even if it’s not true, it says something about the country that people believe it. A story like that wouldn’t even make sense anywhere else in the world except perhaps North Korea.

Cienfuegos is a nice enough place once you get in past the drab-looking outskirts, and it surprised me a little. I saw none of the destruction that communism wrought in Havana, and I asked someone about it. Why is Cienfuegos in such better shape?

“Because it’s smaller and easier to restore.” That was the answer.

So here’s a fun question:

Restore from what?

- Click here to read Part II -

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Tourist Baffles Somalia Immigration Officials

I’m almost finished with another long dispatch from the field. In the meantime, I leave you with this. (It’s from 2010, but hey, it’s new to me and probably to you too.)

MOGADISHU — When Mike Spencer Bown disembarked from his flight in Mogadishu this week and described himself as a tourist, Somali immigration officials thought the Canadian man was either mad or a spy.

"They tried four times to put me back on the plane to get rid of me but I shouted and played tricks until the plane left without me," the 41-year-old told an AFP correspondent in Mogadishu on his hotel's roof terrace.

Somali officials then tried to hand him over to the African Union military force in Mogadishu, refusing to believe that he was in the city for pleasure.

"We have never seen people like this man," Omar Mohamed, an immigration official, said Friday. "He said he was a tourist, we couldn't believe him. But later on we found he was serious."

"That makes him the first person to come to Mogadishu only for tourism but unfortunately this is not the right time," he added.

The guy isn’t quite as nuts as he sounds. He vowed to visit every country on earth and went to Somalia last. So he knew in advance it is no place for tourists, but he went anyway.

The Wolf in Wolf's Clothing

Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani visited the Hezbollah-occupied suburbs south of Beirut and placed a wreath at the grave of dead terrorist commander Imad Mugniyeh.

Mugniyeh is responsible for destroying the American Embassy in Lebanon and the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, orchestrating the truck bombing of the US Marine barracks south of Beirut and killing more Americans than in any single attack since the Battle of Iwo Jima, kidnapping American civilians--including journalists--torturing CIA station chief William Buckley to death, bombing the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina, and hijacking TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome.

But hey, whatevs, nothing to worry about here. Mugniyeh was a psychopath, but conventional wisdom in Washington says Rouhani is moderate.

(Hezbollah released the photo of Mugniyeh above after the Israelis dispatched him with a car bomb in Damascus. It was a surgical blast that injured no bystanders.)

UPDATE: Okay, I'm an idiot. It wasn't Hassan Rouhani who layed the wreath. It was Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif.

Amazingly, though, the point still stands. Zarif is also considered a moderate by the conventional wisdom in Washington.

The Worst Place in the World

Just when you think things in Syria can’t get any darker—they go black.

This, from the indispensible Michael Weiss at NOW Lebanon, is what passes for good news over there.

Since just after Christmas, the nastiest and most backward group in the country, the schismatic al-Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has had its black-clad ass handed to it by three disparate but equally fed-up rebel super-formations, none of them more than three months old. The largest and most formidable of these anti-ISIS newcomers is the mainly Salafi Islamic Front, which fields as many as 60,000 fighters and was created, as far as I can tell, to accomplish three things: 1. isolate and marginalize ISIS, though not necessarily through military force; 2. establish the first truly cohesive rebel army with a top-down hierarchy and command-and-control capability; 3. lure the more “moderate” or pragmatic al-Qaeda group in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, into the oppositional mainstream. If the last few days have been any guide, then number 1 is proceeding apace, number 2 is relatively successful, at least by Syrian standards, although its objective success is still hard to gauge, and number 3 remains a work-in-progress. Nevertheless, any week in which Syrians rise up to denounce Zarqawism and call for its expulsion from the country is not a week to sniff at, especially as positive developments in this conflict are seldom in evidence.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s good news that ISIS is getting its black-clad ass handed to it, as Weiss says. The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham is the Taliban of the Eastern Mediterranean. But it’s a sad day indeed when Jabhat al-Nusra, which is also an Al Qaeda affiliate, is described alongside an army of tens of thousands of Salafists, as “moderate.”

Two years ago (an eternity in Middle East politics) there was a slim but non-zero chance of a half-way decent outcome in a post-Assad Syria, but today we have a near-zero chance of a non-horrible outcome. Things could have gone differently, but nope.

So I’m unofficially declaring Syria the worst place in the world.

Egypt Comes Full Circle -- Again

Here’s the opening of Eric Trager’s latest on Egypt in The Atlantic:

Nearly six months after the mass uprising-cum-coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, the key cleavages of Egypt’s domestic political conflict are not only unresolved, but unresolvable. The generals who removed Morsi are engaged in an existential struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood: They believe they must destroy the Brotherhood—by, for instance, designating it a terrorist organization—or else the Brotherhood will return to power and destroy them. Meanwhile, Sinai-based jihadists have used Morsi’s removal as a pretext for intensifying their violence, and have increasingly hit targets west of the Suez Canal. Even the Brotherhood’s fiercest opponents are fighting among themselves: the coalition of entrenched state institutions and leftist political parties that rebelled against Morsi is fraying, and the youth activists who backed Morsi’s ouster in July are now protesting against the military-backed government, which has responded by arresting their leaders.

Egypt has come full circle twice—first when General Sisi made himself the second coming of Hosni Mubarak, and again now that young activists are at war with the government.

The idea that Sisi would ever “restore” the democracy that went “off track” with Morsi, as so many activists claimed when he seized power, was always delusional. Egypt had no democracy to begin with. (A single election does not a democracy make.) Nor does the Egyptian military have a democratic cell in its corpus.

Egypt’s choice is the same now as it has been for decades: Islamic theocracy or military dictatorship. It can’t be sustainably settled at the ballot box, so it will be fought over instead in the streets.

Islamist Rule in Tunisia is Over

Tunisia’s Islamist prime minister resigned today and ceded power to a caretaker government. He was not overthrown by guerrillas or by the army, but by peaceful and legal means familiar to citizens raised in democracies.

Tunisia is still the model for post-revolutionary politics in the Arab world. I expected as much at the outset and explained why three years ago. Morocco is the only Arab country in the entire world as politically mature. Egypt is an emergency room case, Libya could turn into a failed state if it’s not careful, and Syria is suffering near-apocalypse. Iraq is…well, it’s Iraq.

And truthfully, that headline of mine is a little exaggerated. The Islamists never actually ruled in Tunisia. They were simply the largest party in a governing coalition, and they were resisted at every step by millions of liberals, secularists, and socialists who also had a voice and a vote.

When I returned for the second time two years ago, the country didn’t look or feel even remotely Islamist. It looked and felt exactly as it did when the government was autocratic and secular, only citizens could finally speak and act freely.

The Tunisians I’m still in contact with think a secular labor coalition will sweep the next election later this year, and they’re probably right, but political predictions in the Middle East are about as accurate as a weather forecast several months in advance, so we’ll see.

Afghanistan Before the Wars

Business Insider has published an amazing gallery of photographs taken in Afghanistan before the wars (the first was the Soviet invasion and insurgency) blew the place back to the seventh century.

Afghanistan clearly was not an advanced country then, but it functioned and had not yet been destroyed.

Al Qaedastan in Fallujah

Al Qaeda has reconquered parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, and Iraqi security forces are battling to reclaim them.

The bin Ladenist resurgence in Iraq may be but a blip. It could also be just the beginning of yet another Middle East horror story. I spent more time than I ever wanted hanging out with American and Iraqi soldiers in Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad during the war, and I spoke to dozens if not hundreds of people there during that time, and the salient features of the Iraqi army back then were extraordinary incompetence alongside extraordinary improvement. We’re about to find out which trait wins out.

Let’s be perfectly clear about one thing, however: The hatred in Iraq for Al Qaeda is incandescent, even in the Sunni areas that theoretically make up its base. This should not be hard to believe. Bin Laden’s Mesopotamian enforcers butchered far more Iraqis than they even dreamed of killing in New York and Washington.

They shot people for smoking. They tortured people to death. They threatened to execute vegetable vendors who displayed cucumbers and tomatoes next to each other. (The vegetables are supposedly different genders.) But that was back when the stores were still open. Just a few months before I showed up in Ramadi in 2007, Al Qaeda so thoroughly ravaged the city that the economy ceased to exist. It was at zero. Nothing worked, nothing was open. Electrical wires ran cold. Water didn’t come out of the sink. Garbage collection was a thing of the past. Life itself was nearly a thing of the past. Al Qaeda did not even try to govern the places they seized. They were just psychopaths running amok during a local apocalypse.

Political Islam may always have at least a small natural constituency, if not a large one, in the Muslim world, but Al Qaeda’s totalitarianism is in a dimension beyond. It is at war not only with the West and the region’s Shia minority, but also with the Sunni Arab society that produced it.

An Iraqi police officer in the Fallujah area explained it to me this way four years ago: “When you join the Al Qaeda organization, the first thing you have to do is get your parents far away from your mind. Your father and mother have to be away from your thinking. There can be nothing else. Only the Al Qaeda organization. Your kids, your wife, your family, your parents, your beliefs, all have to be out. Only then can you enroll in the Al Qaeda organization. If an Al Qaeda officer gives you an order to kill your father, you have to do it. Your father, your mother, your neighbor, no matter who it might be. It's a matter of ideological indoctrination from the organization itself.”

Al Qaeda isn’t so much a faith-based movement as a totalitarian political cult. It’s an extreme offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it has more in common operationally with the deranged Shining Path in Peru than with its parent organization.

The Sunnis in and around Fallujah and Ramadi initially welcomed Al Qaeda as liberators from the American occupiers, but the overwhelming majority whipsawed to the American side after the mask came off.

The story of Sheikh Jassim, who helped forge the Iraqi-American alliance in Ramadi and was punished for it severely, is typical.

“Al Qaeda said they would mess him up if he got in their way,” an American army lieutenant told me back then. “He called their bluff and they seriously fucked him up. They launched a massive attack on his area. All hell broke loose. They set houses on fire. They dragged people through the streets behind pickup trucks. A kid from his area went into town and Al Qaeda kidnapped him, tortured him, and delivered his head to the outpost in a box. The dead kid was only sixteen years old. The Iraqis then sent out even nine year-old kids to act as neighborhood watchmen. They painted their faces and everything.”

And yet Al Qaeda has taken Fallujah three times—twice under the noses of the American military, and again this month after boosting their regional strength in the Syrian war.

This is an old story. Ideological minorities have managed to violently seize power all over the world and impose tyrannical rule on the majority. It happened during the 20th century in Russia, Iran, Germany, Cambodia, Syria, Cuba, and in so many other places. And it is happening in the 21st century in parts of the Middle East and North Africa now at the hands of Al Qaeda. The Taliban are doing the same thing in Afghanistan.

Those of us raised in democratic societies have a hard time believing this is even possible, but it happens, and there’s only so much we can do about it. Sure, the US military can drive Al Qaeda from a given location, no problem. I witnessed it myself and wrote about it extensively in my book, In the Wake of the Surge.

Yet guerrilla and terrorist war saps so many advantages even from conventional superpowers that victory is always costly and occasionally only temporary. Al Qaeda has such a wide theater to operate in that counterinsurgency is a game of planet-wide whack-a-mole. Booted out of Afghanistan? Go to Iraq! Defeated in Iraq by the Americans? Move to Mali! Kicked out of Mali by the French? Go to Libya! It’s like using radiation and chemotherapy against a cancer that won’t stop metastasizing.

I’d love to be able to say we should do x, y, and z and Al Qaeda will eventually cease to exist, but there are no x, y, and z. The world may have to wait for this scourge to extinguish itself like communism did in Europe. That hardly implies we should do nothing in the meantime—we did not sit passively by until the Soviets self-destructed—but our options are limited and it will likely take decades.

The First Post of 2014

I took a break over the holidays to recharge my batteries and keep myself sane, but the entire human race didn’t stop or slow down, so there’s news.

Guess what the news looks like from the Middle East? That’s right. It’s bad.

Hezbollah may have moved long-range Scud missiles from Syria into Lebanon, and Al Qaeda reconquered Fallujah.

The way things are going in Syria, Al Qaeda might even take over Damascus. We are long past the date when a non-horrible outcome from that war was possible. And it could very well make the next war between Israel and whatever remains of the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah bloc even worse than it would have been otherwise.

I need a little time to get caught up on recent developments and write my next dispatch from Cuba. In the meantime, if you want to read anything cheery, look at Tunisia. That country has a lot of problems, including many of the Middle East’s typical problems, but it was ahead of its neighbors before the Arab Spring, it was ahead of its neighbors during the Arab Spring, and it’s still ahead now.

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