What Vladimir Putin is Up To

So Ukraine’s Crimea “voted” to join Russia at gunpoint.

I have no doubt a large percentage of Crimeans sincerely wish to join Russia despite the obvious-to-the-rest-of-us drawbacks. Crimea has a Russian majority—58 percent according to the 2001 census. And Crimea used to be part of Russia before Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev moved the border in 1954.

But just a few years ago, a majority of Crimeans in a national survey identified Ukraine, rather than Russia, as their motherland. The referendum ballot itself was highly dubious, and it’s spectacularly unlikely that a majority of Crimea’s Tatars and Ukrainians are interested in being subjects of Moscow, but let’s leave that aside for right now. Vladimir Putin is no more interested in what Crimea wants than what Kiev wants.

What he’s doing is simple.

U.S. Ambassador George F. Kennan described Russia’s mid-century foreign policy this way: “The jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.”

Russia had been behaving that way long before Kennan figured it out, and it’s still behaving that way today.

Vladimir Putin isn’t a communist, but he is a product of the Soviet Union—he worked counter-intelligence in the KGB and spied on foreigners and diplomats in Saint Petersburg—and his view of Russia’s neighbors is no different now than it was then.

So when Ukraine could no longer tolerate being Putin’s vassal and overthrew his proxy Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine instantly moved into the “enemy” column and is being treated accordingly.

But it isn’t just that simple. Putin has a strategy. And it’s working.

What he most fears is that Ukraine might join NATO, removing yet another buffer state between himself and the West and kiboshing his plans for the Eurasian Union, a euphemism for a 21st century Russian empire. (Does anyone seriously believe Kazakhstan will be an equal partner with Moscow?)

Keeping his former Ukrainian vassal out of NATO will be easy now even if a militant anti-Russian firebrand comes to power in Kiev. The Crimean referendum—whether it was free and fair or rigged is no matter—creates a disputed territory conflict that will never be resolved in Ukraine’s favor. It will freeze and fester indefinitely. There isn’t a chance that NATO would accept a member that has a disputed territory conflict with Russia. No chance at all. Ukraine is as isolated as it could possibly be from the West without getting re-absorbed into Russia entirely.

Putin did the same thing to Georgia in 2008 when he lopped off the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and he did it for the same reason.

A similar dynamic fell into his lap in Moldova, the poor and battered country east of Romania. The far eastern Slavic region of (Latin) Moldova declared independence after the Soviet period and calls itself Transnistria.

The world does not recognize the existence of a state called Transnistria, which is perhaps just as well. It’s still basically Soviet. The hammer and sickle are right there on the flag. Its first president, Igor Smirnov, groomed himself into a dead-ringer for Vladimir Lenin.

Putin couldn’t care less about what happens in Transnistria, but he keeps Russian troops there because they ensure Moldova stays out of NATO.

That’s not one, not two, but three times Russia has pulled this stunt since the end of the Cold War. Putin is doing it to Ukraine because it worked in Moldova and Georgia.

There is no exit plan. Russia is not going to pull out of these countries, nor will anyone force Russia out. It’s not worth a world war—not even close.

That’s where we are. Where to next? Well, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova could cede the scraps to Russia and join NATO as rump states, if NATO will have them. There’s not much else they can do. Because protesting and sanctions and diplomatic hand-wringing will have no effect whatsoever.

Thanks for Reading, and for Buying

Right out of the gate sales of my new novel are strong enough that Amazon is listing it in the top-100 in Post-Apocalyptic Science-Fiction and the top-ten Hot New Releases. All kinds of people who have never heard of me before are seeing my book now. A percentage of them will find my other books as well as this blog.

Thanks to everyone who bought their copy right away. This wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Those of you who haven’t bought your copy yet—I’ll take it as a personal favor to me if you buy it right now and push me up the ranks even higher. Greater visibility in online bookstores creates a positive feedback loop that drives sales ever higher. That’s how best-sellers are made.

Thanks again and enjoy the book!

(It's different from my others, I know, but hey, we all contain multitudes.)

New Book Release

Next month will mark my ten-year anniversary as a full-time journalist, but I’ve been writing fiction twice as long, for twenty years. During all that time I intended to one day write a book set in a post-apocalyptic landscape and I’ve finally done it.

This one is a zombie novel called Resurrection.

But as Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic said of The Walking Dead, “Zombie movies aren't about zombies; they're about how humans react to zombies.”

That’s right. 

The zombie apocalypse is just a way to blow up the world in a story. The real story of Resurrection is about how humans struggle to behave as civilized people after civilization has been annihilated. Would you be able to it? It might be harder than you think.

This subject isn’t as far afield from what I usually write about as it may appear at first glace. First of all, let’s not forget that Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University, wrote a highly regarded book called Theories of International Politics and Zombies. Princeton University Press published it.

Second, I’ve spent more time than I ever expected in parts of the world where civilization has been strained to the breaking point. Such strain does extraordinary things—sometimes extraordinarily bad things—to people who are otherwise perfectly capable of decent behavior. Just look at how violent Syria became after that switch got flipped. Four years ago it was one of the safest countries on earth you could visit, and now it’s the last place you should go.

No country is immune if it gets slammed hard enough, including the United States. How would Americans act after a civilization-ending event? That’s where this book is set and what it’s about.

It’s currently available for 18.99 in trade paperback and just 5.99 for the Kindle.

Early reviews (so far in the form of blurbs from other authors) are fantastic.

If you plan on buying this book, I’d like to humbly ask that you do it right away. When sales of new books are strong enough, Amazon.com lists them under “Hot New Releases,” driving sales up dramatically for the first month. This happened with my third book, Where the West Ends, thanks to you all and I’d love to repeat the experience. But Amazon will do nothing to boost this book or any other if it doesn’t first generate momentum on its own.

Here’s the description:

From prize-winning author Michael J. Totten

Welcome to a world turned to ashes.

Annie Starling is missing her memory of the last eight weeks--the most devastating in history. It started in Russia and went global in a matter of days, the most virulent virus the world has ever known. It's stripping its victims of every last thing that makes them human. And that's just the beginning. The other survivors are no less dangerous than the infected.

She meets Lane, who stops at nothing to assert power and control over everybody who's left; Kyle, who dreams of building a new world upon the ruins of the old; Hughes, who lost the ability to feel after burying his family; and Parker, who threatens to tear himself and his companions apart.

And when her memories finally return, Annie discovers a terrifying secret that could change everything--but she can't tell a soul what it is.

Praise for Resurrection

”For fans of World War Z and The Walking Dead, Michael J. Totten's Resurrection is the novel you've been waiting for.” -- Scott William Carter, author of Ghost Detective

”In the tradition of The Walking Dead, Michael J. Totten delivers a must-read with Resurrection. Action packed with a wicked twist, this is one book I couldn't put down.” --Annie Reed, author of The Patient Z Files

Resurrection dragged me in from the first page, with fast-paced, suspense-filled action and multi-layered and totally believable characters. Painting a vivid and gritty picture of a post-apocalyptic Northwest, Totten puts us into the minds and emotional struggles of a group of mismatched survivors forced to band together for protection even when they're on the verge or ripping each other apart. He also wrote one of the scariest passages I've read in any horror or suspense story...so be warned if you're afraid of the dark, or water, or both.” - JC Andrijeski, author of Rook

It’s currently available for 18.99 in trade paperback and just 5.99 for the Kindle.

Post-script: As of this moment, it's ranked in Amazon's top-100 for post-apocalyptic science-fiction. Keep buying copies and let's see if we can get it into the top-10.

Post-post-script: We did it! Thanks in part to everyone here, Amazon is listing the book at #11 in Hot New Releases.

Interviewed on the Ricochet Podcast

James Lileks and Peter Robinson interviewed me earlier today on the Ricochet podcast about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. You can listen here. I come in during the last 20 minutes or so.

Russia's Occupation Reeks of the Soviet Days

How would you like to be ruled by a gangster named “Goblin” who was “elected” by a parliament under the eyes of masked militiamen? That’s what Crimeans are getting.

SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE—Strip away the propaganda from the chaos in Crimea, and this much is certain: last Thursday morning a political farce played out here in the regional capital.

It started with anonymous gunmen storming parliament house in a bloodless pre-dawn raid. By sunrise, the Russian flag was flying high above an occupied government house.

Lawmakers were summoned, stripped of their cellphones as they entered the chamber. The Crimean media was banished. Then, behind closed doors, Crimea’s government was dismissed and a new one formed, with Sergey Akysonov, head of the Russian Unity party, installed as Crimea’s new premier.

It if was a crime, it was just the beginning. Akysonov’s ascent to power at the point of a gun presaged all that has happened since — the announcement of a referendum on Crimean independence and the slow, methodical fanning out of Russian forces throughout the peninsula, ostensibly to protect Russians here from a threat no one can seem to find.

But here’s the most interesting bit: Aksyonov’s sudden rise as Moscow’s crucial point man in Crimea has revived simmering allegations of an underworld past going back to the lawless 1990s, when Akysonov is said to have gone by the street name “Goblin,” a lieutenant in the Crimean crime syndicate Salem.

Years ago I assumed if Russian troops were to one day show up in Crimea that they’d be welcome by many locals as liberators. But I wasn’t counting on masked militias or “Goblin.”

Maybe a lot of these people are sufficiently spooked by what’s going on in Kiev and by hysterical claims that Russians are about to be persecuted by mobs of Ukrainian fascists. But they’re going to wake up to “Goblin” sooner or later and there’s reason to believe they aren’t going to like it—and not just because I wouldn’t like it. (Imagine—just try—if something like this happened in the United States.) Goblin’s party won a paltry four percent of the vote when it stood for election.

If Crimea wants to join Russia, this is the political science they should expect. At least they’ll know what they’re in for. 

Pity the Vassals of Moscow

“Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” — George F. Kennan, America’s ambassador to the Soviet Union

Russia is justifying its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula by saying the ethnic Russians who live there are threatened by a nascent fascist regime in Kiev. The habits of Soviet propagandists die hard. What’s really going on here is simple. Vladimir Putin, like most Russian leaders before him, feels he must shove his weight around the “near abroad” to maximize his power and influence in the thin buffer between him and the West. Now that he’s without his vassal—mini-Putin, Viktor Yanukovych, is on the run—Moscow has to do the grunt work itself.

Russia has long been a paranoid land power. It’s huge, mostly flat, and wide open to invasion. Just to name a few examples, it was invaded by the Mongols in the 13th century, Napoleon in the 19th, Nazi Germany in the 20th, and has been recently squeezed by NATO expansion in the former Soviet bloc. These events seared themselves into the Russian psyche. They breathe better with buffer states.

Whether we and the Ukrainians like it or not, Ukraine is still a buffer state within Moscow’s sphere of influence. The US has little more leverage there than Russia has in Canada. And since ethnic Russians outnumber ethnic Ukrainians in the Crimea by more than two-to-one, a Russian invasion of that part of the country is a bit like a French invasion of Quebec—troublesome indeed, and infuriating to the capital, but different from, say, a North Korean invasion of Quebec. That’s why Russia could take it without firing a shot and why nobody shot at the Russians.

Plenty of Crimeans are unhappy about it, of course. A fourth are ethnic Ukrainians, an eighth are Tatars, and one would have to be a truly obnoxious determinist to suggest every Russian on the peninsula is thrilled being occupied by a foreign army just because they speak the same language.

Ukrainians elsewhere in the country (especially outside the ethnically Russian east) are mobilizing for war.

The fact that Crimea has a large Russian population and is pro-Russian politically is no excuse for Putin to lop it off Ukraine. If the reason why is not obvious, ask yourself how you’d feel if the Mexican government seized San Antonio, Texas, and said, hey, it has a Hispanic majority, so it’s ours now. Or if the United States conquered and annexed Toronto and said, hey, we’re all English-speaking North Americans here with a common ancestry, so what’s the big deal?

That's basically what Russia is doing.

And that was Adolf Hitler’s justification for taking the German-speaking Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in the run-up to World War II. Putin is not Hitler, but he’s pulling the same kind of stunt and expecting to get away with it for exactly the same reason. Nobody wants to blow up the world over this sort of thing.

It’s possible that Russia might take even Kiev if Putin thinks the response to seizing Crimea is sufficiently supine. I doubt it, personally, but I don’t know that he won’t. No one can know that.

He wouldn’t get much out of it, aside from a violent migraine, that he isn’t already getting by invading Crimea. Ukraine can’t fend off a full-blown Russian invasion, but it can make an invasion bloody and expensive. And what would Russians back home think? Ukrainians aren’t their enemies. There is little hatred between these two closely-related peoples.

Bullies drunk on power do reckless and unpredictable things sometimes, though, so the possibility of an all-out invasion—even if the odds are against it—can’t be ruled out.

So now what? The US and NATO are not going to declare war on Russia over Crimea or even Kiev, but that doesn’t mean Putin can just barge in wherever he wants. It goes without saying that the invasion of a European Union or NATO country is over the line and would be resisted with force. Putin surely knows that already. Everybody in Russia knows that.

What Putin does not necessarily know is whether or not the red line is closer to Moscow.

Kiev is almost certainly on Putin’s side of the red line, but no one has actually said that, so it’s ambiguous, as it should be. Ambiguity lends itself to restraint. Russian leaders tend more toward paranoia than American leaders at the best of times. And the expansion of NATO frightened the Russians as much as the expansion of the Warsaw Pact would have alarmed Americans had the Soviets won the Cold War.

So the last thing the West should do is tell Putin where the red line is located exactly. Want to prevent an explosion in far-eastern Europe? Let him think he’s in danger of crossing it now. Otherwise he may sense a green light from the West to swallow whatever he wants on his side of the EU. Let him see a yellow light, at least, if a red light is asking for too much.

There are various ways to signal a yellow if not a red. Retired Admiral James Stavridis shared a few ideas in Foreign Policy magazine. Michael Barone has more. Parking destroyers in the Black Sea off Yalta might be a good place to start. The US sent ships to that region when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. The Russians didn’t withdraw from occupied Abkhazia or South Ossetia, but at least they stopped where they were, withdrew from Gori, and left the capital Tbilisi alone.

It ought to go without saying that it’s not okay for nations to forcibly move other peoples’ borders around because they feel like it, but taking the long view, there may be an upside to all this. Ukraine shorn of its Russian-majority regions would become more pro-European as a matter of simple math. Most of Ukraine’s die-hard pro-Russians won’t participate in Ukrainian elections if they’re no longer part of the Ukrainian polity. And the fools who voted for the pro-Russian Yanukovych solely because the previous government was perceived as corrupt likely won't make that mistake again any time soon, not after getting invaded and dismembered by Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine could end up permanently divvied up in the future, with the Russian regions annexed by Moscow, either formally or de-facto, while the rest of the country, which naturally tilts more to the West, admitted to the European Union and NATO.

That’s a best-case scenario rather than a likely scenario. Ukraine in its current borders, though, surely won’t be admitted to the European Union or NATO, at least not before the Russian Federation liberalizes dramatically, because too many people in its political class are volunteer tools of Moscow.

Russian civilization was born more than a thousand years ago in Kiev in the medieval state of Kievan Rus. If that city ever gives the finger to Moscow once and for all and joins the EU and NATO, that would be something to see. It’s why Russia cares more about Ukraine than the West does and will probably get what it wants.

No one in charge of the fate of that country is asking what the Ukrainians want. They should, but they aren’t and they won’t. Such is the fate of the vassals of Moscow.

Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Was Easy to Predict

So Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. I’m surprised that anyone is surprised. I’m hardly an expert on Ukrainian history or politics, but I’ve been there, and I’ve been to the Crimea, and this was just obvious. It was obvious to me even before Viktor Yanukovych became president.

I drove down there from Kiev in late 2009 with my friend Sean LaFreniere and wrote about it in my book, Where the West Ends.

The photograph on the book's cover, by the way, was taken in the Crimea.

Here’s a brief excerpt of what I wrote then.

Night fell before we reached the Crimea. Sean and I were both too tired to drive, so we pulled into a gas station to buy cans of Red Bull. CDs were on sale next to the soda and chips. Sean grabbed a couple at random, plus Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The dramatic intro, O Fortuna, seemed like the appropriate thing to listen to when arriving in the one part of Ukraine everyone knew might one day, through either war or secession, be reunited with Russia.

Crimea is in Ukraine, but it isn’t Ukrainian. This part of the country really is Russian. By this point I had learned the alphabet well enough that I could read, so I knew the gigantic words “Автономной Республики Крым” announced to all visitors at the border that Crimea is an autonomous republic.

Crimea has its own flag. It hosts the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet. It defiantly refuses to place itself within the Ukrainian time zone. Though it’s dead south of Kiev, it uses the more easterly Moscow time zone instead. It doesn’t have its own national anthem, but I heard the Russian national anthem playing loudly on the boardwalk of Yalta.

This is a town that is long past its prime. It’s undoubtedly a nicer place now than it was during the communist era, but, unlike Odessa, it’s provincial and tacky. Only a Russian could travel thousands of miles to vacation there without feeling a little let down and that’s only because Yalta is Russian and warm. Ukrainians go there because it’s nearby and warm.

Only a fourth of its citizens are ethnic Ukrainians. Less than a sixth are Crimean Tatars. Most of the rest are Russians. The government in Kiev has been trying for years to teach everyone in the country the Ukrainian language, but in Crimea it’s meeting the stiffest resistance.

One thing the peninsula has going for it, however, aside from an agreeable climate, is its spectacular scenery. While most of Ukraine is flatter than Iowa, the steep craggy Crimean Mountains shoot straight up out of the Black Sea, which shimmers in sun-drenched glory year-round. Even though Yalta is significantly north of the Mediterranean, the climate, at least for a narrow little band near the beach, is startlingly subtropical. It’s one of the only places in the world where a native Russian-speaking population can grow palm trees. It’s not only the language, but the political autonomy, and the general Russian-ness that set Crimea apart from Ukraine. It’s also those mountains and the trees and the moderate sea breeze.

Sean and I hadn’t booked a hotel, so we checked out a few places at random. The first was prohibitively expensive. The second, a chopped up former apartment building that must have been beautiful in its heyday, reeked of piss.

A third place was cheap, adequately clean, and had a large room with two beds, so we took it.

A Russian communist-era movie played on the TV. I couldn’t understand the dialogue, but it was at least passively propagandistic. The main characters, scientists in white lab coats, worked in a sparkling clean high-tech facility, the kind of place science fiction writers of the 1950s imagined were in our future. The movie portrayed an entirely staged idealized version of an advanced communist utopia without gulags, without long lines for potatoes, and without the NKVD. Ukrainians don’t need communist-produced re-runs. They, like the rest of us, need a serious film about Stalinism for a mass audience, a Schindler’s List of the Soviet Union.

In the morning we strolled the boardwalk. The weather was unseasonably cold, almost freezing even though it was only early November, but the sunshine and the palm trees gave the illusion of warmth. Yalta isn’t exactly Miami, but Crimeans really do enjoy a charmed climate, especially compared with the climate Russians suffer in everywhere else.

At the north end of the boardwalk stood an angry-looking statue of Vladimir Lenin. I had the feeling he was still up there not because he was a communist, but because he was Russian. Communism is as dead in Yalta these days as it is in Warsaw. Just a few hundred feet away, and comically in the direct line of sight of Lenin’s sculpted furious face, was a McDonald’s.

For dinner we found a place with translated menus. Yalta just barely gets enough Western tourists once in a while that it occurred to a few restaurant managers to have a handful of menus laying around in the back in other languages.

Two young college-age women a few tables away heard us speak English. They laughed. They giggled. They tittered. This went on for at least a half-hour. And they couldn’t stop staring. Sean and I were like zoo animals. An Arab, a black African, or an East Asian would have a hellish time visiting this place.

Yalta was nice in a basic sort of way, but it lacked the polish and vibrancy of Kiev and the relative cosmopolitanism of Odessa. No one should ever fly from the other side of the world just to go there. It reminded me of what Samuel Johnson once said about a bizarre volcanic basalt formation in Northern Ireland called the Giant’s Causeway. “Worth seeing? Yes; but not worth going to see.”


Crimea is a de-facto independent Russian-speaking republic, but if it weren’t for Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev it would still be part of Russia. In 1954 he moved an internal Russian border around and placed Crimea in Ukraine. It didn’t seem like a fateful decision at the time, one no more significant than giving Idaho a slice of Montana. He had no idea any part of Ukraine, let alone all of it, would ever break loose from Moscow. He should have known it was possible since it had happened before, but he did not see it coming, or at any rate didn’t care, so this Russian-majority region is marooned outside of Russia.

Perhaps the only reason Russian leader Vladimir Putin hasn’t moved to “correct” Khrushchev’s mistake is because there isn’t much point. Ukraine’s current government headed up by Viktor Yanukovych was friendlier than the previous government of Viktor Yushchenko, which Putin did everything in his power (short of invasion) to smash.

Ukraine’s 2004 election was rigged. Yanukovych was declared the winner when the majority wanted the pro-Western Yushchenko instead, whom somebody almost fatally poisoned with dioxin. His face was hideously disfigured by the toxin for a while, but he slowly recovered. The results of that rigged election were reversed by the Orange Revolution, when general strikes broke out and thousands took to the streets and said no.

In 2009, Russia turned off its supply of natural gas and let Ukrainians freeze in the winter, purportedly because of a financial dispute over prices and debt. The punishment was preferable, of course, to Stalin confiscating Ukrainian food in 1921 and 1922, but the message was a familiar one: if you don’t follow dictates from Moscow, you will be punished.

The crisis likely wouldn’t have been triggered at all if Ukrainians had elected a pro-Russian government. Moscow was already cheesed off by Yushchenko’s noises about Ukrainian ascension to the European Union and NATO. The Russian media portrayed Ukraine as a traitor state over it. There wasn’t much Moscow could do to stop the likes of Lithuania and Poland from joining NATO, but it won’t likely ever let its Kievan Rus cousins leave without resistance.

These kinds of problems don’t exist between Russia and Crimea. It might mean war if they did, or if a stridently pro-Western government in Kiev expanded its writ a little too enthusiastically, but that hasn’t happened.

Moscow doesn’t actually care very much about Yalta. The city made history when Stalin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill met there at the end of World War II to agree about which parts of post-fascist Europe would be in the Western camp and which would be in the communist bloc, but it has been a backwater ever since even if it’s a slightly pleasant one nowadays.

What Moscow cares about in Crimea very much is Sevastopol. That’s where Russia’s Black Sea fleet makes its home. Neither Sean nor I dared take any photographs of it, not even discreetly from the car as we drove past. It’s not a good idea to take pictures of military installations anywhere in the world, especially not Russian military installations.

In Sevastopol, once again, I found myself forgetting I wasn’t in Russia. The overwhelming majority of people who live there are Russians. The language they speak is Russian. Actual Russian soldiers and sailors were all over the place.

When the Soviet Union cracked up and Ukraine declared independence, Russia initially refused to cede Sevastopol and Crimea at all and only later relented when it signed the Peace and Friendship treaty with Kiev. Moscow need not worry overly much. Its fleet’s lease won’t run out until 2042. And if Ukraine tries to revoke it, Russia will almost certainly seize it by force, most likely to cheers and applause by locals who would feel liberated. Ukraine barely holds onto the Crimea oblast as it is, and on even numbered days I can’t help but wonder how long even that is going to last.

Read the whole thing.

The Only Way Out Is Exile

If Cuba needed a Berlin Wall, Fidel Castro would have built one. Fortunately for him—though not for his much-abused subjects—one of the world’s last communist regimes is surrounded on all sides by water, cruelly trapping its people. Thus Castro’s totalitarian state, Cuban exile Humberto Fontova wrote, “gave rise to psychic cripples beyond the imagining of even Orwell or Huxley: people who hate the sight of the sea.”

But the sea can’t restrain all of them. Thousands have shoved off into the water on devices as small as inner tubes, desperately seeking refuge in the United States. One in three die attempting to cross the Florida Straits, either from drowning, thirst, shark attacks, or exposure.

Until recently, possessing anything that might float could get a person thrown into prison. Things are slightly more relaxed now, so the likes of bicycle tires aren’t contraband, but Cubans still aren’t allowed to use boats. Only tourists can enjoy such subversive luxuries.

Try—just try—to imagine how repressive a government has to be before thousands of its citizens will risk death in order to flee and where millions more would rather reside within the borders of their home country’s worst enemy.

It’s no mystery why so many want out. Cuba’s human rights record is by far the most dismal in the Western Hemisphere, and as a predictable consequence has triggered one of the largest refugee crises in the hemisphere. I can think of nothing positive to say about Fulgencio Batista, the tyrant who preceded Castro, but at least he didn’t drive people en masse into the sea. Faint praise, to be sure, but I can’t say even that much about Castro. 

It’s a unique story in the Western Hemisphere, but a familiar one elsewhere in the world.

Totalitarianism is a radical departure from the standard-issue authoritarianism of men like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the Chinese communists-turned-capitalists currently ensconced in Beijing, and the former Shah of Iran. Jeanne Kirkpatrick explained the difference in a landmark essay in Commentary in 1979.

“Traditional autocrats,” she wrote, “leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other resources which in most traditional societies favor an affluent few and maintain masses in poverty. But they worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos. They do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill. Such societies create no refugees.

“Precisely the opposite is true of revolutionary Communist regimes. They create refugees by the million because they claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands in the remarkable expectation that their attitudes, values, and goals will ‘fit’ better in a foreign country than in their native land.”

Communism isn’t the only ideology that produces such explosive results. Hitler’s Nazi regime did the same, as do radical Islamists when they seize power. Iran’s Islamic Republic regime triggered such an enormous refugee crisis that the Westwood area of Los Angeles (where almost a million exiles reside) is nicknamed Tehrangeles.

And you’re almost as likely to hear Spanish spoken in South Florida as English.

“There is a damning contrast between the number of refugees created by Marxist regimes and those created by other autocracies,” Kirkpatrick wrote. “More than a million Cubans have left their homeland since Castro’s rise (one refugee for every nine inhabitants) as compared to about 35,000 each from Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. In Africa more than five times as many refugees have fled Guinea and Guinea Bissau as have left Zimbabwe Rhodesia, suggesting that civil war and racial discrimination are easier for most people to bear than Marxist-style liberation.”

Paul Berman, in his masterful book Terror and Liberalism, wrote one of the best descriptions of totalitarian movements I’ve ever read. In a single paragraph he managed to describe fascists, Nazis, communists, and Islamists simultaneously and captures why so many ordinary citizens can’t coexist with them.

“Each of the movements,” he wrote, “in their lush variety, entertained a set of ideas that pointed in the same direction. The shared ideas were these: There exists a people of good who in a just world ought to enjoy a sound and healthy society. But society's health has been undermined by a hideous infestation from within, something diabolical, which is aided by external agents from elsewhere in the world. The diabolical infestation must be rooted out. Rooting it out will require bloody internal struggles, capped by gigantic massacres. It will require an all-out war against the foreign allies of the inner infestation—an apocalyptic war, perhaps even Apocalyptic with a capital A. (The Book of the Apocalypse, as André Glucksmann has pointed out, does seem to have played a remote inspirational role in generating these twentieth-century doctrines.) But when the inner infestation has at last been rooted out and the external foe has been defeated, the people of good shall enjoy a new society purged of alien elements—a healthy society no longer subject to the vibrations of change and evolution, a society with a single, blocklike structure, solid and eternal.”

Ideas such as these are not indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. They are imports from the old world.

I recently spoke to political science professor Alfred Cuzán at the University of West Florida, himself an exile from Cuba. “Latin America had a liberal golden age from the last quarter in the 19th century and into the early 20th century,” he said. “But after World War I they were infected with the European ideologies of fascism and communism that seemed to be the wave of the future at that time. And they haven’t quite shaken it. They also have the traditions of populism and demagogic caudillos like Juan Peron in Argentina. These kinds of regimes always have a caudillo-like figure that can exploit the yawning social and economic inequalities that persist in Latin America.”

His family fled to the United States when he was a kid, but he remembers the journey and everything that led up to it vividly.

“For the first few months of 1959,” he told me, “we had high expectations. Castro said he was going to restore democracy. The middle class went back to work and their private lives, lulled into complacency by Castro’s reassuring words and the respectable people appointed to a provisional government—a facade, really, that he had put in place. Those who were paying attention to what the Castros were doing, however, picked up the signals.”

Castro said he didn’t want a top government job. He only wanted to be commander-in-chief of the army. But the prime minister resigned within two months and Castro took over, and a few months later he drove the president out. He sentenced one of his commanders to 20 years in prison for criticizing communist infiltration—which only goes to show it was worse than he had any idea.

“In the spring of 1959,” Cuzán said, “a friend of my father who had been a member of the Granma expedition told him that the army was being indoctrinated with communist literature. Also, one of my cousins, who was around 20 years old, complained to his parents about a similar development at university. Most people did not know it at the time, but as it had turned out, the Castros had imported Spanish-speaking Soviet agents into Cuba very early in 1959.

“The middle class was initially blind to all this. Life for the middle class before communism was fairly idyllic. We were not rich. We didn’t even own a house. Instead, we rented a unit in a triplex. I attended a small Catholic school in the neighborhood. Our life centered in the extended family and a few family friends. Even as agitation against Batista increased, the middle class could manage to avoid being dragged into it. Cuba had a long tradition of turbulent politics, with eruptions in the 1900s, the 1930s and, of course, the 1950s. But politics didn’t intrude all that much into our family. With the Castros, all that was about to change, for our extended family, as so many in Cuba, was split under their totalitarian regime.”

I asked him what, specifically, triggered his family’s decision to leave the country. The broad strokes are obvious, of course, but it took some Cubans longer than others to figure out what was happening. Cuzán’s family noticed it early. 

“There was a decided change in the political climate from 1959 to 1960,” he said. “Early in the second year Anastas Mikoyan, a Soviet Politburo member, arrived in Havana, supposedly on a trade mission. Before the year was out all Cuban media was under Castro’s control and fiery denunciations of the United States were the order of the day. So by that time anybody who had eyes to see and ears to hear could divine where the country was headed. We could tell that Castro was hell bent on imposing a dictatorship with the help of the Soviet Union, so we felt we had to get out before the exits were shut. Many people realized what was coming and did everything they could to leave to any country that would have them, the United States being the preferred destination for most. We tried to get a visa to come directly to the United States, but the lines to file an application were incredibly long. My mother spent hours in a slow-moving line, but it never moved far enough that she could get into the embassy. So she wrote to her uncle in Mexico and he helped us get visas. Once in Mexico we applied to come to the United States as residents. We arrived here in 1961.”

At least Cuzán got to leave with his family.

In the early 1960s, under a project called Operation Peter Pan, 14,000 Cuban children were sent alone by their parents to the United States, not because they weren’t wanted or loved, but because their parents would rather permanently break up their families than have their children suffer a lifetime of repression. Castro gladly cooperated because, as one of his henchmen later admitted, “anything that broke up the bourgeois family was music to our ears.”

The regime later let Cuban adults leave the country in order to relieve itself of the internal pressure.

In 1980, Hector Sanyustiz and three of his friends crashed a bus through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy. Cuban guards opened fire, but they made it past and requested political asylum.

The Cuban government demanded Peru hand over the asylum seekers, but Lima told Havana to shove it.

When Cuban citizens heard what happened, 10,000 people swarmed the embassy grounds and likewise demanded asylum.

Castro had a serious crisis on his hands. His very legitimacy was at stake. He knew as well as you and I do that this sort of thing is unthinkable in a properly functioning and prosperous liberal democracy. Citizens of the United States, Canada, Belgium, Chile, and New Zealand are not clamoring by the thousands to flee persecution by their own government.

So Castro said, fine, anyone who wants to leave can leave—a wise move on his part. He needed these people out of his hair. And he needed to be able to say later that everyone who wanted to leave Cuba had left. (An obvious lie, but that never stopped him.)

More than 100,000 people sailed to Florida on American boats from the Mariel port with the Cuban government’s blessing. Castro also packed ships with criminals and the mentally insane—again, to get them out of his hair, but also because it was an easy way to poke the United States. 

Hardly anyone wants to move to Cuba. People vote with their feet. Before Castro took over, Cuba was richer than half of Europe and accepted more immigrants from the old world per capita than the United States. Today not even Haitians bother to seek refuge there anymore. Americans sure as hell aren’t clamoring to move down there, though Havana used to have a sizeable American population before it went off the rails.

There have been a handful of exceptions, however.

In 1971, Garland Grant, a member of the Black Panthers, hijacked a flight from Milwaukee to Washington DC and demanded to be taken to Algeria, a Soviet-style military dictatorship and a client of Moscow’s. But the plane didn’t have enough fuel, so he said “Take me to Havana” instead.

He was arrested on arrival for air piracy and thrown into prison. Guards beat him mercilessly and he lost an eye. 

Grant would never have gone there had he known he’d be sent directly to jail, nor would he have gone if he had the first clue what the place is really like. He swallowed all the bullshit about the island being a worker’s paradise and was shocked to discover, when the authorities let him out, that he’d been released from one prison only to discover the entire country is a prison.

“I just want to get back to the United States,” he told a reporter in downtown Havana. “I’m living like a dog in Cuba. There are more racism problems here than in the worst parts of Mississippi. I’ve been in the place six years and I’m out of my mind. Believe me, I’m all for the United States now. I’d even wear a Nixon button.” He did finally return home and spent more time in prison. He lives now as a chastened free man in Wisconsin and will not speak to the media.


Armando Valladares is convinced that Fidel Castro’s hatred of the United States partly explains his longevity.

“The old dictator’s proximity to the U.S.,” he wrote in his book, Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag, “and his confrontational attitude have given him undeserved support from the press, governments, politicians, and intellectuals of this hemisphere. I believe that if Castro had established his dictatorship in Africa or Asia, far from the U.S., he would have disappeared years ago.”

Cuba wouldn’t even need to be located in Asia or Africa for Castro to have disappeared years ago. It’s entirely possible that if the country’s geography were different—if it had a land border with another nation, or if it weren’t so near the United States, that the regime could have been dispensed with already. Surely it would be history if it were located in Europe alongside so many now-formerly communist countries, none of which long outlasted the fall of the Wall, not even Enver Hoxha’s in Albania, which was considerably nastier than Castro’s.

Yet the regime shambles on, zombie-like, and things aren’t likely to get much better any time soon if the government has its way.

I visited Cuba on a tourist visa and couldn’t book interviews with officials, but I managed to speak to one anyway. His name is Carlos Alzugaray Treto. He is a former ambassador and now a professor, and he gave a lecture at my hotel.

I put him under surveillance. Why not? His government puts everyone else under surveillance, including foreigners, so he has no right to complain. It was easy. All I had to do was clandestinely press “record” on my iPhone.

He was speaking in public, so he wasn’t strictly under surveillance I guess, but he had no idea I’m a journalist or that I intended to quote him. And not content to just passively sit there in the audience, I repeatedly pressed him as though I were formally interviewing him. It was my only chance to ask hard questions while I was in Cuba. He was a good sport about it, too, so I felt a little bit dirty for recording him without his knowledge and without telling him I’m a journalist. So I contacted him when I got home, told him what I had done, and asked for permission to quote him. He said fine. So here we are.

His lecture was about relations between the Cuban and American governments. He also spoke about relations between the Cuban government and its people, and what he said at first even sounded encouraging.

“We are in the middle of a reform process in Cuba,” he said. “We need to change the minds of people and the way they have been accustomed over the last fifty years to deal with their problems. The government is saying we have to change, to open up to a more market-oriented economy, and we have to decentralize. We have to open public spaces for debate. We’ve been working on this for the last ten years.

“I wouldn’t say everyone here supports the government,” he continued, “but many people do support the government and are happy with the government and think the government should stay. Yesterday I met with a bunch of university kids who saw a documentary called Offline, about the fact that there is no Internet in Cuba. They were complaining about it. These things are happening. The Cuban leaders are not stupid. They know what they’re dealing with.”

A Cuban restaurant for locals (not tourists)

That sounds nice and all, and it’s true that the government is implementing micro-capitalist reforms, but don’t kid yourself into believing political reform is coming. It isn’t. The regime will not share power. He admitted it openly.

Before I asked him anything, though, he spent a good deal of time complaining about the Republican Party in the United States. Anti-Castro policies have always been bipartisan in Congress, but at the same time the Cuban government has always had friends on the far-left fringe in the United States, and the Republicans are more vocally anti-Castro than the Democrats, so naturally he spared the Democrats and slagged the Republicans. And he spoke about inter-party and intra-party squabbling in such a way that suggests he’s better informed about American politics and where each party stands than even most Americans. So he set himself up for my first question.

I raised my hand. “You’re talking about the tension within and between the two American political parties, and I can’t help but wonder when Cuba is going to have the same problems. When are you going to have multi-party elections? If you take just that one step, so many issues here will work themselves out, not only internally but also with your relations with the United States. The United States would lift the embargo immediately.”

His answer wasn’t encouraging.

“The problem here is this,” he said. “Most people believe it was Fidel Castro who eliminated the political parties. But that’s not what happened. Batista destroyed Cuba’s political parties.”

“That was a long time ago,” I said. “The current government also doesn’t allow other parties.” He can’t blame that on Batista, who has been out of power longer than I’ve been alive.

“It’s not a question of allowing political parties or not,” he said. “It’s a question of allowing free opinion or not. The government allows a lot of free opinion. There is more free opinion here than you would believe.”

Oh, I half believe him. Every Cuban I met—present company excepted, of course—who breathed even a word about the government had nothing nice whatsoever to say. I heard nothing—nothing at all—but complaints. The Castros remained unmentioned, as was Che Guevara, but support for the government in general seems in my anecdotal experience to have evaporated entirely.

“I am a member of the Communist Party,” he said. “Some people tell me I’ve moved beyond that, but I am a member of the party. And I discuss things inside the party. I debate. I have opinions. Sometimes I have opinions that go directly against the majority, but here I am. Nobody has told me I have to leave the party because I’m saying things against the party line. Nobody tells me that. And whenever there is a discussion, I say what I think. Do I think there should be political parties? This is a question that’s on the table, but I don’t know how that would work, how we would do it.”

“Every other country in the entire Western Hemisphere has more than one political party,” I said. “Cuba is the only exception.”

“Something is starting to happen here,” he said. “We’re seeing countries that are friendly to Cuba that have multi-party systems, and that’s new for us. It will probably have some influence in Cuba. Some people here are saying yes. But it’s not on the agenda.”

He tried, and failed, to make me feel like I’m excessively America-centric.

“You come from a political culture that associates political systems with multi-party elections,” he said.

“Latin America has the same political culture,” I said. “Except here in Cuba.”

“But it failed,” he said. “The political systems in Latin America have all failed and they’ve been reconstructing themselves. It’s when the left has achieved power—in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia—that things have changed in Latin America.”

Things have certainly changed in Latin America when the far-left achieved power. But things have not gotten better. They’ve only gotten better when the far-left and the far-right have been removed from power and replaced with mainstream center-left and center-right parties, as in Panama, Costa Rica, and Chile.

“Think about this,” he said. “One of the problems in Cuba is the United States still supports only certain kinds of Cubans. I have been denied visas to visit the United States several times, but Yoani Sanchez always gets the visa.”

He’s referring to dissident blogger and author of the outstanding book, Havana Real, whom I’ve quoted before. Sanchez was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the entire world. Her book was blurbed by Barack Obama.

“She is never denied a visa,” he said. “She goes to the United States and is welcomed. She’s the icon of the opposition. She gets to meet people in the White House and the Secretary of State for Latin America. The best I could get is meetings with lower officials in the State Department. Come on. I am a 70-year old scholar in Cuba. I’ll bet more people know about me and what I say here in Cuba than have heard of Yoani Sanchez. She’s traveling all over the place, but do people read her?”

This from a man who has 112 followers on Twitter. Sanchez has 556,000. She’s much more widely read outside Cuba than he is.

But of course Cubans don’t read her. How could they? She’s a blogger and the government denies them Internet access. Communist Party newspapers sure as hell aren’t going to give her a column. Bookstores can’t stock Havana Real until the Castro regime is overthrown or reformed out of all recognition.

“We have invited her to our debates,” he said. “She once went with a blonde wig so she could fool everyone, but we all knew it was her. The person moderating the panel said Yoani Sanchez has the right to talk, but you know what she did? She said what she said and then she left. She didn’t stay to hear what people had to say about what she said. So I don’t think she’s very democratic, really.”

My face flushed red. “Cuba is a one-party state,” I said. “An official from a one-party state shouldn’t tell a dissident that she’s not democratic.”

He tolerated my questions and criticism. I’ll give him that much.

And I had one more question to ask him. What does he think about the fact that a million and a half Cubans live in the United States thanks to his government’s policies and that millions more want to join them?

“How many Puerto Ricans live in New York?” he said.

A clever response! He’s suggesting that the United States also can’t govern a Caribbean island well enough that people wish to stay, therefore it’s unfair to single out Cuba for doing no better.

I have no doubt he has used that line plenty of times to good effect, but it’s a dodge. A clever dodge, but a dodge. He might as well ask how many people from Kansas live in New York.

“Puerto Ricans are Americans,” I said. “And Americans move around. New York is full of people from other parts of America. When Puerto Ricans move to New York, it’s internal migration, no different, really, than Minnesotans moving to California or New Yorkers retiring in Florida.”

He nodded and smiled. It was a nice try, but I had him.


 Visiting Cuba as a journalist without permission and under the radar is about hanging out and casually interacting with as many people as possible and patiently waiting for moments of truth. Those moments build up over time.

I met a Cuban woman in her early twenties. She told me she had 35 people in her high school class. Only seven still live in the country. Everyone else has left, including her boyfriend, who lives in New York.

He didn’t abandon her. They’re still “together,” though a long distance relationship can’t be easy to manage, especially since one of them is isolated behind the regime’s wall of water and iron. She plans to leave, too, when she can scrape up enough money to get herself to Mexico and from there to the United States.

I asked if she risked getting in trouble by talking about such things in public, though we spoke in English rather than Spanish, which offered her at least some protection from listening ears.

She shrugged. “Everyone wants to leave,” she said, “and the government knows it, so it doesn’t matter anymore if anyone hears.”

“How many people here actually want to move to the U.S.?” I said.

Her eyes widened and she looked at me like I was stupid even for asking. “A hundred percent,” she said. “Well, maybe not a hundred, but close.”

Yeah, maybe not a hundred. Fidel and Raul Castro are no doubt happy to stay. Che Guevara’s grandson Canek Sanchez left, though. He’s in Mexico now, calls himself an anarchist, and fumes against the regime. He is not allowed to return.

“People get to a certain point in life here and that’s it,” she said. “We’re done. We have to leave.”

The entire country has a glass ceiling and it’s only an inch off the floor. It doesn’t take long to reach that level, I’d imagine. She’s a lot younger than I am and reached it years ago.

I met another Cuban woman who is considerably older than I am. She told me she was in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell.

“What did you think about that at the time?” I said.

I expected her to say she was thrilled, but instead she said she was terrified.

“I thought it was brought down by enemy action,” she said. “You have to understand, I was ideologically conditioned. But that didn’t last. I was stunned to see that on the other side of the wall were not enemy soldiers, but friends and relatives of the East Germans.”

“Why didn’t the same thing happen here?” I said.

She paused before answering and lowered her voice. “The government had total control,” she said. “It still has total control. It has more control over Cuba than the Stasi had in East Germany. Of course, the government didn’t want us to know the Wall fell. I only knew because I was there. The government treats us like babies.”

She looked at me with quiet desperation. I could read it in her eyes and on her face. Body language is the same across cultures and time. She is no longer ideologically conditioned. Her facial expression said help. She’s trapped, possibly for the rest of her life, and she knows now what’s on the other side. But I can do nothing, and my hands shook when we parted.

Humans disagree with each other constantly. There’s no avoiding it. Mature societies design mechanisms for handling it—political parties, scheduled elections, the separation of powers, civil society organizations, trade unions, space for public debate, impartial courts that uphold the Rule of Law rather than the rule of a man or a junta. Cuba has none of these. It has an omnipotent overlord with his minions and his army.

In a way, I am excessively American. My country mounted a revolution against a tyranny far less oppressive than Castro’s. Anti-authoritarianism is culturally hard-wired into my being. I felt suffocated and claustrophobic in Cuba after a while, like I was never alone, like I was a mere ant in a gigantic machine.

The longer I stayed, the more I yearned to get out of this perpetually hot and humid prison and back to my mild and gentle Pacific Northwest where tyranny has been forever unknown and where the government is a government and not a regime.

I won’t go back any time soon. Why would I want to go back to a place where people are literally dying to leave? The government won’t let me in anyway, not if any officials discovered my work and put me on a list. They won’t give me a journalist visa. That’s for damn sure.

But I don’t care if the government blacklists me because I will not return to Cuba until it is free.

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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.”


“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.



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.”


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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