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Holiday Book Sale

The electronic versions of three of my four books, Where the West Ends, Taken, and In the Wake of the Surge, are on sale right now for just 5.99. If you want any of these, buy them now because the price is going back up soon.

 

Egypt's Bleak New Draft Constitution

Eric Trager knows Egypt better than just about anyone, and his analysis of the new draft constitution is as bleak as expected.

Cairo’s more or less secular rulers are doing the same thing the previous theocratic Muslim Brotherhood rulers did—imposing their collective political vision on the broader society.

A nation’s constitution should be a consensus document if it’s to have any kind of lasting legitimacy, but that’s not what Egypt is going to get. Instead Egypt is going to get the legal codification of a single faction’s political platform. We should not be the least bit surprised if Egypt gets several more before one finally sticks.

The draft constitution is much less Islamist than the Muslim Brotherhood’s and includes the banning of all religious parties. It gives autonomy to the military and the security services and mandates massive government spending on education, health care, and welfare.

So Egypt replaced a right-wing Islamist theocracy with a leftist military regime—which is exactly what it got after Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers overthrew King Farouk and aligned Egypt with the Soviet Union. General Sisi's regime is more or less the resurrection of Nasser's after a brief Islamist interlude. If I had to live under one or the other I’d pick the leftist military regime, I suppose, but that’s a hell of a dismal choice for a person to make.

A Western-style system never was in the cards. The Arab Spring seems to be working in Tunisia, where first Ben Ali and then the Islamists were successfully and non-violently ousted from power, but liberal democracy can’t grow in a country like Egypt with no liberal democrats. The men with the votes are not liberal, nor are the men with the guns.

Paul Berman on Nicaragua

Paul Berman wrote an open letter in The New Republic to New York City's mayor-elect Bill De Blasio who apparently is a long-time sympathizer with the Sandinistas, the Nicaraguan communists who briefly ruled the country after the overthrow of the previous tyrant Anastasio Somoza.

Berman has been to Nicaragua a number of times and knows the place well enough to write a book about it. I hope he does. All his books are outstanding and should be considered required reading for everyone interested in history, political ideas, and the history of political ideas.

Anyway, he takes De Blasio to task specifically for praising the Sandinistas’ health care system in the town of Masaya, the same sort of error that has appeared almost daily in my comments section since I returned home from Cuba.

For all your Nicaraguan experiences, you may never have arrived at a proper understanding of the tragedy there, which leads me to worry, in turn, about what sort of mayor you may become. Will you allow me to explain these worries of mine? I will do so by recounting a story that probably you do not know.

It is about Masaya, the town whose Sandinista health campaign you have praised in a recent speech. This happens to be the town where I conducted my own most extensive research as a reporter. You will remember that Masaya is a wonderfully creative artisan center. Some people in Masaya labor on the outlying farms, but a great many other people work at making shoes, hammocks, furniture, and all kinds of things. The people of Masaya are also, as you will recall, famously rebellious. The revolution against the Somoza dictatorship got started in the plazas of that very town as a protest against a teargas attack by Somoza's National Guard on a Catholic protest mass. The Sandinistas were the beneficiaries of that uprising, but not its originators. And when the Sandinistas came to power, they recognized their debt to Masaya, and they lavished special attention on the place, "the cradle of the revolution."

Mr. de Blasio, you are right to have observed "a youthful energy and idealism" among the Sandinistas of the 1980s, and some of that energetic idealism led to indisputably excellent results. The Somoza dictatorship established electric power in Masaya, but the young new Sandinistas extended the grid into the poorer neighborhoods. They paved additional roads. These were big achievements.  

And yet, certain of the other Sandinista programs ran into a problem that you do not mention, brought about by one other Sandinista program, the biggest program of all. This was the goal of subjugating every last corner of Nicaraguan life to the dictates of the Sandinista Front, whose own political structure mandated obedience to the nine uniformed comandantes of the national directorate, whose political structure had been assembled, in turn, by Fidel Castro, their hero. These hierarchical commitments ended up wreaking a devastating effect on every last thing the Sandinistas ever did…

[W]orkers were required to attend Sandinista rallies and chant slogans. A Sandinista would accompany them to mark down in a notebook exactly who had attended. So the artisans chanted; and they hated. Their hatred was a secret, though. The Sandinistas established Cuban-style committees in every neighborhood, which monitored people's opinions, and anyone who was deemed to be anti-Sandinista was punished with a loss of food rations.

[…]

The interesting question to ask today is this: why did so many well-meaning and well-educated people from other countries, having made their way to towns like Masaya, fail to notice what was going on? How could anyone have arrived in Masaya in the late 1980s and have come away attributing to the Sandinistas, as you did in the Times, "a human ability and practicality that was really inspirational?"

Maybe there is no mystery. The inability to see the reality of political oppression in Nicaragua stemmed from a well-known toxic by-product of a certain kind of political idealism, which is smug arrogance: an old story. The foreign visitors believed sincerely in the superiority of their own ideas, they trembled with indignation at the policies of the Reagan Administration, and their beliefs and their indignation joined together like two cymbals to drown out the whispered anguish of the poor and the persecuted. 

The foreign visitors never noticed that Sandinista claims to democratic socialism were a deception. They never recognized that authentic Sandinista doctrine was a leafy Central American variation on Cuban ideology, military uniforms and top-down obedience and all, which itself traced back to the ice floes of the Soviet tundra. And the visitors never appreciated that, in towns like Masaya, a great many people ended up afraid of foreign visitors—afraid of the wealthy university-educated adventurers from abroad who, in the eyes of ordinary Nicaraguans, were agents of the Sandinista government, no different from the Bulgarian, East German, Cuban and Russian advisors. 

So the well-meaning American anti-imperialists in Nicaragua were perceived by Nicaraguans as Soviet-style imperialists. And one of them, apparently oblivious to all this even today, is the new mayor of New York City.

I don’t know what to make of it. I really don’t. I have been running into people like this for years in countries wracked by terrorism and war and lorded over by tyrants. They simply fail to understand what is right in front of them even when it’s explained to them in plain English. I can only assume at this point that they’re unteachable. They are educated, yes, but their brains are full. No room remains for more information, or understanding.

Berman is kinder to De Blasio than I would be if my own mayor said such clueless things about one of my regular beats, but that’s one of the reasons I like him and why I think you should read him.

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I have two new books coming out in 2014.

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

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

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The Once Great City of Havana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s for damn sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You will wait a long time.

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

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

The only hope is escape.

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CDR propaganda, Havana

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

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

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

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

“Yes!” the kids said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Let me give you an example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But listen to what Cristina said next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh. Well. That was certainly interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me,” I said.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Dispatch from South Sudan

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Cuba

Fidel Castro made a liar out of me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d also have to hide my notebook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled back. Suckers.

*

Wait.  I was not yet in the clear.

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

Shit. 

“What are you doing here?”

I lied.

“Where are you staying?”

But told him the truth about that.

“Which parts of Cuba will you be visiting?”

Havana, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was sorry? Really?

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“They corrupt the morals of young girls!” he shouted in 1968 against Cuba’s version of hippies, “and destroy posters of Che! What do they think? That this is a bourgeois liberal regime? NO! There is nothing liberal in us! We are collectivists! We are communists! There will be no Prague Spring here!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t resist butting into their conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always in combat against whom, you might ask?

The neighbors.

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

Family intimacy is almost nonexistent.

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

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

I never felt so alone in my life.

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

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

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

But it is a total surveillance police state.

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

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

*

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

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

Cuba's Presidio Modelo prison

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

He called it Panopticon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did Castro close the Presidio complex?

Because, why not? It’s superfluous.

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

 

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The US-Iran Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blowback is a Bitch

Hezbollah fears more suicide attacks. That’s the headline in NOW Lebanon after a suicide bomber blew himself and others to pieces outside the Iranian embassy in the Hezbollah-controlled suburbs south of Beirut.

And yet Hezbollah invented the Islamic suicide bomber. It seems like this scourge has always been part of the Middle East, but it wasn't used until the 1980s when Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who has been described as Hezbollah’s “spiritual leader,” declared that suicide is not a sin after all if it is used as a weapon in war.

“This will present a threat to the security of the whole region,” a source close to Hezbollah said to NOW Lebanon. It wasn’t a threat to the whole region when Hezbollah first pioneered and then popularized this scourge of a tactic?

It was a terrible and fateful thing, what Fadlallah did. It’s entirely possible that if he hadn’t done it, nobody would have done it and that the Middle East would be a slightly less ghastly place.

Hezbollah did not invent terrorism, of course. Nor would the Middle East be stable and happy if it weren’t for its suicide bombers. But there is a karmic sort of justice at work now that a terrorist army and its biggest state sponsor are themselves victims of their own deplorable tactics.

That deplorable tactic tells us all we need to know about the perpetrators, too, by the way. Whatever Sunni faction carried out the attack, we know for damn sure they are not freedom fighters. Freedom fighters don’t murder diplomats—not even diplomats representing terrorist states like Iran who declare open season on diplomats—nor do they deliberately target civilians. They will murder anyone and everyone who gets in their way and stomp their boots on the faces of the survivors.

We’re long past time when a not-horrible outcome of the Syrian civil war—which is really a region-wide war—is even a remote possibility. 

Georgetown University to Host Key Nazi Party Member

Georgetown University is scheduled to host an event in early December on “Egypt and the Struggle for Democracy” that will include one of the key members of Egypt’s Nazi Party as a speaker.

The Washington Free Beacon has the story:

The event features a slew of speakers sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Coptic Christian Ramy Jan, who cut his teeth on the Egyptian political scene as a member of the country’s Nazi Party, according to multiple sources.

The event is scheduled to take place all day at Georgetown’s ICC auditorium and feature a keynote address by Rep. Keith Ellison (D., Minn.).

In addition to Jan, a who’s who of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated speakers are scheduled to be flown in from Egypt to attend and participate in the forum, which includes multiple panel discussion about Egypt’s recent coup and the current state of the country’s democracy.

The current state of Egypt’s democracy is, as it has been for eternity, non-existent. No one at Georgetown University can learn a thing about democracy from the Nazi Party or the Muslim Brotherhood except how not to behave politically.

We can only hope somebody humiliates these cretins in public like an Egyptian TV host did on Cairo’s Dream1 TV back in 2011. Take a look at this video. The host puts several founding members of Egypt’s Nazi Party on camera and treats them exactly how they deserve to be treated.

“Nazism is a tyrannical fascist political ideology,” he says, “which brought ruin and destruction on the entire world…Why should we, in Egypt, adopt these tyrannical, fascist political movements and evoke them from history after they have been vomited from the entire world?”

Thus he gets them on the defensive from the very beginning. But, hey, never fear. “We have nothing to do with Hitler,” one of them says. “The one and only thing we have adopted from Nazism is racial supremacy. That’s it.”

Don’t let us down, Georgetown. See if you can demonstrate at least as much political integrity as an Egyptian TV host.

Shocking Facts About America

Almost every time I visit a new country for the first time I’m surprised by at least something that I had no idea was the case until I got there. Here’s one recent example: In Cuba I was told police officers at checkpoints want to know if you’re hiding meat, lobsters, or cheese in the trunk of your car. (Although hardly anyone in Cuba actually owns a car. I've never seen so few cars on the road in my life.)

Thought Catalog has a long and delightful list of things from sixteen different people that they could not believe about America until they moved here.

Below is just a small sample. You should really head over there and read the whole thing.

From a Muslim from Bangladesh:

Fruits and vegetables are way more expensive than meat and poultry.

That, generally speaking, the poor is more obese than the rich.

That you address your boss (and some of your professors) by some abbreviated variation of their first name. And that applies to pretty much everyone, regardless of how much older they are than you.

From a Russian woman:

Majority of things in the US aren’t controlled or regulated by the government.

President doesn’t automatically become the richest person in the country.

Philanthropy. There is no culture of philanthropy in Russia and many view American philanthropy either as a waste of money or as some intricate plot to get some additional benefits.

How open Americans are about their shortcomings and always ready for self-criticism.

Return policies and free refill.

From an American teaching in a South Pacific Island nation:

That I have never, ever, ever seen anyone firing a gun from a moving vehicle. They think this is happening constantly.

That our showers are hot water. Always. Boggles the minds.

From an anonymous person:

My Russian in-laws were shocked when they found out that we get packages left on our doorstep and no one steals them.

From a guy named John Levinster:

People tend to be very sensitive about racial and religious topics. I was embarrassed to ask a Costco employee where the white chocolate was because I was afraid she would tell me I was a racist.

The U.S. preserves its nature. I was thrilled to see how far ahead America is in preserving its beautiful nature. Absolutely terrific, kudos to you guys.

From a Swedish man:

It really is a diverse place, much more so than many foreigners really understand. A country that can produce both Snoop Dogg and Westboro Baptist Church is like no other place (seriously!).

No Woman, No Drive

Alaa Wardi has created an impressive series of music videos using only his voice. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he’s using synthizers, bass guitars, and a drum machine in some of these, but no. Only his vocal chords. 

A few weeks ago he made a spoof video about Saudi Arabia’s bizarre prohibition against woman drivers called No Woman, No Drive. I can’t promise you will laugh, but I sure did. 

Rape as a Political Weapon

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: women who travel to Egypt need to understand that rape and sexual assault are routinely used as political weapons, not just by radical Islamist groups, but by secular activists also. Phrases like “war against women” and “culture of rape” seem overblown to me in the United States, but they’re dead-on accurate descriptions of what happens in Egypt as a matter of course.

I don’t know if Egypt is the worst place in the world when it comes to violence against women, but it is by far the worst place I’ve ever been. My wife has traveled with me a few times in the past when I’ve been on assignment, but I will never take her to Egypt. Not for any amount of money. It’s never going to happen.

Every single woman I know who has been there has been aggressively harrassed at the absolutely minimum, and some have told me they get aggressively harrassed every five or ten minutes when they’re out on the street, especially when they don’t have a male body guard.

Egypt hasn’t always been like this. Leyla Doss in Verily magazine explains how Egypt got this way:

It may be hard to believe, but Egyptian streets were filled with miniskirts in the 1960s, during the time of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Older generations boast that Egypt had a greater sense of community back then: Passersby would always intervene if a woman was being publicly harassed or attacked.

In the seventies and eighties, increasing urbanization from rural areas, economic crises, and a rise in slums all helped to corrode that sense of community while increasing grievances between diverse populations. As the quality of state services declined, Islamic religious groups filled the vacuum of a failed welfare system by providing services and charities. Quite naturally, people turned to the faiths that cared for them and adopted the conservative beliefs and practices of these sects. “Many turned to religion and began to dress more modestly,” Heltne says. Egyptians who returned after migrating to ultraconservative Arab Gulf States during oil crises in the seventies and eighties also increased conservatism in Egypt.

“Religious ultraconservative groups advocated strict gender roles by promoting the idea that women should remain in the domestic sphere,” Heltne explains. Yet, with this shift toward ultraconservative conceptions of women in some segments of the population, there occurred a concomitant movement for women’s emancipation. “Women,” according to Heltne, “were increasingly defying these [ultraconservative mores] and filling Egypt’s workplaces and streets and even managerial positions.” A clash was inevitable. Many Islamic religious groups attempted to pressure women to return to traditional roles—pressure that could manifest as coercion, intimidation, and assault.

Worth noting, however, is that Egypt’s war against women and its culture of rape are trans-partisan.

Secular activists committed the infamous assault against CBS correspondent Lara Logan a couple of years ago. Hosni Mubarak’s secular regime and nominal US ally used rape squads against dissidents, as did the Egyptian Army between the Mubarak and Morsi presidencies.

I don’t want to tell women they should not visit Egypt—I get tired of hearing from various people that I shouldn’t visit dangerous places like Lebanon, Iraq, etc.—but nobody should go in there blind.

Somebody Has to be the Bad Cop

I’m still getting caught up on the Iranian nuclear negotiations. I missed a lot while I was cut off from most of the human race down in Cuba, and now that I’m back I’m mostly struck by the rather odd fact that France is the hardliner in the Western camp.

It’s double strange when considering that France had a conservative president—Jacques Chirac—during its most recent dovish phase, while the current hawkish president is from the Socialist Party.

Here is Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times:

The history of the west’s failed efforts to block a North Korean bomb, along with its various unsuccessful rapprochements with Iran over the years, suggest the sceptics may have a point.

In 2005, the powers negotiating with North Korea reached a deal that promised a package of economic and diplomatic incentives in return for the North Koreans abandoning their nuclear weapons programme. But the deal was a dud; in 2006 North Korea staged its first successful nuclear test. The weapon first tested by the North Koreans was a plutonium-based nuclear bomb, rather than one based on enriched uranium. France’s insistence that an early Iran accord should deal not just with uranium enrichment but also with the plutonium plant being developed at Arak is therefore particularly important. There are already signs that this tougher approach is bearing fruit, with Iran suggesting that it might ease its position on international inspections of Arak.

It can be argued that Iran would be more likely to stick to a nuclear deal than the endlessly duplicitous North Koreans, whose totalitarian system is probably better adapted to accept the extreme poverty and isolation that flows from being a nuclear pariah. But no outside power can pronounce with confidence on the balance of power between hardliners and moderates in Iran. And even conservative western leaders have been seduced by the illusory hope of a breakthrough with Iran before. Remember Ronald Reagan’s emissaries showing up in Tehran, carrying a key-shaped cake, that was meant to open the door to better relations with the sweet-toothed mullahs?

The transformation of France’s diplomatic profile in the Middle East over the past years is striking. Just a decade ago, France’s opposition to the Iraq war led to its denunciation by American rightwingers, who famously labelled the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”. Now France is, temporarily, the toast of neoconservative Washington, while it is the Iranians who come out with the colourful insults. The Fars news agency denounced the French as “gun-slinging frogs”. (Perhaps there is room for compromise, in which the French assume a settled identity as cheese-eating frogs?)

For anyone following the “Iran dossier” (to use diplo-speak), it has been noticeable for some years that France is the most hardline of the western powers. Quite why this should be the case puzzles even French diplomats.

I suspect one reason the French are being hardliners right now is because somebody has to and the United States cares more about getting a deal than about what’s in it. We all instinctively understand that negotiations need “bad cops” as well as “good cops.” If John McCain were president of the United States instead of Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande likely would not be compelled to bang his fist on the table and say “no” because somebody else would already be doing it.

Home From Cuba

I spent the last several weeks in Cuba and have just returned to the United States. That is one truly strange place. It’s right there alongside Libya under Moammar Qaddafi in the bizarro department. I’m glad I went, but I’m even more glad to be out of there.

Working in a communist country as an unauthorized journalist is complicated, to say the least. I had little choice but to slip in clandestinely on a tourist visa, which limited my ability to conduct formal interviews. So I’m still working on that from this side of the border. Cubans who left the island and live in the United States are willing and able to speak much more freely than those left behind. I can interview them without putting them in danger and without getting myself arrested and deported.

So I’m not ready to start writing about Cuba just yet. I need to interview some more people and transcribe the interviews I already have. But I hope to be ready soon enough. In the meantime, I can attend to the blog again—as soon as I can get caught up on what’s happening in the world.

I’ve been living the last few weeks in a near-total information blackout. Hardly any information whatsoever trickles into or out of Cuba. I was a mere 90 miles from Key West, Florida, but I may as well have been on the dark side of the moon. So bear with me.

And thanks again to all my Kickstarter backers for sending me there. It has been a real education, that’s for sure.

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