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The Lost World, Part II

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

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

The island finally had a skyline.

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

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

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

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

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

How was this possible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait.

What?

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I went downstairs and asked somebody about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

He nodded.

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

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

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The Lost World, Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *

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

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

The Bay of Pigs was not the ideal insertion point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuba feels like August even in January.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled. “I’m just kidding.”

Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

If that was the case, they were right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s a fun question:

Restore from what?

- Click here to read Part II -

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Tourist Baffles Somalia Immigration Officials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wolf in Wolf's Clothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Worst Place in the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egypt Comes Full Circle -- Again

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

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

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

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

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

Islamist Rule in Tunisia is Over

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

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

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

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

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

Afghanistan Before the Wars

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

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

Al Qaedastan in Fallujah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Post of 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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