Obama Betrays Cuba
by Stephen Schwartz
Barack Obama's accommodation with Castroite Cuba is a low point in the history of American international relations. Benjamin Franklin affirmed, "Where liberty dwells, there is my country." The Obama administration, in its attitudes on Iran, Syria, and Ukraine as well as on Cuba, appears to prefer the principle, "Where tyranny dwells, there is my country."
About Cuba, consider historical precedents. The 1972 opening by president Richard Nixon to Communist China, then in the turmoil of the Maoist Cultural Revolution, realized a justifiable foreign policy goal—a common response to Soviet intrigues—and was cautious and narrow. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, encouraging the abandonment of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, stayed firm in calling for genuine change before they would embrace new political authorities in the former Soviet empire. Labor rights were granted beginning in Poland, media censorship was abolished in Moscow, the Berlin Wall was torn down, and free elections were held in the former party-states. All furnished sensational evidence of an authentic transformation.
In 25 years since the Wall was demolished, new developments have been uneven in the European post-Communist states, with which Cuba shares the greatest political heritage. Some are thriving; others are bogged down and have failed to reform completely. The real success stories comprise the former East Germany, Poland, and the Baltic states. Yet from Russia to North Korea, arbitrary misrule and cronyism endure. The former Russo-Cuban puppet states in Africa—especially Angola—have advanced economically, but still deal with the abiding consequences of their past.
The rest of the European post-Communist lands have, at least, restored intellectual freedom, even when slow to restructure economically, and in certain instances, politically. In some, ex-Communist cadres have regained power by a fair vote as Socialists, or stayed inside state institutions.
The Czech Republic, long an object of great hope, suffers economically. In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orbán has been described accurately by John McCain as a "neo-fascist dictator." The Yugoslav successor polities must contend with the effects of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, as well as corruption and resistance to dismantling of statist economies in Slovenia and Croatia, which have joined the European Union. Bosnia-Hercegovina is partitioned. Serbia is a black hole and will remain one, probably, for decades.
Nevertheless, cultural life has undergone an impressive rebirth in all the ex-Communist societies of Europe, including Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Kosova, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Moldova. If people in some of these lands are still mostly poor and ruled by venal bureaucracies, they have widespread access to the Internet and independent media, and generally free expression.
Cuba has adopted no such reforms. Its economic liberalization has been trivial; harsh censorship prevails; absurd "consultations" take place instead of elections. Cuba has suffered as much poverty as Albania did under communism, and it is difficult not to notice the daily struggles by the subjects of the Castro brothers to stay fed, as well as the distortion of news and denial of political rights. Cuba also continues to foment radical leftism in the Western Hemisphere, in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador, with ancillary attention to minor Caribbean island states.
For those who know Hispanic culture, the Castroite devastation of what had been a major power in Spanish-language literature and art is also deplorable. Contra the arguments of remaining enthusiasts for the dictatorship, Cuban cultural life did not begin with Fidel Castro, but much of it ended with his rule. Writers and artists, including active supporters of or participants in the Castro revolution, were forced abroad, imprisoned, or otherwise stifled.
In 1956, Castro led a seaborne expedition across the Gulf of Mexico to the Cuban coast, seeking to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The attempt failed. Of 82 men who set out on the journey, all but twelve were killed by Batista's forces. "The Twelve"—Fidel and Raul Castro, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and nine others—became a powerful symbol of the revolutionary movement.
I would therefore urge recalling the names of twelve outstanding cultural dissenters against Castroism, lost to Cuba in the shipwreck of the revolution, and who deserve to be remembered before the U.S. plunges into an unscrupulous compromise with Havana's despotism.
A Book of the Twelve was published in 1968 by Carlos Franqui (1921-2010), an ex-Communist who served Castro during the revolution as head of the insurrectionary movement's media efforts. Franqui was arrested and tortured by Batista's police. After the revolution, he was editor of the official daily Revolución, which became known for its modernist cultural attitudes, far at variance from Russian "socialist realist" dictates. But Revolución was shut down, and in 1963 Franqui departed for Italy. He denounced Castro for complicity with the Russian occupation of Prague in 1968, was declared an enemy of the revolution, and his picture was airbrushed out of photographs showing him with Fidel. He moved eventually to Puerto Rico, where he died, but not before Franqui had become a heroic partisan of the Cuban revolution's disaffected intellectuals.
A non-leftist predecessor, significant to the whole Hispanic world, was Lino Novás Calvo (1903-83). He was born in Spain and taken to Cuba at age seven. Novás Calvo became a major figure, through novels, short stories, and translations of Faulkner and Hemingway. With Castro's takeover, he moved to the United States, and died in New York.
A woman who pioneered Afro-Cuban folklore studies, Lydia Cabrera (1899-1991), was an acquaintance of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, whom she guided on a trip around Cuba in 1930. García Lorca came to Cuba from Spain via New York. In 1960, following the Castro revolution, Lydia Cabrera reversed the itinerary, leaving first for Madrid and then for Miami, where she died.
Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929-2005), a stellar film critic, was the son of Cuban Communists (unrelated to Lydia Cabrera). He supported Castro against Batista and worked for Carlos Franqui as editor of the cultural supplement of Revolución, titled Lunes de Revolución (Revolution Monday). In 1961, his brother Sabá Cabrera Infante and the film-maker Orlando Jiménez Leal (the latter born in 1941) produced a fascinating short documentary of night life in Havana, titled P.M.
Because it depicted ordinary Cubans, many of them black, drinking and carousing, rather than sturdy folk fulfilling Soviet-style labor norms, P.M. was banned at Castro's order. Guillermo Cabrera Infante was exiled to Europe. Sabá Cabrera Infante and Orlando Jiménez Leal left Cuba, along with another film-maker, Néstor Almendros (1930-92). Almendros was also born in Spain, and taken to Cuba at 18. After emigrating, Jiménez Leal and Almendros found work in the American film industry. Almendros won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography on the 1978 movie Days of Heaven.
Away from Cuba, Guillermo Cabrera Infante published one of the most important Spanish-language literary works of the 20th century, the experimental and satirical Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Sad Tigers). Its title, based on a Spanish tongue-twister, was rendered in English translation as Three Trapped Tigers, and the book remains in print, with other volumes by him in both Spanish and English. He died in London.
Two famous and gifted Cuban writers were gagged though kept on the island, in a kind of internal exile. José Lezama Lima (1910-76) wrote the 1966 novel Paradiso, a stylistic masterwork, as well as important poetry. But he was homosexual and, faced by the Soviet-style views of the Castro regime on such issues, lost his position as a leading Cuban author. A similar figure was Virgilio Piñera (1912-79), creator of innovative short stories, but another homosexual marginalized by the state.
On Reinaldo Arenas (1943-90), also homosexual and author of the autobiography Before Night Falls (1992), the moralism of the Castro state fell even more heavily. Arenas supported the revolution but grew critical of it and was imprisoned. He came to the United States in the 1980 Mariel Boatlift of Cuban refugees. Before his death in New York City he established himself as a major personality in Spanish writing.
Two more leading Cuban authors who had supported the revolution were Edmundo Desnoes (born in 1930) and Heberto Padilla (1932-2000). Desnoes, an associate of Lezama Lima, Franqui, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, published a novel in 1965, Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment). Although greeted warily by Castro's cohort because of its "subjective" portrait of a man "outside the revolution," it was made into an important Cuban film in 1968. Desnoes, however, lives now in the United States.
Padilla became the object of Castro's rage in 1968 when he published a collection of poems, Fuera del Juego (Out of the Game). He was accused of counter-revolutionary sentiments, locked up, freed, forced into a public "confession," kept in Cuba under surveillance, and finally released to the United States in 1980. He died in Georgia, where he had gained a teaching position at Auburn University.
Lastly, a Cuban painter of genius, Jorge Camacho (1934-2011) had supported Castro. But he worked with Carlos Franqui and became a critic of the freeze of Cuban cultural life under Soviet influence. He moved to Paris where he died. He was a friend of Reinaldo Arenas, and delivered the manuscript of Arenas's novel, El mundo alucinante (1966) to a French publisher secretly. It was translated into English as Hallucinations and remains in print.
Camacho was a courier for extensive clandestine communication by Arenas while the writer was kept in Cuba. In 1988, Camacho and Arenas published an open letter calling on Castro to hold a referendum on the future of Cuba similar to that introduced in the same year by Augusto Pinochet in Chile, which began Chile's return to democracy. The appeal was, of course, ignored by the commissars in Havana.
Franqui, Novás Calvo, Lydia Cabrera, Cabrera Infante, Jiménez Leal, Almendros, Lezama Lima, Piñera, Arenas, Desnoes, Padilla, Camacho: twelve talented men and women exiled and silenced by the Castro brothers and their accomplices. Their biographies are a reproach to Obama's chicanery.