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Roger (Cohen) and Me

In Cuba No One Man Could Steal $50 Billion From Other People

by SAUL LANDAU

As the prosperous, ethical and super-duper powerful United States erodes, The New York Times Magazine editors decided to feature, on its December 2 cover, the demise of Cuba’s socialist society.

“The End of the Revolution” appeared as reports emerged of a single schnorrer (Bernard Madoff) gouging 50 billion dollars from the smartest investors on Wall St. Foreclosures continue to force millions out of their homes, unemployment rates rose each month and the country’s infrastructure rots and cracks. The tell tale signs of the end of “the American Century” appeared throughout the world: two un-winnable wars; getting excluded from a major summit meeting of Latin America and Caribbean leaders in Brazil; an economy sapped by military spending unrelated to even the most remote needs of defense. In this setting, the nation’s most prestigious newspaper sent reporter Roger Cohen to analyze the crumbling physical and moral structure of Cuban society.

Despite potential feature stories throughout the United States about spectacular collapse of cities and regions larger and more populous than Cuba, the “liberal” U.S. media continues to take particular pleasure in describing how the dreams of the Cuban revolution have faded into the grey and depressing reality of decay evident throughout the island. Cohen describes accurately some of the apathy and cynicism that foreigners can easily find in conversation with “typical” Cubans on the street. What has any of this got to do with the “end” of the Cuban Revolution?

Cohen bathes in his own sensitivity as he empathizes with nostalgic and deprived Cubans; but for the purpose of undermining any alternate vision of a good society. He dramatizes the dysfunctional aspects of Cuba’s economy — obvious to any observer. But Cuba’s failings pale in comparison to what the U.S. public now experiences, thanks in part to the myths spread by free market liberals and newspapers like the Times. The implicit measure of his judgment seems to be based on some healthy model, presumably one still operating somewhere in the noble core of the United States or some third world country.

Cohen’s assumption that the United States “sometimes” acts in manners that tarnish its basic nature, for example, permeates the piece. In so doing, he effectively denies its basic imperial nature. Cohen looks at the U.S. Guantanamo Naval Base, which “had become synonymous with some of the most egregious acts of Bush’s war on terror, acts that have tarnished America’s name.” Did he forget 4 million dead Vietnamese, Agent Orange that poisoned that land, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis?

“There have been other moments of American dishonor over the years in Latin America,” Cohen admits, “from Chile to Argentina, where “the U.S. told generals it would look the other way.” Did he also mean by “moments” the 20 year occupation of Haiti and Nicaragua, the invasions of Cuba, Panama, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, the placement of pro-U.S. governments in Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua headed by tyrants — Batista, Duvalier and Somoza? Washington not only told the generals it would look the other way, it helped the generals overthrow elected governments in several countries and then offered them support to torture, disappear and murder their dissenting citizens (Brazil in 1964, followed by Chile, Argentina and Uruguay in the next decade). The modern U.S. vision for Latin America has always contained internal contradictions at best. Kennedy promoted the glorious Alliance for Progress, to carry Latin America forward economically and encourage democracy. He also promoted — with a far larger budget — counterinsurgency for the repressive enemies of democracy in the military and police. Johnson kept the Peace Corps going while backing a military coup in Brazil and invading and occupying the Dominican Republic. Nixon and Kissinger together simply preferred “authoritarian” governments. From 1970-3, while covering their “preferences” with the facade of human rights, they blithely altered the destiny of the Chilean people by ordering the CIA to “destabilize” the elected Allende government.

Cohen refers repeatedly to history only to vitiate history itself. Indeed, the most important line in his essay contradicts his thesis. Elena Alvarez, an Economics Ministry official, tells him: “The revolution has been a success.” She included in her definition the achievement of sovereignty, national pride and surviving “fifty years” of aggression by “the most powerful country in the world.”

She could have added that the revolution also allowed Cubans to make history in southern Africa, save countless lives after natural disasters around the world, as well as the eyesight of tens of thousands who had no access to such medical service. The point about its past success eludes Cohen and most other mainstream writers who bask in the discontent of Cuba’s shabby present, and then point to “countless talented Cubans” who sit around “plotting to get out.” It’s true that a million Cubans have left since 1959 for the wealthier shores of Florida. Another million, however, fought alongside Africans for Angola’s independence from 1975-1978. Cubans played roles in the Vietnam War and served in the 1973 Middle East war as well. Others climbed mountains in Pakistan to save lives after the 2005 earthquake; Cuban doctors treat the poor in sub-Saharan Africa and other places most doctors would not go.

To present the case against Cuba, history first must suffer severe body blows. Cohen laments “the fruitless paralysis of the Cuban-American confrontation.” Note how he reverts to the passive voice to deflect historical cause and effect. “Diplomatic relations have been (my emphasis) severed since 1961; a U.S. trade embargo has been in place…” He could have made the article both active and more accurate by saying “President Eisenhower broke relations in January 1961 and Kennedy formally placed a trade embargo on Cuba in 1962.”

Cohen lists several factors that work against restoring relations: “bad history, predatory U.S. practices and the expediency of autocratic regimes of casting the United States as the diabolical enemy.” By bad history, did he mean naughty? On whose part?

In fact, the United States has acted like Cuba’s diabolical enemy. The very language used to justify the embargo and travel ban emphasizes “punishing Castro.” The United States instigated thousands of terrorist attacks against the island, prepared and launched an invasion at the Bay of Pigs, tried to cut off Cuba from the rest of the world and possibly engaged in biological and chemical warfare during certain periods. If that’s not diabolical, what is?

Both sides have “traded accusations” of terrorism, writes Cohen, implying mutual responsibility. The record shows, however, the United States actively practiced assassination and sabotage against Cuba. Evidence of Cuban aggression against U.S. leaders or installations, on the other hand, appears non-existent. Cuba could, of course, metaphorically, stop punching the United States in the fist with its face.

After the 1991 Soviet collapse, Cuba drifted with survival measures. This year, 3 hurricanes destroyed a good percentage of its agriculture and hundreds of thousands of homes. Its wage-salary structure is rife with irrationality and aspects of paternal governance inherited from colonial Spain irritate the highly educated citizenry– as does media censorship.

Fifty years of an experiment in socialism with a lethal enemy at its door has yielded some startling successes: Cuban art and music stun visitors. Cuban literature, film, dance and sports claim rightfully high places in the world. Cohen doesn’t return to the era of Batista, when the Mafia ran hotels and casinos, when the United States dictated Cuba’s policies. True, fifty years has not produced an ideal society or a model others would now copy.

How does one measure a nation’s history, its progress? In 1868, Cuban patriots initiated the first war for independence from Spain. Almost 100 years later, Castro led the revolution to realize that dream.

Cohen writes of the “terrible price” Cubans have paid for “Fidel’s communist revolution,” as if he did it by himself. In Cuba, no one has disappeared and no journalists have been murdered. No single man could steal $50 billion from others.

Cubans did pay a price, perhaps most in having divided families. Most of the wealthy and middle classes left by the early 1960s. The poor face scarcity, but also receive benefits, like guaranteed medical care, housing, education and food, albeit not as much as they enjoyed twenty years ago. But the flaws inherent in revolutionary or evolutionary processes — think of the U.S. Civil War, the centuries of slavery and apartheid — should point to the uneven and combined nature of human development itself. And, like most historical eras, one major actor, 90 miles away, helped determine the context in which a less powerful player evolved.

That Cuba survived 50 years of almost unrelieved punishment by a superpower neighbor is a modern miracle. I toast to its necessary reforms in 2009!

SAUL LANDAU’s films with Fidel are available on DVD from roundworldproductions.com. His  A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by Counterpunch A/K