me + Cuba + Fidel Castro + Richard Armitage
Since this topic won’t leave my brain alone, I thought I’d tell you how I know what I know about Cuba.
Growing up, I didn’t know anything about Cuba at all. We didn’t talk about it in school — I knew about the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, but U.S. history always ended with WWII in school because everything that happened after that (especially: Vietnam) was considered way too controversial to discuss. In college Spanish, we read some Cuban literature (primarily: José Martí) and so we had to listen to videos of Cubans sometimes, and my main reaction was frustration with people who apparently didn’t pronounce their “s.” (I still have this frustration, even after living in Florida; sorry, Caribbean islanders. I’ll try harder in future.) When I was in Germany, about the time Buena Vista Social Club came out, it was fashionable for lefties to travel there for a week of vacation and my German friends all came back raving about how wonderful it was. There came the first questions — just because the film showed Havana as a city that is falling apart and with stars who were basically impoverished by the revolution.
Anyone who has been saying that Americans know nothing about Cuba because all we read is “propaganda” in the U.S. news is simply off the mark. Most Americans are completely uninformed about Cuba and could not find it on a map. Some may still remember events from the 1950s and 60s, but most do not. Cuba rarely figures in U.S. national news except when there is a direct problem related to Cuba (e.g., Elián Gonzalez), or a surge in deaths related to migration from Cuba, and, now of course, in the last year or two since U.S. policy has changed. The most frequently news report regarding Cuba in the national press will be “so and so many migrants drowned today (or hopefully: “were picked up today”) off the Florida cost.” You see, for most of my adult life, we’ve had this crazy policy called “wet feet, dry feet,” which means if the U.S. catches someone fleeing Cuba on a raft in U.S. waters, they will be repatriated, but if they can get their feet on U.S. land, they can stay). Cuba is only 90 mi off of Florida so people actually do put to sea to get out of Cuba when it looks like the Cuban state won’t let them leave voluntarily. They also migrate to México and cross the U.S.-México border illegally (so-called “dusty feet”) or they go to the Dominican Republic and then sneak into Puerto Rico. What most Americans who don’t study the country, don’t know Cuban-Americans, or don’t live in Florida know about Cuba is that it’s a poor country with a repressive Communist regime, and that until recently we couldn’t buy Cuban rum or cigars or travel there except under very specific circumstances. None of this is propaganda; it is fact.
Of course, informed people know more, and I read a lot of papers, but I didn’t really think much about Cuba until I worked at two universities where colleagues specialized in its history. Those scholars travel there regularly, despite the fact that until very recently, it was complicated to get there from here, with people flying thousands of miles out of their way to circumvent U.S. regulations and often paying for it themselves, because some states prohibit the use of public research monies for anything related to Cuba. At work we had regular brown bags scheduled to discuss research. In general, you could say that American history professors tend to be sympathetic to democratic revolutionary movements, so the picture of Cuban history and society inside a university will typically be more positive than (say) in public policy discussions or the U.S. press in general. The picture presented in U.S. research on Cuba and Cuban society was quite varied, with most scholars sympathetic to the aims of the Cuban revolution but also troubled or horrified by what it had become. Frequent topics of discussion included the suppression of human rights, the difficulty of looking at the historical records one wanted to see, and the obstacle of building local contacts with whom one could have straightforward conversations.
Two additional things have substantially influenced my knowledge of Cuba in the last ten years.
First, someone recommended Yoaní Sanchez to me as a particularly gripping writer. I think I’ve been reading her since 2007 (?). I’ve been recommending posts from her blog since 2012, but if you’re not reading her yet, I strongly recommend it: Here in original, here in English translation. The tone of her writing wavers between despairing and blistering and I love her discussion of the quotidian and absurd in Cuban daily life. On the other hand, if you don’t like or trust the dissident perspective on present-day Cuba, I would also recommend this blog (only in Spanish, but you can push the “translate” button), written by someone with government connections and the extremely rare privilege of an Internet connection in his house. I found what he had to say about the prospects for a free Cuban press extremely interesting, particularly in his discussion of strategies by means of which Cuban official media seeks to shape the content of journalism (Google translation). There are other bloggers worth reading (Dimas Castellano), but these are the two I find most engaging.
I read the New York Times and the Washington Post, like any responsible person who cares about the news in the U.S. I also look at how the Cuban government perspective differs from that of the citizen on the ground. Granma is the main national Cuban paper, and frankly, it reads like Neues Deutschland before 1989 — it’s only ever a tiny bit of the story, and any negative news that it doesn’t suit the government for the reader to know is eliminated, so you don’t learn a lot from reading it, but it is there for us. The free press is dead in Cuba, it has been for years, and the main news all comes from the Communist Party. Freedom House details how journalists who won’t obey the very restrictive laws are typically treated.
If you’d like a direct comparison between how an outlet like the official Cuban press reports a news story vs how Sanchez’s news outlet reports it, and then Sanchez’s commentary on it, consider the reactions to the lowered growth forecasts for the Cuban economy made this week. You can compare what Granma said about it (here Spanish; unfortunately they haven’t updated their English site in two years), what 14ymedio said about it (here Spanish; here English), and what Yoaní Sanchez said about it personally (here Spanish; here English).
So until you’re reading all this stuff, partially in the original language because it hasn’t been translated, please don’t accuse other fans of being “uninformed about Cuba” or “only reading propaganda.”
Even so, until 2011 I very largely accepted the scholarly viewpoint on Cuba, which has been to some extent sympathetic to the Cuban revolution, while highly critical of U.S. policy. I remain critical of pre-Obama U.S. policy toward Cuba as well — I understand the factors that motivated it, but I think it has not been constructive — but my perspective on the Cuban revolution changed significantly after moving to Florida, mostly due to two things. First of all, a colleague in my field of direct research published two memoirs of his childhood flight from Cuba: Waiting for Snow in Habana and Learning to Die in Miami. The first one won the National Book Award. He was never a friend of mine, only someone whose work tangentially touched on mine, but reading them made me think about what it would be like to be forced away from your family at the age of twelve with your brother to a country where you didn’t speak the language, to a life of dislocation and poverty.
And then, I moved to Florida, where news from Cuba was reported more regularly in the local press, but more importantly, where the Cuban presence, that of the exiles and the children of exiles was undeniable and something that people talked about regularly. Did you know, or bother to ascertain, that one of the fans who objected to Richard Armitage’s is a child of a Cuban exile family, before you paused to tell her how wrong she is? When Fidel Castro died, my FB filled with pictures of families weeping and celebrating, individual and personal versions of this. This is what my colleague said about it — unsurprisingly, given his life experiences, he had nothing kind to say. I can’t subscribe to everything, but given his experiences, it’s entirely understandable and probably justifiable for him to write what he wrote. I found this perspective quite thoughtful, myself. It’s not that I think we always have to judge (or speak our judgment), and the U.S. government’s statement was intended for purposes of diplomacy and supporting the path U.S. policy has been on for the last two years, not as an actual statement of what people in the government think. But even for those who are positively disposed to the achievements in Cuba, I think we must not lie to ourselves about the brutality for which the Castro regime was and is responsible. The health care system is the main advance usually cited — although most Westerners would never tolerate this much government surveillance of their lives for the sake of health, and we pay the corresponding financial and personal prices. In Cuba, you literally do not have the right not to be examined annually by a doctor. And to me, the word on education remains out because although official literacy statistics are impressive and are certainly an improvement over the pre-Castro era, word on the ground about the quality of schools themselves is much more mixed.
It’s not that any perspective, when taken by itself, is correct or incorrect. It’s that in order to understand Cuba (or anything, for that matter) one has to cultivate a base of different data — official and unofficial sources, written sources and personal sources, books and conversations, conversations with people of different perspectives on central questions, and most importantly, one has to take into account sources with which one disagrees. One has to compare what a dissident writes with the official press, one has to compare what a revolutionary says with what a victim of the revolution says. It’s not enough to see a headline or two and claim that opinion formed on that basis is accurate. And yes, some of us have taken time to do this. Even in the United States.
I’m not uninformed. It is my considered judgment, after years of occasional reading and thinking about the question (although I’m not a specialist), that while the Cuban revolution had some noble impulses, in the end, Fidel Castro became a brutal dictator who harmed his country more than he helped it. It is my considered judgment, after years of reading Cuban news from several sources both in and out of Cuba, that the Cuban government practices brutal human rights abuses against its own population in the name of keeping the Communist Party in power. It is my personal opinion that, although the advances of the Cuban health care system are admirable, that good health is a less important social and personal good than fundamental human rights: freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, economic freedom, freedom to dissent. And after hearing all too many stories of lives and families indelibly disrupted or destroyed by Castro’s activities from the mouths of those people and their relatives, it is my judgment that if the choice is “admire Castro / don’t admire Castro,” the judgment falls without question upon “don’t.”
So, to get on the topic of Richard Armitage’s words. No one who objected to what he said did it on the basis that Castro did not influence history (something I keep on reading that borders on ridiculousness); I suspect they, like me, were bothered by his use of the term “lost.” To me, “lost” suggests we feel a regret over his death (it is the negatively connoted opposite of “found”), and I doubt very many people out there mourn for Castro in that particular way. It is impossible to judge the depth of authentic sentiment in a state in which the government compels people to participate in official mourning. It’s certain that there’s no widespread mourning for Castro in the sense that there is for everyone else on Armitage’s list except perhaps Nancy Reagan or (depending on who you are) Shimon Peres. I have “lost” my mother (although she asked me never to say that — I’m supposed to say “my mother died”); we have “lost” David Bowie; since Armitage wrote his message we have “lost” Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. I would never write that we have lost the Latin American island version of Josef Stalin; Islam Karimov is probably the most directly comparable figure who died this year, I personally don’t want Uzbekistan to find him again, ever, and I doubt that most people there do, either. If Armitage sincerely thinks of Castro’s death in the same way he thinks of that of Leonard Cohen, I have reason to disagree strongly with his political or moral sympathies. To me, anyone who really cares about the refugee problem, as Armitage has implied strongly that he does, would not be putting Castro on a list of people we have “lost.” Hundreds of thousands fled Cuba due to Castro; Floridian families rented leisure boats in the 1980s and crossed to Mariel to try to rescue their relatives; the U.S. Coast Guard took to the high seas in the 90s to try to keep refugees — many of them on wooden rafts — in Cuba. It’s hard to get a death count for all of this — but how many refugee deaths are really acceptable?
Armitage’s amendment to his original message was even more troubling, frankly: “Castro was also named here without fear. Not an endorsement, just a name that is noteworthy….sigh.” First, “just a name that is noteworthy” contradicts the clear sense of “lost,” as if he wanted to say he didn’t say what he actually said (and it’s also inconsistent with fans’ readings that Armitage was listing important figures, insofar as Castro was much more than a noteworthy name). But more importantly, it’s not clear entirely what “without fear” means here. Without fear of what? If he meant, “without fear of Castro,” my response to him would be, “Check your privilege.” Anyone who’s seen “The Lives of Others,” as Armitage has claimed to, knows that artists are the first people that a repressive regime tries to control, searching for weaknesses with which to blackmail them into cooperation — and this is not a movie fiction; it was something the East German state actually did; Ulrich Mühe, who played Wiesler in that film, was actually spied upon by his own wife. If Armitage meant, “without fear of creating controversy,” the statement is a performative contradiction — since of course that name would spur huge controversy in the U.S. (where he lives now) and in large parts of Latin America. The amendment makes it seem like he thought he could say whatever he wanted and no one would object. If we imagine that some major PIRA figure had died in 2016 and Armitage had put that person in this list, could we also imagine that no UK fan, or nobody in Manchester, would object?
The specter of having to take a position more rigid than the one I actually hold is rearing its ugly head here, and I was honestly more frustrated with the kneejerk application of the fan standard “Armitage right or wrong” to other fans than I was with Armitage himself. In the end, the only way I could think of to react to that part of the message was to conclude that he wasn’t especially well informed. This was my own situation before 2011 and I would encourage anyone who lauds the achievements of Castro despite the repressive nature of political life in Cuba to try to speak to people whose families fled Cuba in the second half of the twentieth century. My impression was not that he admires Castro, frankly, but that he was careless. He thought it didn’t matter who he put on the list or how he talked about them. And that’s fine, if it doesn’t matter to him, but it’s not fair to expect that it won’t matter to some of us. I personally have no “fear” of discussing Castro, but rather anger about what he did to entire generations of people. I won’t hide or deny my honest, informed evaluation of his regime and its consequences both generally and (in the meantime) to people I know personally. Inevitably this, like any statement of political valence, will become a matter of controversy. That we are allowed to express our dissent is one thing that privileges us over against Cubans still living on the island.
It seems more and more obvious from the form of his social media pronouncements that Richard Armitage wants to speak to fans without consequences. What that says about his level of privilege and his awareness of it, I leave the reader to ponder.