People in Cuba have taken to the streets to protest against … well, Cuba. And the miseries of life there. One has to wonder if the protestors are motivated by hope or by hopelessness. Life in Cuba is characterized by poverty and oppression. Humans can tolerate one or the other. But not both. Not indefinitely, anyway.
But things have been bad in Cuba for a long time now.
Things were bad when Fidel Castro came to power way back when Eisenhower was President. The country was ruled by a corrupt dictatorship that was brutal to its enemies and indifferent to the struggles of most Cubans. It was a place that catered to the decadent – not to say debauched – appetites of certain tourists. Many of them Americans.
Godfather II gets is pretty much right.
So the Batista regime was overthrown. Castro came to power and became an international hero. A liberator.
But he did not trade his Army fatigues for a business suit. And after a CIA-sponsored invasion aimed at his overthrow was defeated at the Bay of Pigs, it was revolution now and revolution forever. Castro’s sidekick, the pathological killer, Che Guevara, became a cultural hero to disaffected young people in what he doubtless considered the decadent Western democracies. Especially in the United States where no college undergraduate’s room was complete without a poster of Che on the wall.
Of course, Che would probably be “canceled” today for his fierce hatred of people who would come to be described as “gay.” Che hated them and sent many to prisons – concentration camps, actually – where they were tortured and, many of them, executed.
Che went out from Cuba to provoke and lead revolutions in other parts of the world. Things didn’t go so well in Africa and then turned terminally bad in Bolivia where he was captured, tortured, and killed.
To his acolytes in America, this was a kind of martyrdom. There was, eventually, a movie.
Of course there was.
Fidel Castro, meanwhile, remained in Cuba where he dealt with dissent by throwing the dissenters into prison. But he was unable to impose his will on Cuba’s economy which drifted on a sea of shortages and poverty.
But for reasons that are always hard to understand, for a certain kind of leftist sensibility, Cuba became a sort of Platonic ideal. Movie stars would travel to the island to talk with Castro. And he was a great talker if, by that, one means he talked a great deal. His speeches, which were carried over the radio, lasted for hours. If his countrymen listened to those speeches, it was probably because they had nothing else to do. Life in Cuba was reduced to the bare necessities. For which Castro blamed America and Yanqui Imperialism.
People who could leave … did. Castro once sent up Mig fighters – supplied to him by his great ally the Soviet Union – to shoot down a couple of unarmed Cessnas that were helping people escape Cuba by sea.
And still, elements of the American left continued to find things to admire in Castro and his regime. Bernie Sanders has a special fondness for Cuba and its literacy programs and its health care.
However, the people who should be enjoying these benefits recently took to the streets. This defiance was met, typically, with force by Castro’s successors who are his equal in brutality if not charisma.
Elements of the American left were, of course, quick to finger the real villain of this piece. And that would, of course, be the United States.
“We stand in solidarity with the Cuban people and condemn the suppression of the media, speech and protest,” said Representative Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has become the media’s favorite “progressive,” Bernie Sanders having grown old and grumpy and having never been blessed with a lot of sex appeal.
AOC (as she is known) added, “We also call for an end to the U.S. embargo and additional Trump-era restrictions that are profoundly contributing to the suffering of Cubans.’
If this diagnosis is correct, then there is a simple fix. The Cuban government could end its anti-democratic oppression of the populace. But some habits are hard to break.
Cuba cannot seem to shed the totalitarian instinct. What its admirers saw as a revolutionary nation and force for “liberation” is just another dreary police state that is good a keeping the population poor and afraid and selling a vision of universal literacy and health care to people who are comforted by such myths.
Castro was a tyrant. Che was a killer. Their successors are standard-issue totalitarians. East Germany comes to the Caribbean.
And people like AOC and Bernie Sanders just can’t wrap their brains around this truth. Which people in Havana live with every day.
Geoffrey Norman is a former editor of Esquire magazine and is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard and National Review. He has authored more than 15 books and remains active in shaping public policy discussions. He lives in Vermont.