When the current chapters 1
to 4 are combined,
this will become Chapter Two
When I flew out of Havana in 1989,
I knew things about Cuba I'd never even suspected. But, to tell the
truth, I didn't know much. Cuba looked dramatically better than Americans
were being told. It looked to me as if something was working. But I
couldn't point at what little I'd seen and say: this goes with that
which comes from this and leads to the other. I hadn't really seen any
coherent whole I could even identify as communism.
The most vividly certain thing was what I hadn't
seen. And all the shanties of Mexico and Central America - all the
twisted dirty ragged bony whining beggars on all the church steps -
all the rotted teeth and ulcered bare feet of old poor people - all
the indignity of poverty - and also all the tragic dignity of stubborn
families living somehow immaculately in the dirt
- all the tension and fear of the endless low-level war between rich
and poor, roads barricaded by masked and angry insurgents, military
counter check points and machine guns everywhere - had not shocked me
as much as not seeing any of that in Cuba.
Bussing back across Mexico, I easily saw the horrible
roadside shanties of Mexico again, the bus-stop comedors full of flies,
and back in Mexico City the beggars and the over-armed cops. And it
just happened that, while I was there, I saw and heard maybe a thousand
Mexican school teachers marching in the Zocalo for better conditions
yelling together, "Fidel! Escucha! Estamos en la lucha!" which I translated
in my notebook: Fidel! Hey! We're going your way. And
I thought: that's a lot of teachers, who sound like they think they
know something. Americans don't know.
Trying to figure out if I thought I knew anything
by studying my Cuban notes at a sagging old table mired in bright green
weeds by a roadside tire repair and "cafe" shanty, after my bus (which
had no spare) blew a tire and bent a wheel between Tepic and Mazatlan,
I was quizzed by the eldest daughter of the shanty as to who I was and
if I'd come to Mexico looking for a wife. I asked if she really thought
there were many prospects for such an old gringo, and, swinging her
upturned palm around the jungly horizon, she solemnly told me, "Hay
I love Mexico, but a lot of Mexico's charm comes from
the picturesqueness of poverty. It was because I'd seen no such thing
there that I'd been so impressed by Cuba. But I'd seen very little of
Cuba, so I vowed I'd go back. Humanly mired in procrastination and circumstance,
though, I wasn't destined to keep that vow for 11 years, while
the official American line on Cuba went shamelessly on, just as if I'd
never stepped through the mirror.
And things happened during those 11 years, starting
in 1989 and '90 with a series of events in China, Eastern Europe, and
Central America billed in U.S. media as the world-wide collapse of communism.
And a reportedly devastating depression in Cuba as the '90's began was
supposed to be part of that.
I had my doubts. Americans in general believed it
because it fit what they'd been told ever since WWII. In fact, it fit
what the last six or eight generations of their ancestors had been told
ever since they'd first heard the word communism. But,
as a professor of journalism, I had professional doubts about media
independence from the rich who obviously hated the idea of equality.
As a realistic philosopher almost from birth, I had my doubts about
the media's grip on reality. As an activist involved in Nicaragua, I
knew the media either ineptly lost Latin America in translation or,
more likely, as boosters and apologists for crooked U.S. business interests there, constantly and dutifully lied about it. And I'd just proven
to myself I couldn't believe the media about Cuba.
I assumed that, for an island state without a complete
bag of its own resources, the sudden loss of vital Eastern Bloc trade
on top of the contrived effect of the U.S. embargo had to be serious.
But the media had been claiming the system there was already feeble
and shaky. What I'd seen had looked solid enough to me to make adjustments
and survive some hardship.
Or maybe not. For all I knew, my newly gained '89
insight into Cuba could have been undone by 1990. But I wasn't convinced
of that by the U.S. media. Throughout the 80's, the same media had routinely
distorted or omitted the truth about places and events I was deeply
involved in then. So I assumed their version of the Cuban depression
was distorted and incomplete, too. In fact, I assumed the whole series
of '89-'91 stories most Americans were believing about China and Europe
as well as about Central America were all distorted and incomplete.
Maybe it's time to clarify, if you haven't guessed,
that while I very accurately drew myself in Chapter One as a surprised
observer in Cuba in '89, I wasn't new to or at all vague about the concepts
I'd gone there to see in practice. I'd been thinking about such things
all my life, since long before I ever read Marx or Bellamy or even Jack
London's radical works, since in fact as a child science fiction writer
influenced by Burroughs, I'd invented an ideally organized utopian
city state on another planet. By 1989, having elaborated and refined
my own ideas in my head for nearly half a century, I think I understood
what communism should be as well as Marx, Lenin, Trotsky or Fidel.
So I didn't go to Cuba in '89 to find out what communism was but to
see how Cuba was doing it. And I wasn't sure what I saw was communism
or, if it was, that I completely approved of it. But what surprised
me was that, whatever it was, it seemed to work, and it looked good,
and I didn't disapprove of that.
Besides reading, researching, and thinking about social,
economic, political, ecological issues for half a century, by 1989,
I'd also spent almost a decade of summers in the third world, and what
I disapproved of was all the toothless gums, dirty ulcerous feet, begging
hands, scrap and plastic shanties, clamor and tension and fear, check
points and machine guns, hunger, illiteracy and miserably lost lives
I'd seen and kept seeing and keep seeing everywhere else in Latin America
My own self respect depends on my firm and passionate
rejection of one of the ugliest attitudes in ideological history - the
Republican enshrinement of property rights over human rights. I see
no good reason for billions of humans, few of whom can claim more than
a house and a yard and most of whom have nothing, to be expected to
celebrate the concentration of property in a few hands or to weep when
bigshots lose their so-called property. And I was only disgusted by
the insider media smirking over the supposed triumph of privilege and
property over equality in '89, '90 and '91. I also didn't believe them.
For sure, the first of the 1989 stories I remember,
which took place a couple of months before I went to Cuba and found
it nothing like what the media said, the story of the Chinese students'
"pro-democracy" take-over of Tiananmen Square in Beijing and of their
subsequent invisible "massacre" - obviously made no sense. I wasn't
there and I don't know a lot about China, but the story was internally
incoherent and externally unconnectable to my own considerable experience
of reality, and it bore the familiar earmarks of propaganda common to
U.S. media reports about blacklisted countries.
From the beginning, while I was comparing what little
I could see on a TV screen of the Chinese people's army to U.S. cops
in similar situations, the talking heads just off the plane from New
York and LA were already reading a billion minds and pontificating about
the longing of the supposedly oppressed Chinese for "freedomanddemocracy"
and the "crackdown" to come. The dilemma of the Chinese people's army
wasn't their assigned story. Then, one night, they all went to sleep
while something happened, and, next day, reading a supposed earwitness's
claim to have heard skulls popping in tents run over by tanks, I knew
I was reading fiction.
Both the newspapers and the TV talking heads insisted
that "thousands" of students had been shot or run down, though photos
of any bodies besides those of a few apparently brutalized soldiers
were as stunningly absent as Sherlock Holmes' nonbarking dog. Maybe,
I deduced, the talking heads, determined to have a massacre, hearing
noises in the night, had dreamed one up. And, in fact, that was precisely what happened, my dear readers.
I think most Americans, forever trained to consider
all communist countries as "regimes" with "totalitarian" leaders and
poor suffering people and assured for days by the trusted electronic
voices that the communists would crack down, seeing a night-time
film clip on their TV's of advancing soldiers firing at someone, followed
by another clip of people running, some falling, willingly believed
the constant repetition of the words "massacre" and "perhaps thousands
killed," because they were used to believing what their media told them
A year later they'd believe Iraqi soldiers massacred
babies in a Kuwaiti nursery and some would think they'd seen it, because
a nursery appeared on their screens while electric voices told them
You can now spend all day on the internet (except
most people won't) finding out the nursery tale was complete bull and
reading all the conflicting accounts of Tiananmen Square, ranging from
some early claims that in a city full of eager news cameramen the "regime"
somehow hid thousands of bodies before a single shutter could click;
to some later revised claims that maybe only hundreds of students were
killed; to some much later but comprehensive academic papers tallying
all the evidence and concluding that no students were killed - that
Beijing that night had been the simultaneous scene of a variety of crowd
gathering events (including some rowdy labor protests maybe in sympathy
with the students), and that, after the students took a vote and all
or almost all of them (except a few anarchists, maybe) voluntarily left
the square, a troop of green soldiers on their way to occupy the space
had been stopped on their route by a crowd of workers and, losing their
heads, had fired, not in Tiananmen Square but in a nearby street, killing
some workers, maybe dozens, maybe more, maybe less.
There are also eyewitness reports confirming exactly
that, by independent journalists (like me in Cuba) who could speak some
Chinese and who stayed awake and watched, though, at the time, based
only on noise and confusion, they were sure they were missing something.
Some of these, besides witnessing the student vote and departure, interviewed
students and found their ideas of democracy to be vague at best and,
at worst, tied to hopes for personal gain.
The honest independent reporters tended to diplomatically
credit mainstreamers with doing the best they could under difficult
conditions, but you can't not know that the embedded U.S. media went
to China to glorify the students as brave "freedom-fighters" (a sellable
American news cliché) and to malign the communist "regime," and that
they did what they meant to do. Furthermore, the mainstream media have
never admitted they lied and, though they constantly imply that communism
was done for in China after the Tiananmen Square incident, in all the
years since, they've never even verified that, preferring to keep it a never explained always glossed over mystery that the Communist Party still runs China and that there is apparently still a Communist Party in Russia and in other Eastern Bloc countries which, along with ordinary citizens whose lives aren't better who fervently want to return to the 80's.
Trusting American audiences are resigned to media
events, crowd scenes cropped by zoom lenses to fill the screen and edited
smoothly by familiar electronic voices to fit an official story that's
certainly not on the screen. So, regardless of what happened
in Tiananmen Square or any other 1989, '90, or '91 public square, what
nobody even expected the media to do was to actually document and verify
whether communism ever actually failed anywhere. It's been taken
as an item of faith ever since. But to have verified that it was communism
that failed, provoking a rational revolt followed by at least the start
of a better life, or, on the other hand, that serious mistakes
were made (to greater and lesser degrees in different places) followed
by profound regret, would have required a close look at a lot of households,
workplaces, and daily lives before and after the supposedly blessed
events, something never done in China, Eastern Europe, or anywhere else
by the dominant media. You can find some deep studies on the internet,
but not in the media that still dominate Americans' perception of what
they believe to be reality.
I know the shallow newspaper version of daily history
starts every morning in New York and is near lock-step duplicated each
hour as it goes west, and the networking of TV news also contributes
to a fairly uniform American view, so I assume it was reported and believed
from coast to coast in 1989 that some kind of mass sentiment or group
awakening that transcended borders and seas and mountains all over the
world just swept all the peoples of all communist countries into all
the public squares all at the same time right then and they all simultaneously
overthrew their leaders and embraced freedomanddemocracy.
To me the stories seemed incomplete. I had no evidence
of my own from the places I'd never been of the unreported story I suspected
- of treachery, pay-offs, buy-outs, future-profit seeking disguised
as aid, insidious promises and corruptive contributions, busy-body interference,
political coercion, threats and exploitation of human stupidity; maybe
even secret training of cadres and infiltration by long buried moles
into positions of leadership; and probably some timely moving and shaking
behind the scenes. Logic told me there had to be unreported connections
to the tangled cold-war web of trickery and lies woven in every dark
corner of the world and the human mind for 45 years before that. I knew
there'd been endless VOA propaganda and subversive cheerleading, and
my own contemporary experience told me that the 1989 reporting must
have routinely miscounted the crowds, manipulated the facts, and thrown
in a lot of spin. But just the way it was all reported, as if
all those movements popped up spontaneously out of nowhere and did away
with all the supposedly wicked communist "regimes" one after another,
just as if it were all orchestrated by a "god out of a machine",
made me suspicious.
HOWEVER, My much more tangible problem with the
official story was and is that, while most of the unbelievable '89-'91
stuff happened in other languages on other continents, where I couldn't
see it for myself, all the related but very believable Central American
stuff I DID see and DO know about that happened in Spanish and English
and in front of my face in the same time frame was definitely reported
For instance, there were all those Mexican teachers
I'd seen and heard in the Zocalo just as the communist dream was supposedly
collapsing yelling, "Fidel! Escucha! Estamos en la lucha!" I don't think
they were necessarily confused and out of sync with the times. I think
they just never read The Times. Obviously, neither did
the throngs of Sandinista militants who, after losing the 1990 election,
still packed speeding trucks crisscrossing Nicaragua every July 19 wildly
waving their rebel flags and shouting slogans as if they hadn't yet
gotten it, as you may think you have, that their cause was passé. Nor
did the many other Latin Americans I kept meeting in the post Berlin
Wall 90's, who kept longing for equality in the same old way and kept
I'd have been confused and mystified myself about
what happened in Central America in the '80's and '90's, if I'd had
nothing to go by but U.S. media reports. But I wasn't confused or mystified
about that, because I watched Nicaragua "up close and personal"
being "saved from communism" and safely returned to the dreamless sleep
of "free" democratic poverty, thus ending the need for any official
line at all about that poor country. I was there both before
and after, and my main activity in the 90's was raising money to put
poor Nicaraguan kids through schools that were no longer free.
I can tell you objectively that the American media
line in the 80's, that the Sandinistas, as pawns of the Russians and
Cubans, were driving their people into a communist abyss without freedomanddemocracy
was a contemptible lie that excused killing, crippling, blinding, traumatizing,
and orphaning real people; stealing their future, their dignity, their
dreams; making them cry "uncle" (as Reagan so aptly put it) and accept
exploitable misery again as their lot. Excuse me, but that sentence
isn't overblown, biased, or even subjective. It's real and perfect English
and you can fact check every word of it.
In fact, with some outside help for sure, from Russia
and Cuba and me, too, if you want to know, but definitely on their own
initiative and with popular support, the Sandinistas in the 80's were
trying to make life better for all the Nicaraguan people than it was
then or is today, a goal that required control of their own resources
and relief from U.S. exploitation. And, handicapped by pre-conditions
an overthrown U.S. puppet regime had left them, and blocked at every
turn by the White House, they didn't get very far with that. But they
immediately succeeded in making Nicaragua politically freer and more
democratic than America, thus unintentionally and unhappily proving
that freedomanddemocracy are not all or even what it takes.
They made other mistakes. But it wasn't their slow, halting, heroic
effort that failed. Helped by an army of foreign volunteers, they were
building houses, schools, clinics, and roads and modernizing and diversifying
agriculture and food processing, and they were making slow, halting,
What shocked U.S. liberals silly and has kept them in denial ever since (of their role in 80's Nicaragua or even that the 80's as a decade happened) is the fact that, contrary to their Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood concept of wonderfulness, it was not communism but "the people" who failed when, exhausted by Reagan's
relentless low-level war and terrified by Bush's bombing of Panama a
few weeks before the 1990 election, just enough of them cried "uncle"
to vote away their revolution. Do you think they celebrated in the
muddy streets in front of their shanties? They didn't.
To understand why building houses is the most important
revolutionary activity (and why the revolution can't have ended), you have to have been inside a few shanties, and some
readers may not have had that experience. I can't definitively describe
a shanty because, though shanties are as numerous as leaves in Latin
America and, for several summers in the 90's, after the revolution was
lost, almost all I did in Nicaragua was go from shanty to shanty on
the hillsides above Matagalpa, in spite of the recent advent of black
and blue plastic tarps as uniform building materials of choice, no two
I remember a three-sided lean-to of odd-sized fire
blackened boards nailed or tied to a thin but tough frame of 2X4's and
bamboo, the whole contraption just heavy and porous enough not to blow
away, perched in a slightly-private near-level open niche in the tall
weeds of a mud slope over the Matiguas road, where a woman who swept
the nearby Once de Septiembre grade school for a few cordobas lived
with her two kids, cooking on a campfire, sleeping in hammocks, and
resting on some rocks the lean-to enclosed. The family was clean and
grimly dignified, and we were putting one of the boys through school.
I remember a 10X15 cube made fairly firmly of stuff,
floorless of course, topped by a creative assortment of tin and tar-paper
weighed down with rocks, divided into several rooms by plastic and coffee-sack
curtains. A very upbeat teenage boy we were helping lived there with
his two sisters, his mother, and sometimes his father, who traveled
a lot to pick different crops.
And, on a rutted mud track near the famous cemetery
where they buried Ben Lender, I remember what looked like a tiny ramshackle
barn with only one small curtained door in front and no windows but
the whole back wall missing and blocked by the steep slope, a few boards,
and some barb-wire. Three sisters and the oldest girl's baby seemed
to live alone there because their mother was a full-time housekeeper
for several downtown homes. They had a high brick smoky fire pit inside
with a makeshift grill and they all slept together on spread-out newspapers
on a 4X8 piece of plywood elevated off the dirt on bricks. I think I remember seeing at least one wooden chair. The beautiful 13-year-old we were putting through
high school told me their uncle brought them a sack of beans whenever
Ideally, a Nicaraguan shanty starts as a stick and
scrap-wood room with a solid enough frame on top to hold up a few hammocks
and some kind of roof. Then rooms are added, probably in a row going
back from the street. The sticks are gradually replaced by bricks or
milled boards for one room at a time and cement is saved until there's
enough for a floor in at least one room. When it starts looking a little
more like a shack than a shanty, with inside partitions that only go
partway up so the air flows over them, glassless windows and a porch
may be added, and then tiles may be saved a few at a time until the
cement in at least one room can be tiled over. Sometimes, whether or
not all or any of this comes about, there may be a tin can outside the
front door, right from the start, with a flower in it. But, just as important as the flower, somebody in that shanty keeps working like hell, maybe for foreigners, obviously to keep building that shanty and to buy food and clothing, though official sources may intone like a newsreel that he or she is, like a good little munchkin, working to make "his" country "stable."
The same readers who may not know much about shanties
may think they do know what the words stable and stabilize
mean, but they probably don't. You often see the words in the newspapers
in reference to a "country" or (sometimes) a whole world your leaders
intend to stabilize. We learned in Central America in
the 80's that a stable place is a place from which most
of the important resources and most of the profits flow away smoothly
to somebody somewhere else who runs the world, the people stay desperately
poor enough to accept whatever wages are offered without complaint,
and any labor or rebel organizers who try to disturb that pleasant arrangement
are promptly neutralized. That's what stable means. Obviously,
Cuba isn't considered stable by Washington.
In 1979, Nicaragua became unstable, and a lot of people,
including the best people I've ever met in such a big crowd, came from
all over the world to help them stay that way. There were heroes and
heroines there from 35 countries that I counted, living with the people
in their crowded shacks and sweating in the sun. The Nicaraguans tried
to make sure that most of us lived with the families who had the best
shacks and not too many of us in shanties. By 1990, I and thousands
of other Americans had spent enough summers living and working with
the people of Nicaragua to know more about them and their revolutionary
dream that so angered Ronald Reagan than the American media or the CIA
ever knew. A couple of young reporters worked on school building projects
with us for part of a summer each. I met some more seasoned reporters
in Antojitos and Comedor Sara in Managua's Martha Quesada district who
admitted to me that they knew more than they reported. I met spooks
then and I've met spooks since who were there when I was but didn't
and still don't know shit.
Of course, not everyone who went with us to Nicaragua
just to generically "help the poor" ever got to the point of even wondering
why the poor were poor. But some of us (I for one) certainly learned
the reasons for Latin American poverty, how it fits into U.S. foreign
policy, and that a lot of what American politicians and media say about
the world outside their own well-guarded borders is profoundly and (no
doubt about it) cynically dishonest. And there's an asterisk that goes
with all that awareness pointing way down to the bottom line where it
says in small but very deeply engraved print that at least the dream
of economic equality, i.e. (whether you like it or not) communism, didn't
vanish in 1990 and it never will.
I didn't learn much of that from American media, anymore
than I'd learned from them what to expect in 1989 Cuba. So though the
media kept drilling me all through the 90's that I'd officially missed
my chance to see communism working, I wasn't as easily convinced of
that as you may have been. I had no expertise on the Eastern Bloc, since
I'd never been there, and my suspicion they'd traded some fixable problems
there for third world status and that the smartest of them wanted to
go back to the 80's was only an educated guess. But I certainly didn't
believe Cuba had economically collapsed in 1990 just because U.S. media
said so. And I didn't believe communism had failed there, either, just
because U.S. media said that. In their role as tribal anticommunist
catechists, U.S. media are always long on innuendo and short on detail.
And, after all, having declared communism failed and finished forever
in 1989, they couldn't gracefully admit it IF it hadn't failed
in Cuba, could they?
U.S. media don't cover what Americans consider
foreign countries. Only periodic or event related stories are written
by perhaps recently born reporters who never seem to know any history.
Long ago (or what seems like long ago), returning in 1985 from my first
deep Central American experience, a summer-long local-bus odyssey from
Costa Rica to California, I called the author of a distorted story about
Nicaragua in the San Diego Union and learned he was a desk-man rewriting
"a field reporter's notes" phoned in from a place he'd never seen. Someone
who knew even less had written the headline.
It's always been that way, but normal voluntary patriotic
ineptitude was greatly improved when, in the late 80's, Washington's
officially declared policy of "embedding" reporters began. Military
supervision of the press was overt during the invasion of Grenada, but
its implications were clarified in December of '89 when they locked
up all the pioneer embedded reporters in a barracks in Panama and didn't
let them out until a general was ready to tell them what to write, omitting
details of the apparently irrelevant bombing of a Panama slum. Reversing
the Tiananmen Square media procedure, the massacre of "possibly thousands"
by U.S. military went unreported in the official media until years later
when "60 Minutes" dealt with it once - though not as what I thought
it was - a message to Nicaraguan voters who would, in fact, surrender
their revolution a few weeks later.
It's curious and obviously relevant to me, though
you may think it an unrelated digression, that in the same time frame,
just as the 90's began and just as the gravity of overpopulation and
the crushing but always profitable overgrowth of the human encampment
had finally aroused enough long overdue concern (in spite of stubborn
and habitual media denial) to prompt the first highly publicized World Population Summit in Rio (Margaret Sanger Quixotically staged the first one in Geneva in 1927) and the first state level criticism of the pope's position on
the issue, after minimally covering that meeting, the same mass media
that was spinning communist revolution out of existence also found a
way to suddenly juggle the statistics of overpopulation out of existence,
too, and (to the relief of the same growth loving businessmen who
hated communism) to absolutely stop reporting it from then
on. That's amazing when you consider that, in fact, the absolute number
of new humans in the world every year, every day, probably every minute,
went on growing faster than ever and, because of that, the eco-system
is collapsing faster, just as, in fact, the world-wide inequality
that prompted all the communist revolutions is continuing unabated,
It was as if (I'm saying, to remain objective,
as if) some very powerful force suddenly got a new grip on mass
communication and the human mind (or at least the minds of Americans
and their most loyal imitators) right about then and, to go on protecting
business for as long as it takes business to finish destroying the world,
took tighter control.
Another thing that really happened as the
new 90's got going (I'm not making this up), which really helped the
media disappear overpopulation, realistic environmental concern, exploitation
of the poor, communism, and the Cuban revolution was that just then
(most obviously after the Nicaraguan elections) -poof- in a cloud of
never reported smoke more unbelievable than anything that was
reported, most of the reported American "left," which had finally started
defining itself in the 80's, did a sudden back-flip, winked out in mid-air,
and reappeared as a newly flag-wrapped (more-patriotic-than-thou), priest-led,
"pro-democracy" movement. The cloud of smoke was provided by Washington,
which had already begun replacing puppet dictators like Ferdinand Marcos
and Baby Doc Duvalier with puppet democracies, a policy that would continue
in the 90's, to the intended confusion of everyone.
And, more confused than anyone else, the newly chastened
and re-labeled "pro-democracy" American left would safely return to
the issues of the 60's at home (women's rights, black rights, gay rights,
and only a very timid politically correct almost Republican level of
environmentalism), while internationally backing away from actual leftism
to a position of safely incoherent support of a politically virgin concept
of "the people" and, of course, peace, period.
Though still wearing Che Guevara T-shirts, they'd
soon be wringing their hands over lost theocracy in Tibet, turning most
of their politically correct backs on the Cuban revolution and "Castro"
(who was somehow betraying their T-shirts by sticking to communism,
which they and their weird fantasy version of Che's ghost had
recanted and tamely agreed to consider dead), and embracing the mystically
directionless Zapatistas that even The Times loved.
Mainstream media, which, in reference to the left,
truly don't know the difference between democratic, liberal, progressive,
socialist, and communist, had to avoid that important
1990's story to leave the cover on Nicaragua undisturbed. But why the
mock "leftist" "alternative" U.S. media then erased the 80's from their
own history, pretending from then on that they were all standing around
with their hands in their pockets from 1970 to Bill Clinton, may be
obvious or it may be mysterious.
Of course, there'd been some nervous titter even in
the 80's about how it would be better "to work from within," and the
fall of the Eastern Bloc and the 1990 Nicaraguan elections were the
same kind of thing as when the exposure of Stalin drove U.S. leftists
to mass philosophical suicide and when the HUAC sent a lot of them running
for cover, but to me, by the time of the Gulf War protests, they seemed
to have been bodysnatched en masse. Who knows? Maybe somebody started
"working from within" them. Maybe Moonie type infiltrators lured
them into brown-shirt liberal cells planted all over America by some
opportunistic billionaire. Maybe a very big, very slick, very well funded
promotional campaign sold them a new improved, risk-free designer "progressive"
label inside the Democratic Party. Or they could have voluntarily all
gone religiously "pro-democracy" together just to cover their self perceived
group humiliation in 1990.
Most Americans in Nicaragua in the 80's were a long
way out on a limb. They'd gone way past their merely liberal friends
at home and were boldly calling themselves progressives
to underscore the difference. And I still think many of them really
had progressed. But their tribal roots were in America and their psyches
deeply engraved with the puritan ethic and the business friendly American
line. And they all still had thoroughly American friends and families
they loved and wanted to be loved by. It's frightening in America
to be the only person in the room not standing for the flag salute.
I suspect some post-1990 now centrist liberals reluctantly
following me may be involuntarily shivering at the secret memory I'm
forcing back on them here (or maybe they're defensively angry - I don't
know). But, set up by childhood brain-binding and a steady diet of mainstream
media propaganda for life (I know that), the humiliation and
apparently brain-shrinking trauma of being smacked down and trampled
when "the people" of Nicaragua they'd thought they were helping suddenly
stampeded right back over them into the darkness may have been too much
Suddenly scared so badly by how brave they'd been
in the 80's and so embarrassed by the one-two punch of the fall of the
Eastern Bloc and the 1990 Nicaraguan elections, a lot of them, maybe
most, fled home and became born-again Democrats, which they still are.
A few tough hold-outs kept giving money to a Nicaraguan scholarship
project I was spearheading. And, of course, there may still be any number
of frustrated and angry 80's progressives I don't know about who were
as quickly fed up as I was when their hollowed-out friends started claiming
to be better patriots and Christians than the Republicans, and who,
without changing their opinions at all, just bailed out in private disgust.
The handful of RCP I rarely encounter always seem to stay tough. But
I'm talking about the loudest and most apparently numerous mainstream
"left" left in sight after 1990, in the U.S. I mean.
Maybe because I knew more than most - a lot of us
were already old, but - maybe because I wasn't religious (as many of
the 60's survivors in Central America in the 80's were) and understood
what I knew more independently, maybe because I drove my own car alone
summer after summer from San Diego across Mexico and Central America
and all directions in Nicaragua, constantly carrying hitchhikers and
pushing my slowly improving 80's Spanish to its limits; maybe because,
as a born philosopher I'd long before started developing my own political
and economic theories which I didn't consider compromised by the passing
fortunes and misfortunes of history; and maybe because I was always
more a realist than a leftist, who, ever since 1970, had seen little
hope for history in a crashing ecosystem anyway, and had been hanging
with the leftest of the leftists mainly just for the company - when
the revolutionary world seemed to come apart in late '89 and early '90,
I didn't lose my balance as so many others did. But it happened just
as I'm telling you and, though I wasn't the only American still visible
in Nicaragua in the 90's, most of that big but temporary revolutionary
movement of the 80's just disappeared, as if blown away by a cold wind.
That really happened - even if I'm the only one who'll tell you
about it, and in the 90's I had to look for Latin American intellectual
Between 90 and 96, when I retired to southern Mexico,
I knew as well as anyone (from a distance) that Cuba was going through
some hard times. That's not much to know. But I ignored shallow U.S.
media reports of this because I absolutely knew they'd lied like hell
about revolutionary Nicaragua, and that they'd lied about the Cuba I'd
seen in 1989 before the depression, and that (instead of standing up
for First Amendment rights they should have considered their business)
they had made it their business to help spread Washington's lie that
Americans had no right to go to Cuba.
Going from shanty to shanty to meet and photograph
the families of the kids some of us were still helping in the real mud
of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, I saw and heard some different views of life.
Squinting at the sun from his half-lean-to shed that hung tilted over
a street near the eastern mercado, one kid's uncle, the extremely crippled
veteran of a landmine encounter, told me, "Don Glen, when the Frente
has power again, let's not have any more elections, because you can't
trust "the people." Another kid's father, who'd often gone out
the window of his mudslope hovel above the coffee plant when Somoza's
Guardia were near but had gotten technical training in Cuba in the 80's,
told me fervently, "If that's communism, what they have in Cuba, I'm
a communist," and, "If Fidel is a dictator, let's have more dictators
At the time of the Rio Population Summit, one of my
former journalism students working at the San Diego Union sent me a
copy of a Reuters wire story he assured me the Union wouldn't print
about how the world press corps followed Fidel Castro everywhere and
ignored George Bush, and about Fidel getting (at the height of the Cuban
depression) a standing ovation from the assembly of world leaders who
had accorded Bush only some polite palm slapping, and about how, as
Fidel declared capitalist exploitation just as environmentally destructive
as overpopulation, the house monitors showed Bush looking uncomfortable
and all those world leaders laughed. My former student was right. The
Union didn't print that story, which wasn't an example of a change in
news control. U.S. media had never told Americans about the tremendous
worldwide respect for Fidel Castro.
Clearly I needed to see Cuba for myself again, but
I was working a 10-month school year in those days, couldn't go everywhere
every summer, and already had deep commitments in Central America. So,
while I worked with my Nica teachers-union girlfriend to put poor kids
through school in 90's Nicaragua, where, thanks to the new "free" enterprise
U.S. puppet government, education was no longer free, and where I hoped
the kids we were helping would grow up to revive their revolution, I
tried to keep up with what was happening in Cuba through other sources.
Mexican newspapers said that the socialist island,
though still severely impacted by the sudden loss of important trading
partners, was slowly recovering. Actually, I once read in an obscure
brief buried in the business section of a U.S. paper that the Cuban
economy hit bottom and bounced in '91 and was slowly climbing after
that, but I was looking. I also saw pictures of plows pulled by oxen
and of Cubans riding bicycles and of trucks converted into "camel busses."
Of course I saw the bi or tri-annual episodes of the
TV show in which usually the same intrepid old-girl reporter is the
only character who can pierce darkest Cuba and interview the only Cuban
whose name Americans know. I don't own a TV, but my friend Marvin taped
those episodes and I remember seeing once a different dizzy heroine,
a little younger and blonder, who asked, "Is it true, Mr. Castro, that
you don't believe in heaven or hell?" And Mr. Castro replied, "I don't
know about heaven, ma'am, but I'm sure the UN Human Rights Commission
wouldn't allow hell." I didn't have a computer either, but my daughter
found me reports that the UN Human Rights Commission (which never says
much about shanties or "stability"), Amnesty International, and the
Red Cross had all looked at Cuban prisons and found them to be no worse
than U.S. prisons, just ordinarily unpleasant jails.
I researched Cuba in the 90's as I had researched
Central America in the early 80's. Ignoring the popular media except
as a contrast and for any daily changes in the facts that could be wrung
from them, I went to the city and college libraries and to the new and
used bookstores of San Diego, San Francisco, Berkeley and Tijuana. Besides
all the books full of hysterical anti-Castro b.s. written by the "exiles,"
and the transparently pretentious gobbledygook measuring Cuba with an
irrelevant businessman's yardstick written by "think" tank Republicans,
I found histories, textbooks, revolutionary memoirs, speeches, interviews,
some very objective though quickly dated summaries and analyses by independent
observers, notably Medea Benjamin, several doctoral theses, a couple
of walking-talking masterpieces by Warren Miller and Jose Iglesias,
"90 Miles From Home" and "In the Fist of the Revolution," that I'm sort
of emulating here, and maybe the most informative book on Cuba, the Lonely
Planet travel guide, as originally edited by David Stanley, which first appeared in 1997 as boldly as if people were expected to use it.
I had friends in the Cuban Friendship Society who
went there and told me what they saw. I once sponsored a speech at San
Diego City College by Ron Ridenour, an American who'd lived in Cuba
for years, and talked to him over a lot of coffee before and after.
An angry old man who claimed to be the puppet commander of the Bay of
Pigs invasion interrupted the speech, shouting that it was all lies,
and, trying to calm him down outside, I learned that, after the first
few months in 1959, except for the battle scene in '61 and a few days
afterward inside a jail, he had never seen revolutionary Cuba. The San
Diego Union quoted him the next day as an authority, though.
I worked continuously on my Spanish and kept up to
date by reading Mexican papers and news magazines, which (though, stylistically,
sadly uninfluenced by Hemingway) often seem inspired by the Hollywood
version of truth-seeking American journalism.
There was an unusual burst of U.S. reporting in '95
when a few Cubans jammed some embassies and then quite a few played
"boat-people" for U.S. media who got so worked up they couldn't easily
stop coverage when the Cubans turned the tables on them and dumped the
dregs of their society into the mix, but very few went on to explain
how Washington started the show by turning down visa requests while
announcing that any Cuban who stepped out of a rowboat onto a Florida
beach would be welcome, though any American could have found that out
if he'd tried.
By that time, Cubans I met in Nicaragua and Mexico
were telling me Cuba was clearly winding up its depression, though improvement
was still painfully slow, and that their depression had only been exactly
as bad as Fidel, who "never lied to us," had promised and never as bad
as normal lower class conditions on the mainland. But post 1990 American
liberals who went to Cuba with religious groups, lacking the courage
to support the revolution, speaking little Spanish and strictly minded
by tour masters who wanted to star in the movie with no distracting
Communist Party co-stars, partly I suppose to justify their "licenses"
to travel, tended to clumsily exaggerate Cuban "suffering." If they
were veterans of Central America, they may have been too traumatized
by the reversal they'd experienced there to dare to notice how energetically
the island's still dedicated communist leaders organized Cuba's recovery.
But their really contemptible self-protective participation in the lie
that the embargo was hurting "the people" and not "Castro" was the best
proof of how far the American left had fallen.
Of course, American media kept sneering with pointless
insidious malice at Fidel's calling the depression a "special period,"
and, though by '95 or '96 it should have been well known by anyone paying
attention that the Cuban depression was ending, they kept pretending
to their readers (and still do to the present day) both that it kept
getting worse and that it represented the failure of communism.
The western hemisphere, Americans were being taught
by their ever more corporate media, had entered a new era of "emerging
western style free enterprise democracies," except for Cuba, the only
country "still not free." But, retired and more constantly and closely
involved than ever on the scene of the supposedly new Latin American era, though I saw
the "free"ways and malls and new architecture arriving, I also saw the
free-wheeling destruction of forests, the easily visible disappearance
of wildlife, and the actual spread of mud and shanties. U.S. media boasted
of the spread of democracy and NAFTA, the North American "Free" Trade
Agreement, while I watched the spread of ecological destruction and
In Chiapas I drove and hiked into the Lacandon "biosphere"
to camp at beautiful Lago Miramar and found only a donut of jungle left
around the lake and shanties in nearby Zapata surrounded by lakes of
mud. On the Oaxaca coast, while stopped for hours by a protesters' roadblock,
I talked to bean farmers who couldn't compete with U.S. imports. In
Nicaragua, where old campesino friends asked me, where is so-and-so;
when will he or she come back; tell him or her we're always looking
for them, the new puppet government was selling the country's forests,
the poverty was worse than before the revolution, and if guerrillas
had been replaced by Miami gangs on dope, it wasn't because revolution
wasn't needed anymore; it was because people were wearier and more hopeless,
because, besides Domino's and Subway, a far more modern and efficiently
repressive military and police force had arrived.
In Peru, where living conditions of the poor will
make you cry if you have a heart, the last guerrilla movements were
crushed and ground out by Fugimori; in Colombia, the FARC stayed alive;
but in Mexico, "Subcomandante" Marcos recited poetry and entertained
tourists, assuring his fans that his agenda was "diametrically opposed"
to the still communist but unsung EPR, while some Indians made a little
money selling guerrilla dolls and others, back in the clear-cut hills,
with a few small-arms donations from the army, cooperatively massacred
When the U.S. pressured all the co-opted Latin American
presidents meeting in Chile to pressure Castro to "free" Cuba, Fidel
told them, "When there's one communist left in the world, it'll be me."
So I still had reason to hope I'd see at least something like the Cuba
I'd seen in 1989 again.
I'd heard in the time of Gorbachev and Yeltsin that
Fidel didn't approve of the Russian decision to put their system on
the table for a public roasting - a move that supposedly led to what
may have been the collapse of Russian communism. Now I heard that more
philosophical input was being sought from ordinary Cubans, but I couldn't
tell from a distance what that meant or even if it was new, since my
own research indicated an intent ever since 1959 to spread management
responsibility more and more as Cubans became more educated and individually
clearer on the concept of communism. Also, I hadn't seen any reason
for explosive unhappiness in '89, but I didn't know what Russia was
really like then, either. I don't trust the judgment of people in general.
Throughout the 90's, I heard and read (sometimes even
in U.S. papers) that Cuba was switching from a sugar plantation economy
to a complex mini-industrial model, accepting what I feared would be
too much investment and involvement by outsiders. I was told that such
arrangements were supposedly designed with sunset-on-payback clauses
for the outsiders and eventual return to an entirely nationalized industry,
but I worried that it might get too messy to control and keep separate
from the more important Cuban social experiment.
In San Cristòbal de las Casas, in Chiapas Mexico,
where I lived for two years (1996-98), closer to my project in Nicaragua
but also an easier drive to California, I talked to Spanish travelers
who regularly passed through Cuba on their way west, some of whom thought
that the Cuban revolution was being betrayed by entrepreneurial intrusion.
I knew several local Cubans, too, especially two Cuban women who lived
there because they'd married Mexicans, both of whom traveled regularly
to and from the island. One, whose charmingly insolent daughter worked
for awhile at the hilltop restaurant where I hung out, and who had a
house in Havana she was trying to rent to tourists, was a dissident
but reticent about it because most of the San Cristòbal international
community were to one degree or another at least liberal. She assured
me Cuba was fine again because she wanted me to rent her house, but
her rather incoherent claim was that things were OK again on the island
because they'd been just fine before the revolution.
The other, the pretty young owner of the Cuban bookstore,
talked so non-stop fast about the contemptible lies of the Miami "exiles"
that all I could do was watch her talk. "So now they say Fidel has billions
- billions! - in a Swiss bank!" The obvious lie had actually been printed
in Fortune, which saw no need to fact-check any kind of
nonsense about a person considered fair game to lie about in America.
"So why don't they tell us when he's going to spend it, huh? He's over
70 and he works 16 hours a day. So why don't they tell us when they
think he'll have enough to take a vacation? Those people are so stupid
they don't even know how stupid their lies are."
Pointing at the ragged Indians whose shanty encampment
at the edge of town contrasted grotesquely with colonial San Cristòbal,
she told me that, while Mexico stayed the same, life was always getting
better in Cuba. "But they have such good glasses in Miami they can see
90 miles over the horizon things we can't see standing right there in
the street in Havana!"
She must have been right about that, because right
up to the day I finally left for Cuba again in 2000, American media
were still relaying reports from Miami that Cubans were desperately
poor and starving in an endless depression which "Castro," who was supposedly
the only person not being hurt by it, cynically blamed on the U.S. to
excuse "his own failed policies." And foolish, philosophically compromised
American liberals, pitching for sympathy and donations for a generic
entity they called "the people" and confusing Cuba with Central America
in their minds still kept claiming "thousands" of Cubans were dying
from lack of modern medicines due to the blockade.
The night before I finally flew back to Cuba in April
of 2000 for my second visit, the San Diego Union dutifully printed a
letter from an "exile" who'd left Cuba in 1959 as a child and who claimed
he still missed the pet cat he'd left behind. And now, he blubbered,
there were no cats or dogs in Cuba because the poor starving people
had eaten them all. I've met enough "exiles" to know how hysterically
dishonest they are, but you read enough of such stuff, it affects you
even if you know better.
So I was as amazed when I got there in 2000 as
I had been in '89 to find the Cubans, just as I remembered them, healthy,
happy, well dressed, eating regularly and living a good life (with lots
of dogs and cats), the worst of the depression not forgotten but years
When this interchapter becomes Chapter Two,
there will be a new Chapter Three and Four following it, about
the years 2000 and 2001. For now, the link goes on to Chapter
Five, which begins in 2004.
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