CHAPTER TWO
The 90's
when the American left back-flipped
and communism supposedly failed everywhere
but
maybe not in Cuba


   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 stubbornly proud 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 muchas aqui."
   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, compared to a vast stretch of Latin America with which I was becoming very familiar in those days, 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, in the 90's, was still seeing everywhere else in Latin America except Cuba.
   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. I don't say I guessed it. I say I KNEW the story was fiction, and so will you if you think about it for a whole minute.
    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. Weeks later, during a day of Chinese student protest in San Francisco, my daughter and I walked from photo board to photo board all over town and saw the same photos everywhere, including NONE of massacred students. 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.
   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 they believed.
   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 that story.
   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 even hundreds, but more likely 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 about the supposed "massacre" and that, 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, 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, and more than probably a lot of selective reporting. 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 digitally enhanced god, made me suspicious.
    Maybe the clincher (and it was A clincher) should have been when (a few years later and after The Nation had carefully, tentatively reported somewhat the same story I'd figured out) I met some of the live and authentic Tiananmen Square students themselves on a US hand-out-seeking tour at a UCSD student-sponsored evening event where they showed us maps and pictures and, naively, revealed their own perk-passion, and told us their part of the story just about exactly as it had been reported in the Nation and as I just told it to you.
    HOWEVER, My much more (to-me) tangible problem with the official story was and is that, while most of the unbelievable '89-'91 stuff supposedly happened in other languages on other continents, where I couldn't see it for myself, a LOT of 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 inaccurately by the same embedded media that co-opted all reporting rights to the Chinese and European fantasy. .
    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 idolizing Fidel.
   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 (Jimmy Carter's project, though I don't think he was ever personally there), schools (my own project), clinics, and roads and modernizing and diversifying agriculture and food processing, and they were making slow, halting, heroic progress.
   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.
    And why should they have? They were still living their lives, most importantly, in their homes, just as you do; and the most important activity of the revolutionary 80's had been the construction of real houses for people who'd lived forever in shanties, a project that bogged down when the revolution bogged down and which has, therefore, still never been completed.
   To understand why building houses is the most important revolutionary activity (and why the revolution, therefore, 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 advent right about that time of black and blue plastic tarps as uniform building materials of choice, no two were alike.
    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 tarpaper 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 fulltime 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 highschool told me their uncle brought them a sack of beans whenever he could.
   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 entone 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 deskman 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, too.
   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.

The birth-again of US pro-democracy pseudo-progressives
    Another thing that really happened as the 1990'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 newly politically correct 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 (for the time being) generic peace.
    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 (the story of the "left's" return to the womb) to leave the cover on the just-completed screwing-of-Nicaragua story undisturbed. But why the mock-leftist "alternative" U.S. media themselves 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 failure of the 1990 Nicaraguan elections and their effect on the suddenly red-white-and-blue "left" were the same kind of thing as when the demonization 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, the already flojo American left seemed to have been body-snatched en masse. Who knows? Maybe somebody started "working from within" them. Maybe Moony type infiltrators lured them into brownshirt "liberal" cells planted in colleges 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. What I remember is walking away disgusted from demonstrations in Balboa Park that were suddenly being led and dominated by flag-waving priests.
    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 for them.
    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 company.

   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 like Fidel."
   At the time of the Rio Population Summit in June '92, 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, all of which rehashed the Mariel "boatlift" of 1980 but none of which explained how Washington keeps such shows going by turning down visa requests while welcoming any Cuban who steps out of a rowboat onto a Florida beach, 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 in southern Mexico 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 poverty.
   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 each other.
   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 behind them.