HOME | THREE WEEKS | OTHER WRITING | FAQS | ABOUT THIS SITE | LINKS | NEWS


October 2003

FROM THE ISLE OF CUBA

AND SO I SMUGGLED MYSELF BACK FROM EXILE

by Henry William Brownejohns

 

Even my own considerable powers of description fail to suggest how pleased I am to be once more soothed by the cool silk of the autumn air in New York, for I have newly arrived here after an eventful season of passive sociology on that unspoken-of nearby paradise, Cuba. It might seem a surprise—to those who have lived such a continuous long uninterrupted while in their Northeast American experiential monastery that they have grown to loathe their own dear home by excessive familiarity—that I am so pleased to have escaped an isolated Caribbean Xanadu. But there are distinct capacities for every type of leisure, maximums of pleasure which can be reached and, when exceeded, ooze not pleasure any longer, but angst. Cuba, beleaguered, dignified, slow-paced, sultry hot, rum-soaked and tobacco-fresh, has been fully realized by this author, and for me to spend another day there would only enter into the realm of diminishing returns.

Not less worth considering was the substantial anxiety I felt in preparing to return to the United States; this greatly eroded the monolith of relaxation that I was perched upon at any of ten thousand airy Havana bars. For it is indeed illegal—now more so than any time since the late nineteen-seventies—for an American citizen to visit Cuba uninvited, and to give the lowliest islander even the paltriest coin. A bramble of legal technicalities greet the returning Yank from Havana; having never gone through it before, and being unsure of its intricacies, I was understandably preoccupied.

Going to Cuba had been simple, if a little too exciting, in the manner of jumping the barricade of a longed-for plot of private property. Not to mention, when I arrived, Cuban-American relations were, if not warm, at least extant, unlike at the present. And once there, I had been graciously welcomed, and every moment made to feel like a visiting dignitary or a long-lost relative.

But coming home, I risked arrest, confiscation of my notes and souvenirs, permanent inclusion on our Government’s growing black--list, and, thanks to the foamy-mawed Patriot Act, indefinite incarceration without due process. So I was understandably roused; and I am understandably pleased to have it all behind me. And I think the United States should be no less enthralled to have me home, at the beginning of this crucial, tumultuous political year. I return restored, and fit to lead my unwilling admirers against the incumbent foe of national bellifoonery.

Most vacationers describe some discomfort upon first returning home, a sense of having missed out on the local rhythms, a feeling of being out-of-the-loop with the news of the day. In my own case, I have no such sense: first, because it is a matter of survival to the knickerbocker that he escape the local rhythm, periodically, or else be consumed by it.  And second, because the Cuban people, though deprived of anything resembling decent current information about the outside world, are remarkably intuitive, they seem to be mediums of the very spirit of History – and I here generalize unapologetically about a national characteristic that did not seem to be recessive in a single individual of my acquaintance.  I was kept informed of every last development in the summer’s geo-political soap- opera, not by way of the tycoon-owned cable news monopolies, but by the consistently reliable gossip on the side-streets of Havana. Gregarious street- urchins could tell me everything from the scores of the American baseball games the night before to the transgressions of our cinematic celebrities to the body- count of the most recent skirmish on the Tigris, all without the benefit of access to anything resembling journalism. The information seemed to be channeled directly into the skulls of these fellows from the very communications satellites in their towering orbits.

It seems that when the national information service is occupied with the pathetic confabulations of State propaganda—in Cuba’s case, the entertaining but surprisingly amateurish Granma—then the native gossip becomes downright empirical. Compare this circumstance to the presumably free and open American press, which inspires rumor, superstition, and ignorance in its constituency.

And of course the second cause of my perfect familiarity with foreign news, despite spending such lengths of time behind the Banana- Tree Curtain, is that nothing has happened that it was not perfectly obvious would happen, half a year ago.  American soldiers are mired in the Iraqi quag, the immense scale of the administration’s fibbing is slowly revealing itself—from its economic calamity to its childish forgeries of cassus belli—and the great Republic is hobbling along toward new achievements in idiocy, inanity, and reptilianism. If you have been so unfortunate to have spent the whole season inert, you would be frankly appalled at how little has actually happened in the last six months, all the while seeming to you like the great paroxysms of History unfolding. In fact the world I return to is near to exactly the world I expected to find—not that my expectations were too optimistic. I can only say the trembling liberals have shown great restraint and tact—or spinelessness—for not more frequently intoning “told you so” whenever the hawks back off another of their moral certainties and factual inventions.

I recall being informed by the news- urchins of Consulado Street when Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair stood side by side and insisted upon—not asked for—the world’s forgiveness for the forged weapons reports made public in January. A lean young Cubano named Julio, sporting a New York Yankees baseball cap performed in his best—though quite bad—British trill: “History will forgive us…” And he went on quoting Mr. Bush, hilariously hispanified—to use Mr. Bush’s own term— “We will be proved right … ” The joke here has nothing to do with the shameful spectacle of the world’s two most powerful men pulling out of their own mess, but of the language they have chosen to do it with.

The executives, in their embarrassed pleading, were quoting nobody less than El Jefe himself, Fidel Castro.

In 1952, while on trial for an armed insurgency against the Moncada Barracks in Eastern Cuba, Dr. Castro delivered his most famous passage of oratory—and this at the start of a rhetorical career that would burst all but the most oaken book-shelves—and concluded with this: “History will absolve me!” Imagine how Eisenhower’s America must have snickered at the guerrilla’s juvenile ideologism, and how it must have burned with indignation when, seven years later, a resurrected Dr. Castro fought off Colonel Batista, and then fended off a handful of American invasions attempting to undo Castro’s revolution. And how Cubans, at the time, must have been sure they were being graced by a true secular savior.

Well, by now their lesson is well-learned about self-proclaimed political prophets, and today the Cubans, all the wiser, are having their fun with George Bush’s less-than messianic speechifying.

At the Plaza de Armas in Havana, where books are sold under the shade of the ceiba trees, little volumes of the History Will Absolve Me speech, bound in miniature with red-pleather covers, are hawked for a dollar apiece. It is required reading for Cuban school-children, still Fidel’s proudest rhetoric; but I have been hard-pressed to discover an ordinary citizen reading it. (In fact, despite Cuba’s near-unanimous literacy, Cubans will hardly ever be seen reading anything. Nobody here sees much use in reading, or in any form of self-improvement, even if they are capable of it.  One’s lot in Cuban life, once determined, is permanently set. Outside of school and work, there is no opportunity for advancement. I doubt there is a more generally intelligent national population in the hemisphere, and it is a wonder to hear the depth of their defeatism, and to see this unsuspected after-shock of excessive State control.)

An uncloseted American, I am gently teased about the nervous cowboy residing, by force of democratic default, in my Casa Blanca—but only gently. No people is so attuned to the distance between a leader and a populace as the Cuban people, and none so sympathetic about an ideologue gone haywire at the top of a national administration. Every conversation on the topic ends with the same generous concession: “At least when your president is bad you only wait four years.”

Fidel is a national hero, and the majority of Cubans (who I have found not the least bit worried about speaking about such things, despite what accounts of fear and reprisal are so ubiquitous in the United States) only want to figure out the most expeditious method of removing him with honor. To this patient citizenry, that may just be waiting for Nature to impeach him. There is no will or energy or, for that matter, desire, to depose him by force; he is a stale George Washington in this country, the charismatic savior whose greatest fault is his terrible political timing. That, and his renewed mortal ruthlessness, now that he has been handed so many political aces by the clumsiness of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy.

Since the incidents of the Spring, in which a series of Cuban vessels were commandeered by political refugees aimed for the U.S., and the lot of them were returned to Cuba to face trial and execution (for Terrorism), Cuban-American relations have gone completely rotten. The sproutling exchange programs, the academic, athletic, and cultural excursions between the nations, all have been suspended by the American government. Even as American-held prisoners of war face non-civil trial and secret execution on the Eastern end of this very island, the U.S. simultaneously dared Cuba against using capital punishment on its inmates, threatening to sever what scanty relations exist between the countries, and pressuring the United Nations into new sanctions, should any inmate be treated like a Texan inmate.

First, the U.S. followed through on its threat and forbade even the most innocuous academic exchange with Cuba; then, Cuba sentenced the remaining hijackers (which had been handed over to the Cuban authorities by the United States Coast Guard) to life in prison, rather than death. But there has been no movement on the renewed American blockade. It is a complicated ordeal between two grown-up children behaving badly, and so far all Humanity has got from it is a good deal of death, a great deal of incarceration, and the ne- plus- ultra of poor diplomacy: mute voices and turned backs.

I had arrived in Cuba while official relations were still somewhat intact—though as I was travelling without the benefit of official credentials, I could not enjoy such legal protections. But now I must come home through a reinforced blockade, and this new miasma of ill-feeling. Though it might have been a two-and-a-half hour flight directly home to beloved Gotham, rather I must circumvent the law and a day and a half by landing in Cancun, Mexico; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and only then, finally, hoary Laguardia.

 

A DETOUR, GEOGRAPHICAL AND POLITICAL

From Jose Marti International Airport I am whisked West toward Mexico and the Gomorrah of Cancun. Arriving here, I wend into an interminable immigration line, a box of unlicensed and undeclared cigars growing larger within my satchel all the time. When I reach the Mexican immigration officer’s window, I begin the performance I have rehearsed since landing in Cuba—the casual delivery of my passport, and in my softest voice, I knowingly ask that the gentleman not stamp anything in it, this time around. This is my first ruse, ultimately intended to thwart the keen senses of America’s own immigration man—who, if he does not see evidence of my twice arriving in Mexico, will have no cause to inquire about my possibly un-American vacation destination.

I am studied through narrowed eyes, my passport threatened under the raised fist of the Mexican immigration-man, and my cunning scheme is shattered by a bolt of red ink. Thump. Your author has entered Mexico, officially, twice. The officer shakes his head and tells me that the next time, if I really want him to help me sneak across the border this way, to fold a twenty-dollar bill into my passport. He then welcomes me to Mexico and shoos me off into the airport.

After such an extended visit among the scarcity and deprivation of Cuba, Cancun appears quadrupled in its gaudy turpitude. The immense hotels, the overweight gringos within, the endless strip of resorts and franchised restaurants; and the quiet-running automobiles, the smooth-paved highway, the white, groomed beaches, the brightly-lit boulevard. The excess and the efficiency. Impossible, already, to believe Cuba was a real place, and not some Platonic cave of the pessimist’s mind hovering like a mirage over the Caribbean Sea. Yet my pockets are filled with evidence of it—flimsy tin pesos, paper money imprinted with fists and machine guns, hand-written bus tickets—and indeed, it is less than an hour beyond the gleaming, pyramid-shaped, waterfall-bedecked Cancun Hilton.

It is the good fortune of my journalistic reputation, and this newspaper’s bureau of foreign correspondence, that I was passing through Cancun not long before the meeting of the World Trade Organization would convene, with all the usual ravenous groupies clambering at the barricades, demanding scraps of clothing, locks of hair, and liberty and democracy from the international bureaucrats.

I am too honest a fellow to invent an account—though I am confident it would be a fine narrative—of my experiences during the Cancun convention and the concurrent protests, because I was not in fact there. I had already made my harrowing escape into the American States by the time the WTO meeting convened—assisted by a timely flight delay which endangered my connection in Pittsburgh, and gave me the benefit, upon entering American immigration, of running through the border with a smile and a red, white, and blue wave of Good-to-be-Home. I was en route to New York with my suspicious passport, intact, awkwardly stamped, and perfectly unscrutinized.

But as for the unfolding events in Cancun, while I do not pretend to give a first-hand analysis, I am not squeamish about summarizing and opinionating upon what has occurred since my brief stay there, based on my own impeccable instincts, my network of energetic informants, and my unfettered joy at speculation.

Geographically, Cancun is shaped like a suitcase-handle jutting out into the sea from the Mexican coast.  This handle is divided into several garish “zones,” by an act of the addled Chamber of Commerce that invented this place: the Hotel Zone, the Party Zone, and the Commercial Zone, among them. These zones are indistinguishable from one another, without any discernable boundaries between them; but for the sake of inebriated undergraduates looking for their Easter-tide lodgings, this simplifying cartography was deemed necessary. In any case, the central Hotel Zone was selected to host the World Trade Organization’s Summit on Agriculture and Trade, and so this strip of prefabricated, neon-trimmed faux-Aztec pleasure palaces was walled off from the rest of the city, chain-link fences raised, plastic and concrete barricades erected, police positions established, and protest-pens readied­–all so that the miserable WTO could conduct its business without the troublesome visions of the Consequences of Their Actions crashing through the plate windows of the Cancun Sheraton.

Still, at the commencement of the bartering, the Trade Organization found its complexion marred by a new faction in its ranks, the G-21.  (While this is the name – or the numeral -the British and the American press have settled on, in Canada and the third world it is being called the G-22, and in China, go figure, the press is all agog about the “G-20.”  Whatever its perfect multiple, this faction is comprised of that many  third-world countries who have finally pooled their strengths to oppose the North American, East Asian, and European interests that dominate the WTO – and here I’ll hang my hat on 21, as I am, last I checked, an American press-man, and too preoccupied to make my own count.)  At issue in Cancun was an international agreement on farm subsidiesa dry issue if ever there was one, but a ferociously debated matter, and outside the insulated borders of our own country, a pivotally divisive problem that well rends at the good-will of civilization itself.  And the G-21 had formed to gain some little leverage on this matter, recognizing their disproportionate like-mindedness on this issue, and the equal degree to which their citizens suffer under present conditions.

It seems second nature to Americans to expect his farmer-neighbor to be paid, whether he is a good farmer or not. The U.S. government—and Japan, South Korea, and the European Union—ensures farm solvency by paying domestic farmers handsome subsidies regardless of their farm’s production, enabling their crops to be sold cheaply, and their international dominance to remain unquestionable, fair weather and foul.  A farmer anyplace else on the globe must be twice as productive, with half as many resources, to begin to compete with his first-world peers. But even this tip of the scales is not favorable enough to the American economist, and the Trade Organization is in the process of ratifying a new international agricultural policy by 2005, which would set this favoritism in stone, and improve things still further for the Yankee powers.   Precisely, the Western powers would like to attach farm-subsidy agreements to international investment policies: we shall shave a few dollars off of the payola, if you renounce socialist agendae and protectionism.  The Cancun meetings were scheduled as an integral step in the WTO’s long-term agenda – placate the poor majority with lightweight agricultural agreements, counterbalanced by far more impactive social and economic treaties – including international dictates regarding how customs should be run, and how pleasant it is to sell off factories to multinational corporations.  Very few multinational corporations, it is worth noting, are based in Uganda or Uruguay. 

The G-21 formed to try and take some of the stuffing out of this preposterous nepotismmainly by proposing, at Cancun, that American and European farmers be put on an equal footing with farmers in their own lands, and that matters of agriculture should be negotiated separately from industrial, social, and economic issues. Some of the idealists dared to demand such a concession on the grounds of “justice” and “fairness,” while the more practical simply stated that the peace of the world depended on it.

Meanwhile, and as ever, the Summit was met by the hordes of anarchists, free-lovers, activists, union-men, egalitarians, coffee-drinkers, vegetarians, and enlightened visionaries who attempt to thwart every move of the WTO, charging it with secrecy, conspiracy, cronyism, racism, class-war, international fascism, and a host of other ideological crimes.

In the crowd at Cancun there was also a surprisingly large showing of actual farmers from the lesser nations involved in the dispute. As an indicator of the heat within this issue, one of these farmers, a South Korean fellow sporting a placard that read “WTO Kills Farmers,” climbed to the top of the barricade, shouting in the direction of the Conventioneers, and fatally stabbed himself.  I only ask the reader to calculate what might make them stab themselves to death in public; and then to take this matter a fraction as seriously as that, to begin their own transformation into a sympathetic human being.

When all was said and done, the Powers had heard out the rambunctious G-21, and then proposed a compromise treaty, which, remarkably, was just like the one they had already proposed.  The G-21 had asked to separate the issues, and the Powers put them back on the same sheet of paper; the G-21 had asked that farm subsidies be reduced, if they were necessarily going to be an international issue at all, and the Powers offered a figure still lower than the one they had arrived at Cancun prepared to put on the table. The twenty-one – or however many - delegates walked out of the meeting, and the Summit came to an unhappy conclusion, and early. Not only would the E.U. and the Americans not go home with any signatures on their Mephistophelean pact, but Cancun was going to get short- shrift of two days worth of the conventioneers’ martini-money. A dark day for capitalism.

The protestors saw this as a great victory for their cause; any time someone goes home in a huff from a WTO event, it indicates to the anarchists that they are a step closer to their goal. I beg a little more temperance on the matter. The formation of the G-21 is a monumental development in international affairs, one of what I expect to be many examples of the world’s poor majority realizing the power of their plurality over the richest nations.

But one must not always be too pleased when communications are severed, regardless of what sort of communications they are. The United States and the European Union will only be too pleased to write up their economic plans without the input of the nations of the world; indeed, without any sort of international guideline, the powers will go about bullying their arrangements with foreign countries one at a time, and do as much harm to the world’s poor and dusty as they would under their “compromise” treaty now moldering at the bottom of a Mexican wastebasket.  The walkout of the G-21 is best followed up by a return to negotiations, to utilize the little shift of momentum they have won at Cancun, to be sure no-one is mistaken that these rules must be written, and that they will only be written with every nation’s consent. The growing ranks of protestors ought to worry more if there are no more summits to harass, than if the summits are mired in happy stalemate.  The WTO is likely as sinister an organization as the world has seen, its whole purpose being to override the democratic decisions of the world’s local populations; but the delegates of the Twenty-one have got the right ideaget inside and manipulate the group’s power from there. Some of the protestors might think they have brought the WTO one step closer to dissolution; the smarter ones will know they may have instead brought it one step closer to enlightenment.

 

APPENDIX.

On the Suicide of a Farmer

 

Mr. Lee Kyung-hae has made quick work of his anonymity, in the act of disemboweling himself on the sun-shiney riot fences of Cancun.  He is the South Korean farmer who, transported by the passions of democratic action, committed suicide by knife while wearing a placard accusing the World Trade Organization of the crime of his murder.

            Everybody in the vicinity, apparently, was completely surprised by his act, but in mob rule, the bar is quickly raised for extreme modes of behavior.  Mr. Lee was promptly carried off to the hospital while his place was taken by another throng of protestors, heeding his last request: “Don’t worry about me, just struggle your hardest!”  It is not Et Tu, but then he was a farmer and not an emperor – and this is exactly his point.

            Mr. Lee, however, must be understood whole – in fact whether we want to do him justice or belittle him to make ourselves feel better, there is no other way but to know a few things further about him.  It turns out his fatal performance at Cancun was not an entirely unprecedented act, and this certainly not his first foray into politics; Mr. Lee had stabbed himself in the stomach at an international trade meeting in Geneva in 1990, and had tried a two-month hunger strike there in February, the last time he got together with the WTO.  Mr. Lee was rather hard on himself, and we may as well be happy for him that he has succeeded where he has been striving, so unfortunately, for so long.   And Mr. Lee is, if nothing else, a potent illustration of the failure of the international community to improve the conditions of others like him even after thirteen years of post-Cold War internationalism.  It is self-destructive extremism, surely – but we are well into the Age of the Self-Destructive Extremist, and we should be wise enough by now to look past what the extremist stands for, and look at what has made him this way to begin with.

Back to Other Writing