Thour’t such a Master-piece in Evil,
That I’ll be Man, and you be Devil;
Since one that can expound so well,
Deserves the Government of Hell.
- Samuel Butler,
Speak Truth, and Shame the Devil in a Dialogue Between his Cloven-footed Highness, of Sulphurious Memory, and an Occcasional Conformist 1708
Amid all the epic, disconcerting triumphalism marking another charismatic leader’s end, the death of Osama and now his next in command, can we take a moment to consider how satisfying it is to believe evil lives in one entity? What an ordered world that would be. If only things worked that way. But they don’t. Take Cuba, among many other countries. I just came back from my first trip there, a long two-month visit, complete with husband and young daughters.
On the island, people still revel in the fall of another charismatic leader, the dictator Batista back in 1959, Batista who held sizable shares in many of his island’s most profitable ventures, who let people die of starvation. The man was caught, as the revolution would put it, like a rat (the exact rhetoric some news organs used here about the capture of Osama) and thus the Cuban revolution began, on the back of Batista’s excesses.
While it is comforting in one sense, that at least some of our U.S. college students found it worthwhile to mobilize an enthusiastic cheer at Bin Laden’s demise, comforting to see them text and gather for a purpose beyond a rave in this iMe era, it might be salutary to go a bit medieval on the question and consider that devil again: how well he can quote scripture for his own purpose.
There we were, living in Havana up until about a month ago. The government official talked with vigor, his shoulders so wracked with excitement that every now and then his shoulders went into an unseemly roll, as if he were trying to free himself from a noose. Next to him, his young protégé nodded at every half-beat. The man’s voice ascended a half-octave as he went into the patriotic refrain I had heard everywhere. “In Cuba not a single person goes hungry! Birth to old age, everyone gets a free education. You walk freely here, without fear, at night with your children. No worries! We have no homeless like you in America. No kids toting guns to school like in your Texas or Florida! No drug-abuse problem! Need a heart operation, here you get it tomorrow from a top-notch surgeon and pay not a cent. Our children get top education in the arts – dance, theater, painting – and don’t need to come from your American sort of elite class. Here, blacks and whites work together! You see? They play together.”
All this had its portion of truth, but in different lights, the profile of truth can look strikingly different: the charismatic leader reduced to an image of a hunched figure holding his remote up at a porn video, or, as in Batista’s case, the high-living Mafioso philanthropist reduced to scorn. For weeks I had been strung along by my friendly Cuban propagandist: I needed an official license from him and he needed information from me. I would come to see both him and his protégé in their spacious office, festooned with fearsome antinuclear posters as well as diatribes against America and its treatment of the cinco heroes, the five Cubans currently imprisoned in the U.S. after a mistrial for their counterespionage work, investigating anti-Castro and potentially CIA-sponsored terrorism in Cuba. The man’s shoulders would shiver, his jaw locked as if the vise of propaganda kept him pressured. Once he went on an aria about Fidel, in the mountains, forced to drink his own urine, a brave leader, and I swear that I entered a hypnotic state, reduced to some homunculus circa 1958, filled with admiration for the uniqueness of Fidel, feeling any ideas I might have shrunk to the pinprick of admiring light in my government man’s eye.
Never mind the contradictions inherent in Fidel’s uniqueness, the singularity a sort of spit in the face of socialism’s vaunted equality. My government man, most of the time, did not go on such arias, instead quizzing me on my itinerary, my background, my literary interests, my husband’s profession, my children, my beliefs, and then would say: next week we can get you access to the people with whom you’d like to speak! Manana, siempre manana.
Because I had come to Cuba for two months to research a book without having gone the official Cuban route, it turned out some of the research I had done and planned to do more of was illegal On a tourist visa, I could not talk to the very people to whom I had come hoping to speak. Several Olympic champions told me as much regretfully, saying, essentially, let me know when you get clearance from the top. The official fear, as it was explained to me, seemed to be that I was an American novelist only as a cover, when really I was a sports scout coming to steal athletic talent. (When, may I ask, has being a fiction writer been a plausible alias for any spy apart from Ivy League graduates working for the CIA in Paris of the 1950s?) But it didn’t matter: we were all little mice peeping at each other within the vast state labyrinth. And, in my case, not even the national commissioner of sports, who set a friendly professor out to help and also find out about me, could help.
And that said, our family felt embraced by Cuba and its people. The majority showed the island’s famous warmth, shaking their heads over the foibles of government. Only once during our two months there did I get an almost autonomic, dinosaur-sighting-prey response from someone learning I was America, exhaling: “American? El enemigo!” But more often people would cite another common indigenous proverb: we are people, not governments, correcto?
That said, as many would then tell me, the Americans had sponsored, on the island, a bomb in a hotel, a kindergarten, and a department store if you didn’t go ahead and also count the CIA’s 1970s deliberate dengue infestation or, more recently this year’s Alan Gross case, which left an American imprisoned for the next fifteen years for the crime of pirate Internet distribution.
From the American terrorism on their island, the people had suffered; how easy it was, at least if one took a lead from Fidel’s reflections in the Communist-party newspaper, to locate that one organized source of evil. How easy to call the source of all evil America.
When, in March, Khaddafi was put on the defensive, Fidel started opining in rhetorical bursts about comrade Khaddafi. There the poor comrade was, fighting in the trenches alongside his people. If Fidel’s declamations were disjointed, one still had to admire a man – “of such vision!” as my propagandist liked reminding me -- who had been ruling a country for 53 YEARS OF REVOLUTION as the unTrotstkyist, oxymoronic banners everywhere proclaimed.
According to Fidel’s words, that dictator Khaddafi was valiant against the evil of America, while America – with Obama just its polite administrator, the face of the military-industrial complex -- was coming after an idealistic man, while loving his power in rallying other nations to play moral policemen. Never mind, for the moment, Cuba’s past assistance of the Angola revolution, a Che-inspired burst of transnational solidarity. Because while Libya burned, America securely occupied the magnetic pole of evil, and if dissent with this view struggled up through the broken sidewalks of Havana, it was hardly visible.
Only when we got back to America and an unmonitored Internet did we learn about some of the back-and-forth that had accompanied the U.S. entry into action against Libya: who would’ve thought Obama consulted with so many before entering the fray?
“Next week we’ll see if we can do something,” the government man continued to say.
As it happened we were living in an apartment that we didn’t know was illegal, owned by what in America we would call a slumlord, a man who probably ran a side-business in the shipment of medications. Every day I went out, without soliciting it, someone would end up pressing on me a furtive resumé, licensed English teacher, expert in tourism industry, trying to find some kind of foothold that did not depend on a queue of relatives waiting for one Miami uncle or some Tampa aunt to bring over yet another relative, reversing Elían’s famous return. As a family, we would find ourselves exhausted by the weeklong water shortages, the sewage spilling out over our street, the lack of food, or even the random details: the confided desperation of a career waiter for just one pair of wingtips without holes.
Much of Cuba seems to live, before noon and after, on an illusory high, rum, sugar, and caffeine in constant alternation on the national breath. Much of each day, for every Cuban, goes into procurement or strategy, since the average monthly salary is twenty-six dollars, hardly enough to finesse the complex, unmoored two-tier currency. As you might expect, the index of unhappiness is high, especially given the counterrevolutionary presence of wealthy Cubans who receive funds from abroad, those in designer clothes waltzing in and out of tourist markets and nightclubs, or the more entrepreneurial Cubans, who must count as one of its most abundant current national exports: the prostitutes, mostly mulatta, who understand that latching onto a foreigner, no matter how neckless, aged, or metaphysically challenged, no matter whether they find the hand of a Swiss, Italian, or American man to creep over their spangled jeans, will form the best strategy for escape from the grind of poverty.
To offset the dissatisfaction, propaganda billboards everywhere proclaim America’s malfeasance: our blockade and embargo are the twin evils that continue to impoverish the people. Never mind that what we saw suggested that the deprivation on the ground stems from a variety of causes, and perhaps, at its base, from the calcification of revolutionary rhetoric and its binary politics.
It is hard, in Cuba, as a foreigner to deal with a constant deployment of charm: you must look long and hard to find true friends. My husband joked that only Cubans seemed to know that his real name was Taxi Amigo?, the call he heard, in certain zones yet without cease from all the desperate hard-working taxi drivers who hounded him.
One evening, as on many evenings, I was at the giant Jose Marti track, a run-down older civic project on the Malecon, the seawall boulevard that barely keeps the ocean waves from the sidewalk, the main artery toward Old Havana, which most Americans know from images in Ry Cooder’s film (and famous soundtrack) Buena Vista Social Club. Although there are many sites of beauty in Havana – too many to list here – this track just before sunset became one of my favorite memories of the city. Here, a mass of denizens shed daily concerns to apply themselves, with the chattiness of the island’s parrots, to interesting configurations of Soviet-style calisthenics, but always together. One young lawyer, who worked in the Old City in some dry paper-pushing capacity, confided in me that all he wanted to do was work abroad: he had some interest in international environmental law, he wanted to do something to rectify the world’s climate problems – with a broad wave of his hand out at the immensity of the ocean –but he would never be able to leave. First, it was too expensive to pay for one of what could be many fruitless interviews at the American embassy. Secondly, he was being held in a kind of suspended adolescence, a career man still living with his parents because he could not afford to have his own place, and he lacked the kind of resourcefulness, as he ruefully admitted, that he might have had in a situation which had required a bit more personal enterprise. How painful it was to see his ache, looking out at the beauty of the ocean: “I would like to see anything but this,” he said, waving at the track where all the jolly exercisers performed their quadrilateral moves. He was a bird gifted with the sight to see his own cage.
So to circle back as if this journey were another raft around the island: what does the Cuban situation have to do with the demise of Bin Laden and its aftermath in Pakistan? Apart from that charismatic leader’s too-gruesome-to-be-seen corpse, a shadow corpse remains: the salutary reminder that what happens in the myriad interactions of a populace, the human facts on the ground, at the athletic field and on the bus and in the living room, the tension living in the faces of people when they believe they are unseen, are what truly count, not who can kill whom and how fast. The king is dead, long live the king, while the clarion call of a new era distorts itself quickly, being often the exact voice to lead us astray.
Causes Edie Meidav Supports
Heifer International, Kiva, 826 Valencia