The Tyrant is Dying. No Conga Lines, Please
by Carlos Eire
Carlos Eire is the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History at Yale University. Eire’s memoir of his childhood in Cuba, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, won the 2003 National Book Award for nonfiction. So it was not unusual that The New York Times op-ed page should come calling when Castro was hospitalized several weeks ago. What was unusual was that the Times evidently had very specific ideas about what this illustrious writer should tell readers.
News of Fidel’s brush with death brought the news media to my door, literally and figuratively. The journalists were not alone. Even long-lost friends suddenly surfaced, eager to hear what I had to say about this turn of events.Among those who came knocking, was the New York Times, asking if I would like to write an Op-Ed piece. It was an odd request. Out of all of the things that a Cuban exile might be asked to comment upon, such as the ailing Maximum Leader’s disdain for human rights, or the total ruin of the Cuban economy, I was asked to pass judgement on those fellow countrymen down in Little Havana who were celebrating Fidel’s demise by dancing in the streets.
The way the essay was pitched to me could not have been more offensive, or more revealing of deep-seated prejudices. “I can’t help but wonder if this is appropriate,” said the newspaper editor about the dancing in the streets, “since many of them were likely allowed to leave Cuba in the early 60’s with Castro’s blessing.” The ignorance and insensitivity revealed in that pitch was so staggering and appalling-so much in the same league as the Holocaust deniers or the clueless socialites in William Hamilton’s cartoons- that it caught me off guard.
But that was not all. The editor wanted to know what I would say, a priori.
My opinion would have to be approved before I would be allowed to voice it.
All I could do is think of the word used most often in HBO’s Deadwood.
Given the bigotry already revealed in the editor’s pitch I knew that anything I could say would probably be rejected, but I made the effort anyway, much like a man who is given a chance to duck by a firing squad.
“Yes, ” I replied. “The celebrations in Miami would make a good subject, especially because those who are out on the street are definitely not from the first refugee wave of the 1960’s, as you suggest. The celebrants I’ve seen on television are all genuine children of the revolution, much younger folk who have arrived in the 80’s, 90’s, and the present decade. I can definitely write about the celebrations.”
Once again, the editor pressed me to be more specific about what I would say.
Puzzling over what might be the best way to both confirm and deny the editor’s bias, I offered to sum up Fidel as the ultimate Machieavellian prince. I summed up my pitch as follows: “Above all, Fidel has mastered three Machiavellian princely qualities: the art of being loved and feared simultaneously, the art of seeming pious and generous while being ruthlessly cruel, and the art of having no shadow, that is, the art of having no viable successor.
In brief, I will strive to analyze why it is that some people can hate the Machiavellian ruler with a passion and dance in the streets when illness befalls him, while others look down upon the celebrants as ungrateful, selfish, insensitive oafs.”
As I expected, a terse, but vaguely worded rejection quickly followed: “we’re afraid that this approach is not quite right,” said the Times.
Once again, I was ambushed by the prejudice that has dogged me in exile for four decades and tempted me to change my name to Thurston Howell III or Jacques Clouseau, or Thor Heyerdahl or any other moniker that would not peg me as a Cuban or a Hispanic.
The worst thing about being a Cuban exile, at least for me, is having to field proposals such as that pitched at me by the New York Times, which display utter disdain for us exiles. Why is it, I ask myself, that any editor at the Times should look down her nose at Cuban exiles who rejoice at Fidel’s demise, and then look for some Cuban who will confirm her bigotry?
Why should any well-educated North American utter a contemptuous remark reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake” to me, hoping that I will agree with such inane and contemptible prejudice? Does she not know that every freedom she enjoys in the United States is illegal in Cuba? Does she not know that all those Cubans on Calle Ocho are jumping for joy at the thought their country might be able to enjoy the same freedoms she takes for granted? Does she care? Even worse, why is it that my opinion should have to pass some test before it is expressed?
How can this be?
Unfortunately, the answer to all my questions is brutally simple. When it comes to Cuba, bigotry is still acceptable in the highest circles. An insidious kind of prejudice still underlies the thinking of many well-educated North Americans when it comes to Cuba, a prejudice that allows otherwise reasonable people to accept or even praise political and social repression of the worst sort from any third world leader who pays lip service to egalitarian goals.
And the foundation on which this bigotry rests is at bottom a racist one: there are still far too many comfortably affluent First World people who judge all Third World people as inferior beings who must play by different rules.
This is why Fidel not only escapes the kind of censure other dictators normally receive, but continues to be revered, despite the fact that he has ruined Cuba, driven twenty percent of the population into exile and imprisoned, tortured, and executed thousands more people than his Chilean counterpart Augusto Pinochet ever did. The mere fact that he boasts of free education and health care for his dark-skinned people makes him a great leader.
Never mind the fact that no one who praises him in the First World would be willing to live under his rule.
Well, call me a lout, then, and throw in cretin too, for I will never accept my subaltern status as third-worlder. Never will I accept it as a given that I and all other Cubans really need “visionary” despots who abolish private property, stifle free speech, jail all dissenters, and “allow” us ungrateful malcontents to leave our homeland without a penny in our pockets. Never will I accept the tens of thousands of my fellow Cubans who have been imprisoned, tortured, and executed as a fair exchange for an inept and repressive regime that guarantees free education and health care only to those who obey a Maximum Leader.
As my landsmann Desi Arnaz used to say, I have some esplainin’ to do. But it is not at all of the sort that the Times editor expected from me. The only thing wrong with the celebrations in Miami, as I see it, is that they were premature. When Cuba is finally rid of the Castro brothers I won’t be celebrating in public, since I live in a small New England town where all displays of emotion are inappropriate. But I will most certainly cut loose with selfish abandon in the privacy of my own home and place white roses on my mother’s grave, as I weep for joy and pray for Fidel’s immortal soul.
Most definitely. Sí, señor. You bet. We Cubans,can’t help but be gauche. Bring out those conga drums! I need to practice for the big day that lies ahead.