To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, the French newspaper, Le Monde, which is vastly more informative about the world than any English-language journal (and therefore loses a lot of money), had a four-page spread.
What was surprising about the tone of three of these four pages, written by Frenchmen, was their hostility to the Revolution. This was surprising because the newspaper is generally left-leaning, and for a very long time the French left felt a deep sympathy for Castro and his dictatorship. From Sartre to Madame Mitterand, prominent French personalities have raised shameful hosannas to the Cuban caudillo and all his works. Last Saturday, in the market of the rich and bourgeois little town near which I live in France, Che Guevara T-shirts were still for sale.
The special correspondent, Guillaume Carpentier, did not mince his words. Under a headline ‘Broken down roads and crumbling facads, empty markets, closed cinemas and bookshops: fifty years after the triumphal entry of the barbudos into the most beautiful city in Latin America,disillusion reigns in Havana,’ he writes:
Practically all cinemas have shut down. Of the 135 cinemas that Havana had – more than Paris or New York – no more than 20 remain open. With nationalisation, they closed one by one, for lack of maintenance, films or electricity... Havana, Cubans complain, is a cemetery of cinemas. It is also a cemetery of bookshops, markets, shops... In short, Cuba is a cemetery of hopes.
All that’s left for Cubans, says the correspondent, is black humour, nourished by rumours, always denied, of Castro’s death. A man called Ernesto, named after Guevara by his mother who greatly admired the unwashed comandante, told the correspondent that ‘Castro is held up by props, like all the buildings in old Havana.’
Ernest hated Guevara and the official adulation of which he is the object. ‘I’ve lost fifty years of my life thanks to this regime, and my engineer’s salary gives me enough to eat for ten days a month.’
An old sympathiser with the Revolution, a woman called Martha, complains about how a foreign-currency store has opened on the site of the Woolworth Ten-Cent store where she worked before the Revolution. She complains that the prices in the foreign currency store (open only to those who receive remittances from abroad) are twice to four times those in the United States.
‘It’s armed robbery,’ she said. ‘It’s even more astonishing that the store should be on the site of the Ten Cent store, whose philosophy was to lower the prices as much as possible for the working classes, and where everything was available.’ And then, demonstrating how even relatively simple ideas do not necessarily penetrate people’s minds even after fifty years of bitter experience, she adds that she does not understand why a socialist enterprise should sell much dearer than a capitalist one.
A long article by Alain Abellard entitled "The Birth of a Myth" describes the mendacity of Castroite historiography. He does not deny that Castro was a most remarkable man: his exploits were among the most remarkable of the Twentieth Century. But remarkable and good are different qualities. Abellard points out that Cuba had a literacy rate of 80 per cent in 1959, its per capita income in 1953 was more or less that of Italy’s (and the 22nd in rank in the whole world), that Italians and Spaniards still emigrated to it in search of a better life, its health system was the second best in Latin America, it had the third largest economy in Latin America, it produced 80 per cent of its food (now it is only 20 per cent, and that at a reduced level of consumption), it was far less given over to prostitution than it is now, and that Cubans now say ‘Everything is rationed, except the police and disillusion.’
When he entered Havana on 8th January, 1959, Castro could not have imagined for a single moment the extent to which the facades of this marvellous city, built from 1513 onwards by the Spanish, and elaborated over four centuries, were going to become, after decades of tropical socialism, a temple of disrepair, an open air museum of ruins.
From the very first, the author states, Castro deceived his followers and lied his way to absolute power. Many of his close associates learnt this to their cost. Camilo Cienfuegos disappeared in ysterious circumstances; Huber Matos spent twenty years in prison in appalling conditions; Carlos Franqui fled. Even the dreadful Ernesto Guevara was more useful to Castro dead than alive.
Now of course none of this is new: it is very old news indeed. What is new is the frankness with which it is all acknowledged. It seems that there is a natural history of acknowledgement by western intellectuals of the horrors of socialist revolutions: it takes about half a century for the penny to drop.
Americans, however, will no doubt take patriotic pride in the rearguard action fought in the pages of Le Monde by the former chief of the American mission in Cuba, and now professor of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University, Wayne Smith. Interviewed by the newspaper, he was asked about human rights abuses in Cuba. The Cuban regime – he said – is not democratic. It is an authoritarian regime... But the policy of the United States hasn’t helped. Each time Washington threatens the Cuban Revolution, the authorities react against opponents by accusing them of being American agents.
Let us pass over the designation ‘authoritarian,’ when what the professor meant, or ought to have meant, was ‘totalitarian.’ What he seems to be implying is that, if only the Americans had been friendly towards Cuba, Castro would be a freedom-loving constitutionalist. If Cubans are now denied the most elementary of freedoms, the responsibility is shared between the Cuban and American governments. This is so preposterous (and, incidentally morally grandiose and deeply imperialistic, in that it seems to imply that not a sparrow falls but that our father in Washington is behind its death) that refutation is a waste of words.
That a man can know as much as the professor and yet understand so little is perhaps a tribute to the complexity of the human psyche. Asked how the Cuban Revolution became communist, he answered:
Fidel Castro wasn’t a communist when he arrived in power. He had no intention of aligning himself with the Soviet Union. The turning point was the Bay of Pigs, in April, 1961. To defend himself from American armed action, he turned to the Soviet Union. While the invasion was taking place... he made a speech announcing ‘the socialist revolution.’
Let me here quote a phrase from the special correspondent’s article. ‘With the nationalisation in 1960 of all commercial, industrial and cultural activities...’
Let me quote also from Alain Abellard’s article:
The only attitude that Fidel Castro had for certain [when he came to power] ... was his anti-Americanism. In a letter of 6 June, 1958, written from the Sierra Maestra, Fidel Castro expressed himself clearly: ‘When this war is finished, a much longer and more important war will begin: that which I am going to lead against the North Americans. I am sure that that is my true destiny.’
In summary, Castro wanted nationalisation and he wanted war with America. But, for Professor Smith, the primary blame for Cuba’s half century of penury and totalitarian mendacity lies with America. Can imperialism go further?