Leopoldo

Tuesday evening brought what may be promising news from Venezuela. The National Assembly, which since January 6 has been dominated by the anti-chavista opposition, passed a law ordering the release of political prisoners. President Maduro vowed to veto. We’ll see what happens. We’ll have to keep an eye on the Venezuelan media, because outlets like the New York Times and CNN can’t always be relied on to pay attention to such developments.

It’s not as if the international news media have entirely ignored what’s been going on in the Bolivarian Republic, but it does seem to us that, with few exceptions, they’ve failed to recognize just how remarkable the current situation is in that tortured country.

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Hugo Chávez

This failure, if that’s the right word, is not entirely a puzzlement, of course, given that many of the aforementioned media were, not so very long ago, eager stooges and vociferous cheerleaders for Hugo Chávez, the father of Venezuelan socialism, otherwise known as chavismo. Chávez, with his brazen and unapologetic anti-Americanism, embodied the hopes of certain Americans and Europeans for a smashingly successful socialist Latin America, led by the example of the fearless Hugo and wonderfully free of the baleful influence of the nefarious norteamericanos.

Instead, Venezuela has turned out to be an extraordinary dramatic – indeed tragic – textbook example of the sheer folly of socialism. The rapidity with which the country’s economy has collapsed, and the terrifying particulars of that collapse, provide – for those too young to remember the Soviet Union and too foolish to recognize that the Castros’ Cuba is not a charming vintage-auto museum or 24/7 salsa party but a well-nigh unlivable everyday reality for 11 million people – a vivid picture of the disaster that is Communism.

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Leopoldo López in prison

That in itself is dramatic enough. But add to that the singular case of Leopoldo López. The chavista regime’s most eloquent critic, the opposition’s most charismatic leader, he has been in prison for over two years now, for no other reason than that he is – quite obviously – by far the most potent threat to the power of Chávez’s hapless, fatuous successor, Nicolás Maduro. López is so manifestly everything that Maduro is not, so completely the Gallant to his Goofus, that it seems almost too tidy a scenario; if this were a film script, the producer would almost certainly order the writer to make the villain at least somewhat less buffoonish and corrupt and the hero somewhat less noble and courageous.

Venezuelan acting President Nicolas Maduro raises his fist during a campaign rally in San Carlos, Cojedes State, on April 4, 2013. The presidential campaign to replace Venezuela's Hugo Chavez formally kicked off Tuesday, with Maduro -- Chavez's hand-picked successor -- battling opposition leader Henrique Capriles for the forthcoming April 14 vote. AFP PHOTO / JUAN BARRETOJUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
Nicolás Maduro

But on rare occasions, reality is simply better than fiction – and this is, quite simply, one of those times. López – a collateral descendant of Simón Bolívar, the George Washington of South America – studied economics and government at Kenyon College in Ohio and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Elected mayor of Chacao, one of the five administrative districts of Caravas, by a slim margin in 2000, he was re-elected four years later with 81% of the vote.

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With his wife, Lilian Tintori

The glowing success of his mayoral tenure and the thoroughgoing spotlessness of his record were attested to by Transparency International, which gave him its first-prize award in 2007 and again in 2008 for running his country’s most honest and efficient city government. In 2008, he came in third in the World Mayors contest for the planet’s best mayors. He’s a remarkable, almost incredible combination: a learned student of economics and statecraft, a staunch, eloquent defender of human liberty, a highly competent and incorruptible administrator, and an inspired, practical-minded reformer of local government on every level.

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Just a reminder of those empty Venezuelan grocery shelves…

Since his unjust arrest, he has also proven to be a man of extraordinary bravery. Pretty much every major international human-rights group has declared him a political prisoner and called for his immediate and unconditional release. So have the New York Times and Washington Post. Polls show that if he were to run for president today, he would win easily. It’s clear that the main reason he remains behind bars is that Venezuela’s current leader, a grotesquely inept, ill-educated, and economically illiterate former bus driver, knows that Leopoldo is everything he isn’t and that more and more of the Venezuelan people – who are suffering increasingly from the tragic everyday consequences of chavismo – realize that Leopoldo is exactly what they need to pull their country out of its hole.

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…and ridiculously long lines to get into those grocery stores

The present state of affairs, in short, could scarcely be more striking: Venezuela has what may well be the worst government on earth right now, and López, if chosen to replace Maduro, would, upon his installation, immediately become one of the world’s most thoughtful, ethical, and skillful heads of government. Every day that he continues to languish in prison is a lost day for the Venezuelan people, who have waited long enough for rescue. Let’s hope they’re able to finally spring him from the joint – and turn the grim winter of Venezuela’s discontent into a Venezuelan spring.  

Natalie Morales, foe of Tinseltown stooges

Natalie Morales is a 31-year-old Cuban-American actress, writer, and filmmaker. Born in the Miami suburb of Kendall, she’s appeared in such movies as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and in such TV series as CSI Miami, Girls, and Parks and Recreation. She’s obviously an attractive young woman and a gifted actress. But recently she showed that she’s also no dummy. In an absolutely terrific and powerfully written essay, she provided a definitive response to the useful stoogery that has spiked among bien pensant Americans in the face of the new rapprochement between Washington and Havana. It’s such a splendid and authentically felt piece of writing that the best tribute we can pay to it is to quote from it at length and to bow before its intelligent, gutsy, and forthright author.

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Natalie Morales

In the piece, entitled “Please Stop Saying You Want to Go to Cuba Before It’s Ruined,” Morales recalled that a week earlier, she’d dropped off “a bag of stuff” at the house of a friend. The friend’s husband was about to visit Havana and had agreed to deliver the “stuff” to Morales’s relatives on the island prison.

What “stuff” was Morales sending to her family? Well, the list began with “two packages of Cuban coffee.” Morales acknowledged the apparent absurdity: “Yes, that’s right: I’m sending Cuban coffee to Cuba.” Why? Because “Cuban coffee is too expensive for the average Cuban to buy in Cuba. So they make do – Cubans always make do – reusing old coffee or grinding in some split peas if they have to get their fix. I, on the other hand, buy it for three bucks at Target.”

A young Cuban man rides a bicycle in front of the huge apartment blocks in Alamar, a public housing periphery of Havana, Cuba, 9 February 2011. The Cuban economic transformation (after the revolution in 1959) has changed the housing status in Cuba from a consumer commodity into a social right. In 1970s, to overcome the serious housing shortage, the Cuban state took over the Soviet Union concept of social housing. Using prefabricated panel factories, donated to Cuba by Soviets, huge public housing complexes have risen in the outskirts of Cuban towns. Although these mass housing settlements provided habitation to many families, they often lack infrastructure, culture, shops, services and well-maintained public spaces. Many local residents have no feeling of belonging and inspite of living on a tropical island, they claim to be “living in Siberia”.Every month or so, Morales went on to explain, she and her family in the U.S. send what we might call CARE packages to family members still living on the island. There’s money, of course. And clothes, shoes, food. Morales’s family, she wrote, “cannot survive without our help. For many Cuban-American families all over the States, this is just a regular part of life, another bill to pay each month.”

After all these decades, this appalling situation should be common knowledge among educated Americans. Yet at dinner parties and Hollywood shindigs and press interviews (or, as she puts it, “pretty much any situation where someone who considers themselves ‘cultured’ finds out I’m Cuban”), she always has to deal with the same inane gushing over the island – “as if the country itself were somehow a sexy woman or delicious food” (bingo!) – and the same declaration that: “I have to go there before it’s ruined!”

alamar4She tries to be polite to such people, “because I am aware that, oftentimes, people who think they are very thoughtful are the least thoughtful.” (Yep.) But the truth must be honored.

So depending on the situation (and how dumb I would like to make that person feel), I will say some version of this: “What exactly do you think will ruin Cuba? Running water? Available food? Freedom of speech? Uncontrolled media and Internet? Access to proper healthcare? You want to go to Cuba before the buildings get repaired? Before people can actually live off their wages? Or before the oppressive Communist regime is someday overthrown? Make sure you hurry and go observe these human beings in the time bubble that was created especially for you so that you could post a #nofilter photo of it on Instagram.”

havana4In her piece, Morales acknowledged that “part of me gets it.” After all,

I appreciate good art direction just as much as anyone else, and I see that Cuba looks like a beautifully destroyed photo op. But it’s not your photo op. The old cars are not kitschy; they are not a choice. It’s all they have. The old buildings are not preserved; their balconies are falling and killing people all the time. The very, very young girls prostituting themselves are not doing it because they can’t get enough of old Canadian men, but because it pays more than being a doctor does.

havana1And speaking of Cuban health care, that magnificent system that has been praised countless times in the West:

Hospitals for regular Cuban citizens are not what Michael Moore showed you in Sicko. (That was a Communist hospital for members of the Party and for tourists, and I, for one, think Moore fell for their North Korea–like propaganda show pretty hard.) There are no janitors in the hospitals because it pays more money to steal janitorial supplies and sell them on the street than it does to actually have a job there. Therefore, the halls and rooms are covered in blood, urine, and feces, and you need to bring your own sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, and mattresses when you are admitted. Doctors have to reuse needles on patients. My mom’s aunt had a stroke and the doctor’s course of treatment was to “put her feet up and let the blood rush back to her head.” That was it. And this is in Havana, the big city. I can’t be sure, but I’d imagine things there are a lot better than they are in more remote parts of the country.

havananowMorales concluded her piece by encouraging readers to visit Cuba if that’s what they want to do. But, she added:

Be aware of what’s going on there. Try, if you can, to stay in people’s homes—casas particulares—instead of hotels. They’ll take much better care of you, the food will be much better, and you’ll be putting a little less money into Castro’s tourism pocket. When you go, ask the people to tell you what’s really going on…not the version they’re supposed to tell you. Things are changing in Cuba, and maybe instead of seeing it before the change, you can actually be a part of the change for the better. Also, for God’s sake, please don’t wear a fucking Che t-shirt.

Brava.

Chris Cuomo: not exactly a descamisado

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CNN reporter Chris Cuomo

During the next couple of days, in the wake of President Obama’s highly touted sojourn in Cuba, we’re going to make a brief return visit to that long-suffering island – and to the useful stoogery of those in the West who now dread the prospect of a Cuban populace living in freedom and prosperity. Or who, at the very least, in the name of some perverse concept of sensitivity, subtlety, and/or solidarity, refuse to explicitly acknowledge the black-and-white distinction between liberty and tyranny.

Take CNN reporter Chris Cuomo. He’s the son of late New York governor Mario Cuomo and the brother of the Empire State’s current honcho, Andrew Cuomo. On March 21, Cuomo (the reporter) appeared briefly on a CNN morning program, New Day. He was not in the TV studio but out in the Havana sunshine, covering the presidential visit. Asked by the in-studio hosts about the shirt he was wearing, Cuomo announced, with palpable delight, if not outright pride, that it was a Cuban guayabera, presented to his father many years ago by Fidel Castro.

What Cuomo then went on to say was rather puzzling. Having explained the shirt’s provenance – which was obviously the whole point of wearing it – Cuomo hastened to deny that the garment meant anything, either to himself or his father, “because it came from Fidel Castro necessarily.” No, he insisted, it was important “because it marked conversations going on decades ago that were the same as those today.”

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Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo

Huh? Cuomo explained, or pretended to:

The concern was the freedom of the people. What is the point of this communist regime if it is not to truly make everyone equal — not at the lowest level; not by demoralizing everyone; but lifting everyone up? My father, generations of politicians, have been fighting this. So, I wear this shirt as a reminder of that, and of my pop.

(FILES) In this 04 September1999 file photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro discusses his request to the president of the International Olympic Committee in Havana for an investigation into the treatment of certain Cuban atheletes. Castro said the communist nation is not afraid of dialogue with the United States -- and not interested in continued confrontation with its powerful neighbor. The comments came as a group of US lawmakers visited Cuba this weekend to try to end nearly half a century of mutual distrust and amid reports that President Barack Obama was planning to ease economic sanctions on the island, including travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans. "We're not afraid to talk with the United States. We also don't need confrontation to exist, like some fools like to think," Castro, 82, said in an article on the Cubadebate website on April 5, 2009. AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE /FILES (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images) Original Filename: Was672139.jpg
Fidel Castro

What exactly was Cuomo trying to say there? He certainly wasn’t serving up a categorical condemnation of Communism. Such a condemnation would have been easy to put into clear, unmistakable words. No, what Cuomo was giving us was something that came off as incredibly murky. On the one hand, he was affirming the importance of freedom and equality. On the other hand, it sure sounded as if he was suggesting that Communism, when properly implemented, might actually have the capacity to provide freedom, engineer equality, boost morale, and lift everyone up.

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo stands during a news conference following a bi-state meeting on regional security and preparedness in New York, September 15, 2014. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS DISASTER HEADSHOT) - RTR46CAA
New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

We may be reading him wrong. But if we are, it’s his fault – because he seemed to be deliberately out to obfuscate. Perhaps the fairest thing to say is that he was loath to denounce Communism unreservedly – but, at the same time, quite understandably disinclined to praise it too full-throatedly.

It seems fair, in any event, to say this: if he did mean to put down Communism, doing so while wearing a shirt presented to his dad by a Communist dictator sent exactly the wrong signal.

We’d have loved to see him douse the camisa in gasoline and set fire to it: that would have made the right point and done it beautifully. But of course who would ever expect any member of the mainstream U.S. news media to do anything so gauche?

It’s the totalitarianism, stupid

The New York Times hasn’t always been a totally loyal participant in the struggle against totalitarianism – note that our poster boy for useful stoogery is the Times‘s own shameless apologist for Stalinism, Walter Duranty – but now and then it comes through. It certainly did so on March 26, when it ran a splendid op-ed, entitled “Please Cancel Your Vacation to North Korea,” by Marie Myung-ok Lee.

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Otto Warmbier

Lee, who teaches writing at Columbia University, began by referring to the case of Otto Warmbier, which we’ve already discussed here. Warmbier, it will be remembered, is the American college student whose ill-advised New Year’s vacation in Pyongyang turned into a nightmare after he was caught on closed-circuit camera taking a propaganda sign off of a wall in the hotel where he was staying. This innocent attempt to snag a souvenir resulted in a 15-year sentence at hard labor in a North Korean prison.

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Marie Myung-ok Lee

“In photographs from the trial,” writes Lee, Warmbier “seemed utterly shocked that he was being prosecuted.” Lee adds: “I was not shocked.”

The reason? Lee’s parents fled North Korea in their teens and settled in America. Lee knows how brutal the Kim regime is. After leaving the Hermit Kingdom, Lee’s father “tried several times to return to visit his homeland, including with a medical group bringing in supplies.” He was denied entry every time. Lee, however, was able to visit in 2009 as part of a group of teachers and students. She was also able to take her mother on the trip.

“Our group,” writes Lee,

was briefed several times about the things we could and couldn’t do. We were not allowed to bring Bibles, satellite phones, cameras with telephoto lenses, notebooks, pornography. We were told to expect that our group would probably be spied on and to not bad-mouth any of the regime’s leaders, past or present, even in private.

On arriving in North Korea, as Lee puts it, “you lose control.” They take your passport. They control your movements. They select your meals. They decide whom you get to meet. And they house you in a Pyongyang hotel that’s located on an island by itself, separated by water from the rest of the city. Of course there’s no possibility of making a phone call to the family back home or sending them an e-mail.

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Kim Jung-un

The reality of North Korean tyranny is no secret in the rest of the world. But for many Americans, tyranny is simply not a reality. They can’t process the idea. Living all your life in freedom can make it difficult to realize what it really means to live without freedom. As Lee writes, “reports of ‘drunken high jinks’” on the part of Americans visiting Kim’s realm “are becoming more common.” As we’ve noted previously on this website, the travel agency Warmbier used, Young Pioneer Tours, encourages a frivolous attitude toward totalitarianism.

Kim_Il-sungLee warns fervently against such attitudes. She recalls that during her North Korean visit, a tour bus she was riding on “stopped in the middle of the countryside” and she “noticed a bicycle leaning forlornly against a tree and felt that would make a compelling photo.” But before she could take a picture, “the bus was stormed by soldiers.” Another tourist, it emerged, had already snapped a photo – which was a particularly serious offense, because, unbeknownst to the passengers, they were in the middle of a military installation. The offender, a fellow student of Lee’s, was removed from the bus. A Warmbier-like situation was averted – but only because the student was a citizen of China, North Korea’s only ally.

Romanticizing Che at The Guardian

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Che Guevara

During the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara was Castro’s military advisor and a troop leader; after Castro’s victory, Guevara was appointed Cuba’s Minister of Economics (in which capacity he quickly ran the value of the Cuban peso into the ground). He was also put in charge of La Cabaña Fortress prison, which has been described as the Communist Cuba’s equivalent of Stalin’s notorious Lubyanka Prison. At the same time, he acted as Fidel’s chief executioner, ordering – at a bare minimum – several hundred firing-squad executions of opponents and potential opponents of the regime. (The real number is probably in the five figures.) Given Cuba’s small population, this was equivalent to liquidating millions of Americans. The point of all this bloodletting was not just to exterminate the victims but to terrorize everyone else – to make it clear to all of Cuba that Castro & co. meant business and were not to be trifled with.

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Camilo Guevara

Why are we revisiting all this half-century-old history? Because the Western media still write about Che as if he were a romantic hero, a virtuous figure, a symbol of humanity and brotherhood. One of the latest examples: a March 18 profile by the Guardian‘s Jonathan Watts of Guevara’s son Camilo. The angle of the piece: Guevara junior was reacting with “wary optimism” to President Obama’s planned March 20 Cuba visit, and, more broadly, to the improving relations between Cuba and the U.S.

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Jonathan Watts

Watts referred to the U.S. as “the world’s capitalist powerhouse” and to Che as “one of the Cuban revolution’s most famous figures.” Camilo, wrote Watts, “is dedicated to protecting Che’s legacy and ensuring that his father’s words – and not just his famous portrait – are remembered around the world.” He noted that Camilo was trying to be philosophical: “Maybe we can influence the US in a positive way.” But his main hope was that “our principles, our ideals, our national project” would not be poisoned by increased contact with the U.S.

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The Che cult, still alive and well on the island prison

That Camilo holds such views is no surprise. Our concern is with Watts. With the exception of a brief paragraph acknowledging Cuba’s mistreatment of political prisoners, its restrictions on Internet access, and its lack of basic freedoms, Watts presented Cuba throughout – its leaders, its political system, its revolution, and its longstanding conflict with the U.S. – exclusively through Camilo’ eyes. Yes, it’s one thing for a journalist to give a fair account of an interviewee’s perspective; it’s another thing to serve up pure propaganda without providing anything remotely resembling a reality check. Indeed, Watts’s implication throughout the article was that Camilo’s view of things was, quite simply, factual.

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Fidel Castro

Want facts? Here are a couple: Cuba is a Communist dictatorship; since the Castro revolution, over a million of its people have fled to the United States to live in freedom. But you wouldn’t know this from reading Watts. How did he describe today’s Cuba vis-a-vis the U.S.? As “a small country that has resisted its superpower neighbour for more than half a century.” And no, he wasn’t quoting or paraphrasing Camilo here, or trying to frame the situation as Camilo sees it. No; this was pure Watts, acting in his capacity as a supposedly objective reporter.

Watts’s chat with Camilo took place at a place called the Che Guevara Study Centre. In addition to interviewing the tyrant’s son, Watts explored the Study Centre’s archive. Of all the items he looked at, the one he decided to highlight in the article was “a short goodbye message that Che wrote to his children in the knowledge that he could soon die.”

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Dear old dad

In the message Che wrote: “Above all be sensitive, in the deepest areas of yourselves, to any injustice committed against whoever it may be anywhere in the world.” Watts quoted this without comment – choosing not to point out the outrageous irony that this plea for sensitivity to injustice was composed by a man who executed hundreds of political opponents in cold blood.

Watts’s piece ended with these sentences: “There is no chance he [Obama] will visit the Che Guevara Study Centre for a lesson in revolution. For Guevara that is a shame: ‘If Obama comes, he might learn something.’” For a journalist to close a piece like this with a quote like that is tantamount to handing over his article to the guy he’s writing about. It’s pretty disgraceful – but, then again, hardly an unprecedented move for The Guardian.

George Blake, KGB

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George Blake

George Blake is 93, a former MI6 agent and convicted KGB mole now living in Russia. Last year his story was told in a BBC documentary, George Blake: Masterspy of Moscow, by George Carey. Yesterday we examined Blake’s colorful early years and his conversion to Communism, an ideology that he regarded as “an attempt to create the kingdom of God in this world.” Taken custody by the North Koreans after the outbreak of the Korean War, Blake was “freed” after three years in their custody and returned along with other captured Brits to the U.K., where he was hailed by the Fleet Street press – and by his colleagues in MI6 – as a hero.

A list of six ìdangerous agentsî of British intelligence in a file kept by the Stasi, the feared East German secret police. Credit: George Carey *** MUST CREDIT *** ONE TIME USE ONLY ***
A list Carey found in the files of the Stasi, the East German secret police, listing six MI6 agent exposed by Blake

But Blake was no hero – not for the West, anyway. He was now a counterspy. Based in London, and later in Berlin and Lebanon, Blake proved to be a highly reliable Soviet asset, photographing classified British and American documents that crossed his desk and handing them over to KGB contacts on a regular basis. This went on for several years, and ended only after a Polish intelligence officer – who was himself a double agent, working for the Brits – turned over information to MI6 showing what Blake was up to.

Summoned to London, Blake was interrogated for two days, during which he repeatedly denied being a KGB mole. On the morning of the third day, however, when his questioners suggested that he’d switched sides as a result of torture or blackmail while in Korea, he insisted defiantly that he’d never had any such motive: he’d offered his services to the KGB, he said, “of my own free will.”

Hans Mohring: Hans Mˆhring, an official on the GDR state planning commission and an agent for MI6, spent 17 years in a Stasi prison after he was betrayed by George Blake. Credit: George Carey *** MUST CREDIT *** ONE TIME USE ONLY ***
Hans Möhring spent 17 years in a Stasi prison for spying for Britain after being betrayed by Blake

His case made headlines. Sentenced to 42 years in prison, he was incarcerated at Wormwood Scrubs in London. In 1966, with the help of friends on both the inside and outside, he escaped, and managed to make his way to Russia, where the KGB were “good to him.” “Showered with medals,” he was given a nice apartment in central Moscow and a prestigious job in a think tank. He’d left behind a wife and children in Britain, but he found a new wife in the USSR and had more children.

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Blake with fellow traitor Kim Philby

“George has never had any regrets,” a cousin of his said on the BBC documentary. This, even though the information he supplied to the KGB resulted in the arrest of about 100 Soviet officials who were secretly working for the West. Six MI6 agents he fingered for the KGB “were imprisoned for up to 17 years inside East Germany, serving time in jails notorious for torture and psychological intimidation of inmates,” reported the Telegraph. One is now believed to have been taken to Moscow and executed.”  

Programme Name: Storyville - TX: n/a - Episode: George Blake: Storyville (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: at his home outside Moscow George Blake - (C) George Carey - Photographer: George Carey
Blake today, at his home near Moscow

“I’m still a Communist,” Blake said in the late 1980s. Not long afterwards, the USSR collapsed. One wonders whether he was surprised to find out just how few of his fellow Soviet residents actually believed in the ideology that was their government’s excuse for controlling their lives.

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George Carey, documentary maker

The irony is rich: the Iron Curtain came down, and Russia and its satellites joined the family of nations, their people finally able to speak their minds, run their own lives, travel the world. But Blake, a convicted spy, had no choice but to stay in Russia, a living relic of another era. To avoid re-imprisonment in Britain, he lived in Russia, in a prison of his own making. Anecdotal evidence suggests that he’s less than delighted by this fate; according to an old friend, Blake, somehow unable to grasp that his past couldn’t be “forgiven and forgotten” as easily as he would like, has actually looked into the possibility of returning to the Netherlands.

And so he remains in Russia, a nonagenarian who’d “believed that his fate was to do God’s work on earth” – but whose destiny, it turned out, was to spend his old age as a living reminder of his own dead, twisted dream, a dream, as Carey’s documentary pointed out, “for which he’d done so much damage to Britain.”

“The spy who got away”

George Blake on returning from his internment in North Korea

He’s been called “the most damaging British traitor of the Cold War,” “the spy who got away.” His name is George Blake, and he’s 93 years old. Today he’s a doddering, harmless-looking old coot living in Russia. Half a century ago, however, he was a very slick character indeed who, to quote an interviewee in a recent BBC documentary, was “responsible for getting people killed.”

The documentary, entitled George Blake: Masterspy of Moscow, aired on the BBC last year. Made by filmmaker George Carey (not to be confused with the former Archbishop of Canterbury of the same name), it recounted Blake’s exceedingly curious and colorful early years: born in Rotterdam in 1922 with the last name of Behar, he grew up in the odd position of being unable to communicate with his own father, an Egyptian Jew, hard-working businessman, and British subject who, though he lived in the same house as his son, spoke English and French but not Dutch, which at the time was the only language the son spoke.

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Cairo, 1938

After the father died, in 1936, leaving the family in financial difficulties, it somehow came to the attention of his widow and children that he had a rich sister in Cairo who lived in a palace, no less. George, then in his early teens, came into contact with his aunt and presently relocated to Cairo, where he moved into the palace, enrolled at the English School, and learned both French and English. (One presumes he must have picked up at least some Arabic, although there is no mention of this in the documentary.)

The German ultimatum ordering the Dutch commander of Rotterdam to cease fire was delivered to him at 10:30 a.m. on May 14, 1940. At 1:22 p.m., German bombers set the whole inner city of Rotterdam ablaze, killing 30,000 of its inhabitants. (OWI) NARA FILE #: 208-PR-10L-3 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1334
Rotterdam after the Nazi bombing in May 1940

He was visiting his family in The Hague when World War II broke out, and a year later was in Rotterdam for the Nazi air raids of May 14, 1940. Returning to The Hague to discover that his mother and sisters had fled for Britain, George joined the Dutch Resistance, found his way (a rather spectacular feat) to the U.K. via Spain in 1942, and, after arriving in London, managed to parlay his remarkable personal story into a job with the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), better known as MI6, which sent him to Cambridge to learn Russian.

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Cambridge University

It was there, in a class taught by a professor who inspired in him “a romantic admiration for everything Russian,” that Blake, according to the documentary,  first began to sympathize with Communism. (Blake himself has testified otherwise: when he’d first moved to Cairo, he’d met one of his cousins, Henri Courel, a Communist whose views, he said years later, “had a great influence on me.”)

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Seoul, 1948

Sent to Seoul by MI6 in 1948, Blake was apprehended by the Communists after the Korean War broke out. They could’ve executed him, but instead he allowed himself to be turned – to accept the role of a double agent, spying on the British for the North Koreans’ Soviet masters. By this point, he was not a tough sell: “I felt I was on the wrong side…that it would be better for humanity if the Communist system prevailed, that it would put an end to war.” Indeed, Blake, who had once aspired to be a pastor, would later say that he “viewed Communism as an attempt to create the kingdom of God in this world.”

What happened next? Tune in tomorrow.