Nick Miroff and the charms of totalitarianism

A Cuban national flag is seen painted on a shack in Alamar, a large public housing complex in the Eastern Havana, Cuba, 5 February 2009.
Alamar, Havana

There are run-of-the-mill fools in American journalism, and then there are major-league idiots like Nick Miroff. Yesterday we quoted him fretting in the Washington Post about the new phenomenon of “yawning income gaps” in Cuba – meaning that some people there are actually starting to rise out of poverty.

Alamar: another view

But there was a lot more fatuity on offer in Miroff’s 2,000-word tribute to the shabby Havana neighborhood of Alamar. Here he is giving us a glimpse of local color:

“Men Die, But the Party Is Immortal,” says a billboard in Alamar, trying to reassure residents who may wonder what will happen after Fidel, 89, and current President Raúl Castro, 84, are no longer around.

Reassure residents? How does a man get to be a Washington Post reporter without being able to recognize propaganda and call it by its real name? We’re talking about a country where people still can’t watch TV from abroad, can’t read the Washington Post or any other Western newspapers, can’t go online without going to a special Internet cafe and paying a hefty fee. But everywhere they turn, there’s a giant hoarding telling them how wonderful the Communist Party is.

Nick Miroff

Miroff went on to hail Cuba’s “social and economic parity” as “unusual” for Latin America, “a region beset by deep class divisions.” He offered the usual starry-eyed left-wing praise for the island prison’s welfare system. Not until three-quarters of the way through his nauseating paean to poverty and despotism did he finally acknowledge – kind of – that what he was writing about here was a community, and a country, living in sadness and squalor: “a collective exhaustion has set in, the toll of steady emigration, corruption large and small, and the knowledge, from the impossible-to-filter influences of globalization, that Cubans live better in almost any other country than their own.”

More of Alamar…

But, hey, don’t get Miroff wrong here: for him, the problem isn’t that Cuba’s political and economic system has failed the Cuban people; the problem is that a younger generation of Cubans have failed their country’s system. Meaning what? Meaning that they lack the revolutionary fervor, the selfless love for and confidence in their leaders, the bottomless devotion to the cause that (Miroff would have us believe) gave meaning to their grandparents’ lives. After telling us about Aldo, an octogenarian resident of Alamar who, back in the early Castro days, was a photographer for the Communist Party newspaper Granma, and who still “keeps thick manila envelopes of old photos that tell the story of a life in the service of Cuba’s socialist dream,” Miroff lamented that the

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egalitarian ideals of that era are lost today on Aldo’s grandson, Alejandro, 28. He has an American flag in his bedroom but little else. Trained as a veterinary technician, he was laid off during Raúl Castro’s campaign to downsize the state bureaucracy. Sometimes he drives a taxi. His mother says he is desperate to leave.

“He says to me, “I don’t want to turn 50 in this country with no car and no house of my own,’” Olga Mederos said.

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Miroff closed with a vignette of Aldo and his photo collection:

“When I show these to my grandson, he says, ‘What good did it do? Look at you now. You’ve got nothing,’ ” Aldo said.

He shuffled the image to the bottom of the pile, looking away. “Maybe it’s true,” he said. “Maybe he’s right.”

And so ended the article. Miroff was clearly going for pathos, for poignancy. He wanted us to feel sad about the fading of the beautiful “socialist dream,” the loss of those magnificent “egalitarian ideals.” For him, one gathers, that American flag in Alejandro’s bedroom is, above all, a symbol of a generation whose members have selfishly turned their backs on the golden revolution for which their grandparents sacrificed so much and given itself over, heart and soul, to the Evil Empire across the Straits of Florida. 

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Miroff made no mention, naturally, of the many members of Aldo’s generation who, without a trial or lawyer or any hint of due process, were thrown in prison cells, or lined up against walls and shot, for no other crime than being anti-Communists, writers, homosexuals, whatever.

Any American reporter with half a brain, with even a crumb of a moral sense, would have started his article with that flag in Alejandro’s bedroom, and would have found its presence there deeply stirring. He would’ve recognized that flag as a symbol of young Cubans’ hopes for a free and prosperous future, and would’ve been touched and humbled to realize that his own country’s flag, and his own country’s liberties, could serve as an inspiration to a young man living in one of the world’s last totalitarian nations.

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But no. Miroff, in Alejandro’s bedroom, was incapable of seeing what was right in front of him for what it was: the spectacle of a young man born into slavery and yearning for freedom. Miroff, alas, would seem to be all but blind to freedom. It’s barely, if at all, on his radar. All he can see is economic equality or inequality.

It’s disturbing to witness this virtual blindness to freedom in anyone who has been fortunate enough to experience it. But it’s especially scary to see it in a man who’s employed as a journalist by the leading newspaper in the capital of what some of us still think of as the free world.    

Hey, Washington Post: your man in Havana is an idiot

In recent months, we’ve seen Time Magazine, or what’s left of it, celebrating the charm and quaintness of poverty in Cuba and worrying that the opening up of relations with the U.S. will bring increasing economic opportunity and with it – gasp! – that dreaded phenomenon known as income inequality. Meaning that at least some people will no longer be dirt poor.

Alamar, 2012

On December 29, the Washington Post joined in the wailing. The focus of Nick Miroff‘s 2000-word piece was on Havana’s Alamar neighborhood, a public-housing project that’s home to some 100,000 people. Miroff made a point of the fact that the buildings are all covered with mildew. To Miroff, the mildew was plainly a feature, not a bug. For the message he wanted to get across was that this slum, this eyesore, is in fact a wonderful place, because it “is arguably Cuba’s most equal place,” where “everyone pretty much has an identical apartment.” And identical mildew. 

Another view of Alamar

Miroff quoted a septuagenarian bus driver who fondly recalled helping to build what the old man called a “model city.” “We had everything then,” the busman maintained. “Everyone looked after each other.” In other words, they were rich – not in money, but in Communist solidarity. They were dreaming the dream.

No more. Today, Miroff lamented, “ideological foundations are cracking, and new uncertainties are coming — perhaps none larger than whether the egalitarian values of Castro’s revolution will be swept away by rising inequalities and the breakdown of Cuba’s socialist welfare state.”

Nick Miroff

Let’s pause for a moment over that last line: “the egalitarian values of Castro’s revolution. Note that Miroff wasn’t quoting or paraphrasing somebody here; he was, in his role as a reporter for the Washington Post (not The Nation or The Daily Worker), presenting as an objective fact the notion that Castro’s revolution was, and is, characterized by “egalitarian values.”

Yet another view of Alamar…

Granted, with the obvious exception of the Castro family and perhaps a few people in their immediate circle, pretty much all Cubans are equal in a number of ways. For one thing, they’re all unfree. They’re all living in a totalitarian state. They’re all prohibited from leaving. They’re all in danger of being imprisoned if they criticize the government. In these ways, yes, they’re all equal. Somehow, in Miroff’s mind, all this oppression adds up to something that deserves to be described with the word “values.” Because, you see, everybody’s oppressed. Well, hurrah. 

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Of course, the main kind of equality Miroff is concerned with is economic equality. Are Cubans really economically equal? Yes, because most of them are dirt-poor. Zero is equal to zero. Then again, a not inconsiderable number of Cubans – namely, those who have positions of power in the government, those who are preachers and enforcers of all that wonderful equality, if not (as in the case of the Castros themselves) living symbols of it are markedly better off than most of their countrymen. A few are even prosperous by Western standards. And, again, when you get up to the top level, to the Castro clan and a very few others, you’re looking at people who, by any measure, are downright rich.

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”.
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But fine, let’s forget for the time being about those privileged few and focus instead on the penniless majority. These are, after all, the people whom Miroff was really writing about. And what Miroff was lamenting here, quite plainly, was that, half a century into the revolution, some of these desperately poor people are finally starting to climb up out of poverty – not because Communism has at last proven to work as an economic system, but because, on at least a small scale, the state is introducing free-market reforms.

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Most rational people, most decent people who actually cared about the well-being of others, would view this sort of change as positive. Terrifically positive. Not Miroff. “Communist Party elders,” he wrote, “want to keep a lid on market forces, but with every incremental opening, yawning income gaps emerge.”

Yawning income gaps! The horror! If Miroff didn’t agree with those Party bosses, he would never use such a ridiculous term. And note that term “elders.” Whom was Miroff referring to here? He was referring to a bunch of thugs who never were elected to anything by anybody, but who have run Castro’s island prison for decades, keeping a lid not just on market forces but on freedom in all its forms.

…and, finally, this.

“Younger Cubans do not seem too troubled” by these new developments, Miroff admitted. No kidding! Could it be that many of these younger Cubans not only are not “too troubled” by the yawning income gaps, but that they in fact look upon the new spark of economic development in their grim, shabby, garbage-strewn rusted hulk of a country with something that might actually be described as hope? Is it possible that they don’t love being poor as much as slumming American visitors like Miroff enjoy the spectacle of them being poor? The idea seemed alien to Miroff, who was busy wringing his hands, plainly sharing the “fear” of Cuban “authorities” that “these disparities” – that is, the yawning income gaps – “bear the seeds of social tensions, resentments and crime.”

We’re not done with Miroff. More tomorrow.