No, Cuba is not getting better

Fidel Castro

One country we haven’t neglected on this site is Cuba. We’ve written about American TV reporter Lisa Howard’s romance with Fidel Castro, about Israeli actress Gal Gadot’s plans to make a movie about their liaison, about the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s affection for Fidel Castro, about a celebration of Che Guevara in Norwegian Air’s inflight magazine, about a big, splashy fashion show held by Karl Lagerfeld in Havana, about a movie about Hemingway that whitewashed Cuban Communism, about a USA Today whitewash of Cuban Communism, about an Agence France Press whitewash of Cuban Communism, about a Time Magazine whitewash of Cuban Communism…and so on.

Obama in Havana

If we’re particularly attentive to Cuba, it’s partly because it’s so close to the U.S. and partly because its Communist regime has long been an object of affection for many stateside useful stooges. Many people on the left who would readily acknowledge that the Soviet Union and Mao’s China were unworthy of admiration nonetheless had a soft spot for Castro and his cronies. These same people warmed to one of the major initiatives of Barack Obama’s presidency, the opening to Cuba, which they presented as evidence that the island nation was transitioning, slowly but surely, to something resembling democracy.

Jose Marti International Airport in Havana

Obama may have reneged on his promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but he made a great show of opening the first U.S. Embassy in Havana since the Cuban Revolution. He authorized the resumption of commercial air flights, holiday cruises, and mail service between the U.S. and Cuba. He allowed the Cuban government to open bank accounts in the U.S. and removed it from the official list of state sponsors of terrorism. And in March 2016 he made a high-profile visit to the island.

U.S. Embassy in Havana

At first Obama had said he would make such a visit only if there were real signs that Cubans were being given more freedom. But he ended up going even though such indicators as the number of arrests of political dissidents turned out to be on the rise. A Boston Globe headline in February 2016 read “Obama Breaks Pledge – Will Visit Cuba Despite Worsening Human Rights.” His Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes, even went so far as to dispel suggestions that Obama was out to encourage an end to, or softening of, Cuban Communism: if past U.S. policies had sent the message “that the United States was seeking to pursue regime change” on the island, said Rhodes, “Obama will make clear that the United States is not a hostile nation seeking regime change.” Well, full points for honesty, if for nothing else.

Ben Rhodes

In point of fact, Obama’s Cuba policy gave a great deal to the Cuban regime and asked virtually nothing of it. U.S. officials admitted that the thinking behind Obama’s one-way generosity was that it would somehow encourage reforms – an assumption that was, at best, remarkably naïve and ill-informed. Among the critics of Obama’s new approach was Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who in a passionate speech on the floor of the Senate said that the sight of the U.S. President “laughing and shaking hands with the only dictatorship in the western Hemisphere” made him think of Cuban dissident “Berta Soler of the Ladies in White and her fellow human rights and democracy advocates.”

Elliott Abrams

Elliott Abrams, who has held major diplomatic posts under several presidents, agreed with Menendez, writing that Obama’s visit to Cuba “weakens the chances for freedom in Cuba because it is organized around encouraging the current regime rather than pressuring it for change.” Abrams added: “There is no evidence that the president will meet with the key–and incredibly courageous–dissidents who struggle at enormous sacrifice for freedom in Cuba. There is no evidence he even comprehends that most of the economic benefits of his opening to Cuba are accruing to the regime and the armed forces.”

Miguel Diaz-Canel

President Trump reversed many of Obama’s Cuba policies – and was criticized severely for it by those who shared Obama’s view that the way to make dictators nice is to make nice with dictators. Unfortunately, many blinkered folks in the U.S. and elsewhere actually believe that Cuba is undergoing serious reforms. As evidence of this proposition, they point to the selection of a new Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, in April of last year. The fact that Díaz-Canel is not a member of the Castro family is cited as a sign of hope – although the fact is that Raul Castro remains head of the Communist Party and thus the nation’s de facto leader.

Diaz-Canel with Maduro

In reality Díaz-Canel’s ascent to the presidency means nothing. The first foreign leader he met with after his inauguration was Nicolás Maduro. On February 4 the Madrid-based Cuban Observatory of Human Rights (COHR) reported that at least 179 arbitrary detentions had taken place in Cuba during the month of January. While the already horrible economic situation in Cuba is deteriorating, oppression is intensifying. A new Constitution – which is presented by the government as some kind of advance over its predecessor but which makes only cosmetic alterations while reaffirming the Communist system of government – has been a focus of protest, and the COHR expressed concern in its report “about the increasing aggressiveness of the police against activists who peacefully demonstrate NO to the Constitution” and about the more general effort to “crush any dissent surrounding the new Constitution.”

More dire news arrived on February 10. Cuban activists announced on social media that Claudio Fuentes Madan, a photographer and campaigner for freedom in Cuba, had been missing for two days. One report stated that he had been arrested. Also missing was Antonio G. Rodiles, founder of a dissident think tank. So much for the callow belief on the part of Obama & co. that their Cuban counterparts were committed to gradual democratization.

I.F. Stone, journalist hero – and KGB spy

I. F. Stone

On this site we’ve discussed Oliver Stone and Sharon Stone, but one Stone we haven’t yet gotten around to is the journalist I.F. Stone (1907-89). Which is odd, because this particular Stone could very well have been the mascot of this website, a dubious honor we awarded at the outset to Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow correspondent who systematically whitewashed Stalin’s crimes and sang his praises in America’s newspaper of record.

It is no exaggeration to say that Stone was revered. In 1999, New York University’s journalism department named his newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, which he published from 1953 to 1971, the second most important American journalistic periodical of the twentieth century. In 2008, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University began awarding the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence.

Independence: that was the word they invariably used when describing Stone. That, and words like “rectitude” and “probity.” His New York Times obituary began as follows: “I. F. Stone, the independent, radical pamphleteer of American journalism….” It went on to call him a “maverick” and praise his “integrity.” The London Times entitled its obituary “I.F. Stone: Spirit of America’s Independent Journalism”; the headline in the Los Angeles Times obit called him “The Conscience of Investigative Journalism.” A posthumous editorial in the Boston Globe began with this statement: “For thousands of American journalists, I.F. Stone represented an ideal.”

In fact, he was a KGB spy.

A brief bio: the son of Russian immigrants (his birth name was Isidor Feinstein), Stone quit college to become a journalist. He served for a time as editor of the New York Post, then worked as a staffer and/or contributor to The Nation, New Republic, PM, and other left-wing political journals before starting his own weekly. Throughout his long career, he was known for his strong leftist leanings.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, he was an ardent supporter of the newly born State of Israel, but later became one of its fiercest critics and an outspoken champion of the Palestinian cause. He was also a vocal opponent of the Korean War and Vietnam War. Nobody who read his work could mistake him for anything but a far leftist with (usually) an obvious soft spot for the Soviet Union.

John Earl Haynes

All along, a few canny observers suspected that Stone was working for the Kremlin. In 1992, not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, credible-sounding reports began circulating to the effect that Stone had been a KGB man. John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev finally coughed up the goods in their 2009 book Spies, about KGB operatives in America. Stone, it turned out, had been on the Kremlin’s payroll as a full-fledged spy beginning in 1936 and ending perhaps in 1938, perhaps several years later. (On this question the records have yet to yield a definitive answer.) “Stone assisted Soviet intelligence on a number of tasks,” wrote Haynes and his co-authors, “ranging from doing some talent spotting acting as a courier by relaying information to other agents, and providing private journalistic tidbits and data the KGB found interesting.”

In other words, this widely venerated pillar of integrity and personification of independence was in fact a secret Kremlin operative. Spies established this fact beyond question in 2009. It is interesting to note that this information has not made much of a dent in Stone’s reputation among true believers on the left. Harvard did not change the name of its medal for journalistic independence, and none of the people who have won the award since 2009 have declined to accept it.

Then again, many of those winners – including Putin apologist Robert Parry, socialist radio host Amy Goodman, and Nation editor and publisher Victor Navasky – are precisely the sort of “journalists” who wouldn’t much mind having their name associated with that of a Soviet spy. Which is precisely why we’re here at this website, writing about these unpleasant people and their unpleasant antics day after day.  

Hollywood follows Hemingway to Havana

Yesterday we talked about the newest Fast and Furious movie, which according to a January article in the Hollywood Reporter is “the first Hollywood studio film to shoot on the island since the embargo was set in the 1960s.”

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Adrian Sparks and Joely Richardson as the Hemingways

But hey, then there’s the just-released Papa Hemingway in Cuba, which the same publication described in 2014 (when it was being filmed) as “the first full-length feature with a Hollywood director and actors to be shot in the country since the 1959 revolution.” Apparently the key word is “studio”; while the car-chase franchise is owned by Universal Studios, the Hemingway picture was an independent Canadian-American production.

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Bob Yari

The film is directed by Bob Yari, a real-estate mogul turned big-time Hollywood money guy, who has bought himself producer credits on a number of major Hollywood releases (such as Prime, starring Meryl Streep, and The Painted Veil, starring Edward Norton). During his fifteen or so years in the business, he’s landed in more than his share of legal messes; according to the Boston Globe, he’s “perhaps best known for unsuccessfully suing the Academy over not getting producer credit on the 2005 best picture Oscar-winning Crash.” Papa, his only directorial credit other than 1989’s Mind Games, is based on an autobiographical script by Denne Bart Petitclerc, who died ten years ago and who, when he was a young newspaperman, was taken up by Hemingway, then living in Cuba, as a sort of sidekick and protégé. Adrian Sparks is Hemingway, Joely Richardson is his fourth wife, Mary, Giovanni Ribisi is the admiring cub reporter, and Minka Kelly is Ribisi’s love interest; Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel, who, a half a lifetime ago, played Woody Allen’s love interest in Manhattan, has a cameo. 

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Giovanni Ribisi and Minka Kelly

The reviews, to put it mildly, haven’t been stellar. Variety called the movie “formulaic” and “plodding”; the writer for RogerEbert.com complained that “the storytelling continuously keeps us at arm’s length, never allowing us to fully understand the bond that developed between these men….Here’s a film about one of the greatest writers in history that reduces the iconic man’s mind to the canned insights of a fortune cookie.” Calling the picture “a missed opportunity,” Stephanie Merry lamented in the Washington Post that it “doesn’t leave much of an impression.” Several critics have complained that Sparks utterly lacks Papa’s charisma, and that Ribisi, whose character is supposed to be a starry-eyed twenty-something, is, in real life, 41 years old, with thinning hair.

But almost all of the reviewers have exulted in Yari’s supposed coup – getting the Castro regime to let him film at Hemingway’s Cuban home, La Finca Vigía. Indeed, there’s been plenty of predictably stoogerific commentary about this supposed “milestone.” We’ll look at some of it tomorrow. 

Reviewing Trumbo

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Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo

Directed by Jay Roach and written by John McNamara, the movie Trumbo came out last November to widespread acclaim – especially for Bryan Cranston‘s performance as blacklisted Hollwood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.  Cranston is nominated for an Oscar; both he and Helen Mirren, who plays gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, were nominated for Golden Globes.

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The real Dalton Trumbo

When Trumbo first came out, we spent a few days on this site pondering, and questioning, the way it presents its protagonist. As we noted at the time, Trumbo and other members of the so-called Hollywood Ten were all Communists. Trumbo, like virtually every other Hollywood movie ever made about the blacklist, tries to pretend that being a Communist was (or is) pretty much the same as being a Democrat or a liberal. Not really. Trumbo and his friends were devotees and disciples of an extremely illiberal fella named Joseph Stalin. They were his devotees and disciples in precisely the same way that Nazis were devotees and disciples of another fella named Adolf Hitler. Stalin, like Hitler, was a totalitarian dictator. The only substantial difference between them was that Stalin reigned much longer and killed a lot more people.

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Joe Neumaier

It’s utterly ridiculous to have to make these obvious points. Any middle-school student should know all this stuff, and feel insulted at any suggestion that they don’t. But as the reviews of Trumbo make clear, many people in positions of influence are totally clueless about the reality of Communism. One movie reviewer after another has hailed Trumbo as (to quote Joe Neumaier in Time) a “vital lesson in democracy,” and its Communist protagonist as nothing less than a hero of democracy. Indeed, many of the reviewers who haven’t praised Trumbo have still praised Trumbo. Or, more specifically, praised his “ideals.”

Here, for example, is Joanna Connors in the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “Besides being a gifted writer he was an outspoken champion of workers’ rights and socialist ideals.” This about a man who defended the Gulag, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Moscow show trials – in short, every monstrous crime against humanity Stalin ever committed.

In the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Mike Scott laments that Communist is “still a dirty word today.” And in the Toronto Star, Peter Howell actually calls Trumbo “a principled member of the Communist Party.” (Yes, he was devoted to the “principles” of the Communist Party in the same way that Hitler was devoted to the “principles” of Nazism.) Howell also refers to “the rebellious Hollywood Ten,” as if they were a bunch of admirably iconoclastic individuals rather than a group of lockstep ideological fanatics taking orders from a mass-murdering foreign government.

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Cranston, with Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper

One baffling feature of many of the reviews of Trumbo is that even as they acknowledge that Dalton Trumbo and his fellow Communist screenwriters were Communists, they use the term “Red Scare,” which implies that Trumbo & co.’s Communism existed only in the heated imaginations of Hedda Hopper, John Wayne, and others – whose principled anti-Communism the movie treats with nothing but vicious mockery, even as it treats D.T.’s Communism with respect and admiration. 

“Trumbo,” writes Ty Burr in the Boston Globe, “brings what Lillian Hellman dubbed ‘scoundrel time’ into sharp relief.” Burr’s reference to Hellman and to Scoundrel Time, one of that horrible old Stalinist’s notoriously mendacious “memoirs,” leads us to wonder whether Burr knows anything whatsoever about Hellman, one of the great moral scoundrels in American literary history, or, more broadly, about American Stalinism. Burr refers to the writers and directors who came to be demonized as the Hollywood Ten.” No, they weren’t “demonized”: they were identified as Communists – as men who had sworn to help bring down American democracy in the service of murderous totalitarianism – and that was precisely what they were. Yet Burr buys the film’s attempt to sell them as heroes, and buys its presentation of John Wayne and other anti-Communists as “ogre[s].”

More to come.