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.

ernesto-oroza-alamar-2012
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. 

3859786502_30738f60e8_z
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.”

miroff
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.”

alamar33
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. 

alamar21
…and another…

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”.
…and another…

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.

alamar4
…and another…

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.

alamar-8
…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.

Castro’s Cuba and the film critics

garcia
Andy Garcia in The Lost City

If you’ve never heard of Andy Garcia’s 2005 film The Lost City, there’s a good reason. The movie – which Garcia produced, directed, and starred in, and which he spent 16 years trying to get off the ground – was rejected by the Hollywood studios, snubbed by the film festivals, savaged by the mainstream media, and banned in several Latin American countries.

Why? Because it actually presented a historically accurate picture of pre- and post-revolutionary Cuba – a picture utterly at odds with the images proffered for the last half century by Castro’s propaganda and embraced by useful stooges in the American news media, academy, and entertainment industry.

Humberto-IMG_0190
Humberto Fontova

In a 2006 article and his 2013 book The Longest Romance: The Mainstream Media and Fidel Castro, exiled Cuban writer Humberto Fontova took on the movie’s cockeyed critics. Among them was Stephen Holden of the New York Times, who called Garcia’s picture an “ode to the Havana of pre-Communist Cuba” and mockingly claimed that, in the film’s view, “life sure was peachy before Fidel Castro came to town and ruined everything.”

Nonsense: as one Cuban exile commented at the Amazon page for The Lost City, “The film makes no bones about the need to remove the (then) dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista but also unequivocally shows that what happened next was far worse for all involved.”

holden
Stephen Holden

Ridiculing Garcia’s focus on Havana’s “posh pre-revolution nightlife” and the relative invisibility of the “impoverished masses of Cubans who embraced Castro as a liberator,” Holden sneered that the film’s political dialogue was “of the junior high-school variety.” Fontova’s reply: “It’s Holden’s education on the Cuban revolution that’s of the junior high-school variety.” In fact The Lost City was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929-2005), a former Castro supporter who went into exile in the U.K. in 1965 – in other words, a man who knew a good deal more about Cuba than Stephen Holden does. Garcia, also born in Cuba, emigrated with his parents to Miami when he was a boy; he, too, knows more about Cuba than Holden does.

infante
Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Holden also sneered at what he called the film’s “buffoonish parodies of sour Communist apparatchiks barking orders” – his implication apparently being that the henchmen of Castro’s revolution couldn’t possibly have been so…well, so unpleasant. Fontova’s reply put Holden in his place: “It’s no ‘parody,’ Mr Holden, that the ‘apparatchiks’ Garcia depicts in his movie incarcerated and executed a higher percentage of their countrymen in their first three months in power than Hitler and his apparatchiks jailed and executed in their first three years.”

atkinson
Michael Atkinson

But Holden wasn’t alone. Among the many other critics who ignorantly disputed the film’s historical accuracy (don’t worry: we won’t catalog all of them) was the Village Voice‘s Michael Atkinson. For him, The Lost City was “a pro-old-guard, anti-revolutionary elegy – —like a rumba-inflected Gone With the Wind.” (Note the twisted comparison of Castro’s revolution, which enslaved millions, to the Union victory in the U.S. Civil War, which freed millions of slaves.) The film, complained Atkinson, “bemoans the loss of easy wealth for a precious few. Poor people are absolutely absent; Garcia and Infante seem to have thought that peasant revolutions happen for no particular reason – or at least no reason the moneyed 1 percent should have to worry about.”

Castro-and-Guevara-Marching
Castro, Guevara, and their revolutionary comrades

Fontova’s reply: “What’s absolutely absent is Mr. Atkinson’s knowledge about the Cuba Garcia depicts in his movie. His crack about that ‘moneyed one per cent’ and especially his ‘peasant revolution’ epitomize the clichéd idiocies still parroted by the media about Cuba.” In fact, half a century of Castro propaganda to the contrary, the Cuban Revolution was no peasant uprising; it was engineered by students, engineers, and the like who belonged to the middle and upper classes. Aside from Castro’s own PR, as Fontova points out, most Americans’ major source of information about pre-revolutionary Cuba is the movie Godfather II, which erroneously depicts Batista as a U.S. puppet and his country a combination workhouse for the poor and playground for local billionaires and American mobsters.

More tomorrow. 

Russell Brand, revolutionary hypocrite

Is anyone surprised?

brandcheDuring the last couple of years, the wealthy and successful British comedian Russell Brand has been amusing himself by posturing as a crusading champion of the downtrodden and a heroic enemy of The System. Last July, Sean McElwee wrote in Salon that “Russell Brand may be the most famous anti-capitalist in the world.” Last year, Brand toured with a stand-up show entitled Messiah Complex, in which, as he told Jimmy Fallon in an interview, he talked “about people like Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Gandhi and Jesus and what made them such splendid fellows.” Che, Brand elaborated, “worked very hard and did some great things for ordinary people.” Fallon, disgracefully, agreed: “Absolutely, yes! You need more people like these people.”

che
Che Guevara

Yes, more people like Che, who set up Cuba’s first forced-labor camp, ordered over 500 summary executions of ideological opponents, arranged with Khrushchev to bring nuclear missiles to Cuba, and was the person most responsible for the destruction of the formerly thriving Cuban economy.

Last year Brand also came out with a book, Revolution, in which he described himself as “a big fan of Castro and Che Guevara” and called Che “dear, beautiful, morally unimpeachable.” Michael Moynihan’s review of the book for The Daily Beast was aptly headlined “Russell Brand’s Revolution For Morons.” Revolution, Moynihan wrote, is “a meandering and pretentious mélange of student politics, junk history, and goofy mysticism.”

raul-castro-executes
Raul Castro blindfolds a prisoner who is about to be executed

Not long after Moynihan’s review, exiled Cuban writer Humberto Fontova weighed in on Brand’s Che-worship. Refuting the romantic notion of Che as a dedicated revolutionary who cared nothing for creature comforts or the products of capitalism, Fontova quoted a vivid description of Che’s beachfront mansion:

The mansion had a boat dock, a huge swimming pool, seven bathrooms, a sauna, a massage salon and several television sets….One TV had been specially designed in the U.S., and had a screen ten feet wide and was operated by remote control. This was thought to be the only TV of its kind in Latin America. The mansion’s garden had a veritable jungle of imported plants, a pool with a waterfall, ponds filled with exotic tropical fish and several bird houses filled with parrots and other exotic birds. The habitation was something out of A Thousand and One Nights.

Fontova said that he wouldn’t bother debunking “Brand’s idiocies on Cuba” except for one fact: those idiocies, as it happens, “perfectly mirror the ‘enlightened,’ even the mainstream, version of Cuban history, however amazing and asinine it sounds to actual Cubans who lived it or to any person who bothers to investigate the issue beyond what issues from Castro’s agents of influence, on the payroll and off.”

corporal1
Following a one-minute trial, a corporal in Batista’s army is given last rites before being executed by Castro’s men

Among other things, Brand echoes the familiar line that Castro actually improved conditions in Cuba; on the contrary, writes Fontova, Cuba under Batista had “a higher per capita income than half of Europe, the lowest inflation rate in the Western Hemisphere, the 13th lowest infant-mortality on earth and a huge influx of immigrants.” Nor was the country anything like the wholly owned subsidiary of the U.S. government and/or U.S. corporations that Brand thinks it was (an image promoted for decades by the media, and by movies like Godfather II): “in 1959 U.S. investments in Cuba accounted for only 14 per cent the island’s GNP, and U.S. owned companies employed only 7 per cent of Cuba’s workforce.”

Russell Brand speaks at the opening of The Trew Era Cafe, a social enterprise community project on the New Era estate in east London, Thursday, 26 March, 2015. The opening of the cafe coincides with the trade paperback publication date of 'Revolution', and Brand will be donating 100% of his money for the book to the Cafe.(Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)
Brand outside his cafe at its opening in March

Part of Brand’s self-branding as a revolutionary on multiple fronts has been his clothing business. He sells his own line of sweatshirts, which, he has claimed, are made in the UK, with all profits going to charity. This now turns out to be untrue. On June 5, the Mail reported that the shirts are, in fact, made in Bangladesh by workers earning 25p an hour and working up to eleven hours a day, and that only £1.37 of the purchase price of a £65 sweatshirt goes to charity. And apparently what counts as “charity” in this case is the Trew Era, a “trendy East London cafe” owned by Brand himself that opened in March of this year. His lawyers, responding to the Mail‘s disclosures, describe the cafe as a “community social enterprise project.” Last year, noted the Mail, the website of Brand’s schmatta business “said the money from his merchandise would go to the Russell Brand Foundation”; this statement no longer appears on the site, and British authorities that oversee charitable enterprises have no record of the existence of any such foundation.

Women work at a garment factory in Savar July 27, 2012. Women work for ten hours a day and earn about 3,000 taka ($37.5) per month. Bangladesh's $19 billion garments industry attracts some of the world's biggest clothing brands because of low costs, but many retailers say unrest over pay and delayed shipping schedules are eroding that advantage. Picture taken on July 27, 2012. To go with story BANGLADESH-GARMENTS/   REUTERS/Andrew Biraj (BANGLADESH - Tags: SOCIETY POVERTY BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT) - RTR37L3S
A garment factory in Bangladesh

To be sure, it could be argued that Brand is actually doing his Bangladeshi sweatshirt-makers a service – he’s providing them with jobs, however menial and poorly paid, that are better than nothing and that may prove to be a stepping-stone to something better. And, on a larger level, the sweatshops they work in, which also produce apparel for major UK labels, may represent a step toward a stronger economy for Bangladesh. But that’s precisely the kind of argument that Brand has been shooting down for a couple of years now in his fatuous rants against capitalism and globalization.

russell-brand
Russell Brand and Paraic O’Brien at London housing rally

Unsurprisingly, critics of Brand responded to the news of his Bangladesh sweatshop by calling him a hypocrite. And they’re right. If this isn’t hypocrisy, what is? Nor is this the first time he’s faced accusations of hypocrisy. Last December, for example, while taking part in a rally for more affordable housing in London, he “flew into a rage” when Channel 4 reporter Paraic O’Brien suggested that Brand himself “was part of the housing problem because the super-rich buying up property in London were driving up prices for everyone else.” His own £2 million home “in trendy Hoxton, east London,” it emerged, was “owned by a firm based in a tax haven.”

brandPerhaps it was British columnist Nick Cohen, writing in October 2013, who served up the definitive verdict on Russell Brand:

He writes as if he is a precocious prepubescent rather than an adolescent: a child, born after the millennium, who can behave as if we never lived through the 20th century. He does not know what happened when men, burning with zealous outrage, created states with total control of “consciousness and the entire social, political and economic system” – and does not want to know either.