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.

AFP whitewashes the Castros

Exotic Havana

From time to time on this site, we’ve examined various public figures who had a soft spot for the Castro regime in Cuba and media organizations whose reports from Cuba routinely focused on its purported charms rather than its totalitarian government. We’ve written about director Bob Yari, who filmed a movie in Cuba; designer Karl Lagerfeld, who used Havana’s crumbling buildings as a backdrop for a glamorous fashion show; and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who, notwithstanding his own wealth, made a point of castigation capitalism while celebrating the Castros. We’ve told the tale of Fidel’s affair with compliant ABC reporter Lisa Howard, noted the chummy relationship between Jesse Jackson and the Castros, and, not least, the shamelessness and fatuity with which Time Magazine, again and again, has glorified the island prison.

Jair Bolsonaro

On January 2, Agence France Press demonstrated that the perverse impulse to whitewash the Cuban regime is not dead in 2019. Under the headline “Cuba celebrates 60 years of revolution amid challenges and change,” AFP described Cuba as a longtime “source of inspiration for leftist Latin American governments,” but added that the nation faces “increasing isolation in a region dominated by a resurgent right,” notably the new Brazilian government led by “far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.”

AFP reported that Bolsonaro had “made a point of not inviting” the new Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro to his inauguration, a decision that some of us might consider principled but that AFP seemed to want readers to regard as churlish.

Nicolas Maduro

Typically, AFP labeled Bolsonaro – a pro-American, pro-Israeli conservative who has been dubbed the Latin American Trump – as “far-right,” and characterized Argentina, Chile and Peru as having “all swung to the right in recent years, unseating leftist governments.” A more objective media outlet might have put it a bit differently – might have said, that is, that the voters of those countries have rejected socialism in favor of democratic capitalism.

Evo Morales

Meanwhile, in its references to Cuba’s leaders, AFP was careful to avoid the word “dictator,” obediently referring to Raul Castro as “[e]x-president” and as “first secretary of the Communist Party,” identifying the late Fidel Castro as “Cuba’s revolutionary leader,” and giving the current thug-in-chief, Miguel Diaz-Canel, his official title of “President.” AFP also reported that Maduro had “paid tribute to the ‘heroic Cuban people,’” whom he praised for their “’resistance and dignity’ in the face of ’60 years of sacrifices, struggles and blockade.’” In addition, according to AFP, “[a]nother surviving leftist leader, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, said Cuba’s revolution gave birth to ‘the light of hope and invincible will for the liberation of the people.’” This effusive rhetoric by Maduro and Morales was presented by AFP without context, so that an ill-informed reader would never know that the Cuban people have spent the last six decades not as stalwart patriots who have bravely resisted a U.S. blockade but as downtrodden subjects of a totalitarian tyranny.

Fidel Castro

To be sure, the word “dictator” did eventually appear in the AFP article – but only as a means of describing Castro’s predessor, Fulgencio Batista. To its credit, moreover, AFP also mentioned, toward the end of its article, that Cuba is a communist state. It also quoted a dissident, but that dissident, as it happened, was not an anti-Communist who opposed the Cuban Revolution from the start but a diehard Communist named Vladimiro Roca, whose father was a sidekick of Fidel Castro, who himself had run afoul of authorities and spent several years in prison, and whose complaint was therefore that the Cuban Revolution “died a long time ago.”

Donald Trump

Moreover, while AFP acknowledged that Cuba “has faced heavy criticism” abroad, it presented the Cuban people not as decades-long victims of a brutal autocracy but as having “had to contend with an increasingly hostile administration under Trump these last two years.” There’s no hint that the Trump administration is hostile not to the Cuban people but to their unelected masters. In 2019, alas, such full-scale misrepresentation continues to be par for the course for all too many Western media.

Kuba with a K

Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, left, poses with the models who participated in the presentation of his "cruise" line for fashion house Chanel, at the Paseo del Prado street in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. With the heart of the Cuban capital effectively privatized by an international corporation under the watchful eye of the Cuban state, the premiere of Chanel 2016/2017 "cruise" line offered a startling sight in a country officially dedicated to social equality and the rejection of material wealth. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Karl Lagerfeld in Havana with some of his models

As more and more clueless and uncaring characters have made their way to Cuba during recent months, we’ve been following them there. Recently we took note of the Chanel fashion show that Karl Lagerfeld brought to Havana, spreading a thick layer of Seventh Avenue glitz over that crumbling city’s decades of Stalinist grit and grime. We’d be remiss if we didn’t add to the list the family whose name has become synonymous with the utter indifference of privileged Western celebrities to political and economic systems that have denied other people the rights and opportunities that have made them (i.e., the celebrities) rich and famous. We’re talking, of course, about that awful, ubiquitous clan whose name begins with a K and who, in early May, took their reality show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, to the island prison as part of their endless effort to stay in the spotlight and cultivate world-class photo ops. 

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Kim Kardashian, husband Kanye West, and their child North West in Havana

“Both the Karl Lagerfeld Chanel fashion show and Kardashian trip to Cuba for their TV show is emblematic of celebrity culture at its worst,” Cuba-born Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told the Los Angeles Times. “I know it might be a high bar to ask famous folks to draw attention to human rights abuses by the Castro regime, but playing a role in making Cuba a fun, no-worries destination is nothing but a cruel trick on the Cuban people. The Kardashians are taking lots of selfies in Havana, but are they taking stock of the reality on the streets they walk on?”

khloe-kardashian-blasted-by-social-media-users-for-posing-under-fidel-castro-sign-in-cubaIf you believe the gossip corner of the New York Post, Page Six, the Kardashians were “freaking out they [couldn’t] post on Snapchat in Cuba.” Even better, they didn’t managed to scare up the kind of attention there that they’re accustomed to. “Finally,” observed CNN’s Emily Smith, “there’s a place where no one cares about the Kardashians.” But this doesn’t mean that their slumming didn’t make headlines back home. In a welcome departure from the usual stateside indifference to such hijinks – at least according to Refinery29 (“the fastest growing independent fashion and style website in the United States”) – a photo posted by Khloé K. on Instagram, which put on display “the Kardashians’ apparent lack of knowledge (or disregard for) the country’s fraught political and social history,” made many social-network mavens “livid.” The picture (above) shows Khloé standing in front of a wall on which is written Fidel, the name of the never-elected monster who led the Cuban “Revolution” and served as “president” of that totalitarian empire for nearly half a century until, in 2008, he yielded power, nominally or not, to his brother, Raúl.

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A couple of the K. ladies in Havana

The picture, reported Refinery 29, “garnered comments on Instagram accusing the Kardashian[s] of disrespect and ignorance,” with some followers comparing the picture “to a tacit endorsement of Hitler.” Charged one commenter: “Might as well stand in front of a picture of hitler [sic] with emoji hearts in your eyes! I’m Cuban and this is fucking disrespectful.” Many social-network fans noted that the snap was particularly bemusing given the fact that Khloé “has spoken up about the Armenian genocide.” But the surprising thing, needless to say, isn’t that these PR whores are insensitive about Cuban Communism; it’s that one of them has even heard of the Armenian genocide.

Glitz and grime: Lagerfeld in Cuba

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Karl Lagerfeld in Havana

We’ve been discussing Karl Lagerfeld‘s recent fashion show – a massive bash to promote Chanel’s new line-up of pricey schmattas for rich people – held in the heart of destitute Havana, complete with 600 well-heeled guests, many of them international celebrities. Forget the cruel Communist reality that surrounded this scene – the event itself was all about fantasy, about illusion. Indeed, as Avril Muir put it in Harper’s Bazaar, “the entire thing looked like a film set, insanely beautiful in the soft evening light.” Never mind, as we say, the half-century of brutal Castroite repression and terror that was responsible for the crumbling backdrops of this “beautiful” spectacle: Lagerfeld and his crew from Chanel, cheered Muir, had “created a moment of fashion history.”

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Tilda Swinton was one of Lagerfeld’s 600 guests

To be fair, Muir was only one of many members of the fashion media – and, for that matter, mainstream media – who gushed over this event. While acknowledging that it was tough to put on “an elite fashion show in a country with an annual salary of £3,000,” and that Lagerfeld’s audacity in doing so “raised a few eyebrows,” the Guardian‘s Jess Cartner-Morley pronounced  Havana “a gorgeous setting for a fashion show” and decided to brand “Lagerfeld’s world view” with the relatively innocuous word “mischievous.” In the Daily Telegraph, Lisa Armstrong quoted a “flustered Chanel PR” person as saying that, yes, accommodation and dining options in Cuba are still “a bit Soviet,” observed that “most of the city is so decayed that only will-power and defiance keep it standing,” and pointed out that the country’s average annual salary is equivalent to the price of one large “classic Chanel quilted handbag” – but more important to Armstrong, apparently, was Havana’s “jaw-on-table degree of beauty,” which for six decades has been “un-besmirched by Western brands.”

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What’s left of the second-floor hallway of a building that collapsed in Havana on May 4

As it happens, on the same day (May 4) that Cartner-Morley and Armstrong filed their stories, one of those “beautiful” old Havana buildings collapsed “after a day of heavy rain and strong winds,” leaving fifty people homeless.  “The building had been declared unfit for habitation 31 years ago, in 1985,” reported Marti Noticias, “but people continued to live there and nothing was fixed. In addition, the wall that gave way, causing the building’s roof to cave in, had been declared extremely dangerous 13 years ago in 2003.”

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“Ordinary Cubans” checking out the glitterati

Despite claims, moreover, that Chanel had arranged for “ordinary Cubans” to be able to take part in the event, CNN, to its credit, noted that “[t]ight security prevented anyone without a coveted invitation from getting too close” and that those ordinary Cubans who wanted to get a peek at the “gloriously exuberant spectacle” had to do so from the windows and balconies of a relative handful of apartments that happened to look out on the Paseo del Prado. As Agence France-Presse put it, “ordinary Cubans were left watching the glitz from afar.” (WISH-TV, Channel 8 in Indianapolis, offered its own angle: Chanel’s show “offered a startling sight in a country officially dedicated to social equality and the rejection of material wealth.” The key word there, of course, being officially.

What Avril Muir and her colleagues were recounting, in short, was nothing less than yet another shameful episode in the history of privileged Western indifference to Communist despotism and deprivation. Alas, as the Cuban “thaw” continues, it looks as if there’ll be much, much more of this sort of nonsense in the months and years to come. 

Eau de Havana: Chanel meets Castro

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Lagerfeld (left) in Havana

And then there’s Karl Lagerfeld.

In recent weeks and months, we’ve been toting up some of the American pop-culture figures who’ve been jetting down to Havana since the so-called thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations made that destination even cooler (at least in the minds of some of our more ethically challenged celebrities) than it was before. This week we’ve looked at the high-profile filming in the Cuban capital of the latest Fast and Furious masterpiece and the recent release of the movie Papa Hemingway in Cuba, shot almost entirely on the prison island.

Here’s another item for our roster. “To unveil his Cruise 2017 collection for Chanel,” reported Harpers Bazaar the other day, Lagerfeld, the pompous, preposterous 82-year-old German designer who is head designer and creative director of Chanel, “flew the fashion pack out to Cuba, staging the first ever fashion show to be held in the country since the 1959 communist revolution.”

chanel-cuba-10The open-air show took place on the Paseo del Prado, “a street landscaped by a Frenchman and lined with colonnades on either side, painted in faded pastels.” Lagerfeld’s guests, 600 in all, including such celebrities as Tilda Swinton and Gisele Bundchen, “were chauffeured in a rainbow-coloured convoy of 170 old cars to a front row of park benches underneath trees that lined the centre of the street.” Lagerfeld’s glitzy garb, a “multicoloured sequin tuxedo,” made it clear he was “here to have fun.” And fun it was, with “dancing models and a delightfully eclectic collection that mixed up colour and print, masculine and feminine, Parisian chic and Cuban flair.”

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The beret worn by this model was inspired by Che Guevara’s habitual headwear

The Harper’s Bazaar contributor we’re quoting here is Avril Muir, who, scribbling in the storied style rag, described Lagerfeld’s big show as “a gloriously exuberant spectacle that showed the global reach of this supremely powerful brand.” Part of what made it so “glorious exuberant,” Muir emphasized, was that it was set in Cuba’s “beautiful capital city,” which she described as “a beguiling mix of ruined colonial houses, rusting Cadillacs and seafront boulevards which turn into a kind of catwalk for locals every night.” How supremely romantic! Cuba, Muir stated, is “a country where time has largely stood still since the late 1950s.” True enough; but the way she put it made it sound magical. Cuba, where time has stood still – just like in Shangri-La!

Muir didn’t realize it, of course, but what she was recounting here was an act of slumming on a truly monumental scale. Through the sheer wizardry of the fashion biz, one heartbreaking manifestation after another of abject poverty and oppression was transformed into a token of the utmost in chic.

Ruined houses? Dazzling! Rusting Cadillacs? Bewitching! Penniless serfs dragging themselves along the waterfront every night because they can’t afford to do anything else? Hey, it’s not a sad slog, folks – it’s a catwalk!

More tomorrow.