Che, an inspiration?

Time’s special Cuba issue, published earlier this year

Back in August we flipped through Time Magazine’s special summer issue about Cuba, in which Karl Vick and other writers sang the praises of that country and its people – and even, in some cases, of the Castro regime (which, Vick assured us, isn’t really totalitarian). In a follow-up piece, we quoted a mind-boggling statement made by Vick about the Castros’ island prison in an essay he’d written for Time a few months earlier: “Their country is poor and, without doubt, a security state, but also safe, literate and healthy. People enjoy life in Cuba as in few other places.”

As we commented at the time, “’security state’ is itself something of a euphemism: it sounds nicer than ‘police state’ or ‘dictatorship,’ and is, to say the least, a rather tame way of describing a country that will imprison and torture you for criticizing its leaders or advocating for democracy.” For good measure, we cited a radio interview with Vick by Warren Olney, whose sharp questioning showed up the inanity of Vick’s starry-eyed views about Cuba under the Castros – and about the country’s post-Castro prospects. As we put it, Vick actually seemed to believe that “Cubans are worried that as a result of changes to come, some of them will no longer be destitute.”


You might think that Time has already given Cuba’s jailers more than enough friendly ink this year. But apparently the magazine’s editors just can’t bring themselves to stop paying tribute to Cuba’s leaders and the heroes of its revolution. So it was that on October 9, the forty-eighth anniversary of Che Guevara’s death, Time‘s website ran a piece by Jennifer Latson headlined “How Che Guevara Didn’t Let Asthma Affect His Ambitions.” It began:

Che Guevara might have considered the United States his worst enemy, but he faced an even greater threat to his revolutionary ambitions: asthma.

Latson tells us that “Che was born premature—tiny and sickly” and that “his father took a rough approach to infant rearing,” leaving the diapered baby out on a balcony in cold winter weather. “Instead of toughening him up, however,” Latson recounts, this tough love left Che “with a persistent cough and severe asthma.”

Jennifer Latson

But did Che let this stop him? No. He “embrac[ed] the rowdiness of youth,” pausing in his fast-paced rugby games only to use his inhaler. And he followed the “rugged revolutionary road to Cuba,” where an explosion of rage over U.S. imperialism once sent him into a “terrifying” two-hour asthma attack.

At no point does Latson remind us that Che was a bloodthirsty monster who said Americans were “hyenas…fit only for extermination”; who confessed that he “liked killing”; who demanded that the rabble think as a “mass,” not as individuals, and that they obey the regime unquestioningly; who despised freedom of the press; who said, “When in doubt, execute.” No, Latson’s story follows a familiar journalistic formula – the inspirational story of how a great man or woman overcame youthful obstacles. Teddy Roosevelt growing from a sickly and (yes) asthmatic child into the very picture of brave, heroic manliness. FDR triumphing over polio. Helen Keller transcending blindness and deafness.

(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

Latson winds up her piece with what’s meant as a charming, amusing coda. At a cabinet meeting, Castro said he needed a new head of the National Bank and asked his fellow gangsters if any of them was an economist. Che raised his hand, but after the meeting it became clear that there’d been some confusion:

“Say, I never knew you were an economist,” said Fidel. “Economist!” said Che, astounded. “I thought you said Communist!”

Adorable, no?

Karl Vick, Castro stooge

Karl Vick

Last week, we took a look at Time Magazine’s new special issue on Cuba, and in particular at the work of Time correspondent Karl Vick, who, in what we described as a “classic ‘to be sure’ sentence,” admitted that there’s some truth in Cuban exiles’ criticisms of the Castro regime, but maintained nonetheless that the country is not totalitarian.

As it turns out, Vick is a past master at those “to be sure” sentences about Cuba. A cover story he wrote about Cuba for a March issue of Time contains the following passage about Cubans: “Their country is poor and, without doubt, a security state, but also safe, literate and healthy. People enjoy life in Cuba as in few other places.” Of course, “security state” is itself something of a euphemism: it sounds nicer than “police state” or “dictatorship,” and is, to say the least, a rather tame way of describing a country that will imprison and torture you for criticizing its leaders or advocating for democracy.


Even more inane, however, were the remarks made by Vick in an April 1 interview with Warren Olney on the public-radio program To the Point.  Calling Cuba a “really intriguing place,” “the island that time forgot,” and a “really dynamic, really warm and convivial” country where the people “enjoy life,” etc., etc., Vick gushed over Havana’s “decaying glory” – in response to which Olney quite sensibly asked: “How is decay glorious?”

Vick didn’t know how to answer. “That’s a really good question,” he said. Plainly, it was a question he’d never asked himself while he was strolling around Havana breathlessly taking notes on the squalor or sitting at his desk banging out his fatuous cover story. He paused. Then he resumed talking, sounding lost, uncertain. He tried to paint the kind of picture of Havana that he’d painted in his article, but nothing he said remotely answered Olney’s question. In the end, after stumbling around for a while, all he managed to do was to cough up a synonym for “decaying glory”: “faded grandeur.”

There’s no kind way of saying it: he sounded like a first-rate fool.


But Olney wasn’t done with him. He asked: Isn’t the average wage in Cuba $25 a month? Vick admitted that it is, but was quick to add that “rent is free” and that using “dollar amounts” was “a bit misleading.” When Olney pointed out that even professionals in Cuba often need to hold menial jobs in the tourist industry to make ends meet, Vick again acknowledged that Olney was right. With a baffling chuckle, he recalled that during a visit to Cuba 17 years ago he’d been served by a waiter who was also a heart surgeon. Once again, however, he was quick to whitewash the problem: he actually seemed to imply that the doctor had taken the job waiting tables because he enjoyed meeting tourists. Besides, he told Olney, even though “everybody’s poor in dollars, in material ways,” the Cubans can boast of “some real social achievement.” What kind of achievement? “Social equity,” Vick said, explaining that nobody in Cuba is “much higher than anybody else.”

Social equality

In other words, they’re all paupers (except, he neglected to add, for the Castros themselves and other high-level officials). This equality, claimed Vick, “is one of the things that people are worried about losing with change.”

Yes, that’s a Time Magazine correspondent speaking: according to him, Cubans are worried that as a result of changes to come, some of them will no longer be destitute.

Warren Olney

Olney’s program – which also featured a travel agent specializing in Cuba, a spokeswoman for Roots of Hope, a U.S.-based group that works for change in Cuba, and (live from the island nation itself) a Cuban diplomat – was broadcast on Santa Monica station KCRW. At its website, a listener whose mother was from Cuba, and who vowed she would “never set foot in my mom’s homeland…until the people there are free,” praised Olney for pointing out Cubans’ poverty and lack of freedom. But she wasn’t impressed by Vick, to say the least. Reacting to his bizarre enthusiasm for an “equality” based on the fact that “everyone is dirt poor,” the listener pronounced, with admirable simplicity: “That’s some morality.”  And she made a salient point that somehow hadn’t come up at all on the program: she’d “have loved to hear some commentary from a Cuban dissident,” she wrote, “but they’re rather hard to reach because they live in a brutal police state.”

We’re done with Cuba for now, but not with Vick. Tune in tomorrow.