The Political Animal

La Habana Nueva

(It is a historic day — the American flag raised over the American embassy for the first time in 54 years. It seemed a good time to share my poem, La Habana Nueva, composed in 2002.)

In the new Havana
which is the old Havana
but older, as Dylan was younger than that now
Cesar – one eye now forever lost and spinning
in centerfield, glove and bare hand waiting and reaching
calmly beseeching the sky for the ball –
used to play for Industriale
who are the Yankee invasion that took.
When he sees your eyes search the cathartic
saline sick facades, as his eye
still seeks high drives
he says, “Where you from?” and you say
Estados Unidos, and he says “Estados Unidos!
Ah, my friend,” and hugs you like the plate.
He tells you what went wrong –
“the sun, she was lost in the ball” –
and shows you Granma, a mother
of a boat. Then the promised beer
in the bar where no tourists go
sluggish and dark like the future
turns into richer rum, a dollar a shot
on you, and goes down center smooth
and warm, like patience on the tongue.
A few convertible pesos more, for the baby’s milk
and his crazy eye catches your wallet
swollen with his desire, and you flee
a lover from too much need
ditch guilty cigarettes on the counter
because he wants your friendship
but your money more.

"Street Scene, Havana," Julia Dean, 2002
“Street Scene, Havana,” Julia Dean, 2002

In the new Havana
where the sun is lost in the ball
everyone is dizzy and calm with waiting.
We live in this world
orisha of embargoed time, colonial place
salsa of soul, danzon of dreams
dos ambos mundos at the Caribbean mouth, singing
la trove of old world, orotund anthem of new.
In the slow hurricane of history
beating BONG-O onto shore, conga
into sugar cane commerce, tobacco leaf lore
nothing is swept away, everything sways
like the coconut palm in the topical storm.
For God arrived, armored, in ships, belly
blown big by the world’s westering wind
devoured the old in the new, the new in the gold
horizons and the beaches, white with time.
But everything stays, nothing sweeps away
completely the Taino from the long dry bone
of earth – can wax spurred heels from palacio floors –
or cleans the mouth of language
or sets fire to the memory
that houses those who fled
or emancipates the future
from the past.
During and after the great gulf gale
that blustered over battlements and fields
and beat a hail of coin upon the curling tongues
the Cuban waters swelled with change
but on this island nothing is washed away
what leaves it stays, everything sways
like the coconut palm in the topical storm.

In the new Havana
everyone is loved
and no one is scorned by a weathered God.
A newer world rises like the Malecón spray
high over the seawall, soaking old Chevys
drenching the wounded pavement and the flesh
of dark lonely walkers, and Cesar is one.
He trawls in the wash for a light in the shadows
a dollar in a handshake, and the world’s great room
in a dreamy conversation. But still he is loved
by Ché and Fidel, with a new world’s ardor
and he’s loved by his cousins in Miami
and New Jersey, too, in their passionate refusal.
In the new Havana everyone is loved
but orphaned of care.
They live in this world
orisha of embargoed time, colonial place
salsa of soul, danzon of dreams, slow
hurricane of history:
dos ambos mundos at the Caribbean mouth


Originally published in PoetryBay, Fall 2002


New Fiction


My short story “La Revolución” is at the Ampersand Review.

I spent a week. Gary worked as a critic for a music magazine, so even when he had to work, I tagged along. The music was everywhere. Gary and Pilar, his second wife, lived in Miramar, a wide open, breezy Havana suburb. They ran a paladar, one of the unofficial private restaurants that people operate out of some of the large, multi-story, former private homes of that Embassy area. Pilar was a raven-haired beauty, bursting with sensuality and very gracious to me. She set us up with food and a couple of Mojitos that day I arrived, then left for the afternoon.

“No, stay,” I said.

She said, “Old friends. So many years apart. You need to know each other again. Later we’ll have dinner.”

And that’s what we did. Got to know each other again. When I was done bringing Gary to the present, he said, “You were always so shy. Just take her by the arm and start walking her home. She’ll let you. Don’t ask.”

He was talking about Regina. Gary always cared about his friends. He loved his friendships.

“She’s an alcoholic, Gary.”

“What, you’re afraid she won’t amount to anything in life? You like each other. Keep each other company.”

Gary and Pilar had been married almost fifteen years. She was forty-five. Gary left his first wife for her, after twenty years.

“It was the worst thing I ever did.”

I must have looked shocked.

“I don’t mean I regret it. That’s not it. A woman like Pilar? Pilar and music. The rest doesn’t matter.”

He saw me try to understand.

“It’s the worst thing I ever did to another person.” I could see him remember the pain. “The worst. And the thing is, I’d do it again.”

I was silent. “So things are good with Pilar?” I said after a while.

“They’ve been great.” He emptied his glass. “You remember that Bertolucci film Last Tango in Paris?”

He surprised me again. “Yeah?”

“Near the end Brando suddenly decides that he actually does want to know this woman, and he wants her to know him. He starts chasing her out of the tango hall, scaring the shit out of her, telling her everything he can about himself in a rush. He calls out above the music, ‘I got a prostate the size of a potato, but I’m still a pretty good stick man.’ I love that line. I think Brando ad-libbed it.”

Gary chewed on a mint leaf. He raised his eyebrows at me. “I got a prostate the size of a potato.”

I nodded. “These are good,” I said, draining my glass.

“Wait till you try the Havana Club. Siete. It’s like a warm fire in the winter going down.”

I never did bring up the politics of it all. Who was I to, anyway? And what might he have been feeling after all that had happened, or hadn’t.

“You’ve been happy here?” I asked instead.

“I love it,” he said. He glanced out the window toward the sea. “I don’t know. In the summer, when the breeze blows through the palms, or when the hurricanes make you feel like the island’s just a boat on the water, and you’re riding it out for all you can make of it, whatever moments there are. When the rhythm comes up and a woman like Pilar tosses her hips. And the maracas rattle and a man rolls his shoulders.” Now he looked at me. “It’s supposed to be an atheist society, right? After all this, there’s nothing?” He paused. “It’s the opposite of nothing.”

Start from the beginning and read the rest here.


Photo by DeviantArt user trace-on.  Used under a Creative Commons 3.0 License

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The Political Animal

The Nature of Real Authoritarian Secrecy

Terry Glavin, of Chronicles & Dissent, zeros in on some of what are by now the usual suspects in ill-considered Left excess, particularly their PT Barnum, Michael Moore, about whom Glavin has written so incisively in the past. Glavin’s focus now is on Moore’s Wikileaks role, including the latter’s usual manipulations of the truth regarding revelations about him and his film Sicko in the secret Wikileaks cables.

Moore himself tries to spin revelations about the Cuban reaction to Sicko as propagandistic Government spin – except, of course, that the cable from American diplomats in Cuba was confidential and not meant for public propagandistic release. So while Moore argues whether the cable actually claims Sicko was banned in Cuba – apparently not – he avoids a greater truth. Of the two additional references in the cable to Sicko, Glavin explains,

One concerns the stark contrast between Moore’s version of Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital in Havana and the reality of the decrepit hospital and its corrupt practices. Moore’s film shows the bright and shiny top floors of the hospital, which are in fact reserved for Venezuelan officials and diplomats who pay in hard cash. The hospital is otherwise off-limits to ordinary Cubans unless they can come up with bribes to the hospital administrator.

The other reference to Moore comes by way of a sarcastic suggestion that if he had been legitimately concerned about depicting the reality of the Cuban health care system he would have visited Havana’s Calixto Garcia Hospital, a crumbling 19th-century edifice that caters to ordinary, actually-existing Cubans. A foreign health service provider who visited the institution was “struck by the shabbiness of the facility,” its lack of staff, basic supplies, and how it was “reminiscent of a scene from some of the poorest countries in the world.”

The rest of the cable presents what might be charitably described as a horror show of Dickensian sick wards, exploitation of health care workers, disregard for the sick and injured and a variety of banana-republic practices about which the Cuban government should be abjectly ashamed. Do read it all, but also bear in mind that none of this should come as “news” to you.

If it’s a truly courageous “whistleblower” you want to advise you in the matter of the Cuban police state that Michael Moore and his friends would prefer you not know about, it’s Yoani Sánchez.

Here’s Comrade Yoani on the absolute irrelevance of the Wikileaks phenomenon to the wretched of the earth: “There are so many who don’t keep records, who have an unwritten culture of repression and who have paper incinerators that smolder all day; bosses who only need to raise an eyebrow, crook an index finger, whisper into an ear a death sentence, or a battle on an African plain, or a call to insult and assault a group of women dressed in white. If some of them would emerge in a local Wikileaks, they would get the maximum penalties, be made examples of with the strongest punishments, without worrying about whether to fabricate a charge of ‘rape’ or ‘bovine slaughter.’ They know that ‘seeing is believing’ and therefore take care that there is no material containing surprising revelations, that the real framework of absolute power will never be visible.”


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Seeing the World (We Want to See)

One can analyze at length how one, seeing the world, transforms into the other, seeing the world we want to see. There are varied predictors and indicators of the phenomenon. One is the the commitment to a closed, systematic ideology, especially reinforced either by supernatural belief or a fixed animus. We see this in the dogmatic anti-Castro community’s unyielding opposition, even after 50 years of policy failure, to any change in that policy, and even the refusal of its members to recognize that some good might come from any act by Castro. In another of yesterday’s fine Atlantic posts, this time again from Jeffrey Goldberg, we read how resistive the fanatics are to believing that, whatever Castro’s motives, his recent comments on Jews and Israel are beneficial. Here a member of Venezuela’s  Jewish community, until now poorly treated by Hugo Chavez, writes to Goldberg.

I understand that anti-Fidel people are saying that his statements of affection for Jews and his statements of hostility toward anti-Semitism were cynical and about politics and the need for international respect, but from our perspective this does not matter. Fidel’s words against anti-Semitism changed the way the government here talks to us and protects our institutions. The leader of our country showed us a lot of respect in our meeting, and we are glad the Cuban ex-president said the words that he said to you. It is difficult for Americans to understand (I also spend a lot of time in Miami) that Fidel is respected greatly in Latin America and in Venezuela. If he had said something hostile to our position, it would be terrible for us. With God’s help, we will survive as a community in Venezuela.

via How Fidel Castro Helped Venezuela’s Jews – Jeffrey Goldberg – International – The Atlantic.

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The Political Animal

The Truth About Cuba in 928 Words

I am reproducing below yesterday’s complete post about Cuba by Jeffrey Goldberg, who has been posting excerpts of his recent interview with Fidel Castro. It is the essential statement on Cuba. No additional detail or further personal anecdote would enhance the already perfect balance of its vision. There is no better example than Cuba of any kind of practical, adaptable, and nationally beneficial foreign policy vision having been trashed for decades by blind partisan politics. On one side of Goldberg’s statement is ideological delusion, on the other ideological fanaticism.

America’s Absurd and Self-Defeating Cuba Policy

Criticism of my series (ongoing) of interviews with Fidel Castro has been diverse and enthusiastic. Much of it has come from Cuban-Americans who dislike Castro with a ferocity I haven’t seen since the days when I covered the Middle East (which, if memory serves, was three weeks ago).

There are three main criticisms. The first is that I have too benign a view of Fidel Castro. The evidence for this includes the fact that I accompanied him to the Havana Aquarium and portrayed him as an old man who likes dolphins. The second criticism is that I have failed to take adequate note of Fidel’s lousy human rights record. The third, related critique, is that I too easily bought the left-wing argument that the American embargo of Cuba, and the travel ban imposed by America to keep its citizens from visiting Cuba, are hypocritical and self-defeating.

1)  In re: The dolphins. I’m a reporter; if Ivan the Terrible had asked me to go bowling with him, I would have gone bowling with him. And I would have gone para-gliding with Pol Pot, and I would have played mini-golf with Saddam Hussein. Our job as reporters is to get as close as physically possible to our subjects, and try to gain whatever insight we can into their character and behavior. Which brings me to point two:

2)  Fidel Castro is not Ivan the Terrible, Pol Pot, or Saddam Hussein. I know that in some circles it is forbidden to argue that Fidel Castro is anything other than the most evil dictator in the history of totalitarianism, but the record simply doesn’t support this belief.  Of course, Cuba is still a one-party state; its people are not free to express themselves; its jails still hold a fair number of dissidents (though their release is currently being negotiated); and Cuban socialism has driven the country’s economy into the ground. I’ve read the reports of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department on the status of human rights in Cuba, and they present a strikingly unpretty picture. I am also largely unmoved by the argument that the Revolution should be lauded because it provides free health care and education for all Cubans. I personally would gladly trade free health care for political freedom. On the other hand, a close reading of the human rights literature suggests to me that the leadership of Cuba is not morally comparable to the leadership of Zimbabwe, Burma, Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea, Eritrea, Venezuela (!) – the list is almost endless. And I would also point out that China’s human rights record, in particular, makes Cuba’s look like Norway’s.

I also try to judge leaders not only against a Utopian ideal of beneficent leadership, but against the leadership that they actually replaced. This is why I don’t get quite as exercised as some people do about the chaos and violence in Iraq over the past seven years. Iraq under Saddam was a charnel house, but a charnel house uncovered by the media and ignored by most liberals. It is intellectually dishonest and morally repugnant to suggest, even through omission, that Iraq was a benign place before the invasion. This is true in the case of Fidel Castro, as well. I  judge his revolution against what it replaced, namely, the thugocracy of Batista, who was a friend only to a handful of oligarchs and American mafia leaders. Yes, I am mainly unimpressed with the argument that Castro should be credited for innovations in universal health care and education, but many of the poorest Cubans under Batista (which is to say, most Cubans) appreciated these innovations.

3) About the embargo: My objections to American policy toward Cuba are three-fold. One, as my friend Julia Sweig says, if you do the same thing for fifty years and it doesn’t work, maybe you should do something else. The American embargo has failed to restore property rights to many of the Cubans who fled Castro; it has alienated much of Latin America from successive American presidents; it has provided a ready-made way for Castro to explain away his own failures of leadership, and it has provided the Cuban government with an excuse to justify its own anti-democratic policies. And of course, it has failed to remove the Castro brothers from power. The second reason: Hypocrisy. As I pointed out above, Cuba, in my opinion, is a second-tier human rights abuser. We do massive business with all sorts of terrible regimes. We even seek dialogue with the heinous leadership of Iran, in order to advance our interests. Well, we have interests in Cuba, and in Latin America, that are not being advanced because we are stuck in a 50-year-old rut.

The third reason is related to the second: Obsolescence: Cuba is changing. I don’t know if you’ve heard this yet, but the Cuban model doesn’t even work for Cuba anymore, which is why its government is experimenting with privatization and other previously taboo economic concepts. Cuba will need help making the transition to a form of regulated capitalism. The European Union is ready to help; Brazil and the rest of Latin America are ready to help; the Chinese are always ready to help if there is money to be made. The U.S., however, has benched itself from this game. The American embargo still matters, but less and less. Soon, it won’t matter at all. If we want to have influence in the way Cuba is governed in the 21st century, it would be smart to actually talk to Cuba.


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The Political Animal

Poking around the Web: a Reading

As the title suggests, I wasn’t surfing. Obviously, that’s surface and quick: a cool glide. I do that, but mostly I poke around. It’s somewhat haphazard, but it isn’t a ride. I stop constantly and I probe. Curiosity is one of the life forces: the simple impulse, desire, need to know. Were the earth and its environs at some stage of being sucked into a black hole (any astrophysicists out there who can speculate on the likelihood – not to put too fine a point on it – in my lifetime?) there would, to the very last possible moment, be scientists maintaining a grip while observing and measuring the phenomenon. I would be Richard Dreyfuss gazing up, eyes like white diamonds, at approaching oblivion. Even though everything learned would be lost in the instant.

Curiosity. It fills the time.


So I was poking around some Latin American blogs I’d been meaning to check out – I read some already, and these had been referrals – when I stopped in at Along the Malecón. It has lots of photos, and I’ve been to Cuba. I wrote a poem from my experience. The Malecón of the blog title is the Havana sea wall that lines the Caribbean, overlooked by the crumbling facades of Neo-Classical and Moorish buildings. A stroll along el Malecón, where old Chevys pass and a breaking wave may crash hugely over the wall and soak you, can evoke all of the complex history, music, and romance of the city.

The post I focused on was about a staged street contretemps involving Cuban journalist Reinaldo Escobar and a mob of Castro supporters who swarmed and jostled him. Escobar is the wife of blogger Yoani Sánchez, of the blog Generation Y, and who sometimes appears on HuffPo. Sanchez is a preeminent Cuban dissident who has been cited for distinction and won several awards, including, most recently, the Columbia University School of Journalism’s “Marie Moors Cabot Prize,” for which the Cuban government refused Sanchez a travel visa to New York to accept the award. Recently, Sanchez posed on her blog a series of questions to both Raul Castro and President Obama. Obama has answered them.

street scene

The author of the blog is reporter and teacher Tracey Eaton, who spent five years in Cuba as Havana Bureau Chief for the Dallas Morning News, and he reported on the Escobar incident professionally and objectively. I found the first, at that point only, comment to the post curious. It seemed to suggest, in a slippery, backdoor way that Cubans actually have greater redress for their grievances than do the people of any other nation. (My goodness! What have the last fifty years been about? ¡Un qué error!) Then the anonymous commenter stated that Sanchez and other “dissidents” (the commenter’s quotation marks) were not what they appeared to be. Why not and what they were the identityless commenter did not say. You can read my comment in response, calling the earlier commenter out.

Sometime later in the day, Eaton himself commented, blandly thanking the first commenter and writing, “It is true that we hold Cuba up to impossible standards sometimes. We put Cuba under a microscope and somehow expect it to shine all of the time.”

Second stage curiosity now kicked in. “Impossible standards”? Like freedom and democracy? I didn’t know those were impossible standards. Again, what conflicts could have been avoided.

I returned to my work, while soothing the sting of this pointed disregard of my own comment (I am very sensitive) with curious rumination. Then two more comments came in, form a third commenter, the essence of which is captured herein:

Yoani and Escobar…are creations of the American (anti-Cuba) capitalist news media and receive support and encouragement from the gusanos in Miami and from the Yankee imperialist government, as Obama has demostrated with his stupid “answer” to questions submitted by this sensation and publicity seeking bloguera.

This was followed by another “thanks for the comments” from Eaton.

What was I, chopped liver? No polite little thank you for my brave contribution?

film noir

Now, I’m really curious. I do some more of that poking about, regarding Eaton, and can find nothing but his very professional reporting on Cuba. I even come across a final, personal piece he wrote near the end of his Dallas Morning News tenure, looking back on his experiences in Cuba. The piece reflects, again, a kind of bland unwillingness to reach conclusions about experience that I sometimes find in reporters who have so trained themselves not to form opinions. Other than that, I can find nothing to account for the imbalance in thank yous, or the thank yous at all. Was it me? Should I have railed against gusanos and imperialists and publicity seeking blogueras?

And then another comment arrived in my mailbox, from Leftside (okay, now we’re at least clear), who thinks Sanchez a foreign agent (a subject to which I’ll return at another time), and who writes of Sanchez’s own detention by police, “We can argue whether any injuries were the result of Yoani’s own resistance to the detention, or the aggressive action of taking a piece of paper from the security officials and putting it in her mouth.”

That’s some “aggressive action.” I’da beat the living daylights out of her with a hose, and no doubt the dead in Iran shot themselves, through the aggressive action of resisting the theft of their electoral process.

Anyway, can you see it coming?

“Leftside, Thanks for your comments….:

Well, now I’m so curious, I can’t stop scratching myself. I have written Eaton and asked him if he would like to respond. I’ll let you know.


Tracey Eaton, after my contacting him to offer an opportunity to respond, has left a comment – thanking me for the comment on his blog. Hmn.

Back after the Thanksgiving weekend with The Open Mind III: Judgment Day.


Photography by Julia Dean