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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

singing.

Originally published in PoetryBay, Fall 2002

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The Political Animal Uncategorized

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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