Category Archives: Cuba

Glenn Beck’s Che revisionism-revisionism

[I don’t know why I give a shit…]

I am tempted to call Glenn Beck’s style of argument “anecdotal” in the worst sense. He habitually infers very broad trends from particulars numbering close to zero. But he combines this with a penchant for simply making shit up.

For instance, a five-minute random sampling of his show (conducted by myself in the spirit of Al Franken vs. Ann Coulter’s book) yielded the charge that “American public schools” are promoting “earth worship.” Beck’s sole evidence is a single poster hung in one of the nation’s 100,000 public schools urging students to “pledge allegiance to the earth.” Of course, this is hardly the action of “public schools.” But even if every teacher in every school made those posters, it still wouldn’t amount to “earth worship.” While to worship something is to pledge allegiance to it, the reverse is simply not the case. And it is doubtful that Beck considers the morning Pledge to constitute a call to worship of the flag or Republic.

Often, this anecdotal-plus approach occurs in layers. Beck’s views on Che Guevara are a great example. He uses a false interpretation of one of Che’s statements to discredit “Che the man,” and from Che the man to discredit very “socialism” itself. (Not to mention equating this “socialism” with anything Obama is doing.)

He combines this in turn with “bad idealism,” according to which human mind-states count more in political discourse than actual, material outcomes. Again, with Beck this is not just your garden variety bad idealism but manages to be more perverse with the addition of counterfactuality: In his assessments of Obama, for instance, not only is he overconcerned with the President’s “thoughts and feelings” about things, but he thinks these mind-states matter even when they cannot find expression in action at all. It is always about what Obama “wants to do” or how he “would remake the country if he got his way.”

* * *

But onto Beck’s analysis of Che, as given on his Jan. 22 “expose” of communist historical figures.

He spends most time trying to establish that Che was an anti-black racist. The evidence is the following quote, which Beck (or his guest) actually gets wrong. As quoted by Che’s biographer:

The black is indolent and fanciful, he spends his money on frivolity and drink; the European comes from a tradition of working and saving which follows him to this corner of American and drives him to get a head, even independently, of his own individual aspirations.

Here we have a young man’s single, private impression on seeing black people for the first time. Note that these are particular black people; there is no evidence Che would extrapolate from his localized experience in a Caracas slum to “the black race” in a general sense. As a diary entry, it was a thought which happened to be written down, unfiltered, unedited, unintended for publication. While chauvanistic, naive and snooty in a vein typical of the writer’s upper-class Argentine background, the quote is not particularly nasty. (As with Barbara Bush’s observation that the Superdome was a vacation for the Katrina refugees, it isn’t clear the speaker has bad feelings toward his subject.) It was written—for fuck’s sake—in 1952, prior to even the relative “progress” of “separate but equal” in the states.

Beck supplies the quote, and nothing else. From this alone he argues for Che’s racism. He summarizes the man as “a racist”—not “an ex-racist,” not “a man capable of bad ideas about race.”

Is that enough, though? Is the quote (is any quote?) so bad that there is absolutely nothing the speaker might have conceivably gone on to think or say or do in his remaining years which might have atoned for or mitigated it? Is there nothing else that matters—that could matter?

We can dick around over the severity of the statement. The point is that, whatever it means, Che changed his fucking mind. We know that he went on to condemn racism explicitly, privately and publicly, and in terms far less ambiguous than the above “affirmation.” He went on to lead one of the most effectively “unracist” lives in history:

In his 1964 address to the UN, Che railed against color segregation in the American south, which persisted despite the recent passage of the Voting Rights Act. Arguing the federal government hadn’t done enough to restrain the KKK:

Those who kill their own children and discriminate daily against them because of the color of their skin, those who let the murderers of blacks remain free—protecting them, and furthermore punishing the black population because they demand their legitimate rights as free men…How can those who do this consider themselves guardians of freedom?… The time will come when this assembly will acquire greater maturity and demand of the United States government guarantees for the life of the Blacks and Latin Americans who live in that country, most of them U.S. citizens by origin or adoption.

In the same speech, Che called slain Congolese president Patrice Lumumba a “hero” for resisting the white Belgian colonists; lauded the black singer Paul Robeson, who brought the Negro Spiritual into American pop culture and who was persecuted by American intelligence for socialist ties; and condemned South African apartheid when nobody in the West was talking about that issue.

Following the military success of the Cuban revolution, Che aided the African independence struggle in the Congo. He led an all-black contingent of a dozen Cuban soldiers and native Congolese against the colonial forces, requiring him to shoot at white South African mercenaries. Later, Che met with leaders of Mozambique’s independence struggle, offering similar help to the black FRELIMO army (which was declined). (Of course, as Cuba’s own population is largely black, Che’s assistance to that revolution falls in the same category as the above.)

Che with his Congolese army

Che also led the integration of Cuban schools years before Brown v. Board of Education. Finally, at risk of playing the “some of my best friends are black” card, Che’s most constant companion during the revolution (and consequently his personal bodyguard) was Harry “Pombo” Villegas, who was, like almost all the men in the units Che led, a black Afro-Cuban. Pombo is, to my knowledge, still living, and has in his memoirs attested to Che’s anti-racist credentials. (In this assessment, he joins black leaders like Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and Stokely Carmichael.)

* * *

The broader point speaks to that hyper-idealism of Beck’s: Not only is a diary entry not “Che,” but Che is not “the Cuban Revolution.” However Che “felt” about anything, the Cuban revolution effected real, tangible progress on race in a historical sense—no small thanks to Che’s actions.

The greatest literacy bump in history occurred after the Revolution. Illiteracy went from nearly a quarter of the population to less than four percent in under a year. This mostly affected Cubans of color.

The Revolution instituted an immediate 50 percent reduction in rents and subsequently granted tenants full ownership of these houses. As a result, more blacks per capita own their homes in Cuba than in any country in the world.

Cuba’s revolution is well known internationally for its aggressively anti-racist foreign policy. Most impressive was Cuba’s role in the helping end the racist South African apartheid regime. From late 1975 to 1988, 300,000 Cuban internationalist volunteers participated in the war in Angola, routing the invading South African armed forces, thereby hammering a final nail in the coffin of apartheid. Angolan textbooks will forever teach this episode to elementary school children.

Just as a youthful, renounced diary scribble is not “Che,” neither is Che, nor the Cuban Revolution, “socialism.” To this end, who gives a shit what Che thought, or even did? Those things are an interesting historical aside, but they don’t bear the load Beck wants them to. Social science/activism isn’t religion; condemning the prophet has no power to indict the theory, or anyone else’s practice of the theory.

* * *

Predictably, Beck’s other bear is the “Che killed a bunch of people” modality. In truth, nobody has sound figures on how many “loyalists” died in the Cuban Revolution. In any case, Che did run a prison for a brief time, and some people were tried and executed there. Unless Beck is against the death penalty in every case whatsoever, he must give us more. He must critique the trials themselves, the evidence used and soforth. Note also the death penalty was largely applied, and summarily so, as a humane preventative to the locals’ mobbing the prisoners—their former brutalizers—limb from limb. This is acknowledged by the most unsympathetic historians of the episode. Justifiably or not, however, none of this business amounts to “Che killing people.”

Glenn Beck’s Che revisionism-revisionism

[I don’t know why I give a shit…]

I am tempted to call Glenn Beck’s style of argument “anecdotal” in the worst sense. He habitually infers very broad trends from particulars numbering close to zero. But he combines this with a penchant for simply making shit up.

For instance, a five-minute random sampling of his show (conducted by myself in the spirit of Al Franken vs. Ann Coulter’s book) yielding the charge that “American public schools” are promoting “earth worship.” Beck’s sole evidence is a single poster hung in one of the nation’s 100,000 public schools urging students to “pledge allegiance to the earth.” Of course, this is hardly the action of “public schools.” But even if every teacher in every school made those posters, it still wouldn’t amount to “earth worship.” While to worship something is to pledge allegiance to it, the reverse is simply not the case. And it is doubtful that Beck considers the morning Pledge to constitute a call to worship of the flag or Republic.

Often, this anecdotal-plus approach occurs in layers. Beck’s views on Che Guevara are a great example. He uses a false interpretation of one of Che’s statements to discredit “Che the man,” and from Che the man to discredit very “socialism” itself. (Not to mention equating this “socialism” with anything Obama is doing.)

He combines this in turn with “bad idealism,” according to which human mind-states count more in political discourse than actual, material outcomes. Again, with Beck this is not just your garden variety bad idealism but manages to be more perverse with the addition of counterfactuality: In his assessments of Obama, for instance, not only is he overconcerned with the President’s “thoughts and feelings” about things, but he thinks these mind-states matter even when they cannot find expression in action at all. It is always about what Obama “wants to do” or how he “would remake the country if he got his way.”

But onto Beck’s analysis of Che, as given on his Jan. 22 “expose” of communist historical figures. He spends most time trying to establish that Che was an anti-black racist. The evidence is the following quote, which Beck (or his guest) actually gets wrong. As quoted by Che’s biographer:

“The black is indolent and fanciful, he spends his money on fivolity and drink; the European comes from a tradition of working and saving which follows him to this corner of American and drives him to get a head, even independently, of his own individual aspirations.”

Here we have a young man’s single, private impression on seeing black people for the first time. Note that these are particular black people; there is no evidence Che would extrapolate from his localized experience in a Caracas slum to “the black race” in a general sense. As a diary entry, it was a thought which happened to be written down, unfiltered, unedited, unintended for publication. While chauvanistic, naive and snooty in a vein typical of the writer’s upper-class Argentine background, the quote is not particularly nasty. (As with Barbara Bush’s observation that the Superdome was a vacation for the Katrina refugees, it isn’t clear the speaker has bad feelings toward his subject.) It was written—for fuck’s sake—in 1952, prior to even the relative “progress” of “separate but equal” in the states.

Beck supplies the quote, and nothing else. From this alone he argues for Che’s racism. He summarizes the man as “a racist”—not “an ex-racist,” not “a man capable of bad ideas about race.”

Is that enough, though? Is the quote (is any quote?) so bad that there is absolutely nothing the speaker might have conceivably gone on to think or say or do in his remaining years which might have atoned for or mitigated it? Is there nothing else that matters—that could matter?

We can dick around over the severity of the statement. The point is that, whatever it means, Che changed his fucking mind. We know that he went on to condemn racism explicitly, privately and publicly, and in terms far less ambiguous than the above “affirmation.” He went on to lead one of the most effectively “unracist” lives in history:

In his 1964 address to the UN, Che railed against color segregation in the American south, which persisted despite the recent passage of the Voting Rights Act. Arguing the federal government hadn’t done enough to restrain the KKK:

“Those who kill their own children and discriminate daily against them because of the color of their skin, those who let the murderers of blacks remain free—protecting them, and furthermore punishing the black population because they demand their legitimate rights as free men…How can those who do this consider themselves guardians of freedom?… The time will come when this assembly will acquire greater maturity and demand of the United States government guarantees for the life of the Blacks and Latin Americans who live in that country, most of them U.S. citizens by origin or adoption.”

In the same speech, Che called slain Congolese president Patrice Lumumba a “hero” for resisting the white Belgian colonists; lauded the black singer Paul Robeson, who brought the Negro Spiritual into American pop culture and who was persecuted by American intelligence for socialist ties; and condemned South African apartheid when nobody in the West was talking about that issue.

Following the military success of the Cuban revolution, Che aided the African independence struggle in the Congo. He led an all-black contingent of a dozen Cuban soldiers and native Congolese against the colonial forces, requiring him to shoot at white South African mercenaries. Later, Che met with leaders of Mozambique’s independence struggle, offering similar help to the black FRELIMO army (which was declined). (Of course, as Cuba’s own population is largely black, Che’s assistance to that revolution falls in the same category as the above.)

Che also led the integration of Cuban schools years before Brown v. Board of Education. Finally, at risk of playing the “some of my best friends are black” card, Che’s most constant companion during the revolution (and consequently his personal bodyguard) was Harry “Pombo” Villegas, who was, like almost all the men in the units Che led, a black Afro-Cuban. Pombo is, to my knowledge, still living, and has in his memoirs attested to Che’s anti-racist credentials. (In this assessment, he joins black leaders like Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and Stokely Carmichael.)

***

The broader point speaks to that hyper-idealism of Beck’s: Not only is a diary entry not “Che,” but Che is not “the Cuban Revolution.” However Che “felt” about anything, the Cuban revolution effected real, tangible progress on race in a historical sense—no small thanks to Che’s actions. The greatest literacy bump in history occurred after the Revolution, affecting mostly people of color.

The Cuban Revolution instituted an immediate 50 percent reduction in rents and subsequently granted tenants full ownership of these houses. As a result, more blacks per capita own their homes in Cuba than in any country in the world.[1] Lourdes Casal (“The Position of Blacks in Brazilian and Cuba Society”, Minority Rights Group Report No. 7, pp. 11-27)

Cuba’s revolution is well known internationally for its aggressively anti-racist foreign policy. Most impressive was Cuba’s role in the helping end the racist South African apartheid regime. From late 1975 to 1988, 300,000 Cuban internationalist volunteers participated in the war in Angola, routing the invading South African armed forces, thereby hammering a final nail in the coffin of apartheid. Angolan textbooks will forever teach this episode to elementary school children.

Neither is Che, nor the Cuban Revolution, “socialism.” To this end, who gives a shit what Che thought, or even did? Those things are an interesting historical aside, but they don’t bear the load Beck wants them to. Social science/activism isn’t religion; condemning the prophet has no power to indict the theory, or anyone else’s practice of the theory.

Finally, Beck repeats the whole “Che killed a bunch of people” schtick. In truth, nobody has sound figures on how many “loyalists” died in the Cuban Revolution. In any case, Che did run a prison, and people were tried and executed there. Unless Beck is against the death penalty in every case whatsoever, he must give us more. He must critique the trials themselves, the evidence and soforth. Needless to say, none of this business amounts to “Che killing people.” Note also the death penalty was largely applied, and summarily so, as a humane preventative to the locals’ mobbing the prisoners—their former brutalizers—limb from limb. This is acknowledged by the most unsympathetic historians of the episode.

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Stossel on Moore’s Sicko

[Revised, substantially, 11-18-07.]

moore-with-doctor.jpg

Stossel’s Target: What Isnt True…

I haven’t viewed John Stossel’s 20/20 response to Michael Moore’s Sicko—that is, to its “Cuban” parts—but I’ve read ABC’s report on the TV piece here. Needless to say, Stossel looks to show the downside of Cuban health care. It’s a reasonable question to ask of any report, Just what is the point?—for surely there is one. Two interpretations are possible:

(1) The article opens with the claim that Moore’s “movie says [Cuba’s] socialized medicine—government-run medicine—is great for everyone.” Later, the article quotes Miami’s Jose Carro, who knocks such “films that try to portray the health care system as superior to that of the U.S.”

So perhaps Stossel’s objective is disprove Michael Moore on these claims. But this interpretation founders on two counts: The most obvious problem is that Moore claims no such thing in Sicko. He doesn’t say that that Cuban medicine, nor “socialized medicine,” is “great for everyone.” (Nor does Moore give any view whatsoever on the overall merits of Cuban medicine relative to the American.)

A second issue with this interpretation is, in brief, that for Michael Moore to claim any such thing would be so obviously absurd as to hardly require an on-site major-network documentary to counter it. Clearly, it only takes one mediocre—much less bad—experience with Cuban health care to debunk the claim that it is “great for everyone”; all of Stossel’s “poverty footage” is just overkill. On sheer statistical probability, we can assume of (any health care system) that such a less-than-“great” experience has at some point been had by somebody.

Of course, I can’t say for sure that Stossel doesn’t interpret Moore to be saying such an absurd thing and hasn’t rushed to Cuba to debunk it in overkill. Nor can I rule out that he has some more modest claim of Moore’s (actual or alleged) in view. But consider: In Sicko Moore doesn’t claim much of anything about Cuban health care; some “health tourist” footage is presented, conclusions left largely to the viewer. We can be sure that whatever the point, Moore is saying something about Cuban health care; that is his focus. To the extent that Stossel is countering it, then—on the most charitable interpretation—his report would appear to be as much about the state of Cuban health care itself as Moore’s. (Again, to assume this is charitable; a television piece isn’t really justified if the point is to slam something one ordinary guy says—even if it isn’t absurd. A reasonable journalistic focus is not upon the fact that he said it, but upon whatever he is actually talking about; and it is interesting only to the extent that the latter is, in itself, interesting.)

…Or What Doesnt Matter?

If Stossel’s point is to offer a statement on the Cuban health care system, his statement could only be that there are some bad aspects to it. But what, in turn, could be the point of this?: Yes, Cuban health care is capable of some lapses and deficiencies. That some tiny, poor (not to say beleagured) Latin American country lends itself to these are unsurprising. Why does Cuba in particular rate such attention on this count? It occurs to nobody at ABC or anywhere else to sneak hidden cameras into Bolivian or Ecuadoran or rural Khazakh hospitals to count cockroaches on the floor or cracks in the ceiling. Would an “expose” of health care in any other “third world” nation even be interesting? (Reporter: “This just in: Yep, Bolivia is still pretty goddamned poor.”) Would it be scandalous, no less?

(And what is the lesson of the documentary, then?—for again, in investigative journalism surely there is one. Are we asking Cuba not to be poor? Or to be poor but bear no marks which could possibly identify it as poor? I don’t get this.)

So Why Cuba?

I can figure two—very poor—reasons¹ why Cuba is disproportionately targeted:

(1) As I’ve written elsewhere of Dr. Farsi Ferrer, who is interviewed in the Stossel piece, such critics seem strangely less upset that there are some problems to be found in some Cuban hospitals than that these problems coexist alongside some good features. Critics are angry about the existence of what they term “elite” or “showpiece” hospitals which, like the “best” of any other commodity in the world, represent the most value, cost the most to get, and thus necessarily exclude some with less to spend. There is certainly a qualitative range of medical “products” in Cuba and these are to some degree reflected in price. These critics speak as though it were preferable that everyone in Cuba get crappy health care—like all the other parts of the world in which everyone gets crappy health care.

(2) Second, critics of Cuban health care, or of that something called “socialised medicine,” inevitably work with a strawman in view. I can’t tell you how many times a critic has offered me some snapshot of poor Cubans or a report of medical shortages with the gloss, “See your glorious Communist paradise?” The [report on the] Stossel piece can be viewed this way, pretending that somebody has alleged Cuban health care to be “great for everyone.” If Cuba is held to a “paradisal” or “unequivocally great” standard, it will of course fail, as would any other system (of anything) in the world. But no serious defender of Cuba is saying anything like that. Not even the Cuban leadership talks that way. (Read any speech of Fidel’s—which will cover health care because all of Fidel’s speeches cover every topic: It’s pretty pragmatic and down to earth, rhetorically speaking.) So the initial target is a fiction.

Conclusion

Cuba, with its defenders, does claim exceptional performance for itself in the health care field. Where this is a general claim, it is cited relative to other Latin American neighbors; it is claimed “better than the U.S.” in terms of distribution of available resources. (Crudely put, Cuba just doesn’t have the money to give “First World” health care to everyone, all the time (and still eat, drive, educate, etc.); while the U.S. does have the money, yet doesn’t nearly do it.)

On some unexpressed personal level, Stossel could be motivated by these special claims; and indeed, these claims might justify a full-blown documentary. But the piece he actually offers (a) doesn’t much compare Cuba to its neighbors; (b) nor could a simple catalog of “bad things” about Cuban hospitals address the question of how Cuba is doing with what it has. (Much less how it is doing with what it has versus what the U.S. is doing with what it has. Much less with just what “socialized medicine” could have to do with any of it.)

I’ve written much more generally about the Cuban health care system here.

* * *

Bonus Videos

(1) Stossel has been “exposing” the obvious for awhile.

(2) Moore does a decent job of deflecting Stossel-like criticisms on CNN; catalogue here.

Notes

¹These are not quite “the reasons why” Cuban health care is targeted. The real “reasons why” are ideological, probably obvious, and beyond the scope of this post. (1) and (2) are more like rhetorical motifs used in targeting Cuba, for (as always) those ideological reasons.

I think they call this “baby-eating empiricism” [response to reader]

[One must oneself become foolish to talk to a fool. Engagement with anyone requires shared terms of engagement. Two parties with zero shared concepts could hardly begin to communicate. And for obvious reasons, it is easier to approximate the fool’s own terms than the reverse. This poses two sorts of problems. Either: One ends up saying things that aren’t quite correct but might be close enough for present purposes—as we might instruct children that the “socks like to go in the drawer” for the purpose of teaching tidiness. The risk is that the hearer apply the lesson beyond that purpose—as the child may claim socks for friends and be ridiculed by schoolmates; Or: One finds oneself making banal points in language that very obviously “tries” not to sound that way—ringing forced or pedantic, etc. The below post risks the second type. But the position engaged is so pervasive as to obligate me. (And I want to nail the sad shot).]

Miami expatriate types always respond to pro-revolution talk by arguing: You can’t know anything about Cuba until you visit there, maybe even live there, “under the regime.” For me, the latest example comes from “Babalu” of babalublog.com. (His is one of the best anti-Castro sites around; and it’s terrible.) He imagines, in one of multiple emails sent to convince me that he doesn’t care what I’m convinced of: “As far as Im [sic] concerned, unless youve [sic] lived it [i.e., Cuba], you have no idea what it actually is.”

This is flawed on some key levels:

(1) First, the argument supposes that—like a kind of god—my own experience is somehow more privileged than anybody else’s. I have no reason to think this. This being said, even if it were true that only a person who has “lived” something has a right to thoughts about it, this still wouldn’t rule out that I could use his opinion as a basis for my own. (Call this a kind of “vicarious experience.”) One can absorb this through testimony, encapsulated in such forms as written and oral discourse, polling, etc.

Indeed, if we could never make assumptions based on the related, second-hand experience of another, human life would become impossible: My boss just told me to file some contracts. For all my experience tells me, he may have been fired 5 minutes ago without my knowledge, ceasing to be my boss and thus unable to give me orders; maybe these are not actually contracts, but forgeries; maybe I’m supposed to throw them away and not file them. These are all possibilities, and since I haven’t “lived” in the person of my (alleged) boss, or a witness to any firings or contract-strikings, I cannot say for sure they aren’t true. To perform my job—that is, to eat—I have to assume that what this guy tells me about his own “experience” (even if he “tells” me it implicitly—by not saying otherwise) is basically correct. It is unclear why Cuba should be approached in a manner different from all other arenas of human life.

(2) Consider any discipline or profession which requires one to have opinions on “world events”—Political Science, journalism, etc. Members of these disciplines claim to “know” things about dozens of countries to which they’ve never actually been. Indeed, to truly “know” Cuba one must know something at least of the U.S., Spain, the Soviet Union and West Africa. And to know of the USSR, in turn, one must know of all the Eastern satellites; and of Spain, one must know France and Mexico (etc.). Who has been to, much less “lived under” all of the implicated “regimes”? Specifically, the history of Cuba is bound up with the histories of other nations. But nobody alive has “lived” since the very births of these nations; one can “experience” history, but not histories.

(3) Even among the now-living, nobody shares precisely the same parcel of experience as anyone else. I may as well say to Babalu: “Unless you have ‘lived under’ the precise circumstances that have shaped me, and led to my views on Cuba, you have no idea about them and cannot say anything about my Cuba posts.” Indeed, for Babalu, which Cuban would qualify to speak of his nation? No Cuban has experienced Cuba, and being Cuban, in every last one of its full and varied dimensions. “Cuba” includes the city of Baracoa—to speak of the one is, in part, to speak of the other. But lifelong Baracoans have not “lived” as Santa Clarans or Havanans. Nor have Cuban men “lived” as Cuban women, etc. On Babalu’s assumption, then, nobody could ever legitimately speak of Cuba (nor any other subject).

(4) Even if Babalu’s basic point were correct, a person’s “lived” experience is not nearly, nearly enough for credibility—even when experience leads one to correct ideas. This is because truth is not just a bunch of “facts” bundled together. One must—if she wants to say something non-trivial—go on to interpret one’s experience: to qualify, rank, and evaluate these facts, and place them into context. If my having to rely upon others’ experience of Cuba is an epistemic ‘handicap,’ it is more than washed out by the much greater handicap, facing everyone at all times, of having to determine which facts among the millions presented by “experience” are significant, and later, what all of it means. (Someone who catalogued and measured all of the angles in Cuban hospitals (edges of tables, corners of walls, etc.) might know many thousands more “facts” about Cuban hospitals than I; it would not follow that he is more credible on the health care system.)

(5) Babalu’s criticism confuses how one acquires one’s opinions with whether those opinions are actually true. This commits the elementary logical “fallacy of origins,” equating a thing (or the value of a thing) with where it came from (or the value of this). These are two different elements and should be evaluated separately.

For it is certainly possible for me to hold the correct view of Cuba even if I am “in no position” to do so. Short of “liv[ing] it,” I could still make a lucky correct guess about what the country is like; heck, I could divide up a dartboard into positions about Cuba and just happen to hit the right one. In these cases, Babalu could critique my knowledge-gathering techniques, even be right about them, but he wouldn’t be on topic—because the topic is not my technique but rather What is the case about Cuba.

The point is that: To refute a position, you have to do more than just say, “Oh, what would somebody like you know about it?” You actually have to put in the work, construct the case, argue against it. Babalu may agree on principle, but he didn’t act upon it in this forum when he had the chance.

(6) Finally, by every reasonable measure we have for discerning it, those “living” Cuba most directly—its present citizens—seem to favor the system in its basic features overwhelmingly. This claim is a “big” one not because its all that hard to verify but because so few are looking. Thus, it warrants its own post, to arrive soon.

Dissent outlawed by the Cuban Constitution? [response to reader]

[A reader named Martin writes, citing Human Rights Watch on “the arbitrary imprisonment of dissidents” by the Cuban state.]

amerikanbeat responds to Martin: I don’t agree “the arbitrary imprisonment of dissidents” goes on in Cuba in any very interesting way. Certainly, there isn’t any evidence of it. I probably would not object on principle to an actual “crack down”—but the Cuban “dissident movement” is so miniscule and marginalized by ordinary Cubans that the state has no incentive impose it. (An American acquaintance of mine who lives in Cuba could not think of any Cubans who have ever heard of the Varela project.) It would hand propaganda points to the U.S. for absolutely no gain.

Of course, I can’t vouch that absolutely nobody has ever gone to a Cuban jail unfairly. Like every state, Cuba is certainly capable of making mistakes in the application of penal justice. This being minded, “dissidents” do go to jail in Cuba, but not for “dissenting,” just as blondes and pizzamakers go to jail in the U.S., but not for being blonde or making pizzas. It is certainly possible (a) to express one’s dissent in the form of behaviors that are illegal in any country, or (b) to dissent and then proceed to commit illegal acts—and be caught and punished. The crimes that prompted the Cuban “crackdown” in Spring 2003 were of (a) type; the actions HRW defends as Cuban “dissent” are inevitably one or the other. (Note: Like other states, the Cuban state has perpetrated wrongs against gays and victims of AIDS; it has ceased and repudiated these errors. This change is largely an “organic” response to the will of the populus, the sort of cause which the fetish for bourgeois forms of procedural democracy causes folks to overlook in the assessment of Cuban democracy.)

Martin continues, arguing that “dissent” is outlawed in the Cuban Constitution:

Here is the full text of Article 62 [of the Cuban Constitution]: ‘None of the freedoms which are recognized for citizens can be exercised contrary to…the existence and objectives of the socialist state, or contrary to the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism and communism. Violations of this principle can be punished by law.’ Now I ask you: how can one dissent without compromising the objectives of the state? If one is dissenting presumably it is against a state action (therefore objective).

amerikanbeat writes: We can look at this in two ways. Parsing the words alone—as you have—it is clear that a statement that is “contrary to…the existence and objectives of the…state” is not the same as a statement which expresses some opposition to the fact that the state exists or has x-objectives. I can say, “the state sucks and doesn’t do what I want it to do—it should cease to exist” without violating Article 62 because simply stating this will not threaten the existence or objectives of the state. It expresses something contrary to these entities but does not “do” anything to threaten or undermine them (at least not necessarily). I could make statements contrary to the existence of the sun, but this could contribute nothing to actually undermining this state of affairs.

A second (and far more useful) way to evaluate this amendment—again, not the approach you took—is to see that, no matter what the damned words “say,” the Cuban state does not enforce this law as you have parsed it. As stated earlier, barring isolated mistakes which are possible in any legal system, people don’t go to jail in Cuba for “dissent” per se.

Do the Hijackings and Raftings Mean Cuba Sucks?

Adding to the previous post about three guys who tried to hijack a boat from Cuba to the States:It should not be assumed that the hijackings reflect some desperate impulse of Cubans to flee an oppressive Castroan regime.

Thousands of people travel internationally out of virtually every country, every single day; so that in itself is not evidence of anything sinister about the country of departure. If every country that has ever had somebody leave it is a dictatorship, then every country is a dictatorship. Cubans have various reasons for traveling outside Cuba, and these reasons are not any more evident from the simple fact that they are leaving than it is with any of the other thousands that are doing it in other places.

Cubans turn to rafts and hijackings to do their leaving because the U.S. won’t grant them travel visas. It won’t even fill its own visa quotas for Cuban emigrees/visitors.

As Juan Antonio Blanca explains in his book, “Cuba: Talking About Revolution”:

“In 1984, the State Dept. agreed to allow up to 20, 000 Cubans a year to come to the United States…But the United States didn’t live up to that agreement. It interpreted it as meaning that they could allow from one person a year up to 20, 000 a year. And between 1984 and 1992, instead of granting visas to 160, 000 Cubans, the US had only granted visas to only about 8, 000.”

“Thousands of people have permission from the Cuban government to leave, but no US visas. So this creates a very difficult internal dynamic that forces people to leave in rafts, at great risk to their lives. It is a manipulative and cruel way for the US to make Cuba look as though it is stopping people from leaving and forcing them to risk their lives on the high seas, when it is really US immigration policy. And these people who get to the US through these very dramatic and risky methods are treated as heroes when they arrive, but people who want to travel through normal means and take a plane to Miami are denied their visas.”

“Even visas for temporary trips to the United States are often rejected on the grounds that the applicants may want to stay permanently in Miami…My own case is an example. When I was invited on a national speaking tour to the US in 1993, I was given the visa literally 12 hours before I was supposed to get on the plane. It makes the planning of such trips extremely difficult.”

Note also (a) the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1996, which permits any Cuban, no matter how they get to the U.S., to become an American citizen. (It is much harder for “dry foot” Mexicans to do that, yet categorically more of them than Cubans even attempt to illegally emigrate.) (b) In the same year The Helms-Burton Act helped consolidate, against Cuba, the toughest sanctions regime in the history of the world, giving Cubans incentives to emigrate which haven’t anything to do with (supposed) Castroan “oppression.”

A Cuban “Crackdown” on “Dissidents” in the Spring of ‘03?

[I wrote this exactly two years ago. Unfortunately, it’s still relevant and grows moreso as Fidel ages and the American regime inclines froggy. I heard an NPR reporter refer to the “crackdown” again the other day. I get so weary of this.]

It is a slightly-dated but persistent myth that the Cuban state undertook a kind of “crackdown” against “dissidents” in the Spring of 2003. There are two elements to the allegation—the jailing of 75 “jounalists, librarians and human rights activists,” on one hand, and on the other, the execution of three ferryboat hijackers. First, the idea that these two phenomena have something to do with one another is a common confusion but it isn’t accurate; the hijackings were committed just as the first sentences were handed down to the 75. We can treat these two issues in turn.

1. Cuban “Dissidents” Jailed?

As to the first element, the jailed “dissidents”: Rather than a “crackdown” on dissent, a lengthy investigation of a unified criminal enterprise came to an end and the parties investigated and prosecuted.

As they brag on their websites, U.S. “democracy-promoting” organizations (like the NED and USAID) had been funneling money to Cuban dissidents for various “regime change” activities for years.

Much of this is illegal in Cuba as it would be in any other country, including the U.S. (Indeed, there are Cubans in American prisons now, charged under US versions of laws of the same broad type.) Cuba has all the ordinary laws “criminalizing actions intended to jeopardize its sovereignty or territorial integrity,” plus “any actions supporting the goals of the U.S. Helms-Burton Act of 1996, i.e., by collecting information to support the embargo or to subvert the government, or for disseminating U.S. government information to undermine the Cuban government.”

The “political prisoners” were caught taking money or other perks to engage in activities described by these laws. Mostly they were working through the US Interests diplomatic headquarters in Cuba, and were caught by the efforts of ordinary Cuban patriots who went undercover as fellow “dissidents,” hiding their secret even from friends and family members, from whom they were often ostracized (until the investigation went public).

You can read about it here. Its a great article by a former high-level CIA operative, Philip Agee, who now lives in Cuba.

As the article states:

“Whatever the amounts of money reaching Cuba may have been, everyone in Cuba working in the various dissident projects knows of U.S. government sponsorship and funding and of the purpose: regime change. Far from being ‘independent’ journalists, ‘idealistic’ human rights activists, ‘legitimate’ advocates for change, or ‘Marian librarians from River City,’ every one of the 75 arrested and convicted was knowingly a participant in U.S. government operations to overthrow the government and install a different, U.S.-favored, political, economic and social order. They knew what they were doing was illegal, they got caught, and they are paying the price. Anyone who thinks they are prisoners of conscience, persecuted for their ideas or speech, or victims of repression, simply fails to see them properly as instruments of a U.S. government that has declared revolutionary Cuba its enemy. They were not convicted for ideas but for paid actions on behalf of a foreign power that has waged a 44-year war of varying degrees of intensity against this country.”

2. Cuba’s Execution of the ‘Baragua’ Boat Hijackers

Turning to the second part of the “crackdown” allegation, the execution of 3 hijackers: First, (a) It is unclear to me why Cuba’s use of the death penalty is perenially more interesting than that of any of the other 100 countries in the world (including the U.S.) that have it on the books. Given this prevalence, it is almost bizarre that this event should have been “world news” for weeks. Especially because Cuba almost never executes anyone. The executions in question actually came after a 3-year moratorium on the death penalty in Cuba. (While the U.S. executes an average of 45 people every year.) So you can fault them on the principle of “no executions whatsoever, at any time, for any reason” but that’s about it.

Second, (b) Cuba is certainly capable—as capable as any other country—of making mistakes in applying the death penalty policy.

This being said: The 2003 hijacking of the “Baragua” was a serious act of international terrorism, as much for the crime as for its context.

The barge was a flat-bottomed pleasure ferry safe only for calm harbor waters. The hijackers, armed with knives and a gun, diverted it to open seas in Force 4 winds—a very, very dangerous move. It was full of passengers (50) including children at the time. They ran the boat out of fuel and threatened (by radio) to start tossing passengers overboard if they weren’t refueled. (Luckily, the Cuban coast guard saved the day.)

The context of this crime is deadly important to assessing the Cuban government’s response. The hijacking was the seventh in seven months, with Cuban security forces investigating another 29 plots “in the works.” This is actually pretty unusual. Cubans fear that any “exodus crisis”—a wave of hijackings, another rafters influx or Mariel exodus—will be used by the U.S. as a pretext for (increased) aggression—more trade sanctions, a naval blockade (such as is periodically threatened), a[nother] land invasion or bombs. This fear is well-founded, as it is regularly raised by U.S. officials: On April 25 of the same year, the chief of the U.S. State Department’s Cuba Bureau informed his (Cuban) counterpart at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington that the US considers “any more hijackings” to be a serious threat to U.S. national security. Military responses were, as always, implied. (This from the administration who speaks of a “final solution” to the Cuban problem and has already effected two military coups in the region in so many years (Venezuela, April, 2002; Haiti, Feb., 2004).) For this reason the Cuban state acted, and quickly, to thwart the hijacking wave that appeared to be looming.

Again, if you are categorically against all capital punishment, you can blame the Cuban state for asking the courts to apply it, along with half the world’s other nations for practicing it. But if you support the right of national self-determination, and view imperialism as its opposite, you can understand Cuba’s decision.

Dumbass wordpress post on Cuban health care

[This entry responds to a post from Free Thoughts blog. FT reprints an article by a Dr. Ferrer who photographs struggling Cuban hospitals to smear the “regime.” Like almost everyone who ever says anything about Cuba, the blogger knows nothing about the subject. But the article made WordPress’s “hot posts” and I needed an excuse to write about this.]

Prologue: Dirty Pictures Aren’t an Argument

Ferrer’s pictorial shares the limits of all such “anecdotal” evidence: Totally divorced from context, we can’t see if there are any factors which might mitigate the severity of the problems depicted, or indicate whether they are isolated or representative of general phenomena. For instance, is the hole in the wall (pictures #14 and #15) in an unused wing of the hospital? Might it have been repaired shortly after? Is it part of a construction effort? For all we can tell from the pictorial, it could be the only damned hole-in-the-wall in the history of Latin America. At worst, Ferrer proves that Cuban health care is imperfect. There is no system of medicine in the world of which a similar pictorial could not be constructed: The notorious “First World” Walter Reed VA hospital makes for a more damning one.

This is something to keep in mind when faced with snapshots of “bad things.” However, in most of these photos it isn’t clear what bad thing is even being alleged, unfairly or not: Photo #1 depicts a puddle on a balcony; #’s 9 and 12 show medical personnel at work under pretty normal conditions. Where unambiguously bad things are depicted—again, that hole in the wall—it is unclear how these are necessarily medically-impacting: If I went downtown to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and put my shoe through the wall, the quality of care there would not have to decrease at all.

ferrercuba11.png

Mopping this up should be a real priority for a country that has to make its own anticoagulants

Asking Cuba to Make Bricks Without Hay

In fairness, maybe the point is not that bad things like holes in walls of themselves decrease the quality of medical care, but rather that a hospital’s failure to board holes is an index, a sign, of more general deficiencies. By a similar logic, we would avoid a restaurant with a leaky roof not because we fear water in our food, but because we have to wonder what else is wrong that we cannot see. But consider some factors special to the Cuban case:

Cuba qualifies as a poor country. We could talk about the causes, but this condition long predates the revolution. As such, things like dingy walls, dented furniture and backlogged repair orders—even Ferrer’s “alarming deficit of medicines”—are to be expected. Enduring the strictest embargo in the history of the world merely compounds this. Ferrer’s critique chastises Cuba for bearing the marks of poverty—which just amounts, absurdly, to asking it not to be poor.

As a rule, a country’s economic and social indicators tend to closely correspond. That is, a country’s aggregate wealth is the surest predictor of its citizens’ average standard of living. But this formula breaks down when we get to Cuba, whose social indicators far outstrip what its GDP would lead an observer to expect. Cuba boasts, for instance, 1/14th the per capita wealth of the U.S. but very nearly equal rates of life expectancy and literacy. (This, of course, blows the rest of Latin America out of the water.) This kind of divergence is simply not found anywhere else in the world. The point is that if there is any country in which dingy walls, etc., could coexist with decent health care, it is Cuba.

With this in mind: Surely the question is not whether Cuba is poor, but how well it does for being poor—how well it manages and prioritizes the sparse resources it does control. No catalog of deficiencies such as Ferrer’s could hope to answer this question. (Any more than, say, listing all the days I didn’t take my kid to the zoo will tell you if I’m an involved father.) What is needed, rather, is the specific balance of what is deficient against what is supplied; and both factors balanced against what is possible to achieve. (Maybe I took junior to the fair all of those days instead of the zoo; maybe there is no zoo near my home; maybe I can’t afford the zoo due to my disabled status but have lovingly replicated it with paper animal cutouts for my child’s home play. Again, context is all-important here.)

Neither let us downplay the effects of the embargo on health and medicine in particular. The horrors have been documented by every medical authority who has bothered to investigate the question—UNESCO, UNICEF, AAWH, WHO, the British parliamentary Health Select Committee, Oxfam and a ton of other NGOs. The AAWH report (beautifully summarized here) concludes the embargo is taking “a tragic human toll” on Cubans, having “closed so many windows that in some instances Cuban physicians have found it impossible to obtain lifesaving machines from any source, under any circumstances. Patients have died.” The tightening of the embargo in the 1990s forced a shortage of anesthetics and antibiotics, lowering the number of surgeries from 885,790 in 1990 to 536,547 five years later. Now, Cuba receives less than half of all new patented medications. Note that all such studies praise the “regime” for mitigating the harsh effects they document. In 1989, when Cuba had much less of its own money to invest in health care, the World Health Organization (WHO) called this system “a model for the world,” adding, “A humanitarian catastrophe has been averted only because the Cuban government has maintained a high level of budgetary support for a health care system designed to deliver primary and preventive health care to all of its citizens.”

Cubans themselves express a wide basic support for the health care system. A recent Gallup poll indicates 75% of Cubans have “confidence in [their] country’s health care system.” 96%—nearly all—say that “health care in Cuba is accessible to everyone.” (Compare this with the 2/3 of Americans who poll in favor of a national health care system, much closer to the Cuban one.)

“Tourism Apartheid?,” i.e., Jesus. Grow the Fuck Up.

Ferrer seems concerned less with what he sees as the weak points in Cuban health care than with the fact that these weak points coexist with strong points. He laments “[t]he official policy of APARTHEID imposed by the Cuban regime…The few existing hospitals and polyclinics which have adequate conditions and resources are exclusively for the use of foreigners and members of the governing elite.”

First, Ferrer’s amplified language distorts what amounts to a fairly ordinary situation. Cuba has a “two-tiered” economy wherein both pesos and dollars are national currency.¹ For global-economic reasons beyond Cuba’s direct control, the dollars are unit for unit worth more than the pesos. Certainly, Cubans with pesos to spend are more limited on what they can get and where they can get it than Cubans or “foreigners” with dollars to spend. This fact, while unfortunate, should no more distress Ferrer than the fact that Cubans with fewer pesos are more financially limited than Cubans with more pesos, or that foreigners with fewer dollars are more limited than their richer foreign counterparts. The “exclusive[ness]” here is a part of every national economy in the world, real or imagined, present or historic. Cuban medicine in particular is hardly to blame for the general characteristics of trade.

On a couple counts, Ferrer is just dead wrong. Despite Bush’s best efforts, plenty of Cubans have the requisite “foreign capital” and there is simply no evidence that some “facilities are exclusively for the use of foreigners and members of the governing elite” [my emphasis]. Nor does the “inequality” among peso-holders and dollar-holders break down along “ordinary Cubans versus ruling elite” lines—for one, nothing like a Cuban “ruling elite” has ever been shown to exist (See “The Myth of Cuban Dictatorship” by Charles McKelvey). Not that Ferrer attempts to provide evidence for any of these claims.

Yes, nobody can absolutely guarantee that no Cuban has been ever “steered” from a health care facility just for being Cuban. A friend of mine who has been to Cuba many times relates an incident where some Cuban friends, met at a Radical Philosophy Association (RPA) conference in Havana, were hesitant to follow him up to his hotel room to continue an evening’s socializing. They were mildly fearful of being mistaken by hotel staff, or maybe cops, for haranguing tourists for money. However, it was late and it seems like they might have come up otherwise. Perhaps something similar occurs with health care facilities patronized by tourists. (“Health tourism” is the actual term for people who come to Cuba from abroad for medical care.) Fear of “hassling the tourists” is pretty universal to vacation havens. There is no evidence of a systematic, “regime”-engineered “policy” driving it, and the phenomenon doesn’t require us to postulate one.

It could still be asked why the Cuban “regime,” along with every other “regime” whose nations have tourists, doesn’t do something about this problem. In Cuba’s case, this is not clearly an option. Cuba courts tourism because it has to. It needs foreign currency, and investment in the tourist sector (along with biotech) has been deemed the least capital-intensive way to attract it. I’m reminded of an old movie in which a father loses his job, forcing the family to take in a boarder. At dinner, the mother gives the largest pork chop to the guest. She has to reach right over the youngest child’s plate to do this, which leads him to frown miserably as the chop passes him by. (This is interrupted by a stern parental glance.)

Ferrer, a Cuban, is like the young child in the movie, upset at the special treatment of the boarder but uncomprehending of the uncontrollable factors that make it necessary. The Italian author of “Free Thoughts” blog and other Western critics of “tourism apartheid” are like a snooty neighbor who accuses the movie parents of child abuse. The proper response for this situation is sympathy, not contempt for policymakers. (The analogy breaks down in two places: First, there are few “surly children” in Cuba; even the most critical accounts admit that most Cubans regard “dollarized” facilities as helpful or at least necessary. Second, none of Cuba’s actual neighbors are very snooty, as the national “households” of the U.S. and Latin American countries still have far more inequality than Cuba’s.)

Nor are the dollar and peso “sectors” of the economy nearly so distinct as a term like “apartheid” would suggest: Given the “unified” character that state-management lends to Cuban medicine, there is a unique opportunity for these dollars to feed back into the health care apparatus, aggrandizing even those sectors most likely to be patronized with pesos. Most of the dollars end up in government banks, where they are then used to purchase imports of needed and wanted items for local consumption. Many Cubans work in the tourist sector, where they receive dollars directly as tips. Globalsecurity.org notes: “The socialist peso economy applies to most Cubans, providing them with free education, free health care, universal employment, unemployment compensation, disability and retirement benefits and the basic necessities of life: food, housing, utilities and some entertainment at very low cost. The free-market dollarized economy operates in the tourist, international and export sectors, and substantially sustains the socialist economy” [my emphasis].

Cuba’s de facto economic “apartheid” compares favorably to the explicit form found in the U.S. Virtually nobody, even the super-rich, solicits medical care in the “free” way in which they might obtain a can of Coke. The medical infrastructure is not a collection of storefronts which might be “popped ‘round to” with cash on the barrelhead. For the 90% of insured Americans who are in some kind of “managed care” program, access to any medical service or product is mediated by multiple contracts holding among employers, insurers and other third party administrators, primary and specialist physicians. Patients may be “steered” by an employer toward an HMO or PPO, and by provider networks and “gatekeeper” physicians when treatment is sought. Of course, the for-profit character of the system “steers” the less wealthy away from better—as more expensive—care. The difference is that the American version exists to make wealthy people wealthier, while the Cuban version, again, exists for the survival of Cubans.

Those Charitable Bastards

Ferrer continues: “Thousands of doctors and other health professionals, as well as essential medical resources, are diverted from public health and directed to political missions in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador. To this end, thousands of tons of medicines, medical equipment and indispensable resources are donated. Missions carried out at the expense of increasing the deprivations suffered by Cubans.”

Assuming this is true, can we say that it’s wrong? Are Cubans more important than Venezuelans or Bolivians (whose own “deprivations” would “increas[e]” if the “[m]issions” fall off)? Should charity never substantially cost the giver? Just what is the argument here? Again, Cubans seem to support this, and proudly. Anyway, the main export here is labor, and Cuba can probably spare that, boasting twice the per capita doctors of the U.S. and, depending on the year, the most per capita doctors of any country. And Cuba gets plenty of aid back from Venezuela, anyhow (e.g., cheap oil), if that’s what’s important.

Notes

¹ Technically, in 2005 the “convertible peso” replaced the dollar but for practical purposes is equivalent to it.