Thursday, February 20, 2003

Fidel and Me
Rick over at the Rant has a few questions about my views of The Bearded One.

I had deliberately stayed away from the topic. This is personal to Cuban-Americans, and specially in my family. I guess I better go back a few, ok? Bear with me.

I grew up in a small town, two large streets plus some smaller arteries, in the south of Havana province. My paternal great-greandfather was the first town accountant, and a man with a great interest in politics, who helped our town become an actual township with representation in the legislature. My great-grandmother was the town's first teacher. My great-uncle, their son, was one of the founding members of the Cuban communist party sometime at the beginning of the century. He was a gentle, idealistic man, by profession a barber, a rather good amateur musician, and a true Marxist. My father, on the other hand, was not. I don't remember it ever creating a rift in the family, but I think that was mostly due to their greatness of heart and their ability to always put family first.

When Fidel came to power, my great-uncle was convinced that Cuba was on its way to a worker's paradise of its own. Soon after, though, things started happening. My parents, who had been living with my father's family, including my great-uncle, in a large but rather crowded multi-generational household, had saved enough money to buy a couple of acres of land and start to build their own home. In 1960, the land was confiscated because "we already had a place to live". The next year, after the Bay of Pigs invasion, my mother was taken prisoner and sent to Morro Castle; she was unfortunate enough to have a foster brother among the leaders of the invasion. My father took to the hills. My mother spent two weeks in the dungeons of the pretty castle that greets cruise ships as they sail into Havana Harbor, until a brave man, a doctor, showed up and brazenly had them release the women prisoners with some kind of forged (or bribed out of some official) orders. To this day, my mother will not take a shower without someone being in the house to watch the doors; it seems that the guards could look into the showers, so the women took turns in spreading out blankets, clothes, and whatever would block the view while others took baths. Things settled down and my father was able to come back home. Soon after that, one of our neighbors, a man whose family my great-uncle had often fed and clothed, blackmailed my uncle into giving him part of our yard (we had about a half-acre), because, after all, he had all those traitors in the family...

I don't know exactly what was the crisis point, but I do remember that one day in 1964, my great-uncle came home from a meeting of the local party, took my father aside and said, very quietly: Get the girls out of here. This is going to shit and that man is crazy. Within a week, my father had presented papers requesting exit visas (a whole other story for another day).

My uncle's statement, "that man is crazy" has stayed with me all these years. I think what may have triggered it was Fidel's plan to plan Caturra coffee all over the island in order to improve production. In many areas, households were given a few coffee plants to nurture; in others crops were pulled up to be replaced by coffee plants. The whole thing was a mess, because Cuba is way too hot to grow coffee anywhere but in the highest mountains. All the plants died, and, of course, there was a shortgage of other food.

It was not the first nor the last time that one of Fidel's sudden enthusiasms sent the economy tumbling: one I clearly remember was the year that he discovered the work of French scientist Andre Voisin, who worked with a type of cattle feed called "pangola" (digitaria decumbens, I think), which supposedly could increase the yield of milk in cattle and might even be processed for human food. Acres and acres and acres of productive rice and vegetable fields were pulled up to plant this thing. Oops. Same with the famous attempt to grow grapes and stawberries to produce premium wine. And the cheese that would compete in the international market. And...

These, and other incidents, pretty much identify, for me, Fidel's defining character traits. The man is an grandiose egomaniac. Maybe psychotic, but if so, very controlled. Monstruously selfish, in the sense that everything he does is done in order to prop up his image. It's his world--the rest of us are puppets to be manipulated to his own glory. Cubans call their political system "Fidelismo" because it is Fidel that is worshipped. Everything is carefully stage-managed to display his stardom: if there is a manifestation in the works, buses drive up to factory doors and people are loaded and taken to the Plaza de la Revolucion to wave flags and chant. Schools are all wired for sound and students must listen to every speech. One of my most vivid memories is of sitting through a three-hour speech while my legs got numb from trying to hold "it" in (after it was over there was a mass stampede to the bathrooms).

He cannot stand competition: of the men who were with him in the mountains, Camilo Cienfuegos disappeared in a so-called plane accident; Che Guevara was sent to export revolution and die in some godforsaken spot in Bolivia; and the others have either died or been sent to prison on specious charges. He is a genius at self-promotion and manipulation, but in spite of that, he has seen his influence diminish over the years until he is odd-man-out in Latin American politics, which is why Chavez is a godsend. There are only two groups he can still send into hysterics: older Cuban exiles and American conservatives, which is why he enjoys doing it so much. There are only two groups that still support him: true-blue communists and American knee-jerk liberals.

As far an the embargo is concerned, I am most definitely against. Historically, they are a bust. The whole purpose of an embargo is to either get people angry enough to rise up and overthrow a dictator or to make him see the error of his ways. A pathological egoist like Fidel cannot admit to errors; I don't think he can see them. And as far as people rising up, well, it's hard when you have to concentrate on finding the basics of life, the army has all the guns and are carefully kept loyal, and when they have trained you for over forty years to believe that just ninety miles away is a monster that wants to eat you.

What it did to me? Well, it has left me very suspicious of power and the men who aspire to it. I am inclined to distrust governments; I believe that the only way to keep them honest is to subject them to constant scrutiny. I despise hero-worship, and do not trust either the worshippers or the worshipped. I believe that the Constitution of the United States might be the greatest document ever written and James Madison the greatest practical political thinker that every drew breath.

That's it, Rick. Just remember, you asked!

What Bubba says.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Answers to Your Questions
No, I'm not the Emma of Notes on the Atrocities. Are you kidding? I've got one life, folks. One very demanding full-time job, one design class, one rather noisy and fun family, one cat, one pot-bellied pig, and ONE BLOG. Besides, I think she has named herself after Emma Goldman; on the other hand, Emma is in fact a rather short version of my name. No, I won't tell you the long version.

Yes, I am doing one of my "one hundred things" this year: I am going on a photographic cruise of Alaska. Yes, I am in fact an amateur photographer. I'm thinking of starting a website showing some of the photos. Stay tuned.

Yes, I read science fiction and fantasy. At one time, I read it obssessively. The first science fiction book I read was The Martian Chronicles. I was four; I was hooked. The last one, just last month: Steven Brust's Issola. To relatives, acquaintances, and co-workers: I like The Lord of the Rings well enough, but enough on the gifts already. I've handed out six copies of the damn thing in the last year to the local public library; thankfully, their copies are always getting stolen, so mine are always welcome. What I really want is an original edition, preferably signed by the author, of Robert Heinlein's Glory Road. If you can't find that, a gift certificate to Borders would be appreciated.

No, English is not my first language. Spanish is. I am fluent in Spanish and English, can get along fairly well in Italian and Portuguese, order in French, and swear in Russian. Swearing in Russian is rather fun. Next up: Scots Gaelic. Why: don't ask. I have these masochistic impulses and this passion for things Highlandish.

No, I don't like Cuba Libres: too sweet. Vodka and tonic for a regular tipple, Talisker single malt if I'm cold or morose, and Tullamore Dew if I'm making God's Blessings.

OK? OK.

Monday, February 17, 2003

I can't think of a title for this post, so I'll just let it stand on its own.

I've been getting a drubbing over at the Daily Rant for my essays on the Democratic party and the Democratic candidates. You would think that watching a democrat rip the Democratic party a new one would be a cause for merriment. Instead, they have fixated in a single paragraph:

Let me spell it out for you. The Republican party--the grand old party of Lincoln--has allied himself with the craziest fundamentalist segments in our society. Their multibillionaire backers fund pseudo-intellectual think tanks whose job is to sugar coat the poison pills they are bent on feeding our society. They own the voting machines their candidates win on; they own the media that reports the news to the American people. The airwaves are full of their shock troops: obscene, tasteless, small-minded bigots whose role is to keep the faithful riled up. They do not care about truth and justice. They care about winning, about instituting their Christian version of Sharia on the country, and keep the "rest of us" in our place.

It's a bit over-the-top for me, but really a very mild description in comparison what is said in other blogs, left and right. But the reactions were...well, you can go see for yourselves. For me, the fascinating thing was that Not a Republican poster wanted to know WHY I thought that way.

I have, as you can see from my blogsroll, a few conservatives I read regularly. These are folk whose arguments I may not agree with, but who can be trusted to make them with grace and wit. It was my hope when I started this blog that I could find some kind of common ground with them. Sadly, it has become more and more obvious that while we can shout at each other, we cannot hear. They have their talking points, we have ours. They have their hobby horses, we have ours. We shout at each other across a digital chasm, never interested in compromise, only in reinforcing our prejudices. We think we know each other and we respond to the stereotypes we have set up in our heads.

Maybe if someone had asked me, I would have told them that it terrifies me every time the President of this multi-cultural, multi-religious nation flings about words like "good" "evil" and "christian" and "crusade" as if they were weapons of war. It terrifies me that the most senior members of this administration seem to have ties to people who truly believe that the end of the world is at hand, and they have to absolute duty to hasten it. It terrifies me when members of the administration casually drop into conversation the news that the United States will go after other Middle Eastern Muslim countries. It terrifies me that they seem to have a plan that would turn the United States armed forces into a force of occupation, guaranteed to inflame the Arab peoples and leading to more and more conflict and more and more violence in a never-ending cycle.

But nobody asked. All the knew was that I had transgressed against the holy Republican party and therefore was someone to be attacked and dismissed.

And this leads me to one very hard conclusion: maybe it is time to disengage. We should concentrate our energies on rebuilding our own party, fighting for our own beliefs. Maybe there are some folk out there who would be willing to discuss issues without throwing insults around, people who are just as bothered as we are by some of the things coming out of this administration. Those are the ones we should be talking to. The true believers will follow their messiahs as they always have throughout history.