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Fidel Lives | The Nation

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Fidel Lives

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United States visitors sometimes think Cuban officials are paranoid on the subject of US intervention. On the other hand, these paranoids really do have enemies, and the US government is being run by the people other Republicans used to call "the crazies." If you were responsible for Cuba's security, you'd take very seriously the arsenals of the north, including the ones in private hands.

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Ned Sublette
Ned Sublette is a 2005-2006 Guggenheim Fellow. He is the author of Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the...

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As hurricane season began in earnest, Ray Nagin, who famously declared New Orleans a "chocolate city," began his second term as mayor. What better time to appreciate the way George Clinton, America's should-be poet laureate, has funked up politics?

Cuba has never had a 9/11-style breach of security, and not for want of enemies. Washington knows Cuba is prepared. Shock and awe could be unleashed against Havana from the air, but Cuba could never be occupied on the ground. The island's defense is organized block by block, across its 700 miles, and the Cuban army, headed by Raúl Castro, is woven into the fabric of the society. Much of the adult population has military training, and many defenders could be armed in short order.

Nor does Cuba's defense only guard against armies and terrorists. The Cubans can evacuate 2 million people and their animals quickly when a hurricane approaches. Cuba's competence at domestic security and its preparedness for disasters contrast painfully with that of the US Department of Homeland Security, a massive instant bureaucracy that substituted for accountability after 9/11, and proved as phony as a three-dollar bill when put to the test in New Orleans.

The man who posed with a guitar while New Orleans drowned explained why he didn't know what was going on after Fidel Castro's surgery. "Cuba is not a very transparent society," he said, "so the only thing I know is what has been speculated.'' The last part was surely an understatement.

Lack of transparency is indeed one reason few people in the United States know much about Cuba, but I refer here to the opacity imposed by the Bush regime. It is a measure of how bad George W. Bush has been that Bill Clinton's dismal record on Cuba can be viewed with some nostalgia. After 2003 the United States moved to shut off cultural and intellectual exchange between the two places, trashing a whole generation of work in progress that was collectively giving us a remarkably detailed portrait of Cuba. Musicians from the island had become a frequent sight in US cities, but no Cuban music groups have been allowed in since 2003. Even Cuban-Americans--a community with more diversity of opinion than it is given credit for--may now only visit close relatives in Cuba, and only once every three years. Marazul Charters, a major travel provider to Cuba, flew 7,000 travelers from the United States to Cuba last year, down from 38,000 in 2003. The consequence of all this is that few people in the United States have up-to-date knowledge of Cuba. That's what I call lack of transparency, and it was very much on display in the news reports of August.

Hundreds of thousands of US citizens saw Cuba firsthand prior to the end of 2003, when the United States stopped so-called "people to people" travel to Cuba, and educational travel was easier than it is now. They saw a lot. Cubans face serious problems, and they want something better than they have. No es fácil (it's not easy) is the phrase you hear repeated in Cuba as if it were a coro in an ongoing son. Salaries don't cover all the basic needs, and it is necessary to resort to an informal economy that is largely criminalized. There are clearly marked limitations on permissible public discourse. Independent newspapers don't exist. Cubans assume their phone conversations are monitored. On the other hand, infant mortality is low, the sick are cared for, people have good teeth and live a long time, no one is homeless, the children are in school, the streets haven't been taken over by AK-47-wielding drug dealers and when hurricanes come, the elderly and infirm are moved out of harm's way instead of being left behind to drown.

You're free to disagree with any of what I've just said, but please, only if you've been there. My point is: If you can't see it in action for yourself and make up your mind on the basis of personal experience, you have to get it from the media. If you're in Miami and you speak Spanish, you might get your information from El Nuevo Herald. Two of its staff writers and one freelancer were canned on September 7 after the paper's English-language namesake, the Miami Herald, blew the whistle on the fact that, in what has become a familiar pattern, they, along with journalists at other publications, had received payments from Radio/TV Martí. These taxpayer-financed entities, whose programs are received by few Cubans, are a long-running patronage piñata for Miami. Like the Voice of America, they are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, whose chief, Kenneth Tomlinson, retained his job in a September 13 party-line vote after it was revealed by the State Department's inspector general that he'd been running a horse-racing operation out of his office in Washington.

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