Most leaders of totalitarian states do not display much humor in public. But Ricardo Alarcon, the president of Cuba’s National Assembly, has a flair for satire. How else to interpret his recent piece on The Nation‘s website, in which he nostalgically ruminates about C. Wright Mills, noted sociologist and author, on the 45th anniversary of Mills’ death? Alarcon hails Mills for having led an “intense, creative and noble life” and publishing books “in the midst of McCarthyism and the cold war”–including his classic The Power Elite–that “unmasked the true nature of capitalism.” But the Mills book of most interest to Alarcon is Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba, which was based partly on long conversations Mills had with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in the summer of 1960. As Alarcon writes, “Written without great academic pretensions, told in straightforward language through the voice of an imaginary and anonymous Cuban revolutionary, the book aimed to reach ordinary Americans. It quickly became a bestseller.” The book obviously was sympathetic to Castro and his revolution.
Alarcon decries the FBI for having attempted to undermine Mills’ book. The Bureau unsuccessfully tried, Alarcon notes, to persuade Mills’ publisher to put out a competing book criticizing the Cuban revolution. The FBI was spying on Mills at this time, and Mills, according to FBI files, believed he might be targeted for assassination by the FBI or another American agency. “Mills’s friends,” Alarcon writes, “recall that he was concerned not only for himself but for his family, and that he had indeed acquired a handgun, which he even kept next to his bed while he slept.” After Mills suffered a heart attack, Castro invited him to recuperate in Cuba. Alarcon’s narrative: while the FBI chased Mills, Castro sought to help the noble intellectual. “C. Wright Mills paid a high price for his passionate love of truth,” Alarcon declares.
Mills was hounded for challenging the conventional wisdom of his day. But Alarcon’s concern for the plight of this one author is comical–in a dark fashion–for he heads a government that does not allow its citizens to challenge openly the conventional wisdom of the Castro regime. There is no free press in Alarcon’s country, no freedom of expression. There is no “passionate love of truth” among the rulers of Cuba. Alarcon is crying for Mills, while his government does even worse to Cuban writers than the FBI did to Mills.
For some “passionate truth” about the state of intellectual freedom within Cuba, let’s turn to the Committee To Protect Journalists’ most recent annual report on Cuba. (By the way, Nation publisher emeritus Victor Navasky is a CPJ board member.) The report notes that CPJ “named Cuba one of the world’s 10 Most Censored Countries.” It explains:
The government owns and controls all media outlets and restricts Internet access. The three main newspapers represent the views of the Communist Party and other organizations controlled by the government.
No freedom to write. No freedom to surf the Internet. And no freedom to report:
The media operate under the supervision of the Communist Party’s Department of Revolutionary Orientation, which develops and coordinates propaganda strategies. Those who try to work as independent reporters are harassed, detained, threatened with prosecution or jail, or barred from traveling. Their relatives are threatened with dismissal from their jobs. A small number of foreign correspondents report from Havana, but Cubans do not ever see their reports.
And what does Alarcon’s government do to brave souls who try to act as independent journalists? CPJ says:
Cuba continued to be one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, second only to China. During 2006, two imprisoned journalists were released, but two more were jailed….
Of the 24 journalists who remained imprisoned, 22 were jailed in a massive March 2003 crackdown on the independent press. Their prison sentences on antistate charges ranged from 14 to 27 years. Many of them were jailed far from their homes, adding to the heavy burden on their families. Their families have described unsanitary prison conditions, inadequate medical care, and rotten food. Some imprisoned journalists were being denied religious guidance, and most shared cells with hardened criminals. Many were allowed family visits only once every three months and marital visits only once every four months–a schedule of visits far less frequent than those allowed most inmates. Relatives were harassed for talking to the foreign press and protesting the journalists’ incarceration.
Imagine a Cuban who wants to write and publish a Cuban version of The Power Elite. That person would be locked up in a modern-day dungeon by Alarcon and his comrades. Alarcon, thus, has no standing to bemoan the harassment of Mills or to pontificate about the glories of pursuing establishment-defying truths. (Stating the obvious about the gross absence of political and human rights within Cuba should not be equated with support for the economic embargo maintained by the Bush administration against Cuba. The wrongs of each side do not justify the other.)
“Today,” Alarcon writes, “Cuba forges a path to craft its own unique socialist system, rooted on its own historical experience and with the active participation of its people.” Not the active participation of anyone who wants to write or report news and ideas not sanctioned by Alarcon and his colleagues. It takes nerve for a person who runs one of the ten most censored countries to praise a pioneering and influential free thinker. That’s why Alarcon’s accolade for Mills is best read as farce.
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