Rhythm Nation

Rhythm Nation

Since Fidel Castro’s brief fainting spell during a speech in June 2001, Miami, Havana and Washington have been caldrons of feverish speculation on his succession and the politics of a post-Castro


Since Fidel Castro’s brief fainting spell during a speech in June 2001, Miami, Havana and Washington have been caldrons of feverish speculation on his succession and the politics of a post-Castro Cuba. Castro’s designated successor is his 73-year-old brother Raul, who, Miami hard-liners scoff, would not last a day in power. The British journalist Richard Gott makes the case in Cuba: A New History that the younger Castro, whose official roles include being first Vice President of Cuba and its Minister of Defense, would nimbly survive the transition to power. Among his advantages is the fact that it is his army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), that carries out much of the day-to-day business in Cuba, even running the farmers’ markets and tourism through its company, Gaviota. Gott doesn’t mention it, but the chief of Gaviota, Luis Alberto Rodríguez, is married to Débora Castro Espín, Raul’s daughter. Earlier this year, another son-in-law was named to head the Ministry of Tourism, giving Raul Castro’s inner circle total control of tourism, the number-one source of revenue for the island.

A coup is unlikely, as the Castro brothers have already assiduously weeded out any suspected dissident elements from the military, and only Raul has been entrusted with the succession plan. In the event of a sudden illness or the death of Fidel Castro, according to one former official, all members of the Politburo have been instructed to report immediately to their homes, where they are to remain until contacted by Raul Castro with further instructions. Should Raul decide to use brute force to maintain the status quo, he is well positioned to do so.

Gott is correct in his claim that the younger Castro’s clout does not stem solely from his military might. Contrary to popular opinion, Raul Castro has been an advocate of freer markets and economic reforms within the government. Once a Communist zealot, he has leavened his philosophy with pragmatism in the past decade; but he has his own health problems, stemming from periodic alcoholism–and possibly, according to “Radio Bemba,” Havana’s efficient word-of-mouth information system, from a bout with colon cancer.

Early in his book, Gott tells us he first visited Havana in 1963 armed with letters of introduction from historian Hugh Thomas, who wrote his groundbreaking 1,700-page opus on the history of Cuba in 1971, updated in 2001. Which immediately raises the question: Do we need another history of the same Caribbean island that garners as much ink as all the countries in the Southern Hemisphere combined? The short answer is no, but Gott does bring some new things to the table, including new source materials, and he offers a more compact and arguably more accessible history than Thomas’s. His work has also benefited from the friendly cooperation of many Cuban officials.

Unfortunately, Gott’s soft spot for leftist Latin American caudillos (most recently Hugo Chávez, the subject of his previous book, a wide-eyed account of the Venezuelan revolution) is in evidence by page 3, when the author encounters Che Guevara at the Soviet Embassy in Havana. “Guevara strode in after midnight, accompanied by a small coterie of friends, bodyguards and hangers-on, wearing his trademark black beret, and with his shirt open to the waist. He was unbelievably beautiful …[and] had the unmistakable aura of a rock star.” No one denies Guevara’s good looks and charisma, but he was also responsible for some of the worst excesses of the Cuban Revolution, including scores of summary executions. Che’s brutality merits only one sentence–much later–in the text. This fairly consistent bias marks most of the chapters dealing with Castro and his revolution. Sometimes Gott is spot on, but too often one cringes, as when he lauds Castro’s hand-groomed foreign minister, Felipe Perez Roque, who is as unpopular as he is sycophantic. Perez Roque, writes Gott, is a “sure hand at foreign affairs, sustaining Cuba’s extraordinary worldwide support.” What international support could he be referring to? Cuba has endured repeated condemnations in the United Nations, has been barred from the Organization of American States for decades and these days has barely been on speaking terms with Mexico, its longtime historic ally.

Gott fares considerably better with Cuba’s earlier history. He argues that the island’s Indian roots and influences are more profound than many believe. Most chroniclers–and successive Cuban governments–have long argued that the conquistadors wiped out Cuba’s Tainos and Siboneys, thus creating a pure Afro-Cuban culture based strictly on black slaves and the conquering Spaniards. I have always found this fairly compelling, as Cubans are decidedly different in appearance from Central America’s mestizo population. And I was always struck by the naming of one of Cuba’s largest provinces and its capital as Matanzas–meaning massacres, said to refer to the slaughter of Indians that occurred. Still, Gott makes a convincing case for the survival and contributions of Indians in Cuban life.

In short supply in Gott’s book are the various perspectives of Cuba’s exiles–no small oversight, as about one-tenth of the population has fled. Also, we do not get a clear sense of the complex and crushing triangulation among Castro, exiles and US politics. In May, just in time for the 2004 election season, the Bush Administration announced its new policy on Cuba–drafted by a handpicked team of hardliners. The new policy virtually ends all educational travel to Cuba, slices remittances to relatives on the island and limits family visits for exiles from one per year to one every three years. Travel is now limited only to parents and children, with aunts, uncles and cousins no longer considered “family”–a blow to most Cubans, who value extended families.

Around the same time, Americans learned how their tax dollars earmarked for the “war on terrorism” were being spent. A Treasury Department report noted that it employed four investigators to hunt for the funds of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as opposed to twenty-one to chase after Cuba embargo violators.

Among those prosecuted have been a 75-year-old grandmother from San Diego who took a bicycling trip in Cuba, an Indiana Christian academy teacher who delivered Bibles there and the son of missionaries who traveled there to spread his parents’ ashes at the site of the church they founded fifty years ago. Since 1990 OFAC, the Treasury division charged with handling sanction violations, had investigated only ninety-three cases related to terrorism and, since 1994, had collected $9,425 in related fines. This compared with 10,683 cases against travelers to Cuba, for which $8 million in fines was collected. In an unguarded interview in GQ magazine, Colin Powell’s chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, opined on the use of sanctions against Cuba as the “dumbest policy on the face of the earth. It’s crazy.”

The restrictive new policy, however, was a triumph for Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the two exile brother Congressmen from Miami. Gott gives us the bare-bones background of the Castro/Diaz-Balart relationship, but not enough to understand how much this bitter family feud has poisoned US-Cuba relations. In 1948 Fidel Castro married his best friend Rafael Diaz-Balart’ssister, Mirta (whom he later divorced). A year later their son was born and christened Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, a remarkable oxymoronic apellido (last name) uniting two warring families in one name. The Diaz-Balarts were powerful ministers in Batista’s government–and Batista’s close friends and neighbors–upon whom Castro would soon declare war.

Rafael would have four sons, two of whom–Lincoln and Mario–inherited their father’s passion for politics. Lincoln is among Castro’s most implacable and bellicose enemies and led the crusade to keep Elián González in the United States. During his political career, Lincoln has called for a naval blockade of Cuba and military force to be used against his former uncle, and even suggested on Miami television this year that the assassination of Castro was a good idea.

About 60 percent of Cuban-Americans in the United States arrived after the 1980 Mariel boat exodus. According to two recent polls, one conducted by Florida International University and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the other by Bendixen & Associates, members of this group tend to view themselves primarily as economic, not political, refugees. For them, family comes first, then issues of freedom in Cuba. Unlike the first wave of exiles, these more recent arrivals reject any policy of confrontation with the island that could bring harm or added hardship to their families still in Cuba. High on their agenda is unfettered travel to Cuba, along with the ability to send unlimited cash to their families. True, they do not turn out to vote as strongly as first-wave exiles, but they make up one-third of the Cuban-American vote. But that one-third can swing a presidential election–as Bill Clinton proved in 1996.

John Kerry, as cautious a politician as they come, saw an opening and has ambled over to it. With his eye on that crucial one-third slice of Cuban votes, he criticized the policy as antifamily and encouraged more travel. If he plays his cards right–a big if–he could peel off just enough Cuban voters to carry Florida on November 2.

But again, exile politics really do not figure much in Gott’s history. To my mind, that’s a huge omission.

Eugene Robinson, the Style editor for the Washington Post, focuses his infatuation with Cuba on its music. It’s a smart choice. Along the way, he passes on some insights about Cuba’s reluctant embrace of hip-hop in 1999 as “an authentic expression of Cuban culture”–meaning they would no longer try to shut it down, a calculation Robinson likens to LBJ’s truce with J. Edgar Hoover: “Better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.”

There are no stunning revelations here, no “big gets” or up-close-and-personal interviews with Castro, Che or Elián. But Robinson has a sharp, quirky take on the island, and he writes with verve. Most of all, he brings a fan’s passion to his subject and makes you want to be there at a Bamboleo concert, even in the ghastly and depressing barrio of Alamar, where Cuban hip-hop was born. And he leaves no question that Los Van Van is the greatest band in history. Sounds fatuous? No doubt–but Robinson goes a long way toward making his case. “If you were to combine the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band,” he writes, “you’d have an idea what Los Van Van have meant to Cuba over the past thirty years.”

Last Dance in Havana lacks footnotes or chapter notes, and occasionally Robinson reaches for the dissonant metaphor, as when he describes Castro as a dancer on the world stage. He describes Castro’s reaction to the US invasion of Iraq: “The crafty old dancer-in-chief rose to his feet and began to move.” It’s a strained trope since, as every Cuban knows, Castro does not dance (one of a number of ways in which he is decidedly un-Cuban). Still, this book works as memoir or travel writing–a well-wrought, breezy essay on that problematic island in the Caribbean.

The book on Cuba that merits a place on the shelf alongside Hugh Thomas’s opus is Ned Sublette’s masterwork Cuba and Its Music. Subtitled From the First Drums to the Mambo, Sublette’s methodically researched book covers that and much more in some 672 pages. And that’s just the first volume; a second is in the works beginning where this one ends–March 10, 1952, the day a former army sergeant named Fulgencio Batista seized power in a coup from which Cuba has yet to recover, even today.

Sublette, a musician, producer and founder of the record company Qbadisc, begins his sweeping, magisterial book with an audacious claim for a skinny, carrot-haired Texan: “This is a history of music from a Cuban point of view.” But the claim is more than justified, and in Havana I was struck by the high regard musicians had for the americano from Lubbock, who was clearly seen as an aplatanado cubano, a transplanted Cuban.

“People often ask me how I got interested in Cuban music,” Sublette writes in his preface. “The short answer is, I have good taste.” And that he does. Although every musician who ever slapped a drum seems to get credited here, Sublette saves his enthusiasms for the divine: the achingly sublime trova singer Maria Teresa Vera, the bravura bassist Cachao, the versatile and prolific Sindo Gary and the celestially powered guajira singer Celina Gonzalez. And there are plenty of tasty nuggets about the brilliant and self-destructive Benny Moré, whose “soaring voice could sing any genre of Cuban music with any band,” and the legendary son musician Arsenio Rodriguez, the blind grandson of a slave from the Congo who popularized the horn-driven bands known as conjuntos in the 1930s. Rodriguez’s songs blended African and Spanish idioms, set to a rhythm that he called “canto congo.” As Sublette observes, “White Cuban composers were writing dialect songs, but Arsenio was literally writing a history in a popular song, perpetuating the memory of how his grandfather’s generation talked.” Rodriguez left Cuba in 1951 for New York, where his star never shone as brightly as it did in Havana.

Many other musicians would follow Rodriguez seeking freedom, not to mention more lucrative record deals. Others stayed behind and threw in their lot with the revolution. There were the dueling divas: The great salsa star Celia Cruz died last year in her home in New Jersey, while Celina Gonzalez still lives in her neighborhood of Marianao. Exile/island comparisons have not always been kind to the former. Compare, for example, the slickly produced pop of Miami transplants like Gloria Estefan and Jon Secada with the aging soñeros of the Buena Vista Social Club.

Sublette weaves his history of Cuban music with the island’s political history, from the Spanish conquest and the slave trade to the Independence War and the rise of a scruffy, bearded guy from Biran named Fidel Castro, who had a tin ear and a flat foot but scorching ambition. I read a few dozen books on Cuba and exiles before writing my own, so I don’t say this lightly: If you buy only one book on Cuba in your life–and want the history, culture and politics all in one volume–this is the one.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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