Welcome to Cuba
Michael J. Totten, in World Affairs
Fidel Castro made a liar out of me.
Okay, I didn’t have to lie to immigration, customs, and security officials at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. I could have just applied for a journalist visa and hoped they’d approve me. But colleagues warned I’d have to wait months for an affirmative, and the authorities wouldn’t tell me if the answer was no. They’d simply toss my application into the trash if they thought I’d write anything “negative.” Six months, nine months, a year would finally pass and I’d still be waiting and wondering if I’d ever hear from them.
I have a job to do. I can’t wait six to twelve months in bureaucracy hell. So I lied.
“Tourism” I said when the nice woman at Passport Control asked what I was doing there.
The Cubans knew I was coming. My name was on the flight manifest. If anyone Googled me, they’d find out at once that I work as a journalist. And if they checked their records they’d know I didn’t have the right visa. Reporters who work in Cuba on tourist visas are arrested, interrogated, and deported. It makes no difference whether or not off-the-books journalists are friendly to the government. They must register with and -more important- get permission from the proper officials.
I had to stay off their radar. Freedom House ranks Cuba as the sixth worst country in the entire world for journalists. The Castro government creates a more hostile working environment than even the Syrian and Iranian governments. The only countries on earth that repress reporters more ruthlessly are, in order, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, and Belarus. All are either communist or post-communist in-name-only.
Some of my colleagues in the media weren’t sure I’d get away with it. “You’re pretty high profile,” said one. “And it’s not like you can hide.”
Several who have worked in Cuba in the past warned me not to bring a laptop. “That alone will be a red flag,” said one. “They’ll put you under surveillance.”
I’d also have to hide my notebook.
“Cuban security agents from the Ministry of Interior will sweep through your hotel room,” warned a veteran American visitor to Cuba, “so lock all your note-taking materials up in your room safe.”
“The Castro government already knows who you are and what you’ll be doing,” said Valentin Prieto, a Cuban exile in Miami and founder of the blog, Babalu. “And make no bones about it, the KGB, Stasi, et al have nothing -and I mean nothing- on the Cuban security apparatus. It may seem primitive, but it is highly effective. You will be monitored from the moment you step on the tarmac. You will never be alone while on the island, even in your hotel room if not especially so. Be careful and keep in mind that you are in a very closed society whose fuel is fear.”
So I tensed up a bit when the nice woman at Passport Control typed my name into her computer. Something appeared on her screen. Her eyes tracked back and forth as she read.
What did it say? What did they know about me? Had they looked me up in advance? Prieto’s concerns to the contrary, I figured they probably hadn’t or I wouldn’t have bought a plane ticket and entered the country this way, but I couldn’t know for sure they’d let me in unless they actually let me in. If they kicked me out on arrival, my entire project would be axed and I’d be out thousands of dollars.
It was an absurd moment. I was standing there sweating while trying to sneak into a police state that hundreds of thousands of people have risked their lives to escape from.
“Stand back, please,” the Passport Control lady said. “And look into the camera.”
They had a web cam mounted over the counter. It dropped down from the ceiling. I grinned at the thing like a stupid tourist on holiday. It clicked.
She finally stamped my passport and smiled. “Welcome to Cuba.”
I smiled back. Suckers.
Wait. I was not yet in the clear.
While waiting for my suitcase to arrive on the Baggage Claim belt, a young policemen seized my passport and would not give it back. “I need you to answer some questions.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Where are you staying?”
But told him the truth about that.
“Which parts of Cuba will you be visiting?”
Havana, of course.
I'll also be visiting the Bay of Pigs, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Santa Clara to see Che Guevara’s memorial.
“What do you do for a living?” No choice but to lie.
“What’s the name of the company you work for?” I had to lie about that one, as well. I hated having to do it, but overcontrolled police states make liars of everyone.
“Are you planning to visit any schools or medical facilities?” he said.
“I hope I don’t have to visit a medical facility,” I said to lighten the mood.
He smiled and laughed. “Yes. Let’s hope not.”
He was so unfailingly friendly and polite that I didn’t worry he’d catch me. And he didn’t drill down into granular details or ask any follow-up questions. He just dutifully wrote down my answers.
They had no idea I’m a journalist or that I intended to write about Cuba, and they weren’t going to find out. That was clear. And when the policeman finished questioning me, he did something unprecedented in all my years of crossing borders.
He returned my passport and said “sorry about that” with a sheepish look on his face.
He was sorry? Really?
“I hope you have a nice time in Cuba.”
Yes, he really was sorry. He meant it. I could tell. He felt bad about questioning me. He’d rather leave people alone.
Does that say anything about the revolutionary commitment of Castro’s security people? I have no idea.
Fidel Castro and Che Guevara overthrew the squalid and bloody dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 with support from a broad swath of Cuban society. I would have supported the revolution, as well, if I were living there at the time because here’s the thing: it wasn’t communist. Castro described himself as a freedom fighter and promised political liberalism.
“Democracy is my ideal, really,” he said in 1959. “There is no doubt for me between democracy and communism.” That first sentence was a lie, but the second sentence sure wasn’t.
Even after he took power and formed a new government, even as Che Guevara lined thousands of men and boys against the blood-soaked walls of La Cabaña and had them executed by firing squad, Castro kept his communist designs to himself. Later, however, he boasted about it with a terrifying ferocity.
“They corrupt the morals of young girls!” he shouted in 1968 against Cuba’s version of hippies, “and destroy posters of Che! What do they think? That this is a bourgeois liberal regime? NO! There is nothing liberal in us! We are collectivists! We are communists! There will be no Prague Spring here!”
To this day there has been no “spring” in Havana, so I felt a bit apprehensive about showing up there, especially under false pretenses. But it’s softened somewhat by three things—by the warmth of its people, by the beauty of its architecture and setting, and by ideological tiredness.
“Cuba is gorgeous,” said my journalist pal Terry Glavin up in British Columbia when I told him where I was going. “Although I expect it's gone to shit in some respects since I was there. The regime is that much more decrepit with the absence of Daddy Warbucks in Moscow. The things you will most love about Cuba, I bet, are the Cubans and the ravaged beauty of the place. I can't imagine any people on earth putting up with such bullshit with as much grace and humor and decency as the Cubans have managed, God love ‘em. Were it not for the regime I'd happily live in Havana.”
The Cubans do seem to handle it well, though I have no idea how. “You would make a fortune,” writes Havana-based journalist Mark Frank in his book Cuban Revelations, “if you could patent as an antidepressant whatever brain chemical kept the Cubans’ spirits up through the hard times.”
I wonder, though, how much of it’s real. Val Prieto warned me that to an extent it is not. “You will most likely see many smiling faces while you’re there,” he said. “Lots of laughter and dancing, too. But there will always be something much more profound behind all the smiles and laughter. Every Cuban, regardless of how content they may appear, lives with two underlying things sadness and fear, the latter being more prevalent. Most Cubans will not openly display it as you are a foreigner, but read between the lines when they speak to you.”
I know what it’s like to wear a false face. Not only did I have to lie at the airport, I had to conceal my identity from every single person I met in the country, including other Americans, lest someone say the wrong thing about me in public in front of the wrong person at the wrong time. I vowed to myself before I even left the United States that I wouldn’t tell a single human being in Cuba who I am or what I was doing no matter how much I felt like I trusted them. I hated having to do that, and I felt a little self-loathing because of it, but I had to be careful and consoled myself with the fact that I could be honest about everything later in writing.
Likewise I have little choice but to conceal the identities of many people I spoke to. Occasionally I can quote Cubans by name -especially if they’re in exile- but for the most part I can’t. Those on the island had no idea they were speaking to a journalist and that I might quote them, and I won’t risk their safety.
However, I will tell you this much: None of the Cubans I quote are high profile dissidents except when I cite what they’ve written for public consumption. Those who aren’t in prison live under total surveillance. The regime posts guards outside their houses and points cameras at their windows and doors. I’ve been told by reliable sources that state security agents will sometimes commandeer next-door apartments and houses to tighten the screws even more. If I were to walk into that kind of surveillance umbrella, there’s virtually no chance I’d get in and out without being questioned and tailed, and there was a strong chance I’d be arrested.
Before I could talk to anyone, though, I had to get into Havana. The international airport is located outside the city, and the ride in was a little unusual.
There is no product advertising in Cuba. Every billboard in the entire country is plastered with propaganda from the Communist Party.
The first one I saw featured a hangman’s noose and said “BLOQUEO - El genocidio mas largo de la historia.” BLOCKADE - The longest genocide in history.
The government is referring to the embargo, or sanctions, put in place against Cuba in 1962 after Castro nationalized US property. But the sanctions are not a blockade -which is an act of war- and they certainly don’t constitute genocide.
Another billboard showed the logo of the UJC, the Union of Communist Youth, which is composed of the faces of three communist leaders -Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Julio Antonio Mella- men who are dubbed “The protagonists of our time.” The UJC’s motto is “study, work, rifle.”
I groaned to myself at these absurd slogans and images, but was delighted when I later heard Cubans dismiss it all as “state propaganda.”
Aside from the billboards on the way in, Havana doesn’t look like a communist city. It has not been transformed into a sullen drabscape of gray concrete towers like so many capitals in the former Soviet bloc. Small one-story homes in a state of mild disrepair appeared through jungle-like foliage. Hundreds of people stood on the side of the road waiting for busses or to be picked up by one of the cars that passed periodically. Once I reached the city proper, all I saw, aside from a few faded high-rises, was European architecture in every direction. Most of Havana was built before the communist era when Cuba was still a rich country.
I am not into cars, but I nevertheless grinned like a kid when I first saw the classic American Chevys and Fords from the 1940s and 1950s that Cubans manage to keep working even though they no longer have parts.
“You wouldn’t believe what they have under the hoods of those things,” said one Cuban, who was clearly not a backyard mechanic himself. “They use pieces from old Russian washing machines.”
I felt more like I was driving into a time warp than into a tropical version of the Soviet Union. But I had just entered a tropical version of the Soviet Union. And much to my surprise, some people grumbled about it in public, at least in English.
“Is there any private enterprise in Cuba?” I heard an American man in my hotel lobby say to his Cuban tour guide.
“No,” said the tour guide -which is not strictly true, but it might as well be.
I couldn’t resist butting into their conversation.
“How do people here feel about that?” I said. “Honestly.”
“We hate it, of course,” she said. “But there’s nothing we can do about it but leave.”
Like the rest of the country, Havana’s hotels are time warps. I stayed at two. The more interesting of the pair was the Habana Libre, or Free Havana, which was a five-star Hilton before Fidel Castro seized it and turned it into his headquarters. It has been under communist management ever since and has been downgraded to three stars.
It’s not a bad hotel. It’s certainly better than the ghastly Soviet tower I stayed at in Borjomi, Georgia, during the Russian invasion in 2008. The Habana Libre, like the classic cars out on the streets, just hasn’t been updated since the 50s. It’s a modern-day throwback to the era of Mad Men.
The lights work, the air conditioning didn’t crap out, and the hot water heater never ran cold, but I woke every morning in pain. The mattress, like the rest of the furniture, also dated back to the 1950s and was at least half as firm as the floor.
And I felt like I was being spied on the minute I stepped into my room.
I knew I wouldn’t find any surveillance equipment, but I couldn’t help looking. I didn’t look hard, though. I didn’t want anyone to see me looking for bugs, wires, or cameras if they were watching. A colleague told me they place cameras as well as microphones in the rooms, and that the cameras point at the bed. I don’t know how he’d know that bit about cameras or if it’s even true. Perhaps it’s just a paranoid rumor. Maybe the regime started the rumor itself to make people paranoid. Who knows?
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if it’s true because I had little choice but to behave as though it is true. And it affected my job. Not only did I have to leave my laptop at home, I couldn’t sit on the bed and take notes with pen and paper. I had to look and behave exactly like a tourist even in the “privacy” of my hotel room, and tourists don’t generally sit down and write for long stretches.
I had no laptop and no notebook, but I had to take notes. How?
I could have typed something up in the business center and emailed it to myself, but incoming and outgoing Internet traffic is heavily monitored, so that solution was out. I know of two people who got in trouble doing that sort of thing, and one of them really was just a tourist. All he did was criticize Fidel Castro on Facebook.
But there are other ways to take notes. If you know a month in advance that you’re heading into a situation like this, you’ll think of something. I did. And I figured out how to do it in such a way that no one would know what I was doing even if they watched me do it on a video feed, nor would I be caught if my belongings, including the images on my camera, were thoroughly searched.
I may be the only person in the history of journalism who has used this particular method, partly because it’s bizarre, partly because I used a product designed for a different purpose entirely, and partly because that product didn’t even exist until recently. (Don’t ask me how I did it. I may need to use the same system again in the future.)
Even if the business center downstairs had been a viable option, the experience is miserable by design.
Private Internet is banned. You can only get online in hotels, Internet cafes, and government offices. Regular citizens are effectively prohibited from accessing the Web by the price. It cost me seven dollars an hour to use a dial-up connection. The government caps Cuban salaries at 20 dollars a month, so it costs a citizen ten days of income just to get online for an hour. Once they do get online, the connection will be so slow that surfing around is impossible. It took me the better part of my hour to get connected, to open my inbox, and to send a single email to my wife telling her I had arrived safely and without incident.
The government strangles the Internet because it fears free information. There can be no other reason. That’s also why they vet journalists in advance and require special visas. Information can barely get in and barely get out. There can be no Twitter or Facebook revolution in Cuba’s near future.
And there are apparently no real newspapers or magazines, at least none that I saw. No International Herald Tribune. No Newsweek and Time in the dentist’s office. No Google News since there is no Google. Certainly not the Wall Street Journal or The Economist.
I hadn’t even been there a full day and I already felt umbilically severed from the rest of the planet. My awareness of the world narrowed to what I could see right in front of me. I felt as though I had lost one of my senses. I had no real access to the Internet. No CNN, no New York Times. No blogs, not even my own. Nothing at all. I could not use my iPhone. I may as well have been at the bottom of the ocean.
The only newspaper I saw was Granma, the official organ of the Communist Party. Juventud Rebeldesupposedly exists somewhere, as well, but I didn’t see any copies.
That, by the way, is the most outrageously named newspaper I know of. The English translation ofJuventud Rebelde is Rebel Youth -as if it’s Cuba’s version of Rolling Stone. But God, no. It’s not that at all. Rebel Youth indoctrinates young people with the zombie ideology of walking dead men. Youthful and rebellious it ain’t. It is the most tired, stale, old, and establishment “newspaper” in the hemisphere.
Want an example? Here’s an excerpt from a recent interview with Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2008. It reads like an interview with the Secretary General of Hezbollah. “These 50 years have been ones of resistance,” Raul said to the journalist who doesn’t even merit a name, “years of survival, years of the determination of the people, in which we have maintained our strength, and that refers to the vast majority of the country.” He goes on and on like that for pages. “We have not had peace, we have not had tranquility. The enemy says that socialism has been a failure. Why don’t they leave us in peace to fight on equal terms? But it has not been a failure, not even under these conditions. It has been an incessant battle.”
I never heard a single human being speak that way in Cuba. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt it even happens at Communist Party meetings these days.
Granma, the newspaper aimed at adults, is sold by men standing on street corners. I never saw anyone buy it or read it.
I smiled the first time I stepped out for a walk. I was not supposed to be there, but nobody stopped me.
The air was warm and humid but not oppressive as long as I walked in the shade. Direct sunlight, however, made me feel like I was standing next to a bonfire on a blazing hot afternoon. Tropical sunshine is a serious force to be reckoned with, especially for someone like me whose ancestors hail from the North Atlantic and who lives now in the Pacific Northwest. The Spaniards who first settled the place without sunscreen must have looked like angry red lobsters before their bodies adjusted and their skin started producing additional melanin.
The city is reportedly safe, especially for visitors. Crimes against tourists are punished with tremendous severity. I felt secure everywhere. Not a single person looked or felt sketchy. Individuals approached and spoke to me once in a while, but they never seemed to want anything. They did not ask for money. They weren’t trying to lure me into their shop like touts in the Middle East often do. (Cuba doesn’t really have any shops.) With but a single exception, they weren’t pimping prostitutes.
What struck me most while walking around Havana for the first time is how dead and quiet it is. This was unexpected, though in hindsight I should have known. Where has communism ever been lively?
Michael Frayn visited Cuba on the tenth anniversary of its revolution and wrote an essay at the time titled “Farewell to Money.”
“No representation -but, then no taxation. No bars -but then, no drunks. No news, no institutions to protect the rights of the individual, nothing in the shops. Often no water in the pipes, occasionally no electricity in the wires. ‘No liberalism whatsoever! No softening whatsoever!’ (Castro.) Havana is the saddest sight -shabby, blank, full of nothingness.”
Little has changed. That’s the defining characteristic of Cuba since 1959. It doesn’t change. The water and electricity seem to work better, and parts of Old Havana have been fixed up for tourists, but otherwise Frayn’s description still stands.
The city feels languid, slow, inert. It is eerily quiet all the time as if it has been partly depopulated. You hardly have to look before crossing the street because there is so little traffic. Every day feels like Sunday used to feel in the United States when more people went to church and fewer establishments were open.
But Havana’s establishments are not closed. There just aren’t very many of them. You cannot go shopping. There’s nothing to buy. If you had millions of dollars, you would not be able to spend it. The city would be horrifying if were in a cold climate with dismal architecture like much of the former Soviet Union, but it didn’t strike me as horrifying. It’s just static. And vaguely post-apocalyptic.
Nobody hurries. They have all the time in the world. And it’s a good thing, too, because, as one Cuban said, “our national sport is standing in lines.”
It reminded me a bit of Libya under Moammar Qaddafi, which I visited for the first time in 2004, only Cuba is better educated, more advanced culturally, and -even though much of its architecture is thoroughly ravaged- more pleasing aesthetically.
But there’s a reason I’m comparing it to Libya under Qaddafi and to the Soviet Union. Qaddafi modeled his government on Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime in Romania. The Brother Leader of the Al-Fateh Revolution never called himself a communist; he insisted his Libyan brand of socialism was the “third way” between liberal capitalism and Soviet-style collectivism. But he was effectively a communist in all but name, and Libya at the time looked even more the part than Havana.
“Cuba looks exactly like its photos,” wrote writer and translator M.J. Porter in 2011, “and yet if feels different. I fell in love with Cuba and Cubans. Something felt like home. Completely unforeseen, however, was the weight of the totalitarian state.”
She wrote those words for the Introduction to the outstanding book Havana Real by Cuban dissident Yoani Sanchez. I read it before I went to Cuba myself, and I had to wonder: How on earth could the weight of the totalitarian state not be foreseen, especially if Porter has read Yoani Sanchez? Cuba has been totalitarian for more than fifty years now. Raul Castro is liberalizing the economy slightly, but it’s still more like North Korea’s than anyone else’s, and there has been no political opening whatsoever.
I understand now. The totalitarian state does weigh heavier than expected. At least it did for me and for M.J. Porter despite having read Yoani Sanchez and so many others. Which is strange because the totalitarian state is all in the shadows.
After the revolution the State Security Department, known locally by some at the time as the Red Gestapo, recruited thousands of chivatos (rats), internal secret police who operated more or less like the Stasi did in East Germany. Repression was out in the open back then. Thousands were murdered and tens of thousands thrown into prison for political reasons.
In an essay titled “Interminable Totalitarianism in the Tropics,” collected in The Black Book of Communism by Harvard University Press, French historian Pascal Fontaine describes the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, Castro’s ruthless enforcers of ideological correctness. One was set up on each block in urban areas to keep watch on everybody. Everything about them intimidates. Next to the front door of one CDR office I saw the image of a faceless man wielding a sword above the words “Always in combat.”
Always in combat against whom, you might ask?
“The surveillance and denunciation system is so rigorous,” Fontaine writes, “that family intimacy is almost nonexistent.”
Family intimacy is almost nonexistent.
Aside from the slave labor camps and the staggering body counts, I can think of no more devastating an indictment of totalitarian government than that sentence. Something broke inside me when I read it.
I certainly wasn’t intimate with anybody in Cuba -and I don’t mean physically any more than Fontaine did. I had to lie by omission every minute of every hour of every day just like the Cubans. A person could get used to this sort of thing, I suppose, but that does not make it less alienating. That’s the counterintuitive thing about totalitarian systems. They herd people into Borg-like collectives, yet every individual is savagely atomized.
I never felt so alone in my life.
Cuban state repression also functions in banal and ludicrous ways as Sanchez illustrates in her book. “Busses are stopped in the middle of the street,” she writes, “and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.”
I couldn’t help feeling watched in that kind of environment, especially since everyone I know who has been there told me the hotels are bugged.
I wasn’t paranoid about it. Security personnel weren’t going to bust into my room and take me away. There was not much to fear, really. People weren’t getting shot in the streets. No one pointed a gun at anybody in my presence, nor did I see anyone get hauled off to prison. Cuba is not a war zone. It is not the Cambodian Killing Fields. Nor is it North Korea, which Christopher Hitchens once described as a place “where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden.” It’s not that bad.
But it is a total surveillance police state.
And so I felt watched, not by thugs but by yawning functionaries who probably would rather do something else like the policeman who questioned me in the airport. Maybe they were watching or listening some of the time and maybe they weren’t. I’ll never know.
Since I couldn’t see anyone watching or following me, the tingling sense of being observed was self-generated. In a way, it was all in my head. I wasn’t imagining things -the hotels really are bugged- but I still don’t know if anyone ever actually spied on me. It took me a while to figure out what to make of that, and my blood ran cold when I finally did.
British philosopher Jeremy Benthem devised an ingenious low-tech system of total surveillance two hundred years ago. It would work in hospitals, schools, and mental institutions, he argued, but it would work even better in prisons.
The idea was straightforward: build a circular prison with a tower in the center so the guards can see inside any and every cell from a single location. The watchtower could even be obscured in some way so that prisoners would have no idea who the guards were looking at. Since prisoners would know they might be watched at any given moment, they’d act as though they were being watched at all moments.
“Morals reformed,” Benthem wrote, “health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burdens lightened, economy seated -as it were- upon a rock, the Gordian knot of the poor-law not cut but untied, all by a simple idea in architecture!” He touted his prison as “a mill for grinding rogues honest” and “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”
He called it Panopticon.
French philosopher Michel Foucault assailed it as a cruel, ingenious cage. “The panoptic schema makes any apparatus of power more intense,” he wrote. “It’s strength is that it never intervenes, it is exercised spontaneously and without noise.”
Prisoners collaborate in their own surveillance because their heads are haunted by the thought of an all-seeing eye.
No prison was ever designed to all of Benthem’s specifications, but dozens were constructed around the world that met most of them. The one that most closely resembles Benthem’s Panoptic regime is in Cuba.
Fidel Castro didn’t build it. The Presidio Modelo complex was built in the mid-1920s when Gerardo Machado was still president.
Castro and his brother Raul were incarcerated there for a few years after attacking the Moncada military barracks in 1953 in their first botched uprising against the Batista regime. Fidel gleefully turned things around in the 1960s and used the Presidio complex to warehouse political prisoners, gays, dissidents, and those who promoted the counter-culture.
Today it’s no longer a prison. It stands now as a national monument and, like almost everything else on the island, is in a state of decay.
Why did Castro close the Presidio complex?
Because, why not? It’s superfluous.
An oblivious tourist could be blissfully unaware of all this and have a nice time in Cuba, I guess, but I was not an oblivious tourist and knew perfectly well that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara turned the entire island nation into Benthem’s Panopticon.
IN ENGLISH LANGUAGE