Cuba: Saramago, Galeano and human rights

Portuguese novelist and Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago wrote last month (in a letter published in the Spanish daily El País), "This is as far as I go" in accompanying Cuba. Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano has also condemned the recent trials of dissidents. In addition, many other Spanish and Latin American intellectuals, most of whom had identified themselves with the Cuban revolution at some point in their careers (such as Mario Vargas Llosa, who broke the connection many years ago) have signed an open letter (click to see all the signatures) which says (my translation):
The Government of Fidel Castro, taking advantage of the international turmoil created by the war in Iraq, has unleashed the most violent political repression of the last ten years in Cuba. Between the 18th and 21st of last March, 79 peaceful opponents were arrested, and have been condemned to terms of up to 28 years in prison for crimes of conscience.

The signers below, intellectuals, artists and politicians of the democratic world, demand of the Cuban Government the immediate liberation of all the dissidents and demand the cessation of repression against the peaceful opposition."

I know Cuba well. I've visited several times, the first time in December 1973-January 1974, the most recent in December 1997-January 1998, when my compañera and I rented a car and drove across the island to Trinidad, picking up hitchhikers and interviewing a pretty broad cross-section of ordinary Cubans (who had given up waiting for the scheduled buses, which were always too few and too late). Like Galeano and Saramago (though not necessarily like everybody who signed that letter), I have had, and continue to have, high hopes for the great Cuban social experiment. Unfortunately, to maintain that experiment, the Cuban government and mass organizations have had to defend themselves constantly from attacks, including the most violent terrorist attacks (remember the department store "El Encanto" for example, or the Bay of Pigs, or the arming of bands of killers in the Escambray Mountains?), terrorist attacks conducted or at the least orchestrated by forces of the United States. And every time there has seemed to be some opening, toward wider market reform or freer political expression, the United States Government (under every administration, from Eisenhower to the present Bush) has taken it as an opportunity to do more damage. And when, recently, after the US had declared its war on terrorism, the Cuban government infiltrated terrorist organizations based in Miami, instead of getting cooperation from US authorities, their people were arrested and are now in prison. And even more recently, Bush's man in Havana, James Cason, has been aggressively traveling through Cuba to encourage the opposition.

I have several friends in Cuba, some working within and some outside of officially-approved organizations, and most doing a little of both. Those friends are, all of them I believe, doing what they can to make the system more open, more tolerant of different views and life-styles. And they had been making progress. We can talk about that some other time -- in brief, I think the natural, unavoidable tendency in Cuba, if it were not under constant siege, would be toward much greater liberalizations.

Meanwhile, there are many areas in which the two governments do and must cooperate (both are very interested in stopping drugs from passing through Cuba, for example, and the two Coast Guards treat one another with professional courtesy), but the persistent public hostility of the US, and the recent demonstration of the USG's readiness to destroy far more distant countries on very slender pretext, strengthens the forces of repression in Cuba -- their versions of John Ashcroft with his morality crusade, or Tom Ridge with his "homeland security" color schemes, Rumsfeld and his utter disregard for the Geneva Convention until dead or captured US troops are shown.

So here is where I end up on this question, for now: Thanks mainly to the US hardliners, the Cuban hardliners have for the moment got the upper hand. The sentences handed down were far too harsh, I think. It's ridiculous for our president from Texas to object to Cuba's imposing the death penalty on terrorists, but it's not ridiculous for me to do it, because I don't defend the death penalty anywhere when there is a reasonable alternative (like, locking them up where they can't do harm). Worse, in my mind (because those hijackers and kidnappers really were dangerous), is the sentences against political dissidents and journalists. These measures set back the revolutionary momentum.

But I can't say with Saramago, "Aquí me quedo." Cuba remains the unique example of a country that is trying, and mainly succeeding, to guarantee the most fundamental human rights of all: health, housing and education. To condemn the government or make "demands" is, first of all, not going to change Cuban policy (it'll just be another pretext for the Cuban hardliners to insist on repression), and secondly, going to encourage a United States administration that has already demonstrated its capacity to go berserk. To kill and bomb and shoot demonstrators, while calling itself "the liberators." So, reluctantly, a little sadly, I'm still with Cuba, and hope my friends there can make a difference.



In my younger, arrogant days (I am now in my older, arrogant days -- still obnoxious, but possibly smarter) I used to scorn the idea of writing for posterity. "What has posterity ever done for me?" I'd snort. (Snorting was a bit of a tic; these days I growl.) I wanted to make my impact within my lifetime, on my contemporaries.

But now I realize that posterity is all we've got. The momentum of destruction that the cabal in Washington has accelerated (Rumsfeld, Cheney, W et al.), set on destroying American values (remember civil liberties?) and economy (wasn't the government supposed to maintain the necessary public services, like health, education and public safety, so that we could get on with our private lives?) and the global ecology (even the Kyoto treaty was too much for those guys to bear) is too powerful for sensible people like you and me to deflect, even though we gather in the millions to protest against the latest utterly unecessary and extremely costly war. It is noble to stand up and argue fiercely against these abuses, and I admire my friends who do so. It is noble, but for now, futile -- except to leave a trail for future generations to know that even in these dark times, there were honest, courageous people.

This tragedy will play out till its end, possibly by bankrupting the American power that is propelling it, possibly by the rise of other forces, possibly by the boredom of future generations who begin to wonder what ever happened to all those other interesting cultures that the leviathan has extinguished, and if there may not be some way to recover their values and their songs.

This I believe -- that spite all, human beings will survive, though I hope for the world's sake they do not, as Faulkner predicted, prevail. (I'd like to believe that Faulkner was drunk when he made such a stupid remark at his Nobel Prize speech.) The world itself will prevail, if we let it, and if we human beings accept that we are only part of it. And for them, those future human beings, I write.

But I have not made myself clear. I've been assuming, as I might for a private diary, that too many other things are understood. What I am telling myself, and announcing to you (and I've recently discovered that there are more of you readers of this blog than I had imagined), is that I intend to write less and less political & social analysis (which used to be my main thing) and more fiction, for one old reason and one newer one. The old reason, discovered long ago, is that the only way to really understand other people's lives is to imagine oneself living them. The newer reason is that I now believe that only through metaphor (fiction) can I leave something intelligible and useable for those future generations.


Progress report: fiction
As of this weekend, I have four fiction projects out seeking audiences. My novel of 1402 Constantinople, A Gift for the Sultan, is being looked at by an agent. If it fails to find one in the next few months, I've promised to publish it somehow anyway, because it deserves to be read. (Some works of fiction are so vain they worry only about reviews and sales figures. Others, wiser, seek only readers, so that they may outlive their authors. This novel is of the second sort.) "Leaving Tegu" is a story about a restless American woman in Honduras, currently trying to attract attention at The New Yorker. "Morning in Santa Elena" is seeking acceptance in the handsome, newish journal, Terra Incognita. And now, finally, "Hunting the Thylacine" (a story of Tasmania) has gone to one story for its current contest, and also to the online workshop at Zoetrope.com. So now I must focus on the big nonfiction book with its rapidly-approaching deadline.


Karl Iagnemma
His story, "Children of Hunger," is one of the most beautiful I remember reading. One Story, vol. 1, no. 18.