By: Manuel A. Tellechea
The New York Tribune
Commentary Section, p. 11
November 29, 1989
Carlos Alberto Montaner has supplied a review of his own book, which appears unsigned except for his distinctive style, on the dust cover of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. He describes himself as "perhaps the foremost social analyst and journalist on Cuban affairs," and his book as "the definitive study of the Cuban regime from the vantage point of the Cuban dictator."
Yet the only person that could write "the definitive study of the Cuban regime from the vantage point of the Cuban dictator" is the Cuban dictator. It is doubtful, however, that Castro would cast himself as the villain in his own account, or choose Montaner as his authorized biographer.
Is Montaner's book, then, the apologia which Castro would write if he ever repent of his sins? That would be a book worth reading, and no author would be better qualified to write it than Montaner, who can be as outrageous on paper as Castro is on magnetic tape.
Montaner's book begins with an apology for having written this book. "I am a Cuban who strictly for political reasons left Cuba in 1961," he writes. "I was not adversely affected by the Revolution's economic policies and could have easily benefited from the changes that have taken place in my country. I call attention to these aspects of my background to ward off suspicious conjectures, while admitting that my being a Cuban exile can call into question the objectivity of my evaluation regarding Cuba's revolutionary process." Strange, but that statement fosters in me "suspicious conjectures" which I should not otherwise have entertained.
Montaner apparently defines "objectivity" as indifference. You must be indifferent to the suffering of your country to write objectively about it. Or more shockingly still: You must be indifferent to the truth to write truthfully about it. Montaner,to his credit, does not live up to his own ideal. He is not indifferent.
The author charges that Castro has created a nation fit only for noble savages to inhabit, and has singlehandedly drawn the curtain of the Dark Ages on that barrenness. As Montaner points out, "in 1959, Cuba's urban centers lived synchronized to the West's temporal system. Science, technology, aesthetic currents, literary fashions, other fashions, and music, arrived at the island rather rapidly. At times very few as in the case of music and dance, Cuba contributed in addition to receiving." Montaner blames the Revolution for having "disconnected Cuba from its temporal system."
"The country," writes Montaner, "lives semi-paralyzed in the magic year of 1959... Circular time covers the island like a pneumatic bell." As a consequence of this isolation, Montaner laments that Cubans have missed out on "the relevant ideas, the knots of tension, the latest poetry, the latest movies, the latest plays, the latest literature that did not fit in with Marxist rhetoric, the anti-psychiatric movement, the militant feminist movement, the changes that liberated sexual behavior — sex resigned from the realm of ethics during those prodigious years — Marcuse, Watts, Goodman, Fromm, the renaissance of a certain religiosity, Eastern spiritualism, yoga, the rediscovery of Nietzsche, Zen Buddhism, the analysis of the subculture, the counterculture, underground movies, underground literature, pornography, hallucinogenics — all that is trivial, stupid, profound, noxious, or beneficial that shapes our time has been missed by the Cuban people."
I, for one, living in the United States, have missed out on all those magnificent boons, and do not feel the worse for it. I suspect, in fact, that the few rational minds surviving in the Western world were cloistered for these last 30 [now 50] years.
What Cubans have missed out on is not this neo-hippie garbage, but the opportunity to think freely, however little; to move freely, without restraints; and even to eat freely, and not in concert with their neighbors. These are the basics of culture and civilization, and since Cubans have not had access to them, they have had to struggle to keep body and soul from withering as all the foundations of their world were compromised and their world itself disappeared.
Montaner credits the Cuban Revolution with the development of the "Castron bomb," which differs from the neutron bomb in that it leaves the people alive but destroys their surroundings. In a strange twist on the tale of Atlantis, Cuba is crumbling into the ocean with every tropical breeze, while the waters surrounding it recede under the weight of all that human and material debris. The neutron bomb might have sunk Cuba into the ocean — a hope devoutly wished by Castro during the Missile Crisis — but the "Castron bomb" is raising a desert in the midst of an ocean. As Montaner notes, "daily life in the 20th century — flip the switch and make light, turn on the faucet and take a shower, or spin a disk and talk to your distant aunt — has disappeared."
Gone, too, is the full cupboard of pre-revolutionary times. Under Cuba's oldest-in-history rationing system, no one can "hoard" more foodstuffs than he could consume in a 24-hour period. Cubans receive from their master less than one-forth of the rations decreed for slaves by the Spanish colonial administration 100 years ago. The slightest infraction can result in the cancellation of one's ration card, which amounts to a sentence of death by starvation, unless you can find someone with whom to starve on half-rations. Rebellion entails the prospect of death or torture in prison which, despite its horrors unsurpassed by any country in the world today, at least puts you in touch with a better class of people.
Their are no rewards for exertion or self-assertion, except the sure contempt of your fellow countrymen. "Cuba today," writes Montaner, "is a country of loafers who pretend to work and of cynics who pretend to agree" with the regime. "What is happening on the island, from one end to another, is a secret but total civil insubordination." For more than a quarter [now half] century, t6he personal creativity of Cubans, of millions of Cubans, has been replaced by the creativity of one man, tireless and energetic, but, in the end, one man." Montaner forgets pedantic and vainglorious, self-serving and megalomaniacal.
The only hope for Cuba, Montaner maintains, is to release the creative energy of its people. "Singapore, Japan, and England have been able to prove, in totally different circumstances, that certain poor islands without energy resources are capable of prospering if the population is not handcuffed with dogmatic schemes." If Montaner were himself free of liberal dogma he would add to that list of happy isles pre-Castro Cuba. Before 1959, Cubans enjoyed the highest standard of living in Latin America, and far from being an undeveloped country, Cuba alone among the nations of the region had crossed the threshold of the First World, however tenuously or briefly.
But Montaner was determined "not to use the past as a reference when judging the Revolution per se," which, simply stated, means that as a historian he has abandoned historical perspective. He would rather make a fool of himself than be accused of championing the status quo ante. He pities and empathizes with Cuban intellectuals who praise Castro by rote ("there but for the grace of God"), but scorns "certain nostalgic people of little intellect or dubious past who proclaim themselves Batista supporters." He believes that to speak well of pre-revolutionary Cuba is to join them in their nostalgia. Personally, I believe that being nostalgic about a glorious past is preferable to being disingenuous about the horrible present.
Montaner compares pre-revolutionary Cuba to Communist Cuba only when he believes that the latter had the advantage. "There is no doubt ," writes Montaner, that "blacks and mulattoes have seen their opportunities for economic and social integration in the country multiply" since Batista, a mulatto, was overthrown. Montaner is correct except that opportunities (so-called) have multiplied for Cuban blacks everywhere but in Cuba. Castro is currently sending myriads of black Cubans to Angola as colonizers under his peculiar "Law of Return." He has revived the African Colonization Society and created his own Liberia. Cuba blacks who refuse "repatriation," by the way, are tried in special all-black courts as "traitors to their race." Whites are not subjected to such treatment. They are merely "traitors to their country."
Montaner has his own equally nonsensical scheme for resolving the race question in Cuba: "The final solution [!] to racial conflicts is not that whites and blacks go to schools and cabarets together, but that they go to the bedroom together." Montaner also advocates sex as a cure for mental illness. Having diagnosed Castro as a manic depressive, Montaner counsels that he be treated just like any other lunatic: "locked-up, calmed down, given an aspirin, two slaps, three electroshocks and/or a little print of St. Jude, or — in any case — advised to get married to see if he can rid himself of his nervousness by means of the bed."
For "perhaps the foremost social analyst and journalist on Cuban affairs," Montaner at times proves incredibly naive. "Theft and corruption, old practices which date from colonial times, have disappeared," he avers. I suppose that Cuba's "Narcogate" must have been as great a shock to Montaner as it was to Castro.
If Montaner can credit Castro with "social achievements" which he in fact thwarted (going so far as to devote an entire chapter to such hallucinations), should he not at least credit Batista with not posing an obstacles to Cuba's economic development? By omitting these national accomplishments isn't he surrendering credit for them entirely to Batista? What of the creative energy of the Cuban people, which flourished under every Cuban government before Castro? Caught in this paradox, Montaner arrives at the usual compromise: what should have been the first chapter of his book becomes, instead, an appendix, "The State of the Cuban Economy Before Castro."
Here is an example, yet again, that the appendix of a book is not a supernumerary member, but often the most interesting part of it, since it is usually the place where inconvenient facts that do not conform to an author's prejudices are delegated.
Culled from numerous U.S. and U.N. statistical sources, the Appendix shows that what Cubans really need is a time travel machine back to that magical date of December 31, 1958. Contrary to popular belief, pre-revolutionary Cuba was not predominantly agrarian. In 1958, only 30.5 percent of its population was involved in the cultivation of the land. This contrasts notably with Western Europe (58 percent). 24% of the Cuban labor force in 1953 was employed in the industrial sector, putting Cuba at he midway point between the rest of Latin America (17%) and the U.S. (37%). Cuban ranked in the top third worldwide among 108 countries in the consumption of steel per capita ahead of Mexico and Brazil (titans in size and population compared to Cuba). Cuba placed 25th among 124 countries surveyed in kilowatt consumption. The Soviet Union ranked 22nd. In 1958, Cuba placed ninth in the world in kilometers of railroad tracks per 1000,000 inhabitants.
In 1958, U.S. investments in Cuba accounted for only 14 percent of a GNP that was the third-highest in the Western Hemisphere. Before Communism, Cuba had reached the point which W.W. Rostow calls the take off stage toward the economic maturity of a developed country. By 1957, the internal capital net formation had reached 15.5 percent of the national income, amply exceeding the minimum 10 percent propounded by Rostow as sufficient to feed the autonomous development process of a country's economy.
The Appendix alone is worth the price of the book, and I enjoyed also the author's piquant style, which even in translation reads like Mencken (with his same penchant for using hyperbole as a trompe-l'oeil. If you can overlook Montaner's constant genuflecting to the idols of liberalism, you will find him an impassioned advocate for the cause of Cuban freedom if one somewhat exasperated at times by the fact that this puts him outside the liberal fold.