On Warriors Cold and Happy

September 13, 2013

Here at Cuba Central, we explore all points of view and publish our news summary minus the kind of invective that discourages so many of us about debating ideas that matter.

So, when a group across town bridled at being labeled “Cold Warriors” for, as they put it, opposing “Cuba’s dictatorship,” that made us stop and wonder if they had a point.

It’s very hard to argue the proposition that U.S. policy toward Cuba and all of Latin America was and is based on thinking straight out of the Cold War playbook.

As Thomas Carothers wrote in his book, In the Name of Democracy, “After World War II, the overriding concern of the United States in Latin America became fighting communism, or more specifically, trying to prevent the emergence of left-leaning governments and seeking to oust the ones that did emerge.”

In fact, the U.S. did work to topple governments as it did in Guatemala and Chile, as the National Security Archives documented again this week, with new revelations about Henry Kissinger and the coup against Salvador Allende, and stopped leftist parties from winning democratic elections in places like El Salvador.  Even as the Cold War waned, that is what U.S. policy did.

Much of this has subsided in the hemisphere; except, most notably, in Cuba, where normal trade and diplomatic relations with the U.S. remain suspended.  Where operations -–overt or semi-covert -– are still underway (ask Alan Gross).  Radio and TV Martí, costly broadcast operations jammed by Cuba’s government and hardly heard by any Cubans, are still housed alongside Radio Free Europe.  It’s all stuff of the Cold War, with the occasional spot shine and sheen of social media to give it a modern glow.

Back in the 1950s, Bob Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, made headlines when he called President Eisenhower a “lackey,” and a “conscious, dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy.” Senator Joseph McCarthy accused opponents of siding with the enemy and appeasement.  A Mandarin Chinese term, to kowtow, or knock one’s head, was repurposed to disparage Americans who disagreed with protecting Taiwan and isolating China.

No surprise then that those who defend the hardline against Cuba so often take Cold War rhetoric out of cold storage for use in the debates of today.  Like when the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting declared that Cardinal Jaime Ortega was a “lackey” of the Cuban government after the Cardinal facilitated the release of scores of political prisoners.

Or when Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart said in an op-ed, “Since he took office in January 2009, President Obama has pursued a policy of appeasement toward the totalitarian Cuban dictatorship.”  Or when former Rep. David Rivera double-dipped his pen in Cold War ink and called attempts by the Obama administration to free Alan Gross “Efforts at appeasement and kowtowing to the Cuban regime.”

Such word games over who is wearing a Cold War label would have struck our friend Saul Landau, a happy warrior, funny.  Before he succumbed to bladder cancer this week at age 77, Saul liked to say, “Cancer, smancer, as long as I have my health.”

In a week that marked a string of emotional milestones – the 40th anniversary of the coup in Chile, the 15th anniversary of the arrests of the Cuban Five, the 12th anniversary of 9/11 – Saul’s death in a sad but strangely exquisite way, followed the arc of his singular life.

He produced 40 films and 14 books.  He was a poet and an investigative journalist.  He wrote a detective novel at the end of his career and a play for a mime troupe at the beginning.  The New York Times says his activism was triggered during college in Wisconsin where he joined a club “which advocated the recall of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin over his demagogic attacks on people he accused of being Communists.”

In 1968, after he produced his documentary, “Fidel,” premiers of the film in New York and Los Angeles were cancelled after firebomb attacks on the theaters.

He won an Emmy Award and a George F. Polk Award for his documentary, “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang,” which recounted how the health effects from a 1957 nuclear test were covered up.

His colleagues at IPS called him “a fearless human rights activist,” and for good reason.  After documenting the election of Salvador Allende as president of Chile, he befriended Orlando Letelier, the country’s ambassador to the U.S., who he then helped save after Gen. Pinochet overthrew Chile’s democratically-elected government and tossed Mr. Letelier in jail.

The coup unleashed a torrent of torture, disappearances, and death in Chile, and the murderous hand of the Pinochet government reached all the way to Embassy Row in Washington.  As Phil Brenner told us, “when Pinochet’s thugs repeatedly threatened his life –- after demonstrating their seriousness by killing Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt in 1976 –- Saul persevered in unearthing the evidence that led to their convictions and imprisonment.”

As IPS recalled, his last film, “Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up?” tells the history of U.S.-Cuba relations through the lens of the Cuban 5.

Year after year, Saul followed the courage of his convictions and then a long list of academics and activists, experienced and emerging, inspired by his work, followed him.

Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive wrote us, “He was a rare combination of political activist, philosopher provocateur, storyteller, movie maker and modern revolutionary. Perhaps most important, he taught me and others to ‘stir the waters,’ and he set a standard of energy, commitment, and action for us to follow.”

Andres Pertierra wrote in The Nation, “Saul Landau changed my life.  I will never forget him.”

A powerful lesson of the Cold War is captured by the phrase “blowback.”  In Scripture, it is the message of ‘you reap what you sow’.

As Saul demonstrated time and again in his work, when you support coups, when you march your own soldiers into a test zone to watch a nuclear blast, these things have consequences, and can boomerang. And so he said we must act.

A few years ago, a dozen generals wrote President Obama and sounded just such a theme:

“The current policy of isolating Cuba has failed, patently, to achieve our ends …. When world leaders overwhelmingly cast their vote in the United Nations against the embargo and visit Havana to denounce American policy, it is time to change the policy, especially after fifty years of failure in attaining our goals.”

As Saul might have said, Cold Warrior, Cold Smorrior.

Read the rest of this entry »


Vigil in Madrid: Some thoughts about Oscar and Miriam

August 23, 2013

“I expect the end to come soon.”

Miriam Leiva wrote these words about her husband, Oscar Espinoza Chepe, whose long struggle against liver disease seems near its end in Hospital Fuenfría near Madrid in Spain.  As we read her message, we were reminded why we respect this couple so much.

They just like to tell the truth as they see it.

Their candor made some people in Havana and Miami very uncomfortable.  Three years ago, Oscar referred to hardliners in both cities as “The Taliban.”  This may explain why Oscar and Miriam are rarely mentioned by the embargo’s biggest supporters in Washington, because their views never fit so neatly into the hardliner’s black-and-white definition of what constitutes “dissent.”

Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an economist and independent journalist, fell from grace in Cuba more than once. In the 1960s, after serving as an economist for Fidel Castro, he was sent to work in the fields after he expressed negative views about the economic situation in his country.

In the 1980s, Oscar, back in favor and working as an economic counselor, served for three years in Eastern Europe with Miriam, then a member of Cuba’s foreign service, just as perestroika was beginning to take hold.  But, upon their return to Cuba for a vacation, they were told they could not go back to Europe.  Instead, Oscar was assigned to work at the National Central Bank of Cuba.

In 1992, they were called to a meeting where Oscar was called out as “counter-revolutionary.” For the next twenty years, he and Miriam were devoted activists, though, as Oscar said, “We expressed our views in a pacific way.”

Oscar was arrested with 74 others in Cuba’s March 2003 crackdown.  Sentenced to twenty years, Oscar left prison after twenty months, released on a temporary medical parole; at any time, authorities could have ruled he was no longer sick and returned him to custody.

Nevertheless, upon leaving custody, Oscar resumed speaking his mind.  While he praised President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms as sensible and rational if incomplete, he was sharply critical of officials inside the system who were obstacles to change, and criticized those who saw private property as incompatible with social justice.

He chastised the government for failing to reciprocate President Obama’s “gestures,” the reforms on family and people-to-people travel.  He expressed his bewilderment at the imprisonment at Alan Gross and thought he should be set free.

This record of speaking out could have endeared Oscar to sanctions supporters in Miami except for his unshirted contempt for those he called “Hardliners for Castro.” He believed their support of sanctions kept Cubans hostage to their dreams of returning to power in a Cuba that last existed during Batista’s reign in the 1950s.  He resented their attacks on Cuba’s Catholic Church, which was instrumental in freeing the remaining prisoners arrested in 2003, along with many others.

In his statement opposing travel restrictions offered by Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, Oscar said: “If the policies proposed for Cuba by the hardliners had been maintained for Eastern Europe and China, we would possibly still have a Berlin Wall and the heirs of the Gang of Four would still govern China.”

Oscar and Miriam, in their work together, were motivated by a spirit of reconciliation that included everyone; even those who took no personal risks, but sat in air conditioned offices far from Cuba and questioned their credibility as political activists.  Instead, they chose to believe that all Cubans could work together, that families could reunite, and that “all animosity prevailing in our country since March 10, 1952 can be overcome.”

Earlier this year, a medical crisis led them to depart Cuba for Spain, so Oscar could receive what Miriam then called “urgent” medical attention for his chronic liver failure.

Another truth Oscar never left unspoken was his love for Miriam, especially when he recalled the vigils she organized with other spouses and family members of the 75 detainees.  He once said of her: “She is modest. She is brave, especially as demonstrated by her actions while I was in prison.”  Whether he was in Guantanamo or Santiago de Cuba, “she was there.”

Now, on another vigil, Miriam is there for Oscar again.  By posting updates on Facebook and a blog, Reconciliación Cubana, she has made it possible for us to accompany her on this sad, respectful, journey that she hopes will end soon.

Read the rest of this entry »