Clueless in Cuba

Last month, members of “The Squad,” snuck off to Cuba, a one-party Communist dictatorship since the 1950s and still among the worst violators of human rights. In 2021, Squad members Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) were among 40 Democrats who voted against a resolution supporting peaceful demonstrators protesting repressions of the Cuban government. The leftist Democrats seem unaware that Cubans have been compiling information on the Communist regime for some time now. Consider, for example, cinematographer Nestor Almendros, who in 1979 won an Academy Award for Days of Heaven.

As Almendros later documented in Improper Conduct (1984), Fidel Castro was guilty of outrages that even the leftists of the Squad should be able to recognize, such as when he banished homosexuals to forced labor camps. “Playwrights, doctors, poets and painters as well as more ordinary folk such as tour guides and hairdressers,” noted New York Times film critic Vincent Canby, “spent time in one or more of the country’s forced-labor camps.” Fidel Castro, who put them there, understood the dramaturgy of dictatorship.

When Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa returned from Africa, Castro spotted a potential rival and staged a show trial for Ochoa and fellow officers. The trial is on display in 8-A, a documentary by Cuban exile Orlando Jimenez Leal, who adds a dramatization of the executions.

Fidel Castro called American jazz the “music of the enemy” and jailed trumpeter Arturo Sandoval for listening to the Voice of America. Saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera defected in 1981 but it was 10 years before the Castro regime would allow his family to join him.

In Communist Cuba, artists and writers must support the regime. Poet Heberto Padilla’s Fuera del Juego collection was judged “counterrevolutionary,” and the author was put under house arrest. In 1980, Sen. Edward Kennedy secured Padilla’s release to the United States and in 1984 Padilla’s Heroes are Grazing In My Garden exposed the repression of writers and intellectuals in Cuba, as well as the general privations of the people. In Castro’s Cuba, for example, diabetics sell samples of their urine, so others can get extra rations of milk and meat by fooling the government into thinking they are disabled.

In Against All Hope, Armando Valladares documented Castro’s torture of political prisoners. Consider also Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims, which recalls glowing accounts of the Cuban regime by foreigners.

“Fidel sits on the side of a tank rumbling into Havana on New Year’s day,” wrote New Left icon Abbie Hoffman (Steal this Book), “He laughs joyously and pinches a few rumps … Fidel lets the gun drop to the ground, slaps his thigh and stands erect. He is like a mighty penis coming to life, and when he is tall and straight, the crowd immediately is transformed.”

For novelist Norman Mailer, Castro was “the first and greatest hero to appear in the world since the Second World War.” For Angela Davis, Communist Party USA candidate for vice president in 1980 and 1984, “Fidel was their leader, but most of all he was also their brother in the largest sense of the word.” One generation out of Spain, the white Stalinist dictator drove Cuba into sub-Haiti levels of poverty. Thousands fled on anything that would float.

Fidel Castro died in 2016, some 50 years too late. The composite character president David Garrow described in Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama hailed “the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.” Back in 1985, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Castro “totally transformed the society” and four years after the dictator’s death, Sanders was singing the same tune. He is now joined by the Squad.

The leftist Democrats show no sign of having read Heberto Padilla and Armando Valladares, or seeing 8A and Improper Conduct, celebrated at the Centro Cultural Cubano de Nueva York in 2019. As Saul Bellow explained, a great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. Judging by leftist Democrats and the Squad in particular, the need for illusion is truly fathomless.

Meanwhile, for samples of Nestor Almendros’ artistry, see Kramer Versus Kramer, The Blue Lagoon and Sophie’s Choice, which all drew Academy Award nominations. For Arturo Sandoval see “Trumpet Evolution” and for his keyboard chops check out “My Passion for the Piano.

Paquito D’Rivera showcases his alto on “Paquito Blowin,” and hear him on clarinet with the New York Voices on “Brazilian Dreams.” For a sense of Cuban music in the 1930s, check out Alberto Rabagliati and the Lecuona Cuban Boys on “Cubanacán,” all about that “misterioso pais del amor.”

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