Cuba's Castro learns what most of us already knew
Fidel Castro, 84, may have failing eyesight but he has noticed something: "The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore." So, the secret is out. And there is no joy among the alumni, if any still live, of the golden days of Les Deux Magots.
That Paris cafe, now a tourist magnet, was where, before and after World War II, Jean-Paul Sartre and kindred spirits compared notes on life's emptiness and the American menace. Of the latter, a major newspaper, Le Monde, editorialized on March 29, 1950: "Coca-Cola is the Danzig of European Culture." (Ancient history: Danzig was the Polish -- Germany thought German -- city that was a flash point in the approach of the war.)
For advanced thinkers, Castro was a happy harbinger of, among much else, "direct democracy." He came to power on Jan. 1, 1959, and the next year Sartre arrived to explain, in the manner of Parisian intellectuals, the Meaning of It.
As everyone attuned to the Zeitgeist then was -- college students who owned black turtlenecks; aficionados of foreign films (not "movies," heaven forfend) -- Sartre was an existentialist. A critic called existentialism the belief that because life is absurd, philosophy should be, too. But Sartre's pilgrimage took him, with Castro, into Cuba's countryside. There they stopped at a roadside stand for lemonade and an epiphany.
The lemonade was warm, so Castro got hot, telling the waitress that the inferior drink "reveals a lack of revolutionary consciousness." She said the refrigerator was broken. Castro "growled" (Sartre's approving description) that she should "tell your people in charge that if they don't take care of their problems, they will have problems with me." Instantly Sartre understood "what I called 'direct democracy' ":
"Between the waitress and Castro, an immediate, secret understanding was established. She let it be seen by her tone, by her smiles, by a shrug of the shoulders, that she was without illusion."
Half a century later, Castro seems to be catching up with her. He who proclaimed at his 1953 trial that "History will absolve me" may at last have lost the most destructive illusion of modern politics, the idea that History is a proper noun.
The idea was that History is an autonomous thing with an unfolding logic that, if served by a vanguard of a discerning few who understand its workings, ends in a planned paradise. Hence, as Czeslaw Milosz wrote in "The Captive Mind" in 1953, communists believed that the job of intellectuals was not to think but only to understand.
By saying what he recently did about the "Cuban model" (he said it to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic), Castro seems to have become the last person outside the North Korean regime to understand how statism suffocates society. Hence the Cuban government's plan to shed 500,000 public employees.
This follows a few other measures, such as the denationalization of beauty parlors and barber shops -- if they have no more than three chairs. With four or more, they remain government enterprises. Such is "reform" under socialism in a nation that in 1959 was, in a variety of social and economic indices, one of Latin America's five most advanced nations, but now has an average monthly wage of about $20. Many hospital patients must bring their own sheets. Many thousands of Cuban doctors are working in Venezuela, which is supporting Cuba much as the Soviet Union did.
After the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961 -- perhaps the most feckless use of American power, ever -- President Kennedy's brother Robert called Cuba "the top priority in the United States government -- all else is secondary -- no time, money, effort or manpower is to be spared." Ever since, the rhetoric has been fierce as both parties have competed for the votes of the 1.6 million-strong Cuban diaspora in America, especially in Florida, the largest swing state in presidential voting. For example, in 1992, candidate Bill Clinton promised to "bring the hammer down" on Castro, who has survived the disapproval of 11 U.S. presidents.
Today, the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba by means of economic embargoes and travel restrictions serves two Castro goals: It provides an alibi for Cuba's social conditions, and it insulates Cuba from some of the political and cultural forces that brought down communism in Eastern Europe. The 11th president, Barack Obama, who was born more than two years after Castro seized power, might want to rethink this policy, now that even Castro is having second thoughts about fundamentals.