Who Cares About Cuba?: Ninety miles away, far from our minds
By Jay Nordlinger
It is a bald question, and one that pops up from time to time: Why are
Americans so indifferent to the plight of Cubans? Why do Americans,
particularly our elites, scorn the exile community in Florida? Why do our
elites continually excuse, or defend, or outright champion the Communist
regime in Cuba? Why do the media ignore the heroics of Cuban dissidents,
which should be the stuff of page-one stories, and magazine covers, and
Movies of the Week? Why?
This is a question that Cubans and Cuban-Americans ask all the time, in
anguished and bewildered tones. Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former U.N.
ambassador, says that all this is "both a puzzling and a profoundly painful
phenomenon of our times." What is "especially puzzling," she continues, "is
the extreme selectivity of concern over terrible, terrible suffering, the
deprivation of all rights." Americans followed the saga of South Africa with
intense interest, and activism. The abuses of the Pinochet regime in Chile
are the subject of film, song, and much else. The victims of right-wing
dictatorship can usually count on the world's attention. But those who dare
to resist and challenge the regime in Cuba work in near-total darkness.
Let us take a couple of cases out of the darkness. Here are two that have
crossed my desk in recent days.
The first involves a man named Rene Montes de Oca Martija. He is a
dissident, a human-rights campaigner, and a Christian. Thirty-seven years
old, he has been jailed or detained repeatedly. Montes de Oca was born into
family of oppositionists; his uncle, for example, was a well-known political
prisoner. For this reason, Montes de Oca himself was singled out at school,
denied what privileges there were and marked as an enemy. His mother was a
Jehovah's Witness, which meant additional persecution. Montes de Oca himself
is a Pentecostalist, and an official with the Human Rights Party (illegal,
course), which is affiliated with the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, watched
over by the late physicist's widow, Yelena Bonner.
Montes de Oca was arrested and imprisoned in July of last year. He was
charged with "threatening the security of the state." His actual offense was
to have called for the release of political prisoners, free elections, a
penal code, and the possibility of Christian education in the schools. On
April 20, he escaped. There is a kind of Underground Railroad in Cuba, a
network of people who help oppositionists. Montes de Oca could not very well
avail himself of this system, however, as he was a fugitive, and the
penalties for aiding a fugitive are severe. But he managed to contact
Cuban-Americans in Florida who do what they can to help oppositionists,
mainly by simply taking their statements and trying to disseminate them
somehow. These helpers then turned to me. They knew that I had written about
Cuba, they knew that National Review was anti-Communist ("pro-Cuban" would
another way to put that), and they thought we would be interested. Would I
willing to interview Montes de Oca, if it could be arranged? I spoke to him
by phone on May 5.
The dissident related his story in an agitated but resolute voice. He
expected to be arrested again soon; he was desperate for his story to be
heard. He knew that, once he was recaptured, he would face not only heavy
punishment for having escaped, but trumped-up charges of "common" crimes,
such as thievery. The mother of his child had already lost her job because
the authorities demanded that she testify that Montes de Oca had beaten her.
She refused, and suffered the consequences.
Primarily, Montes de Oca was worried about his son, twelve years old. The
boy had been badly beaten a number of times at school, by older boys who are
sons of "patriotic" military personnel. This occurred with the apparent
blessing of the authorities. Police were dogging the son to and from school.
Montes de Oca's highest hope was that the boy would be allowed to leave the
country to receive medical care: He suffers from a hernia affecting his
testicles, and also from a twisted spine. Both conditions require surgery.
The boy is being denied treatment, however, because he is the son of an
Montes de Oca has endured persecution that can hardly be imagined. "Why do
you persist?" I asked him. "Why do you take these risks? How can you be so
brave?" He answered, "There are many brave people in Cuba, both men and
women. We have always been faithful: a faithful community, a faithful
We take our strength from the Bible. We believe in love, justice, and peace.
We take God's truth to the darkest and loneliest places of human existence,
like the prisons." And what did he want from Americans, I asked, beyond
specific help for his son? "I would like them to remember their principles:
their sense of unity, justice, and liberty, maintained over so many years."
Last, he wished to say, "Human rights cannot exist without God."
Three days later, on May 8, he was indeed rearrested. In the afternoon, he
spoke with supporters in the United States, wanting to provide as much
information as possible, and then he went to the home of a fellow
oppositionist. In the night, state security broke in and hauled both men
No one has heard from Montes de Oca again; his family, at this writing, has
been denied any information about him, and they fear the worst.
The second case I wish to discuss involves another dissident and political
prisoner, Jose Orlando Gonzalez Bridon. He is an officer with the Cuban
Democratic Workers' Confederation, a trade union (illegal). Gonzalez Bridon
stands accused of distributing "enemy propaganda" and "false information"
the purpose of "provoking public disorder." His chief crime seems to have
been to place on an American website-that of the Cuba Free Press Project-a
statement questioning the regime's role in the death of a fellow trade
unionist, Joanna Gonzalez Herrera. He also incensed the regime with a
at his home on November 23, 2000. On that day, a large group of
oppositionists gathered in the presence of a CNN camera and reporter. The
protesters were greatly encouraged by this opportunity to be heard. They are
willing to challenge the regime under any circumstances; but, naturally,
would like some reward for the risks they take.
For reasons unknown, CNN declined to broadcast the protest, or to report on
the matter at all. This dismayed and outraged the oppositionists. Several of
them contend that CNN's reporter promised that the protest would be
A spokeswoman for the network says that it is CNN policy never to make such
Later, many of the Cubans who participated in the event were rounded up
while attending a religious ceremony. They were beaten and jailed. Gonzalez
Bridon's wife has told supporters in the U.S. that she does not hold CNN
responsible for the arrests; but she does believe that the network behaved
unethically and misleadingly. Other oppositionists feel grossly betrayed by
the network. They complain that CNN is consistently pro-regime. They note
that the network's founder, Ted Turner, is a friend and admirer of Fidel
Castro. CNN's spokeswoman counters that the network has reported on "both
pro-Castro and anti-Castro demonstrations." Such evenhandedness is
the most Cuban dissidents can hope for; but they do not believe they get
CNN did run a story from Cuba on November 23: It was about the reentry of
Elian Gonzalez, the "raft boy," into Cuban society, where (said the network)
"he is a typical, happy-go-lucky schoolboy." CNN's Havana correspondent,
Lucia Newman, said toward the end of the report, "What is unquestionable is
that Elian's return to Cuba was a resounding political victory for Cuba's
president, and a devastating blow to his arch-enemies, the anti-Castro exile
community in the United States." Note the language there, because Cubans
certainly do: the dictator as "president"; his opposition, "arch-enemies,
anti-Castro exile community in the United States." First, what of the
anti-Castro community in Cuba? Second, the Florida Cubans are seldom
described, in the mainstream press, as anti-Communist or pro-freedom or
pro-democracy or pro-human rights. They are, at best, anti-Castro, and more
often "right-wing" and worse. Robert Conquest, the great historian of
Communist terror, notes that Orwell liked to observe that anti-Communists
were always described as "rabid": rabid anti-Communists. Almost never was
there a "rabid anti-Nazi," for example.
So, there are a couple of names named: Rene Montes de Oca Martija and Jose
Orlando Gonzalez Bridon. There are thousands of others, belonging to
thousands of other political prisoners. Hear (merely) three more: Vladimiro
Roca, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, and Maritza Lugo Fernandez. These names mean
nothing in our country, except to Cuban-Americans. Perhaps the most
name of all is that of Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet Gonzalez, a virtual saint of
the resistance. Biscet is a practitioner of civil disobedience in the
tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, his avowed models. He has been
imprisoned and tortured since 1998. We know, through his wife, that he has
blessed and forgiven his torturers even as they have tortured him. Here is a
man-Biscet-whose name should be on many lips. Cuban dissidents complain
bitterly that if he were a prisoner of a right-wing regime he would be a
worldwide cause. Yet he is anonymous; not even his dark skin seems able to
help him. The stream of American celebrities who go to Havana to sup, smoke,
and banter with "Fidel" are oblivious.
One man who has thought long and hard about all this is Armando Valladares.
He is the most famed of the dissidents, the author of the memoir Against All
Hope, one of the most powerful testaments of this age. Valladares persevered
through years of imprisonment and torture, showing almost unfathomable
courage, of every kind: physical, political, spiritual. Eventually he came
the United States, where he has devoted his life to truth-telling.
has earned the designation "the Cuban Solzhenitsyn." One of the most bracing
things President Reagan ever did, of many, was name Valladares U.S. delegate
to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
Valladares divides those Americans who are neutral or friendly toward the
Communist regime into two groups: those who lack information (a majority, he
says, perhaps generously), and those-politicians, intellectuals,
journalists-who should know better, to put it mildly. "I look at this from a
psychological point of view," says Valladares. "Many Americans hate their
society, for whatever reason. Perhaps they have failed to attain their
So they sympathize with anyone who attacks American society. The cliche 'The
enemy of my enemy is my friend' applies here. And remember: The most envied,
the most hated country in the world is the United States of America. I felt
this clearly during my years as U.S. representative in Geneva."
Robert Conquest points out that Western defenders of the Soviet Union were
"always more anti-American than they were pro-Soviet"; so it is in the case
of Cuba. Jeane Kirkpatrick finds it astonishing that "some of our elites are
actually proud of their indifference to Cuba's victims, or China's, or
Burma's. It is in bad taste, intellectually, to give much thought to these
victims." And "frankly, there is something perverse about the hostility to
anti-Communists." We saw in the Elian affair, she says, that Cubans in the
United States are close to a pariah community.
Paul Hollander is another great historian of Communism and its
fellow-travelers. He finds it especially noteworthy that "American
intellectuals haven't been much interested in the incredible repression of
their fellow intellectuals in Cuba. The Cubans have had it much worse than
intellectuals in the Soviet Union, after the death of Stalin." The American
academy proves all the time that it is nearly hopeless on the subject. One
the most shocking things I ever saw occurred at Harvard in the mid 1980s.
Valladares arrived to give a talk to students about his experience; and the
school paired him with a pro-Castro professor. Evidently, Harvard felt that
Valladares's witness should not be given without rebuttal. To most
anti-Communists, this is rather like "balancing" an anti-Nazi with a
pro-Nazi. The further sad truth is that the pro-Castro professors, in their
classrooms, are paired with no one, least of all with a giant of conscience.
And what of journalists? They seem weirdly unconcerned with the fates of
their counterparts in Cuba. Journalists are commonly thought to be obsessed
with their profession and the freedom to practice it. If that is true, they
might look into the case of Bernardo Arevalo Padron, once the director of an
independent press agency, Linea Sur Press, and a political prisoner since
1997. His crime was to "insult" the dictator and his regime. Arevalo is
held at a forced-labor camp in Cienfuegos province, where he is undergoing
what Castro's regime, like all such regimes, calls "political reeducation."
Vernon Walters-a second ex-ambassador to the U.N.-says that the
of the American press is "absolutely normal": "They would go to the death
searching out Franco's or Pinochet's prisoners. But the attitude toward
Castro's is, 'They probably deserve to be there anyway.' Anti-Communist
prisoners are of no interest to anybody. A prisoner of a left-wing
is highly suspect, probably a fascist." Conquest points out that Western
elites have always scorned resisters to, and refugees from, Communism:
Accounts from Soviet Russia were "rumors in Riga"; refugees from Mao's
when they staggered into Hong Kong, were bandits, warlords; "and the Cubans!
They escaped, went to Florida, and started voting Republican, so they were
clearly no good." The anti-anti-Communist mindset, says Conquest, remains
fierce, above all with regard to Cuba.
Valladares, for his part, says that "the hardest part of our struggle is to
fight against a double standard: one standard for right-wing regimes,
for left-wing ones. Torture and denial of rights are the same, no matter who
The dissident community suffered a special blow on April 26, when the
American secretary of state, Colin Powell, gave testimony in the House.
Badgered by Rep. Jose Serrano, a New York Democrat and one of Castro's most
ardent champions, Powell said, "He's done some good things for his people."
The "he" was Castro. And when Powell uttered those words, he gave away more
than he must have known, for they are a standard propaganda phrase.
Apologists have always said, "Well, Fidel might deny his people [creepy
phrase, by the way: "his people"] political and civil rights, but he has
some good things." By "good things" they usually mean advances in education,
health care, housing, and race relations. These claims are entirely bogus,
demolished ad nauseam by objective analysts. But they are undying. After
Powell's testimony, Castro praised and thanked the secretary for his
concession, another blow to the dissidents.
Valladares has a ready answer to this business of "good things," given with
patience and weariness: Say these things have been accomplished (which is
laughable, but leave that aside). Could they not have been accomplished
without torturing people? Without imprisoning them? Without denying them all
rights? Is material well-being incompatible with human freedom? Besides
which, few people go out of their way to stress the material achievements of
other dictators: autobahns and so forth. The likes of Jose Serrano do not
pause to acknowledge Chile's economic explosion. And then there is the
of Castro's sheer longevity as dictator. Says Valladares, "I was talking to
an American, a Democrat, the other day. I said to him, 'How would you like
if Richard Nixon got to be president for over forty years?' The man almost
shrieked in horror."
American celebrities who trot to Cuba almost never see the country in which
Cubans have to live; they see a Potemkin Cuba, set up for visitors and
off-limits to Cubans. Outright leftists from America have always journeyed
Havana, to use and be used: Robert Redford and Ed Asner, Maxine Waters and
Barbara Lee (two congresswomen from California). Other pilgrims, however,
less malicious than they are trendy and naive: Leonardo DiCaprio, Woody
Harrelson, an assortment of pop musicians. A few years ago, the fashion
models Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss had an audience with Castro. Campbell
hailed the dictator as "a source of inspiration to the world." Castro
complimented the ladies on their "spirituality." Jack Nicholson, too, had a
high time in Cuba. He drank choice rum, smoked choice cigars, and buddied
three hours with Castro, afterward pronouncing Cuba "a paradise."
Such behavior may seem merely ridiculous, but it is not without its effect
on dissidents. Valladares confirms the obvious: that it demoralizes them
terribly. "It demoralizes not only the resistance inside Cuba, but all of us
who have struggled for many years while we wait for the solidarity of those
who believe in democracy." He may wait for that solidarity a long time. The
likes of Naomi Campbell and Jack Nicholson, sadly, have far more influence
Americans than Armando Valladares ever could.
Cubans and Cuban-Americans feel a persistent hurt over the general American
attitude toward them. One exile in Boca Raton reports that he can no longer
talk with his Anglo neighbors about his homeland. "If I explain to them the
reality of Cuban life, all I get is, 'Oh, you're a right-winger,' or,
biased against President Castro.'" Can you imagine being biased against the
tyrant who deprives you of rights, throws you in jail, and makes life so
intolerable as to force you into the open sea on a homemade raft? Many
especially resent this honorific "President" before Castro, as if the
dictator were the equivalent of a democratic leader. Worse is the
affectionate, pop-star-ish "Fidel." We would never hear, for Pinochet,
The oppositionists and their supporters are extraordinarily, even
disturbingly, grateful for any sincere attention they receive. They are
accustomed to being snubbed or defamed. Another exile writes, "Prisoners
cling to newspaper articles about human rights in Cuba as their only hope
against being abandoned and forgotten. The sense of helplessness, that no
is listening, that no one cares, is what kills their souls. I've known many
such people, including within my own family."
Back in the Reagan years, Jeane Kirkpatrick became a heroine in the Soviet
Union for the simple act of naming names on the floor of the U.N.: naming
names of prisoners, citing their cases, inquiring after their fates. Later,
in Moscow, she met Andrei Sakharov, who exclaimed, "Kirkpatski, Kirkpatski!
have so wanted to meet you and thank you in person. Your name is known in
the Gulag." And why was that? Because she had named those names, giving men
and women in the cells a measure of hope. Kirkpatrick says now, "This much I
have learned: It is very, very important to say the names, to speak them.
It's important to go on taking account as one becomes aware of the prisoners
and the torture they undergo. It's terribly important to talk about it,
about it, go on TV about it." A tyrannical regime depends on silence,
darkness. "One of their goals is to make their opponents vanish. They want
not only to imprison them, they want no one to have heard of them, no one to
know who or where they are. So to just that extent, it's tremendously
important that we pay attention."
Indignation and concern are not inexhaustible, of course; no one, including
Americans, can watch the fall of every sparrow (although, somehow, it seemed
possible in South Africa). But American attention is a powerful thing; so is
an American consensus. "Fidel will eventually die," some people say, with a
shrug. But certain other people have waited long enough.
LOAD-DATE: May 23, 2001