Sour grapes

Without Fidel is an embittered rant that confirms how the scribes of a fading empire are growing frustrated at Cuba’s reluctance to change


Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington
Ann Louise Bardach
2009, Scribner
328 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IT HAS BEEN suggested in some of the commentary that has followed recent WikiLeaks revelations that the behaviour of US diplomats demonstrates how the great empire is growing frustrated as it slowly fades in a world of economic and, increasingly, military rivals.

Latin America is a good source of examples of this phenomenon, and it is no surprise that several governments in the region have reproduced WikiLeaks material on their own official websites exposing Washington’s duplicitous diplomatic manoeuvres for what they are.

But one of the most important lessons we can draw from the pungent hostility demonstrated in the US towards WikiLeaks – and the abject failure of the American media to take up the gauntlet about the abuse of power on behalf of their country that the whistle-blowing website exposes – is how journalism there is counter-intuitive, often working against the very forces of pluralism that it purports to uphold.

A specific example of this phenomenon can be found in coverage of Cuba, which takes as its default position the US as a model of propriety in a way that most of the world knows simply not to be true. Tone and nuance is everything when it comes to determining the value of the political biographies of Fidel Castro that crop up with some frequency, and it does not require a particularly careful reading of journalist Ann Louise Bardach’s Without Fidel to detect this prejudiced approach to the island and its future.

Demonisation reflex

The demeanour, use of language and sniping throughout the book make it clear that here we have a work that, although skilfully written by a professional wordsmith and often employing a pithy turn of phrase, is an unabashed, subjective rant that acknowledges few if any of the mistakes made by Washington over the years in its perverse, ideologically driven and counterproductive foreign policy towards Cuba. Bardach appears to be suffering from the demonisation reflex of the imperial moraliser that characterises so much high-brow reporting in the US, confirming that Cuba clearly remains something of a blind spot even for apparently free-thinking American intellectuals.

We are told that the author is a PEN award-winning investigative reporter who has covered Cuban-Miami politics since 1992 for Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Washington Post, 60 Minutes, Slate and other national media, and that she teaches global journalism at the University of California in Santa Barbara. This comes as a shock, for it would suggest that even media figures billed by their publicists as towering beacons of journalistic integrity whom you might, from their resumes, reasonably assume to pursue thoughtful and unbiased coverage, are in fact partisan and prone to editorialising and polemic. Bardach almost delights in Fidel’s “long dying” as she takes a scatter-gun approach to Cuban politics and society: she finds nothing of merit in a country almost starved to death by an irrational, churlish neighbour, mainly because she simply refuses to look.

Indeed, this sniping and sour book will do nothing to improve the damaged reputation of the US press for propagandistic journalism sponsored by right-wing political overlords and media owners. Bardach takes sides with an imperial bully whose record of abuse throughout Latin America, and whose mistreatment of Latinos within its own borders, continues to be an outrageous affront to real pluralists everywhere.

The author doesn’t seem to understand other meanings of freedom that abound outside US frontiers and diverge from its slavish pursuit of market liberty. Like so many of her contemporaries, she portrays Cuba as if it were North Korea, closed to the world and introspective to the point of dementia. It is not – that is simply a lie.

And she is unwilling at any stage to make comparisons with, or concessions deriving from, the increasingly closed, intolerant, corporate-dominated, ailing and corrupt political system in her own country that passes these days for American democracy.

While she bemoans the fact that Raúl Castro selected the actor/director Sean Penn to give his first interview to as president of Cuba – not the “accredited reporters” or the journalists who had covered the Miami/Havana beat (ie presumably her) – this is hardly surprising given the jaundiced stance that she, as a representative of her profession in the US, takes towards the Cuban system from the outset.

The aim of this book is to express frustrated glee at Fidel Castro’s long political decline, and to undermine his brother and successor, Raúl, who is dismissed as a blusterer like his sibling, determined but unable to turn the economic ship around with his diktats and centralised commands.

There are, therefore, predictable observations about the dynastic nature of the Cuban revolutionary leadership, and puerile references to a kind of monarchical condition in which the Castros continue to rule. At the same time, there are, of course, no efforts to compare this with the dynastic dimensions of US politics – the Bush family, the Kennedys etc. – driven by money, raw power, corruption and crude nepotism and very definitely not by democracy.

Bardach is constantly trying to prise open divisions and fissures in Cuban society – “a spike in violent crime”, student dissidence etc. – yet at the same time often simultaneously confirms the existence of a dialogue between government and society that she is at pains to deny throughout the book. For example, she speaks of how the government met student protesters making specific demands, often related to their particular campus, with subtle and unjust repression – yet of how these same students are given the right to petition, lobby, protest and even oppose. In most cases, the Cuban government appears to recognise the source of unease and responds in order to alleviate it. This is a far cry from the suspension of civil rights, surveillance, dirty tricks, torture and judicial execution that the US routinely carries out across the world and at times against its own people, and the way in which politicians and journalists there literally bay for the blood of any critics of the US itself.

In a good example of the schizophrenia that seems to plague US journalism, Bardach refers to the screening in Havana of the Oscar-winning German film, The Lives of Others – about surveillance in East Germany by the Stasi. She misses the point: the film was screened, not banned, yet she writes with almost childlike confusion, “Most remarkable was the fact that the film was shown at all.” She then goes on to lambast efforts to censor internet traffic, seemingly forgetting that in her own country mainstream, elected politicians have called for the likes of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange to be assassinated because they don’t like what he reveals about their country, and large financial organisations have been willingly recruited by Washington to withdraw their services to the website in order to help suffocate it. Anywhere else, these would be an illegal incitement to murder or a prima facie breach of anti-trust laws.

The author appears to relish Cuba’s economic misfortunes, returning time and again to draw attention to the “detritus of economic failure”, yet she ignores the many references by Castro himself to the inequality, abject poverty and economic racism that is the other side of the free-market US coin and that Cuba, at least, has eradicated.

Bardach makes merry about the impact of natural disasters such as the hurricanes of 2008, paying little attention to why Cuba found reconstruction so difficult: the continuing and illegal US embargo against the island. She is apparently bewildered by the fact that Havana declined conditional US aid funds following the 2008 hurricanes “as it had done since 1959” as if the embargo and efforts to besiege this vulnerable society have meant nothing over the last 50 years. When Russia decides to fill the gap left by US vindictiveness, “their motives were not entirely altruistic”. What? Did we read this right? So US motives have been altruistic all along? Get outta here.

It is entirely in keeping with the tone of this book that the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavéz, who has thrown many a lifeline to Cuba against the wishes and interests of the US, comes in for the Bardach bile. Her personalised snipes reflect perfectly the embittered coverage of all matters Venezuelan by almost the entire US press corps – by which bilious self-inflated journalists think nothing of demonising a democratically elected president because he happens to resist (cheerfully, even) the overpowering US impulse to control everything that happens in the western hemisphere.

The Venezuelan leader is “irrepressible”, “incautious”, “malleable”; he is Castro’s “protégé”, a “charismatic strongman”, “oil sultan” or “besotted adolescent” who doesn’t talk, but “crows” or “croons”. There are no attempts to interview Venezuelan policymakers or even to get their opinions; no analysis of the US role in the attempted coup against Chávez in 2002 while hypocritically trumpeting the virtues of democracy; no references to the thoroughly anti-democratic destabilisation efforts funded from Washington against him; and recurrent, repetitive references to the single division that has blighted Venezuelan-Cuban relations in the last five years – the consternation caused in Havana by Chavéz’s candour about the seriousness of Fidel’s illness.

Bardach claims the mantle of Cuban expert, but makes no open-minded effort to explore the historical nature of the relationship between the US and Cuba prior to the revolution, and why Cubans feel the way they do towards their aggressive imperial neighbour. Although she makes reference to the institutional support that US officials appear to have given the anti-Cuban terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, this is only in order to proclaim her own apparent commitment to objectivity in covering US-Cuban relations – one that is brought seriously into question by the rest of this book.

Thus, in the early 1990s when Cuba began to revive its tourism industry and a cynical US accused it of sex-trafficking and prostitution, there is only a cursory mention of what Castro inherited when he marched triumphantly into Havana 40 years before – a large brothel and drug-addled playground servicing America’s limp, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon boys. Bardach confines herself to suggesting that Castro had pledged to end “sin”, but that this was just another broken promise.

Nor is there a considered effort to understand the long-term direction of change in Cuba without Fidel – as the title of the book suggests it will endeavour to do – and how the island might chart a sovereign, independent course free of US interference and pressure once Fidel’s generation of leaders is succeeded.

Bardach is a journalist who would seem to take at face value the comments of US officials and those assigned to the interest section in Havana, and to celebrate their references to any change that might chip away at the island’s exceptional political system. Her rancorous tone is such that she comes across as simply bitter that Fidel Castro did not die on her beat. She writes: “By the early spring of 2007, Castro seemed to have found his footing in the realm of the living.”

It is fitting that at the very end of this very bad book the author appears to admit that US policy towards the island has been counter-productive, noticing with some disdain how US economic interests – and in particular the oil industry – are bleating about how they have, inevitably, found themselves excluded from the potential bonanza offered by discoveries of large reserves of oil in Cuban waters.

If Bardach is representative of the US mindset – and the uncritical establishment bias that drips from almost every page of this book would seem to make her so – then, frankly, it suggests that her country stands little or no chance of prospering from Latin America’s new order, and every chance that it will find itself sidelined as a fading, post-imperial power.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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