A Nation of Zombies

Tony Karon offers his thoughts on the Castro legacy. And though Karon is clearly a brilliant and insightful person, I have to say — what he describes as “nuanced and challenging” strikes me as an entirely unchallenging aspect of the cult of personality he vividly describes. Karon is at his best when he describes the tragedy of the Castro legacy. But I suppose I think the tragedy runs even deeper than he does.

And it’s not hard to see why. Visiting Cuba in 1994, I had been all geared up to write the sort of cynical ex-leftie P.J. O’Rourke-style political epitaph, but what I discovered — even at the height of the Special Period, when the sudden disappearance of the Soviet subsidy that had given Havana more than $800 a year for every Cuban had left them literally starving — was something far more nuanced and challenging. Typical of the experience was a young curator at an art museum, who I shall call simply Antonio. The twentysomething Afro-Cuban had a master’s degree in art history, and loved his work with a passion. But the rest of his life was hell: His breakfast consisted of a couple of glasses of water sweetened with sugar. That was all. He worked all day without lunch. And then, at night, in his darkened apartment (Havana was constantly in darkness due to power cuts), he’d consume his meal of the day — a plate of rice and beans. And then sleep, for there was nothing else to do.

Nevertheless, Antonio is loyal to the Castro revolution.

Why? Antonio’s parents had been cane-cutters on a plantation before the revolution. Not only his grandparents, but his parents. Descendants of African slaves, they weren’t that much better off. But here, 55 years later, Antonio’s brother was an electrical engineer with a master’s degree and a good job, and his sister was a science lecturer at a university in Havana. Antonio’s parents were cane-cutters; their children were university educated intellectuals. And they hadn’t won a lottery — their social mobility had been enabled by Cuba’s social system, the education and health and other programs designed to lift up the impoverished majority had transformed their life possibilities within a generation. Antonio understood all too well what his life would have been had the revolution not triumphed in 1959. And he was sticking by it, no matter how bad things got.

At the risk of trivializing the achievement of Antonio’s family, consider that we’re in fact talking about the achievement of Antonio’s family. Remarkable, isn’t it, how people who’ve scraped and sacrificed can still feel “gratitude” to a regime that in fact severely constrains their life chances? It’s somewhat less remarkable when you consider the resources deployed to zombify the population.

The trajectory Karon describes is, believe it or not, not entirely uncommon in the social democracies or, heaven forfend, the laissez-faire market democracies. I’ve know many prosperous descendants of peasants and enslaved persons. Does Antonio really understand what would have happened had the revolution not triumphed? I wonder. I wonder because Karon is a highly educated writer and intellectual, with access to a wide range of knowledge, who doesn’t seem to understand himself. Given that Cuba was one of the world’s most affluent countries in 1957, it stands to reason that some form of quasi-nationalist social democracy, the kind with elections held at regular intervals and independent trade unions and civil society groups, would have taken root at some point, possibly thanks to American pressure, possibly thanks to self-conscious resistance to American pressure. Or the repressive apparatus could have survived intact, maintaining an apartheid-like economic gap between Afro-Cubans and the rest of the population. Until, of course, demographics forced a ferocious correction, this time led by Afro-Cubans and (perhaps) their black American allies, not by a “benevolent” cult leader.

These counterfactual exercises are, I realize, a little ridiculous, but they do lend some discipline to the notion that only Castro could have delivered the desirable outcomes Karon describes. In fairness, I shouldn’t attribute this view to Karon. But I do attribute it to some of Castro’s witless cheerleaders.