Politics & Policy

Desperation Island

Editor’s note: This review by Jay Nordlinger appeared in the October 12, 2003, issue of National Review.

Cuba: The Morning After — Confronting Castro’s Legacy, by Mark Falcoff (AEI, 285 pp., $25)

Just as Franco died, and Tito died, and Grandma Moses died, Castro will die — as unlikely as it seems some days. He has ruled Cuba for 45 years now. It so happens that this is the same amount of time that Communists ruled Eastern Europe. As Mark Falcoff points out in this new book, Castro has reigned over Cuba for almost half of the country’s independent existence. (Some independence.)

Falcoff is maybe the premier conservative scholar on Latin America, and by “conservative” I really mean democratic, and forthrightly anti-authoritarian. He is as clear-eyed as anybody about Latin America, digging out facts and drawing logical conclusions from them. His previous book was The Cuban Revolution and the United States, 1958-1960, indispensable to the specialist and valuable to the general reader as well.

Cuba: The Morning After tackles the huge question of what will happen when Castro leaves the scene. Falcoff is quite sobering about this future; he is almost depressing. He does not believe that liberal democrats will ride in on white horses, a la Havel (who is, incidentally, one of Castro’s firmest and most outspoken foes). It may be too much to hope that Cuba will become a “bourgeois” democracy in the manner of El Salvador, Uruguay, or Chile. Instead, Cuba will present gargantuan problems, for U.S. policymakers and, much more, for Cubans themselves.

The country today, says Falcoff, is nothing like the one exiles left, not only 40 years ago, but 30, 20. “Everything — political culture, habits of work, expectations, even notions of national identity and everyday speech — is completely different and cannot be transformed overnight.” Cuba is so wrecked materially, socially, and psychologically that it makes, say, Bulgaria seem like a piece of cake. Many analysts have noted the similarities between it and Ceausescu’s Romania — even Saddam’s Iraq, whose downfall is said to have given Castro such a jolt.

Falcoff begins with a broad history of Cuba — “The Shadow of the Past” — which is gratifying, because this history has been ruthlessly falsified, both by the Castro regime and by its many apologists in the Free World. Hollywood has been particularly good at distorting the past, as witness Robert Redford’s 1990 movie Havana. Kevin Costner bids fair to do equally dishonestly on Broadway (no less).

The historical chapter takes us up to the present day, at which point Falcoff debunks many of the myths about Communist Cuba. Surprisingly, its chief features are not universal health care and literacy. Then we get a chapter on sugar, which for generations was the backbone of the Cuban economy. But Castro and his band implemented their five-year plans and such, meaning that, in time, Cuba “actually had to purchase sugar on the world market.” This puts one in mind of the old joke about socialism and Eskimos: that if they adopted it, pretty soon they would have to import snow. In Cuba, a joke like that is merely sad.

In a chapter on property, we learn that, by 1988, the regime had acquired 92 percent of Cuba’s agricultural land. This is to be compared with only 6 percent in (old) Bulgaria, 8 percent in (old) Poland, and 14 percent in the USSR itself. Castro’s government has been expropriating — stealing — since its inception. One of the headaches of the “morning after” will be the settlement of claims. U.S. business took a rude hit when Castro took over, in 1959. Washington certified almost 6,000 claims, whose aggregate value is now $6.5 billion. And if that is “not enough to keep U.S. diplomats busy, there are also more than 1 million Cuban-Americans (or their heirs) who have lost property in Cuba since 1959.” What about them?

Cuba is in no position to pay anybody anything, with its people hungry. The country is poorer than most people know. Falcoff reviews the experience of Eastern Europe and (once-Marxist) Nicaragua in coping with property claims, analyzing a variety of options. None of them is promising.

The section on tourism has a peculiar fascination. About 2 million foreigners visited Cuba in 2001. A strict “tourism apartheid” prevails, sending these foreigners to segregated hotels, segregated restaurants, and segregated beaches. They are served by Cubans who have been carefully vetted by the state. I once spoke to a Cuban-American Harvard student who told of going to the island to see his cousins: They were not allowed into the lobby of his hotel; he himself had to show his passport every time he sought to enter because, of course, he looked Cuban.

There is even, bizarrely enough, “medical tourism” in Castro’s Cuba, which has foreigners arriving to receive treatment in hospitals and clinics that are off-limits to Cubans. Then the patients go relax on beaches, sipping their mojitos. Falcoff has the goods on Cuba’s unique tourism — as on everything else — explaining, for instance, where the money goes (three guesses).

Civil society, of course, is an utter mess. Churches are corrupt, and even the Red Cross is just another thuggish tool for the state. America’s National Council of Churches is in bed with the Castro- controlled churches; indeed, the NCC is one of the dictator’s most ardent and most steadfast friends. Falcoff has a funny line: In Matanzas there is a seminary that “over time has developed a full theology in favor of the revolution — ironically, a curriculum not very different from that taught in similar institutions in the United States”! Encouragingly, there are “home churches” (as in China) where people can endeavor to practice genuine worship.

At the movie theater, the regime shows American gangster films, in the hope that this will make U.S. society seem unattractive. Afterward, however, people say, “Did you see the car the bad guy had?” This reminded me of the story out of the Soviet Union, where, in the 1940s, the authorities showed The Grapes of Wrath, so that people could see how miserable and mean America was. Oops: Soviet audiences simply marveled that the Joads had a Ford.

In his final chapter (“The Prospect”), Falcoff speculates on the scramble for power after Castro departs. Raul Castro — brother and armed-forces minister — is the obvious dynast. But can the Communists hold on with their “maximum leader” of a half-century gone? It is not likely, but neither can it be ruled out altogether. Neither can the possibility of widespread violence, even civil war. The exile community — “a kind of counter-Cuba,” as Falcoff describes it — is already notoriously splintered, and will be even more so, once anti-Castroism is no longer the common cause.

What the media will do is an interesting question. Perhaps I am trying to ask what the Left will do. Those who care will discover that Cuba has gaping wounds. Race relations are appalling, thanks largely to Castro’s persistent disadvantaging of blacks. And the environment is a disaster (as in all Communist countries). Falcoff quotes a former director-general of the island’s Department of Natural Resources, now in exile: “The environmental degradation [in Cuba] is rapid. We have the industrial production of Honduras and the pollution of East Germany.”

Mark Falcoff is a thorough and balanced scholar. He comes at issues from every possible angle, offering all available facts and citing a variety of opinion, before weighing in himself. He even gives the regime’s official spokesmen their say. Falcoff spends little time on current debates over U.S. policy — concerning, mainly, trade and tourism restrictions — judging them irrelevant. He has his eye on the future — and we should all hope that it is the near future.

He warns repeatedly that Cuba the morning after may be so bad that we will be nostalgic for the old one. But how much worse could the situation be, certainly for Cubans themselves? At a minimum — unless the regime survives Castro — the prison cells will burst open, and out will walk Marta Beatriz Roque, Oscar Biscet, and a thousand other bright lights. And that will be, as the slaves used to sing, a great gittin’-up morning, indeed.

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