The Corner

A Good Time in Cuba

Conan in Cuba (TBS)

Conan O’Brien posed in front of a mural and tweeted the following: “This iconic Che Guevara image was born right here in Havana.” Isn’t that cool?

Does O’Brien know that Guevara set up the Cuban gulag, into which artists, liberals, gays, and others were tossed? Does he care?

I’m sure he does, or would — he seems like a good guy. (For a piece I once did on Guevara and his cult — “Che Chic” — go here.)

At the invitation of the Castros’ Ministry of Culture, O’Brien went to Havana to film his comedy show. He is evidently proud of his trip. “This is a very historic time,” he said. “Relations between Cuba and the United States are finally starting to thaw.”

If they are starting to “thaw,” that’s in part because the U.S. president has chosen to turn a blind eye to the dictatorship’s ongoing human-rights abuses. That does not mean the rest of us have to.

In February — February alone (a short month) — there were 492 political arrests in Cuba. Documented arrests, that is. There were undoubtedly many others as well, not documented.

Over the decades, many Cubans have been arrested on the charge of “pre-criminal social dangerousness.” What’s that, you say? The charge means that you have not done anything to offend the dictatorship — yet. But you have a dissident cousin, let’s say, or someone reported you reading the wrong book. Or talking to someone who read a wrong book. Therefore, you are arrested — just so the regime can be on the safe side.

Many Cubans and Cuban Americans are upset by visits such as Conan O’Brien’s to the island. Why? Why does it matter so much to them? What’s wrong with traveling to Cuba, grooving to the music, drinking a few mojitos, and having a good time?

Visitors — especially celebrity ones — rarely show any moral sense. They give no indication whatsoever that they understand where they are: in a one-party dictatorship with a gulag. A country where the innocent are routinely imprisoned, tortured, and murdered.

Cuba has some of the greatest, bravest, most heroic people in the world. Some of them, it is too late to meet. Orlando Zapata and Oswaldo Payá. They were victims of the regime.

But some, you can meet, if you are willing. I myself have interviewed the great Oscar Biscet and Juan Carlos González Leiva (here and here). And if I can — how about the TV star Conan O’Brien?

But the Ministry of Culture wouldn’t like it very much.

No one like O’Brien would have gone to film a show in apartheid South Africa. There was great pressure on entertainers not to perform in South Africa. And on athletes not to compete there. Anyone who did was stigmatized.

But most people, I gather, think that O’Brien’s trip to Cuba was really cool.

These visitors are like Sergeant Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes: “I see nothing” — beyond the pretty girls, the classic old cars, the swaying palm trees, etc.

Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, was just in Cuba. She met with no dissidents, of course. While she was there, more than 100 were arrested, for such crimes as trying to attend church. The American said nothing.

She did, however, post pictures of old cars to the Internet. Isn’t that cute?

There have long been political pilgrims to totalitarian countries. Paul Hollander has devoted a good part of his career to chronicling them. There have been plain old ignoramuses, too.

As he crossed from Poland into the Soviet Union, George Bernard Shaw threw his food tins out the train window, because there would be no need of them in the land of milk and honey.

He denied that there was famine in the Soviet Union, because there was plenty of food in his hotel — the Moscow Metropol, which was for foreigners only. They have that kind of hotel in Cuba, too.

John Kenneth Galbraith went to Communist China during the Cultural Revolution, when millions were being starved, tortured, humiliated, and killed. He came back with a criticism: The Chinese smoked too many cigarettes.

In my observation, most Cubans and Cuban Americans bear no great grudge against visitors — as long as they show some moral awareness. As long as they have a smidgeon of conscience.

Conan O’Brien was able to flit down there and then flit back home. Does he realize what happens to ordinary Cubans if they try to leave the island? Does he realize that they have been shot and killed in the water, as they desperately try to escape?

I sometimes wish that people in free countries could be sentenced to live in unfree ones — just for a while — in order to appreciate what other people have to endure, and what they themselves have to be grateful for.

Let me end with a movie recommendation (damn rare for me!): Una Noche, made in 2012. It is a glimpse of Cuban reality. And therefore something of a miracle.


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