When I flew out of Havana in 1989, I knew things about Cuba I'd never even suspected. But, to tell the truth, I didn't know much. Cuba looked dramatically better than Americans were being told. It looked to me as if something was working. But I couldn't point at what little I'd seen and say: this goes with that which comes from this and leads to the other. I hadn't really seen any coherent whole I could even identify as communism.
The most vividly certain thing was what I hadn't seen. And all the shanties of Mexico and Central America - all the twisted dirty ragged bony whining beggars on all the church steps - all the rotted teeth and ulcered bare feet of old poor people - all the indignity of poverty - and also all the tragic dignity of stubbornly proud families living somehow immaculately in the dirt - all the tension and fear of the endless low-level war between rich and poor, roads barricaded by masked and angry insurgents, military counter check points and machine guns everywhere - had not shocked me as much as not seeing any of that in Cuba.
Bussing back across Mexico, I easily saw the horrible roadside shanties of Mexico again, the bus-stop comedors full of flies, and back in Mexico City the beggars and the over-armed cops. And it just happened that, while I was there, I saw and heard maybe a thousand Mexican school teachers marching in the zocalo for better conditions yelling together, "Fidel! Escucha! Estamos en la lucha!" which I translated in my notebook: Fidel! Hey! We're going your way. And I thought: that's a lot of teachers, who sound like they think they know something Americans don't know.
Trying to figure out if I thought I knew anything by studying my Cuban notes at a sagging old table mired in bright green weeds by a roadside tire repair and "cafe" shanty, after my bus (which had no spare) blew a tire and bent a wheel between Tepic and Mazatlan, I was quizzed by the eldest daughter of the shanty as to who I was and if I'd come to Mexico looking for a wife. I asked if she really thought there were many prospects for such an old gringo, and, swinging her upturned palm around the jungly horizon, she solemnly told me, "Hay muchas aqui."
I love Mexico, but a lot of Mexico's charm comes from the picturesqueness of poverty. It was because I'd seen no such thing there that I'd been so impressed by Cuba. But I'd seen very little of Cuba, so I vowed I'd go back. Humanly mired in procrastination and circumstance, though, I wasn't destined to keep that vow for 11 years, while the official American line on Cuba went shamelessly on, just as if I'd never stepped through the mirror.
And things happened during those 11 years, starting in 1989 and '90 with a series of events in China, Eastern Europe, and Central America billed in U.S. media as the world-wide collapse of communism. And a reportedly devastating depression in Cuba as the '90's began was supposed to be part of that.
I had my doubts. Americans in general believed it because it fit what they'd been told ever since WWII. In fact, it fit what the last six or eight generations of their ancestors had been told ever since they'd first heard the word communism. But, as a professor of journalism, I had professional doubts about media independence from the rich who obviously hated the idea of equality. As a realistic philosopher almost from birth, I had my doubts about the media's grip on reality. As an activist involved in Nicaragua, I knew the media either ineptly lost Latin America in translation or, more likely, as boosters and apologists for crooked U.S. business interests there, constantly and dutifully lied about it. And I'd just proven to myself I couldn't believe the media about Cuba.
I assumed that, for an island state without a complete bag of its own resources, the sudden loss of vital Eastern Bloc trade on top of the contrived effect of the U.S. embargo had to be serious. But the media had been claiming the system there was already feeble and shaky. What I'd seen had looked solid enough to me to make adjustments and survive some hardship.
Or maybe not. For all I knew, my newly gained '89 insight into Cuba could have been undone by 1990. But I wasn't convinced of that by the U.S. media. Throughout the 80's, the same media had routinely distorted or omitted the truth about places and events I was deeply involved in then. So I assumed their version of the Cuban depression was distorted and incomplete, too. In fact, I assumed the whole series of '89-'91 stories most Americans were believing about China and Europe as well as about Central America were all distorted and incomplete.
Maybe it's time to clarify, if you haven't guessed, that while I very accurately drew myself in Chapter One as a surprised observer in Cuba in '89, I wasn't new to or at all vague about the concepts I'd gone there to see in practice. I'd been thinking about such things all my life, since long before I ever read Marx or Bellamy or even Jack London's radical works, since in fact as a child science fiction writer influenced by Burroughs, I'd invented an ideally organized utopian city state on another planet. By 1989, having elaborated and refined my own ideas in my head for nearly half a century, I think I understood what communism should be as well as Marx, Lenin, Trotsky or Fidel. So I didn't go to Cuba in '89 to find out what communism was but to see how Cuba was doing it. And I wasn't sure what I saw was communism or, if it was, that I completely approved of it. But what surprised me was that, whatever it was, it seemed to work, and, compared to a vast stretch of Latin America with which I was becoming very familiar in those days, it looked good, and I didn't disapprove of that.
Besides reading, researching, and thinking about social, economic, political, ecological issues for half a century, by 1989, I'd also spent almost a decade of summers in the third world, and what I disapproved of was all the toothless gums, dirty ulcerous feet, begging hands, scrap and plastic shanties, clamor and tension and fear, check points and machine guns, hunger, illiteracy and miserably lost lives I'd seen and kept seeing and, in the 90's, was still seeing everywhere else in Latin America except Cuba.
My own self respect depends on my firm and passionate rejection of one of the ugliest attitudes in ideological history - the Republican enshrinement of property rights over human rights. I see no good reason for billions of humans, few of whom can claim more than a house and a yard and most of whom have nothing, to be expected to celebrate the concentration of property in a few hands or to weep when bigshots lose their so-called property. And I was only disgusted by the insider media smirking over the supposed triumph of privilege and property over equality in '89, '90 and '91. I also didn't believe them.
For sure, the first of the 1989 stories I remember, which took place a couple of months before I went to Cuba and found it nothing like what the media said, the story of the Chinese students' "pro-democracy" take-over of Tiananmen Square in Beijing and of their subsequent invisible "massacre" - obviously made no sense. I wasn't there and I don't know a lot about China, but the story was internally incoherent and externally unconnectable to my own considerable experience of reality, and it bore the familiar earmarks of propaganda common to U.S. media reports about blacklisted countries.
From the beginning, while I was comparing what little I could see on a TV screen of the Chinese people's army to U.S. cops in similar situations, the talking heads just off the plane from New York and LA were already reading a billion minds and pontificating about the longing of the supposedly oppressed Chinese for "freedomanddemocracy" and the "crackdown" to come. The dilemma of the Chinese people's army wasn't their assigned story. Then, one night, they all went to sleep while something happened, and, next day, reading a supposed earwitness's claim to have heard skulls popping in tents run over by tanks, I knew I was reading fiction. I don't say I guessed it. I say I KNEW the story was fiction, and so will you if you think about it for a whole minute.
Both the newspapers and the TV talking heads insisted that "thousands" of students had been shot or run down, though photos of any bodies besides those of a few apparently brutalized soldiers were as stunningly absent as Sherlock Holmes' nonbarking dog. Weeks later, during a day of Chinese student protest in San Francisco, my daughter and I walked from photo board to photo board all over town and saw the same photos everywhere, including NONE of massacred students. Maybe, I deduced, the talking heads, determined to have a massacre, hearing noises in the night, had dreamed one up. And, in fact, that was precisely what happened.
I think most Americans, forever trained to consider all communist countries as "regimes" with "totalitarian" leaders and poor suffering people and assured for days by the trusted electronic voices that the communists would crack down, seeing a night-time film clip on their TV's of advancing soldiers firing at someone, followed by another clip of people running, some falling, willingly believed the constant repetition of the words "massacre" and "perhaps thousands killed," because they were used to believing what their media told them they believed.
A year later they'd believe Iraqi soldiers massacred babies in a Kuwaiti nursery and some would think they'd seen it, because a nursery appeared on their screens while electric voices told them that story.
You can now spend all day on the internet (except most people won't) finding out the nursery tale was complete bull and reading all the conflicting accounts of Tiananmen Square, ranging from some early claims that in a city full of eager news cameramen the "regime" somehow hid thousands of bodies before a single shutter could click; to some later revised claims that maybe only hundreds of students were killed; to some much later but comprehensive academic papers tallying all the evidence and concluding that no students were killed - that Beijing that night had been the simultaneous scene of a variety of crowd gathering events (including some rowdy labor protests maybe in sympathy with the students), and that, after the students took a vote and all or almost all of them (except a few anarchists, maybe) voluntarily left the square, a troop of green soldiers on their way to occupy the space had been stopped on their route by a crowd of workers and, losing their heads, had fired, not in Tiananmen Square but in a nearby street, killing some workers, maybe dozens, maybe more, maybe even hundreds, but more likely less.
There are also eyewitness reports confirming exactly that, by independent journalists (like me in Cuba) who could speak some Chinese and who stayed awake and watched, though, at the time, based only on noise and confusion, they were sure they were missing something. Some of these, besides witnessing the student vote and departure, interviewed students and found their ideas of democracy to be vague at best and, at worst, tied to hopes for personal gain.
The honest independent reporters tended to diplomatically credit mainstreamers with doing the best they could under difficult conditions, but you can't not know that the embedded U.S. media went to China to glorify the students as brave "freedom-fighters" (a sellable American news cliché) and to malign the communist "regime," and that they did what they meant to do. Furthermore, the mainstream media have never admitted they lied about the supposed "massacre" and that, though they constantly imply that communism was done for in China after the Tiananmen Square incident, in all the years since, they've never even verified that, preferring to keep it a never explained always glossed over mystery that the Communist Party still runs China and that there is apparently still a Communist Party in Russia and in other Eastern Bloc countries which, along with ordinary citizens whose lives aren't better, fervently want to return to the 80's.
Trusting American audiences are resigned to media events, crowd scenes cropped by zoom lenses to fill the screen and edited smoothly by familiar electronic voices to fit an official story that's certainly not on the screen. So, regardless of what happened in Tiananmen Square or any other 1989, '90, or '91 public square, what nobody even expected the media to do was to actually document and verify whether communism ever actually failed anywhere. It's been taken as an item of faith ever since. But to have verified that it was communism that failed, provoking a rational revolt followed by at least the start of a better life, or, on the other hand, that serious mistakes were made (to greater and lesser degrees in different places) followed by profound regret, would have required a close look at a lot of households, workplaces, and daily lives before and after the supposedly blessed events, something never done in China, Eastern Europe, or anywhere else by the dominant media. You can find some deep studies on the internet, but not in the media that still dominate Americans' perception of what they believe to be reality.
I know the shallow newspaper version of daily history starts every morning in New York and is near lock-step duplicated each hour as it goes west, and the networking of TV news also contributes to a fairly uniform American view, so I assume it was reported and believed from coast to coast in 1989 that some kind of mass sentiment or group awakening that transcended borders and seas and mountains all over the world just swept all the peoples of all communist countries into all the public squares all at the same time right then and they all simultaneously overthrew their leaders and embraced freedomanddemocracy.
To me the stories seemed incomplete. I had no evidence of my own from the places I'd never been of the unreported story I suspected - of treachery, pay-offs, buy-outs, future-profit seeking disguised as aid, insidious promises and corruptive contributions, busy-body interference, political coercion, threats and exploitation of human stupidity; maybe even secret training of cadres and infiltration by long buried moles into positions of leadership; and probably some timely moving and shaking behind the scenes, and more than probably a lot of selective reporting. Logic told me there had to be unreported connections to the tangled cold-war web of trickery and lies woven in every dark corner of the world and the human mind for 45 years before that. I knew there'd been endless VOA propaganda and subversive cheerleading, and my own contemporary experience told me that the 1989 reporting must have routinely miscounted the crowds, manipulated the facts, and thrown in a lot of spin. But just the way it was all reported, as if all those movements popped up spontaneously out of nowhere and did away with all the supposedly wicked communist "regimes" one after another, just as if it were all orchestrated by a digitally enhanced god, made me suspicious.
Maybe the clincher (and it was A clincher) should have been when (a few years later and after The Nation had carefully, tentatively reported somewhat the same story I'd figured out) I met some of the live and authentic Tiananmen Square students themselves on a US hand-out-seeking tour at a UCSD student-sponsored evening event where they showed us maps and pictures and, naively, revealed their own perk-passion, and told us their part of the story just about exactly as it had been reported in the Nation and as I just told it to you.
HOWEVER, My much more (to-me) tangible problem with the official story was and is that, while most of the unbelievable '89-'91 stuff supposedly happened in other languages on other continents, where I couldn't see it for myself, a LOT of related but very believable Central American stuff I DID see and DO know about, that happened in Spanish and English and in front of my face in the same time frame, was definitely reported inaccurately by the same embedded media that co-opted all reporting rights to the Chinese and European fantasy. .
For instance, there were all those Mexican teachers I'd seen and heard in the zocalo just as the communist dream was supposedly collapsing yelling, "Fidel! Escucha! Estamos en la lucha!" I don't think they were necessarily confused and out of sync with the times. I think they just never read The Times. Obviously, neither did the throngs of Sandinista militants who, after losing the 1990 election, still packed speeding trucks crisscrossing Nicaragua every July 19 wildly waving their rebel flags and shouting slogans as if they hadn't yet gotten it, as you may think you have, that their cause was passé. Nor did the many other Latin Americans I kept meeting in the post Berlin Wall 90's, who kept longing for equality in the same old way and kept idolizing Fidel.
I'd have been confused and mystified myself about what happened in Central America in the '80's and '90's, if I'd had nothing to go by but U.S. media reports. But I wasn't confused or mystified about that, because I watched Nicaragua "up close and personal" being "saved from communism" and safely returned to the dreamless sleep of "free" democratic poverty, thus ending the need for any official line at all about that poor country. I was there both before and after, and my main activity in the 90's was raising money to put poor Nicaraguan kids through schools that were no longer free.
I can tell you objectively that the American media line in the 80's, that the Sandinistas, as pawns of the Russians and Cubans, were driving their people into a communist abyss without freedomanddemocracy was a contemptible lie that excused killing, crippling, blinding, traumatizing, and orphaning real people; stealing their future, their dignity, their dreams; making them cry "uncle" (as Reagan so aptly put it) and accept exploitable misery again as their lot. Excuse me, but that sentence isn't overblown, biased, or even subjective. It's real and perfect English and you can fact check every word of it.
In fact, with some outside help for sure, from Russia and Cuba and me, too, if you want to know, but definitely on their own initiative and with popular support, the Sandinistas in the 80's were trying to make life better for all the Nicaraguan people than it was then or is today, a goal that required control of their own resources and relief from U.S. exploitation. And, handicapped by pre-conditions an overthrown U.S. puppet regime had left them, and blocked at every turn by the White House, they didn't get very far with that. But they immediately succeeded in making Nicaragua politically freer and more democratic than America, thus unintentionally and unhappily proving that freedomanddemocracy are not all or even what it takes. They made other mistakes. But it wasn't their slow, halting, heroic effort that failed. Helped by an army of foreign volunteers, they were building houses (Jimmy Carter's project, though I don't think he was ever personally there), schools (my own project), clinics, and roads and modernizing and diversifying agriculture and food processing, and they were making slow, halting, heroic progress.
What shocked U.S. liberals silly and has kept them in denial ever since (of their role in 80's Nicaragua or even that the 80's as a decade happened) is the fact that, contrary to their Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood concept of wonderfulness, it was not communism but "the people" who failed when, exhausted by Reagan's relentless low-level war and terrified by Bush's bombing of Panama a few weeks before the 1990 election, just enough of them cried "uncle" to vote away their revolution. Do you think they celebrated in the muddy streets in front of their shanties? They didn't.
And why should they have? They were still living their lives, most importantly, in their homes, just as you do; and the most important activity of the revolutionary 80's had been the construction of real houses for people who'd lived forever in shanties, a project that bogged down when the revolution bogged down and which has, therefore, still never been completed.
To understand why building houses is the most important revolutionary activity (and why the revolution, therefore, can't have ended), you have to have been inside a few shanties, and some readers may not have had that experience. I can't definitively describe a shanty because, though shanties are as numerous as leaves in Latin America and, for several summers in the 90's, after the revolution was lost, almost all I did in Nicaragua was go from shanty to shanty on the hillsides above Matagalpa, in spite of the advent right about that time of black and blue plastic tarps as uniform building materials of choice, no two were alike.
I remember a three-sided lean-to of odd-sized fire blackened boards nailed or tied to a thin but tough frame of 2X4's and bamboo, the whole contraption just heavy and porous enough not to blow away, perched in a slightly-private near-level open niche in the tall weeds of a mud slope over the Matiguas road, where a woman who swept the nearby Once de Septiembre grade school for a few cordobas lived with her two kids, cooking on a campfire, sleeping in hammocks, and resting on some rocks the lean-to enclosed. The family was clean and grimly dignified, and we were putting one of the boys through school.
I remember a 10X15 cube made fairly firmly of stuff, floorless of course, topped by a creative assortment of tin and tarpaper weighed down with rocks, divided into several rooms by plastic and coffee-sack curtains. A very upbeat teenage boy we were helping lived there with his two sisters, his mother, and sometimes his father, who traveled a lot to pick different crops.
And, on a rutted mud track near the famous cemetery where they buried Ben Lender, I remember what looked like a tiny ramshackle barn with only one small curtained door in front and no windows but the whole back wall missing and blocked by the steep slope, a few boards, and some barb-wire. Three sisters and the oldest girl's baby seemed to live alone there because their mother was a fulltime housekeeper for several downtown homes. They had a high brick smoky fire pit inside with a makeshift grill and they all slept together on spread-out newspapers on a 4X8 piece of plywood elevated off the dirt on bricks. I think I remember seeing at least one wooden chair. The beautiful 13-year-old we were putting through highschool told me their uncle brought them a sack of beans whenever he could.
Ideally, a Nicaraguan shanty starts as a stick and scrap-wood room with a solid enough frame on top to hold up a few hammocks and some kind of roof. Then rooms are added, probably in a row going back from the street. The sticks are gradually replaced by bricks or milled boards for one room at a time and cement is saved until there's enough for a floor in at least one room. When it starts looking a little more like a shack than a shanty, with inside partitions that only go partway up so the air flows over them, glassless windows and a porch may be added, and then tiles may be saved a few at a time until the cement in at least one room can be tiled over. Sometimes, whether or not all or any of this comes about, there may be a tin can outside the front door, right from the start, with a flower in it. But, just as important as the flower, somebody in that shanty keeps working like hell, maybe for foreigners, obviously to keep building that shanty and to buy food and clothing, though official sources may entone like a newsreel that he or she is, like a good little munchkin, working to make "his" country "stable."
The same readers who may not know much about shanties may think they do know what the words stable and stabilize mean, but they probably don't. You often see the words in the newspapers in reference to a "country" or (sometimes) a whole world your leaders intend to stabilize. We learned in Central America in the 80's that a stable place is a place from which most of the important resources and most of the profits flow away smoothly to somebody somewhere else who runs the world, the people stay desperately poor enough to accept whatever wages are offered without complaint, and any labor or rebel organizers who try to disturb that pleasant arrangement are promptly neutralized. That's what stable means. Obviously, Cuba isn't considered stable by Washington.
In 1979, Nicaragua became unstable, and a lot of people, including the best people I've ever met in such a big crowd, came from all over the world to help them stay that way. There were heroes and heroines there from 35 countries that I counted, living with the people in their crowded shacks and sweating in the sun. The Nicaraguans tried to make sure that most of us lived with the families who had the best shacks and not too many of us in shanties. By 1990, I and thousands of other Americans had spent enough summers living and working with the people of Nicaragua to know more about them and their revolutionary dream that so angered Ronald Reagan than the American media or the CIA ever knew. A couple of young reporters worked on school building projects with us for part of a summer each. I met some more seasoned reporters in Antojitos and Comedor Sara in Managua's Martha Quesada district who admitted to me that they knew more than they reported. I met spooks then and I've met spooks since who were there when I was but didn't and still don't know shit.
Of course, not everyone who went with us to Nicaragua just to generically "help the poor" ever got to the point of even wondering why the poor were poor. But some of us (I for one) certainly learned the reasons for Latin American poverty, how it fits into U.S. foreign policy, and that a lot of what American politicians and media say about the world outside their own well-guarded borders is profoundly and (no doubt about it) cynically dishonest. And there's an asterisk that goes with all that awareness pointing way down to the bottom line where it says in small but very deeply engraved print that at least the dream of economic equality, i.e. (whether you like it or not) communism, didn't vanish in 1990 and it never will.
I didn't learn much of that from American media, anymore than I'd learned from them what to expect in 1989 Cuba. So though the media kept drilling me all through the 90's that I'd officially missed my chance to see communism working, I wasn't as easily convinced of that as you may have been. I had no expertise on the Eastern Bloc, since I'd never been there, and my suspicion they'd traded some fixable problems there for third world status and that the smartest of them wanted to go back to the 80's was only an educated guess. But I certainly didn't believe Cuba had economically collapsed in 1990 just because U.S. media said so. And I didn't believe communism had failed there, either, just because U.S. media said that. In their role as tribal anticommunist catechists, U.S. media are always long on innuendo and short on detail. And, after all, having declared communism failed and finished forever in 1989, they couldn't gracefully admit it IF it hadn't failed in Cuba, could they?
U.S. media don't cover what Americans consider foreign countries. Only periodic or event related stories are written by perhaps recently born reporters who never seem to know any history. Long ago (or what seems like long ago), returning in 1985 from my first deep Central American experience, a summer-long local-bus odyssey from Costa Rica to California, I called the author of a distorted story about Nicaragua in the San Diego Union and learned he was a deskman rewriting "a field reporter's notes" phoned in from a place he'd never seen. Someone who knew even less had written the headline.
It's always been that way, but normal voluntary patriotic ineptitude was greatly improved when, in the late 80's, Washington's officially declared policy of "embedding" reporters began. Military supervision of the press was overt during the invasion of Grenada, but its implications were clarified in December of '89 when they locked up all the pioneer embedded reporters in a barracks in Panama and didn't let them out until a general was ready to tell them what to write, omitting details of the apparently irrelevant bombing of a Panama slum. Reversing the Tiananmen Square media procedure, the massacre of "possibly thousands" by U.S. military went unreported in the official media until years later when "60 Minutes" dealt with it once - though not as what I thought it was - a message to Nicaraguan voters who would, in fact, surrender their revolution a few weeks later.
It's curious and obviously relevant to me, though you may think it an unrelated digression, that in the same time frame, just as the 90's began and just as the gravity of overpopulation and the crushing but always profitable overgrowth of the human encampment had finally aroused enough long overdue concern (in spite of stubborn and habitual media denial) to prompt the first highly publicized World Population Summit in Rio (Margaret Sanger Quixotically staged the first one in Geneva in 1927) and the first state level criticism of the pope's position on the issue, after minimally covering that meeting, the same mass media that was spinning communist revolution out of existence also found a way to suddenly juggle the statistics of overpopulation out of existence, too, and (to the relief of the same growth loving businessmen who hated communism) to absolutely stop reporting it from then on. That's amazing when you consider that, in fact, the absolute number of new humans in the world every year, every day, probably every minute, went on growing faster than ever and, because of that, the eco-system is collapsing faster, just as, in fact, the world-wide inequality that prompted all the communist revolutions is continuing unabated, too.
It was as if (I'm saying, to remain objective, as if) some very powerful force suddenly got a new grip on mass communication and the human mind (or at least the minds of Americans and their most loyal imitators) right about then and, to go on protecting business for as long as it takes business to finish destroying the world, took tighter control.
The birth-again of US pro-democracy pseudo-progressives