Gossip and Speculation Pinch-Hitting for Intelligence
Ann Louise Bardach’s Without Fidel magically appeared under my Christmas tree and I’ve been meaning ever since to write a review. The problem is that book reviews tend to go on the very back burner around here (as poor Jefferson Morley can attest). In any case, I was suddenly reminded of the book again with the Bardach interview just published by Foreign Policy Magazine. FP calls Without Fidel “the authoritative book on Cuba under Raúl” which implies that Bardach is moving in on the ex-CIA agent Brian Latell’s turf. Unlike Bardach, Latell shows no evidence of ever actually having visited Cuba, but has managed nevertheless to capture a certain corner of the Cuba myth and speculation franchise. Bardach now finds herself in a similar position; blocked for years (by her own admission) from obtaining a Cuban press visa and declining (by her own account) an invitation to play on the Cuban team, she is forced to rely on a grab bag of second-hand sources, spiced with a healthy measure of personal memory and opinion, to serve up the kind of speculative stew that FP editors devour.
I won’t review Without Fidel now either, but I will say that I enjoyed the book, even though it might have benefited from a fact checker, for instance with the easily disprovable whopper that “Mormons now claim some thirty thousand members who worship at three hundred temples [in Cuba], albeit in some structures that are little more than bohíos, or shanties.” Mormons claim no such thing and indeed Cuba is one of the few places on the planet where the word Mormon is an absolute cipher to the general population. I doubt there are three Mormons in Cuba let alone thirty thousand. Also, Mormons do not worship in temples, they do that in horrifically ugly wardhouses, saving temples for generally spectacular and costly pieces of real estate, even restricting temple entry to only the most devout amongst them. Bohíos? I don’t think so. But I digress.
Bardach can also be jealous and picayune. She can’t bring herself to mention the formidable Cuban journalist Arleen Rodríguez, by name, referring to her instead as one of the unnamed authors of a “slender book” about the sleazy Cuban “dissident” Elizardo Sánchez, and further trying to discount her work by describing her as “allied with [Cuban] government intelligence.” Without Fidel is also essentially a slender work, since the meat of the book is basically limited to the middle section – an absorbing and well researched account of Miami’s terrorist community – sandwiched between a far too intimate and lengthy tour of Fidel’s colon in the first part, and speculation about Cuba’s future under Raúl in the third. Bardach openly admits conversing with the CIA. Whatever floats your boat.
But enough of that. Let’s take a look at that FP interview:
Foreign Policy: I want to start by asking about Raúl Castro. What distinguishes his leadership from that of his brother?
Ann Louise Bardach: He is a below-the-radar guy. As much as Fidel craved the limelight, Raúl eschews the limelight. After the revolution, Fidel told Raúl that he wasn’t much of a speaker, and so Fidel got [his brother] a speech teacher. But it never took. Raúl sort of delights in having almost a charisma deficit. It may be for the Cuban people that they’ve had too much charisma, so I can’t say that it’s to his [detriment]. The Cuban people may have heard all they need to hear for quite a while.
Machetera: People with considerably better and more current contacts than Bardach’s disagree. Not with the perception that Raúl doesn’t communicate the same way or to the same extent as Fidel. That is true. But the idea that Cubans “may have heard all they need to hear for quite a while” is absurd and plainly snarky. Generally speaking, people have a better time dealing with difficult situations if an explanation is at least forthcoming. Why would Cubans be any different? Fidel was a master at communicating with his fellow Cubans during some very difficult periods about what was going on and why, and what they might expect and for how long. Cubans are no less in need of that right now, perhaps more.
FP: What was the motivation behind the “purge” that happened last year, in which several prominent members of the government were removed?
ALB: A lot of people don’t realize that there’s been a purge of the government about every 10 years since the revolution. They always say [that] these purges are being done for corruption, but the people who are expelled are always regarded as “insufficiently revolutionary,” which means there are doubts about their loyalty to the Castros.
Machetera: Bardach is not alone in her misunderstanding of the word “revolutionary,” which has a very specific meaning in the Spanish language, particularly in Latin America. It’s a term that most U.S. Americans are unfamiliar with (although Bardach’s excuse is less clear, having been on the Cuba beat for some 20 years), since revolution in their own country was hardly system-changing. In Latin America, it’s not like that. Being “revolucionaria” means to change the world. Ergo, to be insufficiently or counter-revolutionary does not translate to doubtful loyalty to the Castros. It would take someone with a profoundly U.S. American view of the world to see it that way. To be insufficiently revolutionary means quite simply that you do not share that world-changing view, and to lose your job over it in Cuba means that you have provably demonstrated this.
ALB: With this one last March, they took out 20 of the top members of the Cuban government in one fell swoop, including [cabinet secretary] Carlos Lage and [head of the Communist Party’s foreign-relations department] Fernando Remírez de Estenoz, who was the point man on Elián González. These were huge figures. They took them down with the stroke of a pen, and they had them under surveillance for over a year. Two of these men — Lage and Felipe Pérez Roque, who was the foreign minister — were forced to write these letters apologizing to Raúl and apologizing for their sins against the government. It was truly a Stalinist moment.
Machetera: Forced letter writing? What, did someone stand over them with a gun and a pen? A letter or your life? Presumably these men had nothing more to lose; how then, would they have been “forced” to do anything? Just asking.
FP: Let’s talk about Ramiro Valdés, whom you mention in your book as an important figure.
ALB: Valdés is one of the last of the original Moncadistas [the small group of revolutionaries who began the Cuban Revolution with an attack on the Moncada barracks], but it’s more than that. Valdés quickly ascended to the top by becoming in charge of seguridad — what we would think of in our country as the secret police. And particularly, he took over an arm called G-2 for domestic surveillance. He was very notorious for his ruthlessness against civilians and for a program he started called UMAP in the 60s. Thousands of people were rounded up and sent to rehabilitation camps. It was one of the darkest periods in Cuban history, and it was the first time the international intelligentsia turned against Cuba. Valdés then went on to become hugely powerful and feared in Cuba in all intelligence matters and [later served as] minister of the interior. I’ve been in rooms in Cuba where you say the name “Ramiro Valdés” and it will literally clear the room. It’s a name to be feared.
Machetera: Dramatic. It would be interesting to know more about who the people were in the rooms that “literally” cleared at the mention of Valdés’s name.
ALB: Valdés was supposed to have fallen from power [after Fidel retired]. [But] he came back, and now he’s been given a slot in the Council of Ministers and the Council of State.
Machetera: This is a rather odd way of not saying what Valdés’s actual current post is: Communications Minister. Which says something rather different to me – Cuba is taking no chances with what it rightly considers a vital point in the country’s defense. How useful were 20,000 U.S. troops in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake? Apparently not so necessary that they were forced to forgo card games. How necessary is the aircraft carrier currently parked 35 miles off Cuba’s coast, between Santiago de Cuba and Port au Prince? The U.S. military already controls Haiti’s airports and airspace, so it can’t be for Haiti’s benefit. This is what you call a dry run. Ramiro Valdés is exactly the guy to run Cuba’s communications infrastructure under such conditions.
ALB: I would say he’s the third-most powerful man in Cuba. In Cuba, whoever serves as No. 3 has a history of going to the pokey. My advice to Valdés would be cuidado: Be careful. You may have history, you may have 55 years with the brothers, but you would be the first to survive being No. 3.
Machetera: I’m sure Ramiro Valdés is grateful for the advice. From a Vanity Fair journalist, no less.
ALB: Raúl [recently sent Valdés] to Hugo Chávez to serve as Chávez’s Cuban baby sitter and make sure he doesn’t lose control in Caracas. Because if Chávez does lose control, then Cuba is toast. Cuba is surviving on the 100,000 barrels of oil they get every day from Chávez. That’s how important Valdés is. He’s there to tell Chávez how to run an authoritarian state and get rid of these pesky democratic intuitions, people who want to run against you, banks that want to own their own banks, and these companies that want to own their own companies.
Machetera: Oh for heaven’s sake. Now Bardach enters cloud cuckoo land, and reminds you why she’s working profitably as a U.S.-based journalist. She’s not going to be taken in by those wily Castros, nor that wild maniac Hugo Chávez. No sir. She’s firmly on the side of the people who are going to sign her paychecks.
FP: There’s been so much stuff about a Cuban infiltration of the Chávez government. What’s going on here?
ALB: The relationship between Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro is one of the rare authentic, personal relationships in politics. Chávez has a personal, deeply felt self-devotion to Castro. He’s referred to him as a surrogate father. And that’s Fidel’s favorite role: the patriarch of the country. Castro once told me that if he’d made any mistakes — and he said that he hadn’t — it would be that he had been too patriarchal.
Fidel truly saved Chávez’s bacon during the attempted coup [against the latter in 2002].
Machetera: Hold on. Wasn’t it Venezuelans who saved “Chávez’s bacon?” As in, the ones who voted for him? The ones who came and surrounded the presidential palace and demanded his return? Are we talking about the same coup?
ALB: Chávez owes a lot to Fidel, but that said, he’s paying for it through the nose, and it’s not making him popular in Venezuela. He’s providing oil on terms that would rival Santa Claus.
Machetera: Sources. Please. What are the exact terms Petrocaribe has signed with Cuba and how do they differ from Petrocaribe’s arrangements with other Latin American and Caribbean countries? Inquiring minds would like to know because those terms are not published. So presumably Bardach has seen the agreements? She claims they are not making Chávez popular in Venezuela. With whom?
ALB: But on the other hand, Chávez entirely trusts Fidel and is willing to let him dispatch Ramiro Valdés to Caracas to basically supervise him and teach him the lessons — the perils — of playing with democratic reform.
Clearly, I think Raúl and the [Cuban] army are a little worried about Chávez. I think they regard him as a man who lacks discipline. I don’t want to say that they think he’s bipolar, but there are concerns about his mood swings. If his mood swings the wrong way, what does that mean for Cuba?
Machetera: Oooh. Concerns about “mood swings.” “Bipolar!” Wait, this feels sort of familiar. Oh I remember now. Something the CIA leaked about the contents of Aristide’s medicine cabinet. Absolutely untrue. But a useful smear nonetheless.
FP: You have reported on Cuba for such a long time. How do you see it changing? What direction do you see things moving for the everyday Cuban?
ALB: Raúl and his men, with Fidel serving as the “convalescent in chief,” are digging in. They’re in a tight spot because the country is bankrupt. It has not been paying its bill to its foreign investors. It has eliminated the ration cards, workers’ lunches … and many Cubans have really depended on these to survive. We’re in a global economic recession, and it’s just harder on Third World countries, much less a country that already had a failed economic system like Cuba.
Machetera: This part about the worldwide capitalist crisis having an even more severe effect on Third World countries is correct. It’s also not news. Latin American leaders have been warning about this for some time. But as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa pointed out in his conversation with students at the University of Havana last winter, speaking of Cuba’s economic situation without mentioning the blockade is a little like looking at a drowned person wearing cement boots and saying “What a shame he never learned how to swim.” By the way, the ration cards aren’t gone yet.
ALB: That’s not to say that this is like a Stalinist gulag. It’s a very repressive, authoritarian country. There are some openings. You can always complain in Cuba. And you can always have a lot of sex. Sex, baseball, and complaining are the national pastimes of Cuba. And they encourage these things in a very personal, private way — except of course, baseball — which gives Cubans just enough space to let off enough steam. The problem is when you start complaining publicly, [and then] you go to the pokey.
[But] the government has decided, rather than to provide more openings, to ratchet down. You can see that in the rhetoric with [U.S. President Barack] Obama. It started out very warm and fuzzy. Obama offered the olive branch. Next thing you know, the foreign minister is calling him “arrogant.”
Machetera: This is really interesting because it’s a glimpse of how history starts to be rewritten. If peeling back just the thinnest layer of the new trade and travel restrictions designed during the G.W. Bush regime to additionally punish Cuba is really considered an “olive branch” then it’s hard to imagine how the bar can be set much lower.
FP: What about after Raúl and [Fidel] Castro are both gone? Is there a plan for who might be a possible successor?
ALB: I’m banking on more Castros. I know a lot [of] people don’t want to hear this, but I’m looking at Alejandro Castro Espín, Raúl’s son. He’s got two portfolios — intelligence and China — and those are major portfolios. And I’m looking at the son-[in]-law of Raúl [his daughter Déborah’s husband], Col. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas. He’s a hugely powerful man.
And then you have Mariela Castro, who would of course be the great white hope. All democrats and progressives are pining for Mariela because she is the bohemian. She has talked about opening up, about democracy. She’s instituted rights for homosexuals; she’s provided for free transgendered sex surgery. You can’t get an aspirin in Cuba, but thanks to Mariela, you can get free transgender surgery. God help you if you’re looking for a Band-Aid.
Machetera: The “great white hope?” What an unfortunate choice of words. But you have to think that even Mariela has to be laughing about this horrific misreading of her considerable talents and revolutionary commitment. Best of all, with Brian Latell and Ann Louise Bardach offering advice, it’s obvious that U.S. intelligence is stuck in the same old hole. Best place for it, really.