Cuba Confidential by Ann Louise Bardach; Cuba Diaries by Isadora Tattlin
Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana
by Ann Louise Bardach
Random Home. 397 pp. $25.95
Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana
by Isadora Tattlin
Algonquin Books. 308 pp. $24.95
Any writer who has tried to sell a book proposal about Latin America to a New York publisher is familiar with the reaction—boredom, indifference, contempt, a gaze out the window to check on the weather . . . unless, of course, the subject is Cuba. Why this should be so is not hard to understand. Cuba may be among Latin America’s smallest, poorest, and most rapidly decaying nations, but it is also the source of one of the longest-running engagements in our own culture wars. As two new books demonstrate, Cuba remains the stage for larger ideological batles, and even for the occasional second thought.
The central idea of Cuba Confidential is that, cold-war posturing aside, the Castro regime and the community of anti-Castro Cuban exiles in South Florida are best understood as the violently estranged branches of a single family. As the journalist Ann Louise Bardach explains, it is not just politics but bad blood that separates Fidel Castro from his former brother-in-law, Rafael Díaz-Balart, an eminence grise of the exile community, or from his one-time nephew, Lincoln Díaz-Balart, a Republican congressman from Miami and the point man for anti-Castro forces on Capitol Hill.
Another emblematic family quarrel of this relationship revolved around a five-year old boy by the name of Elián González, who in 1998 was fished out of the waters between Cuba and Florida after his mother and her boyfriend, along with several other adults, perished on a raft while making their way to the U.S. The boy’s father, divorced from his mother but by all accounts involved with his son, demanded his return to Cuba, unleashing the most intense passion play between Miami and Havana since the revolution itself. Bardach emphasizes that such cases are far from unique; few Cuban-American families have escaped unscathed from the tragic events of the last forty years.
A regular contributor to the celebrity-mad Vanity Fair, Bardach is vaguely left-wing in her views but in no way an apologist for the Castro regime. As a matter of fact, some of her comments about today’s Cuba are among the most devastating I have ever read. As she aptly writes of the octogenarian ballet diva Alisia Alonso, the woman can “barely walk” but, “like her country, she insists she can dance.” Bardach points out that Castro has deliberately turned aside many opportunities to normalize relations with the U.S., and she even claims to have confronted him with the remark that if the greatest “achievements” of his revolution are “education, health, and sports,” its signal failures have been “breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
At the same time, however, Bardach subscribes to the regnant ideology of American journalism: that Communism may be bad, but anti-Communism is much, much worse. Her argument, such as it is, is that the leadership of the Cuban exile community has turned Miami into a kind of fascist state, enjoying a strange impunity from American justice, especially with the Bush dynasty in the saddle. Her indictment—a pastiche of baroque details—is rich in half-truths, near-truths, and untruths, as well as the occasional fact. She speaks pejoratively of those—Jeb Bush, Jeane Kirkpatrick—with whom she disagrees, while treating apologists for Castro, like the U.S. National Council of Churches, as neutral arbiters.
Bardach freely admits—indeed, she emphasizes—that Castro’s revolution has been a monumental disaster for Cubans on both sides of the divide. But, having demonized those who have escaped his grip, she cannot say what their attitude should be toward a regime that has sundered families, destroyed careers, and sent unnumbered thousands to their deaths, either in the shark-infested waters of the Florida Straits or on foreign battlefields fighting for world Communism. As her own account demonstrates, as long as Castro is in charge, and as long as the U.S. continues to take roughly 30,000 dissatisfied Cubans off his hands each year, the festering resentments of the exile community will not die.
Like Bardach, Isadora Tattlin is an American woman who harbors vaguely left-of-center ideas. But there the resemblance ends. Tattlin (probably a nom de plume) is married to a businessman of unstated European nationality (a Frenchman, I deduce) whose work in the mid-90’s required his transfer from Bangladesh to Cuba. She, her husband, her two children, and their Bangladeshi nanny lived on the island for more than three years. Cuba Diaries is the journal of her residence, an account by turns hilarious and sadly revealing.
In Tattlin’s telling, Cuba is a pitiful place, reduced to near-starvation—all foodstuffs in her house have to be kept under lock and key—while the infrastructure inherited from pre-revolution days and the golden years of the Soviet subsidy crumbles. Her daughter cannot take swimming lessons because the pool is polluted, or dancing lessons because the floor of the studio is splintering. There is no water—none at all—at a tourist hotel where she and her husband stay on a weekend getaway. Cuban medicine, one of the supposed triumphs of the revolution, is depicted in the person of the country’s leading dermatologist, who after a cursory examination of her daughter, then suffering from peculiar growths on her skin, pronounces the girl “Normal!” In some schools there is one book for an entire class to share.
Tattlin’s Cuba is a place strangely isolated from the outside world, with none being more cut off, it would seem, than some of the main figures of the Communist nomenklatura. She tells of a leading member of Cuba’s National Assembly—Castro’s rubber-stamp “congress”—who informed her over dinner that 40 percent of Americans have sex with animals. He admitted he had never been to the United States, but had “read a lot.”
Indeed, Cuba is so pervasively backward, Tattlin reports, that even the most committed political pilgrims have been forced to notice. Two Communist visitors from her husband’s home country declare themselves “shocked—shocked—by the condition of Havana, by the low level of intellect of many of the officials they have met, by their lack of information, by the outright senility of some of the older officials.” They tell her, with touching indignation, that a dissident they have met—in this case, as in so many, a former Communist militant who had called for reform of the system and ended up with a long prison sentence—had his telephone disconnected immediately after their visit and was called in by the political police.
During her residence on the island Tattlin was in an excellent position to evaluate attitudes toward the U.S. On the one hand, Cubans were being told almost daily that an American invasion was imminent. At Pinar del Río, the country’s westernmost province and the one closest to Florida, she observed extensive excavations under way—tunnels and bunkers intended to shelter Castro and his associates when the 82nd Airborne finally arrives. On the other hand, when Cubans discover she is an American, it is to them “a source of surprise and delight.” A Danish tour guide tells her that, in the area he travels, almost half the people long for annexation to the United States.
For Tattlin, Cuba is best classified as a “cootocracy”—“bearded, fragile, isolated, in ill-fitting clothes, unchallenged, long-fingernailed, muttering to itself, obsessing about the reality of 40 years ago.” Fidel Castro’s sole remaining asset, she suggests, is the hostility of the U.S. government. “The most senseless thing about” the sanctions imposed by America’s Helms-Burton law, she tells a visiting and typically misinformed American anchorman, “is that it is only helping Fidel and the hard-liners.”
On their way to Cuba, Tattlin and her husband stop to speak with someone from his company who has previously served on the island.
“But what is the basic problem?” they ask him.
“Fidel is an old man that can’t admit he’s made a mistake.”
“But surely,” they insist, “it can’t be as simple as that.”
“Oh yes it can.”
What both these rather different books confirm is that, having destroyed Cuba’s sugar industry, lost its Soviet patron, cast thousands of its most productive citizens into prison or exile, and embraced an economic system that does not and cannot work, Castro has been reduced to living on residuals from the domestic and foreign branches of the hate-America club. But how much longer?