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When I left for Cuba on my first visit, I was asked to take luggage just like in this chapter.
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This is chapter 3 in my audio novel The Pope, His Chamberlain, the Jinetera and Fidel. (I made a mistake yesterday entitling its uncorrected chapter “Chapter Three.” It was really chapter two.)
This is one of the chapters with firm grounding in reality. The pope’s nightmare is based on the report of what happened during his 1987 trip to Chile. In their biography (His Holiness: John Paul and the hidden history of our time) Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi described the papal Mass in the national soccer stadium as follows:
Pinochet staged a massive intervention using armored cars, jeeps, policemen with nightsticks and shields, water cannons, and tear gas to combat 700 demonstrators shouting slogans against the dictatorship and throwing stones at police stationed o the edge of the park. The demonstrators, who belonged to the extreme left-wing party Mir and to organizations of young dissidents allied with the Chilean Communist Party, were a tiny fraction of the 700,000 worshipers present at the mass. But the general wanted to make a point. Police charged demonstrators who were burning tires to shield themselves and crashed through the crowd of the faithful. Beneath the altar where the pope was celebrating mass, soldiers in jeeps cut circular swaths. Journalists, pilgrims, and priests who tried to block them were run over and injured. The tear gas fumes even reached the altar, where John Paul II, his eyes red and his throat burning, skipped whole sections of his homily on reconciliation, while his personal physician gave him water and salt to fight off the poisonous air.
“Love is stronger than hate!” shouoted John Paul II, while around him thousands of fear-stricken spectators cried out, “Save the pope!” Six hundred people were injured. All the political parties, including the socialists and Communists, denounced the actions of the security forces, calling their response a provocation. Cardinal Fresno and the president of the Chilean bishops conference, however, issued a communique identifying the police as the chief victims and blaming the demonstrators. It said the demonstrators had tried to prevent those in attendance from expressing their beliefs and had offended the pope. “We protest against this incredible assault, which meant blows and wounds to carabineros, papal guards, journalists, priests, and the faithful.” Not a word was said about police brutality, which had been witnessed by the entire international press corps.
For the introduction and prologue, please click here.
Today, I begin a recording of a novel I wrote more than 20 years ago. At my current age of 81, I just want to get the book out in the public in some form while I still can. The novel is called The Pope, His Chamberlain, The Jinetera & Fidel.
It’s a fictional story about Pope John Paul II’s actual 1997 trip to Cuba. I repeat: it’s a fictional story. So, don’t go accusing the sainted pope of the moral failing I place at the story’s center.
On the other hand, the tale was inspired by my own actual first journey to Cuba in the summer of 1996. It reflects what I learned there during a two-week stay under the auspices of the Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs – again, the first of many sojourns for me in the adopted home of Che Guevara and Assata Shakur. I’ve visited Cuba more than a dozen times since.
I originally wrote the book as a virtual vehicle for taking my friends and students to Cuba — to expose them to what I experienced during the 1990s “special period” there — and to clear up common misperceptions about life on the island. It was during the ’90s that U.S. sanctions coupled with the fall of the Soviet Union (and Cuba’s loss in the process of 85% of its trading partners) made life nearly unbearable for the Cuban people.
Today, something similar is transpiring for Cubans. The COVID-19 pandemic along with intensified U.S. sanctions have once again brought the tiny nation to its knees. (Hence the protests we’ve all heard so much about.) So, Cuba today is very similar to the Cuba of the last century’s final decade which is the novel’s setting.
The book’s relevance also stems from its indirect exposition of liberation theology, which I consider the most important theological development of the last 1500 years. Pope John Paul II was its foremost opponent. I’d like readers to come away with a better understanding of that theology and social movements it inspired.
Here’s my bottom line: though largely fictional, the descriptions I’ve portrayed here are true in that many of them reflect my own experience. In the introductions to relevant chapters, I’ll emphasize those non-fictional details.
In any case, I hope that you’ll enjoy to some degree what I’ll read here – a chapter more or less each day for the next month or so.
So, get ready. Here it is: the opening of The Pope, His Chamberlain, the Jinetera, and Fidel.
(By the way, as a work still in progress, the book begs for suggestions about improving or changing it. So feel free to offer advice.)
Since April 28th, the people of Colombia have virtually shut down the nation with repeated general strikes. For nearly three months, thousands have been in the streets all over the country demanding that its right- wing president, Ivan Duque, step down. They also want economic reforms, including higher wages, and increased taxes on the rich. Their demands include reduction in transportation fares and better health care.
And the response of the Colombian government? Absolute repression from its police and military including sexual assault, use of live ammunition (with 42 killed so far), deployment of tear gas, bashing in the heads of peaceful protestors, and even the criminalization of those who supply medical assistance to the wounded and food to activists in the street.
And what about the response of the U.S mainstream media (MSM), the president and “our” representatives in Congress? Given their outrage over comparatively minor protests in Cuba, surely, they’d express support for Colombians battered in the streets.
But no, there hasn’t been a peep out of them – no word of solidarity with demonstrators nor criticism of the hugely unpopular Colombian administration. No calls for regime change or U.S. intervention. Not even the beginnings of public conversation led by our intrepid MSM.
And then there’s the involvement of Colombian paramilitaries in the assassination of Haiti’s president just last week. Turns out that several of the well-financed assassins were from Colombia and had actually trained in the United States with ties to the CIA, DEA and U.S. military establishment.
Just imagine if the Haitian assassination had involved Cuba and Cubans. Imagine if the paramilitaries implicated had been trained in Russia or China?
What do you suppose would have been the response of our “leaders”?
Go even further . . . Ask yourself how the United States would have responded had a Washington Post reporter been killed and dismembered in Cuba as Jamal Khashoggi was in the Saudi Arabian embassy less than three years ago.
What if such a crime had occurred in a government office in Havana with the proven direct involvement of Cuban President Miguel Diaz Canel? Would the White House and Congress have responded as they did when Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Saudi Crown Prince (no democrat he), was shown to be directly responsible for Khashoggi’s butchering? Would our officials with their heart-wrenching concern for democracy and human rights in Cuba have thrown up their hands in helpless impotence as they did in the case of MBS?
We need no more than considerations like those to reveal the hypocrisy of the United States government, academic establishment and “free press.” They care not a whit about human rights, basic freedoms, democracy, or government repression – unless the alleged violations can be connected to a government that refuses to fulfill its expected role as vassal of the United States in service of its country’s rich and powerful strongly allied to their counterparts in “America.”
The exact opposite happens when any government (like Vietnam’s, Cuba’s, Venezuela’s, Nicaragua’s or China’s) shows concern for ordinary people – mothers and children, the houseless, the hungry, the sick, workers, and the elderly. Ditto when governments in question assert ownership and control over their own resources.
Such “regimes” are quickly marked for change. Regardless of their accomplishments, they’re dismissed as “socialists,” or “communists,” subversives or terrorists. So, the United States routinely interferes in their elections, finances demonstrations of the well-off (which are publicized by the media those same elite control), organizes paramilitaries as “freedom fighters,” and (if push comes to shove) invades the country to finish the job.
Until “Americans” are willing to recognize that shameful pattern, till we can look in the mirror and recognize that the United States is indeed the world’s greatest force for evil and the cause behind most of its conflicts, we’ll continue to naively buy “official stories” about the designated enemies of the rich and powerful. We’ll continue in our delusions about our country’s exceptional virtue, about U.S. consistency in supporting democracy, rights and freedoms.
In other words, we’ll continue to be patriotic. But we’ll have morphed into oppressors ourselves! Maybe we’re already there. I suspect we are.
While those interviewed by Ms. Goodman called for early and affordable access to inoculations in the Global South, no mention was made of perhaps the most promising source of such therapies. The neglected source was not only promising, but implicitly revealed the swindle represented by Big Pharma’s anticipated exorbitant prices for Covid-19 vaccines.
It may surprise readers to know that the source in question is Cuba.
In fact, Cuba is the first nation in Latin America to receive authorization from the World Health Organization (WHO) to perform officially sanctioned tests of the four vaccines it now has under development. Those trials have already completed their clinical stages. Promising results so far have Cubans looking forward to completing the (cost free) inoculation of its entire population of 12 million by the end of March 2021.
The vaccines under trial are named Soberana 01, Soberana 02, Abdala (CIGB66) and Mambisa (CIGB669). None of them is dependent for its preservation on super-cold temperatures.
Mambisa is worthy of special note, since as a nasal spray, it requires no needles, but responds locally to the specifically respiratory nature of Covid-19.
Failure to report such developments even on “Democracy Now” illustrates the complicity of our mainstream media in shunning any news from socialist nations like Cuba that might possibly illustrate the superior ability of their economies to deliver high quality, no-cost healthcare to citizens even during a worldwide pandemic. Moreover, absent the profit motive, Cuba will predictably deliver its vaccines to its neighbors at vastly cheaper prices than its capitalist counterparts.
Cuba’s Vaccine History
This prediction is based on the fact that Cuba has long been a supplier of vaccines and doctors not only to the Global South, but to countries such as Italy during the height of Covid-19’s first wave. Additionally, with its unequaled ratio of doctors to citizens, the island nation’s response to the pandemic has effectively limited documented coronavirus infections despite supply problems caused by the continued U.S. embargo of the island.
All four developments (the superabundance of doctors, the relative control of Covid-19, Cuba’s research capacities, and the export of medical care to other countries) result from the foresight and vision of Fidel Castro, the revered father of his country. In the early 1980s he sparked initiation of a vigorous homegrown biotech sector – largely to cope with the U.S. embargo’s persistent attempts to deprive the island of medical supplies.
The result was the emergence of 20 research centers and 32 companies employing 20,000 people under the umbrella of the state-run BioCubaFarma Corporation. Recently, spokespersons connected with the corporation tweeted, “The #CubanVaccineCOVID19 is dedicated to the sower of dreams: Fidel. Our tribute to the one who believed in the strength and future of #CubanScience.”
BioCubaFarma produces 8 of the 12 vaccines Cuba uses to immunize its own population against diseases such as measles and polio. Cuba has also exported hundreds of millions of vaccine doses to more than 40 countries (e.g. to deal with meningitis and hepatitis B).
All of this represents just one more illustration of socialism’s comparative efficiency in the face of crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Even a poor blockaded country like Cuba can respond to an unprecedented crisis such as the coronavirus without holding sick people hostage to the confiscatory demands of privatized natural monopolies like Big Pharma. The latter’s claims to mammoth profits based upon (largely government-funded) costly research are simply ideological cover for overweening corporate greed that none of us should stand for.
People’s vaccines can be produced at warp speed and at low cost – despite news blackouts even on “Democracy Now.”
They’re at it again – red-baiting Bernie Sanders. Because the senator from Vermont has (like President Obama) recognized the educational achievements of the Cuban Revolution, he’s being attacked as an apologist for brutal dictatorships everywhere. The syndrome played out in yesterday’s episode of “The View,” and last night in the South Carolina debate.
It’s all so tiresome – so 20th century, so chauvinistic.
It also contradicts my own personal experience of Cuba over many years of visiting the island, where Fidel Castro remains as revered as George Washington here in the United States. By most on the island, he’s considered the father of his country. (I remember a U.S. embassy official in Cuba lamenting to my students that if free and fair presidential elections were held there, Castro would win “hands down.”)
However, more recently still, such demonization of Cuba and Fidel Castro flies in the face of an experience my daughter and her husband had of the Cuban healthcare system just two weeks ago. I want to share that story with you. It sheds light not only on Cuba and Castro, but on Medicare for All.
But before I get to it, consider the attacks on Mr. Sanders.
According to the simple-minded received wisdom here in the U.S., no one is allowed to tell the truth about a designated enemy. That is, you can’t say anything good about any government that refuses obedience to U.S. empire. And that’s true even if, like Cuba, the said government provides enviable education and childcare, or if health services are free there for everyone.
Meanwhile, to say anything bad about a “friend” – apartheid Israel for example – is absolutely forbidden. As an international outlaw, Israel can transgress UN resolutions against its illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. It can even kill with abandon peaceful protestors including Palestinian children, the elderly and disabled. However, to criticize it for doing so – to propose boycotting, divesting, or sanctioning Israel’s internationally proscribed occupation of Palestinian territories – is not only unacceptable but actually forbidden by law.
(In case you haven’t noticed: no debate participant has or will ever accuse anyone on stage of supporting a “brutal dictatorship” in Israel – or in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Brazil, Honduras, Hungary, Turkey . . .)
I mean, instead of thinking critically or just recognizing undeniable facts, U.S. citizens and candidates for public office are virtually commanded to see and describe the world in terms of good/bad, black/white, friends/enemies, vendors/customers. To make even unsubtle distinctions in those regards is beyond the pale. In terms of electability, its’ the kiss of death.
To put it kindly, such thinking is not only simple-minded; it is childish. It’s insulting. It dumbs us all down and makes us stupid pawns of publicists and propagandists supporting reflexive U.S. ideology.
As a result of such stupidity, Bernie Sanders had to limit his “defense” of Fidel Castro to acknowledging the virtues of teaching people to read and write. He could easily have added points about free education through university level and praise for Cuba’s medical system that provides healthcare for everyone on the island – including visitors from other countries. However, to do so would have opened him to attacks alleging that his free college tuition and Medicare for All programs will inevitably lead to the Cubanization of America.
Not even Bernie Sanders has that much courage.
Healthcare in Cuba: A Recent Experience
And that brings me to the personal story I promised earlier. Just two weeks ago, it involved my daughter, Maggie, and her husband, Kerry as they led a weekend excursion to Cuba.
The junket was the payoff of a fund-raising project for our local Montessori school in Wilton, CT which our daughter’s five children have attended. At an auction held for its benefit, Maggie and Kerry had “sold” the trip to several parental teams. That was last fall.
So come early February, everyone went off to Cuba, even though Maggie was feeling poorly from the outset.
By the time the group arrived in Havana, our daughter was experiencing severe stomach pain that literally brought her to her knees. The next thing she knew, she was being whisked off in a cramped taxi to the Clinica Central Cira Garcia, Havana’s “hospital for tourists.”
There, admissions officials checked very carefully to see that Maggie and Kerry had the required health “insurance” which is included in the purchase price of airline tickets to the island. Then, following an x-ray, our daughter was informed that she was having an appendicitis attack and that an immediate operation was imperative.
The long and short of it is that the laparoscopic appendectomy took place, that hospital care was excellent, and that it cost her and her husband not a dime for the operation or for her five days in the hospital. (They were however charged $50 for each of the two nights Kerry stayed overnight there, and a few dollars for laundry.) In other words, the operation had been paid for by the airline ticket “insurance” which was really a tax on all travelers pooled to meet the cost of health emergencies like the one I just described.
The same procedure in the United States would have cost on average $33,000.
The point here is twofold. The first is that “Americans” need to exit the 20th century once and for all.
Cuba is not our enemy. In fact, it never was until U.S. policy (intolerant of people-friendly socialism) made it so. Moreover, Fidel Castro remains a hero to most Cubans and to most informed people in the Global South. His “repressive” policies were absolutely necessary to protect his country from actual U.S. invasion (e.g. the Bay of Pigs in 1961), from numerous CIA attempts to assassinate him, and from a 60-year long embargo intended to undermine Cuba’s economy, including its health and education programs.
To understand that point, think about our own country’s response to 9/11. Think about the Patriot Act, about resulting restrictions on travel, about Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, imprisonment without trial, torture of suspected terrorists, and extra-judicial drone killings even of U.S. citizens. Think about the panopticon surveillance systems uncovered by Edward Snowden. Think about encouragement to inform on neighbors and others.
Were those responses to 9/11 brutal and repressive? No doubt, they appeared that way to their victims. But undeniably it’s what governments do under threat from external enemies and their internal agents. In that regard, the U.S. is no different from Cuba. George W. Bush, Trump – or Obama for that matter – are no different from Castro, except in their wider swath of brutality.
The second point is that Cuba’s social system as experienced by our daughter is unprecedented in the impoverished world of former colonies. No other victim of colonialism has been as committed to caring for its people, its children, or its environment as Cuba. But instead of being rewarded for such achievements, it is consistently vilified by U.S. politicians and a mainstream media stuck in Cold War thinking.
Thank God that the Sanders revolution invites us to leave all of that behind. His opponents should follow suit.
Question: Why has there never been a coup d’état in the United States?
Answer: Because there is no U.S. Embassy in the United States.
That tired joke contains a large kernel of truth. Traditionally U.S. embassies have been used as centers for the planning and execution of numerous coups throughout the former colonial world, especially in Latin America.
And as a friend of Cuba (having visited ten times over the last 17 years), my fear is that the transformation of the “Interests Section” into a full-fledged embassy will result in intensified attempts to overthrow Cuban socialism.
The fear is not unfounded.
Cuban scholar, Cliff DuRand, who holds an honorary degree in the University of Havana and has led groups of scholars to Cuba annually for more than 20 years, agrees. He sees the restored relations as merely a change of tactics on the part of the United States in its efforts to undermine the Cuban revolution.
The previous goal of U.S. policy was regime change. Now the target is systemic change – undermining the Cuban economy.
The first approach found expression during the Eisenhower years in an April 1960 State Department guideline:
[E]very possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba. . . . a line of action which, while as adroit and inconspicuous as possible, makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of the government. [Office of the Historian, Bureau Of Public Affairs, US Department Of State; John P. Glennon, et al., eds., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Volume VI, Cuba – Washington, DC: GPO, 1991, 885.]
Notice the political goal: overthrow of the government. Notice the tactic: to create hunger and desperation among the general populace. That’s basic terrorism. As a result, over the nearly 55 years of following the Eisenhower guideline, more than 3000 Cubans have been killed and more than 3000 wounded or crippled.
In the meantime, Cuba has periodically enacted many economic reforms – most recently (after nation-wide dialog involving all segments of society in thousands of local meetings) opening its economy to small and mid-sized businesses. Cubans have decided that a petty bourgeois is compatible with socialism.
In that change, the Obama administration has evidently sensed its opportunity for economic subversion in the service of U.S. corporations. The intention was expressed in the president’s words on December 17th: “Our efforts aim at promoting the independence of the Cuban people so they do not need to rely on the Cuban state.”
Notice the goal: changing the Cuban system of reliance on the state – presumably for free health care, food subsidies, free education, subsidized home ownership, and the other conquests of the revolution. Notice the tactic: normalization of relations (without removing the crippling embargo). And don’t overlook the fact that President Obama retains the conviction that the United States has the right to shape Cuban society. That’s neo-colonialism.
How will Cuba protect itself from the continued assault on its revolutionary gains? According to a friend of mine close to President Castro:
- By preventing a big bourgeoisie from emerging.
- Accomplishing this feat through a system of heavy licensing fees and steep taxation of businesses.
- By mandating that firms growing beyond a certain size become co-operatives with the workers assuming control of the enterprise in question.
Will Cubans be successful in protecting their revolutionary achievements even in the face of the U.S. change of subversive tactics? The world (especially the third world) awaits the answer with bated breath.