Timerman examines Cuba's pallid society

December 09, 1990|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Mr. O'Mara is Foreign Editor of The Sun.

Cuba: a Journey.

Jacobo Timerman.


125 pages. $18.95.

For many Americans, dosed for decades unrelentingly with anti-Castro propaganda, Cuba is a country competing with Albania and China to be the next communist domino to fall. For others, for whom the socialist dream goes a-glimmering, it remains a bastion of distributionist harmony.

To Jacobo Timerman (despite some fairly impressive vital statistics, such barometers as infant mortality, physicians per thousand population and so on), Cuba is merely a sclerotic state, imprisoned in time and held in thrall to Fidel Castro's gargantuan if souring personality. Whatever the truth, it clearly is a diminished place, a country that once counted for more in the world. For Cuba had its heroic moments.

Cuba was not a part of the great splintering that followed th Latin American revolutions from Spain in the early part of the last century. It remained under Spanish control until the turn into the 20th century, and gained its independence as a consequence of the Spanish-American War. But it was an independence compromised from the start by U.S. hegemony and intrusion. That's how things remained until the literal dawn of 1959.

When Fidel Castro triumphed over Fulgencio Batista and brought a new regime into Havana, by his lights he had defeated not merely a squalid local bully, but the true agents of North American imperialism. He threw the Mafia out of Havana. He closed the whorehouses. (Today Cuba is full of whores, operating on the streets.) He had won. He had made Cuba independent, had demonstrated to the world the efficacy of armed resistance, and reignited the incandescent ideal of revolution in Latin America that had dimmed since the 1910 experience in Mexico.

And yet the independence he gave to Cuba was an ersatz one for he put hisountry under the wing of a power far more inimical than the United States -- the Soviet Union. That's the story of Cuba over the past three decades. It is a sad story, in almost

every way, for there is no blinking away the fact that for every political pilgrim who hopes to find fulfillment in Havana, thousands there would like to flee the island. It is at least possible to suggest at this point that things might be better in Cuba had Fidel Castro not been born into the world. It is possible that Cuba might have progressed beyond the point it is now, even with the Mafia and its pimps and, worse, the American sugar oligarchs, on board. But, then, one can never know.

Jacobo Timerman is an excellent literary journalist, but for some reason this book seems to have misfired in its purpose. His reports on Chile under General Pinochet, and on Israel in the aftermath of the invasion of Lebanon, and of course his account of his imprisonment during the Argentine Dirty War, "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number," captured exquisitely the scenes in those countries at those times.

Not so here: Nothing illuminating, revealing or trenchant comes from the people he interviews; they do not articulate experiences, either personal or national, of much interest. It is as if they are living out of time. There is little feel for Cuba in this book. Still, Mr. Timerman makes a few important observations.

One is to note the way that, in Cuba, ideology smothers culture drives out all counterexpression, artistic and humanistic diversity, and imposes a dreadful conformity to an unreal idea of form and behavior. This is something that became plain to all when the Iron Curtain fell. Cuba, as the East Bloc states were, remains drenched in ideology, smothered in tired Marxism. As a consequence there are no books worth reading, either being printed or written; very little poetry or painting -- nothing worthwhile that is not inspired as a protest against things as they are. There doesn't even seem to be much good conversation.

Imagine, Mr. Timerman points out, "Twelve years of war [in Africa] and there is no war literature." Embarrassingly, from the point of view of the Revolution, Cuba's soul may have been saved by its exiles, those despised runaways who for years were dismissed as the "gusanos" (worms) who came to the United States and turned themselves into highly productive, if reactionary, Americans. Of them, Mr. Timerman writes: "The Cuban identity of the refugees in the United States was more vigorous and dynamic than what I encountered in Cuba today." It is a telling admission for Jacobo Timerman, a man of the left.

It had always been assumed that despite the hardship experienced during Castro's years, the majority of Cubans on the island accepted his legitimacy as their leader, that given the opportunity to confirm it, they would. Mr. But Timerman has posed an eventuality that the regime in Havana must find intolerable, and that surely will guarantee he receives no more visas. ". . . It isn't hard to predict," he writes, "that in a free election the candidate Fidel Castro would receive less than 10 per cent of the votes."

But, of course, there probably won't be any free elections in Cuba. At least not while Fidel is around.

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