It started with a knock on the door of his room at Havana’s Hotel Nacional while he was taking a nap, says Mike Snow, a little after 8 p.m. “Still feeling groggy, I opened the door warily,” he writes in The Washington Post. “In the hall stood three armed men, accompanied by an austere officer with ‘Security’ emblazoned across the shoulder of his gray uniform.”
Mr. Snow, a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., had a pretty good idea why the men were there. “Over the past seven days, I had met with a number of independent Cuban journalists – journalists, that is, not employed by the tightly-controlled government press. Talking to these people is an activity that can swiftly arouse the suspicions of Cuban authorities.”
For the most part, these “independent journalists” turned to writing after losing their jobs for criticizing the government. “At least two of the 14 independent journalists with whom I spoke told me they had been beaten,” explains Snow. “Another had ended up spending a year and a half in the slammer for the crime of ‘disrespect,’ after some notes confiscated from a Spanish reporter revealed him criticizing Castro.”
In his novel “1984,” George Orwell called it a “thoughtcrime.” The transgression of the novel’s hero, Winston Smith, was insufficient adulation of Big Brother, not enough blind obedience. In Cuba, the crime of “disrespect” is anything that might irk a bureaucrat, like asking why there’s a fish shortage in a country surrounded by water, or why Cubans have to leave Cuba in order to be free, or why they’re still patching together inner-tubes, plywood and 50-gallon drums in order to escape the Revolucion.
Fact is, the revolution’s been a dud. The allotment is still one bar of soap per person every three months, and six eggs a month. The cost? Some 21,000 killed by firing squads, maybe 60,000 lost at sea, 100,000 in corrective labor camps at one time or another – working 12 and 16 hour days – and two million in exile. The benefits? Per capita, six pounds of rice per month.
It was, from its inception, a revolution that promised to deliver more tyranny than liberty, more hatred than food. In 1957, Castro gave an interview to the New York Times, in which he declared: “Power does not interest me. After victory I want to go back to my village and just be a lawyer again.” In July 1959, six months after his triumphant entry into the capital, Castro sang a slightly different tune: “Elections? What for?”
First up on the agenda, 1960, the muzzling of all independent newspapers, the confiscation of private estates and businesses, and the establishment of the Committees for Defense of the Revolution – a surveillance network to report on “counterrevolutionary” activities in every neighborhood.
And to guarantee an endless shortage of fish and rice, Article 16 of Cuba’s constitution, declaring that the state “organizes, directs, and controls all economic activity in accordance with the directives of the single plan for social and economic development.” A “single plan,” with Che Guevara, an unadulterated Leninist, in the driver’s seat as the Minister of Industry and head of the Central Bank. “I am,” Guevara explained, “one of those people who believe that the solution to the world’s problems is to be found behind the Iron Curtain.”
Bottom line: Private entrepreneurial activity, a decentralizing force by its nature, was essentially criminalized by Cuba’s central planners. The fish and rice, Guevara believed, would come from forced collectivization, more surveillance and additional firing squads – and the “extremely useful hatred that turns men into effective, violent, merciless, and cold killing machines.” The hatred, that is, that can be whipped up and directed toward the most productive members of society, people the collectivists call the gusanos, the worms.
“Che envisaged a New Man,” says Cuban-American writer Humberto Fontova, “envisaged robots working on his socialist ant-farms for ‘moral’ rather than material incentives, pliant, obedient, unthinking, faces like Nicholson at the end of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’”
And so, four decades later and it’s still guys like Mike Snow trying to hide their notes from Havana’s thought police: “They said they wanted to talk. I asked them to give me a couple of minutes to change, and closed the door. Quickly, I retrieved the notes from my interviews, shoving half of them into the seat pocket of my shorts. Then I kicked into a pair of long pants, inserting my wallet into the back pocket, over the pocket in the shorts that contained the notes. I hurriedly stuffed the other set of notes under the mattress, just as a harsher knock sounded. I opened the door and the men rushed past me. One headed straight for the mattress, where he found the notes almost instantly. The others tossed my belongings into the open suitcase on the bed and ordered me to come with them.”
Despite repeated threats of a long prison term, Snow refused to divulge any meaningful information about his sources. What followed was a holding cell, a strip-search and five rounds of interrogation over 14 hours. And then a flight home.
Snow’s conclusion: “There may be no McDonald’s or Burger King to blight the Havana skyline, but there’s nothing romantic about the iron fist that looms over it.”