I’ve just finished my latest book group assignment, Waiting For Snow in Havana, a memoir by Carlos Eire about his childhood in pre-Castro Cuba, the Castro takeover, and the circumstances under which he was able to leave Cuba for the US at the age of eleven.
It’s a pretty good read, although a bit long. A great deal of it is free-form and poetic, and deals with Eire’s extremely odd family and the pranks he and his friends got into (some of them might be considered more serious than pranks, actually; that Eire and his buddies didn’t kill either themselves or each other seems a small miracle).
So the book’s political emphasis is hardly unrelenting. But the shadow of Castro hangs over the entire story, and lends a somber seriousness. Eire’s childhood in Cuba doesn’t really represent an idyllic Paradise Lost; it was too complex and too troubled for that. But there is no question that Castro is the snake in whatever Eden did previously exist there.
I don’t know Eire’s present political persuasion, but like many refugees from Communist countries he is adamant about the soul- and mind- and economy-stifling effects of the rule of a leftist dictator (and his henchmen; Che figures in the book as well) bent on reorganizing a society with an iron hand for its citizens’ “own good.” Eire has many chilling passages about Castro’s Reign of Terror that leave a reader with no doubt as to how bad it was. Castro may not have been Stalin, but only because he had a smaller canvas to work on.
Here’s a passage that gives you an idea of the book’s flavor. It’s not about the torture or the killings, but about something seemingly more trivial. As seen from a child’s eyes, the revolution took away everything good and replaced it with ugliness and dullness [in the following passage, "Cawy" refers to a Cuban soft drink, made by the family of a schoolmate of Eire's, and Eire's "Cuban people" remark is sarcastic]:
…Cawy and all the other soft drinks went down the tubes soon enough. The Cawy boy and his family lost everything. Confiscated. Nationalized. Everything from Coca-Cola to Cawy and Materva and Ironbeer, everything taken over by the state. Excuse me. Taken over by the Cuban people.
And the soft drinks went to hell.
…Once, when [Che Guevara was] asked on television about soft drink production in the newly nationalized bottling plants, he admitted that they had no clue as to what they were doing, that they didn’t know how to get them to taste good. The owners had been forced to turn over their bottling plants but not their recipes.
“Forget about coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cole,” said Che. “Forget about them. We’ll keep bottling something that looks like them, but we don’t have the formulae. The Yankee Capitalists took them. You can keep drinking the stuff, if you want, but it’s never going to taste the same.”
The decline in the taste of soft drinks may seem a relatively trivial change, but it’s part of a generalized quality of life issue that is one of the many, many failures of Communism. Life loses much of its savor, its taste—and that’s not trivial, although it pales in comparison to the brainwashing and the mind-control about which Eire also writes.
Eire also makes it crystal clear that it wasn’t just the money and savings of the rich that were confiscated. It happened to everyone. For him it has had lifelong repercussions:
One fine morning…Che came up with the great idea of doing away with money altogether…So all banks have been closed, and all accounts have been seized. This is the first step. Everyone who had a bank account can keep some arbitrary low sum—a few hundred pesos, I think. All else is gone, obliterated…
The second step is to change all the currency so that the bills and coins that people have will be worthless and all Cubans can start with a completely level playing field…
The lines are very long, but they move fast because you are allowed to change so very little. I’m standing in line, and so is my brother Tony, and everyone else I know. No one is sure about the rules, but the money changers don’t ask very many questions. When you finally make it to the changing table with bills and coins in your hand, they take them from you and give you new colorful bills with pictures of Fidel and Che and Raul and Camilo and all the other heroes of the Revolution. The new coins are so flimsy that we take turns trying to blow them off one anothers’ hands…
Four decades later, I am staring at my troubled bank account, meditating on the numbers I see before me. Suddenly I see them all turn to zero. I am back in line that Sunday morning and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I still expect all the money in America to disappear some day, the same way. It’s all an illusion, mere figures on paper. Retirement account? Stocks? Bonds? Savings accounts? Forget it. I don’t put away one cent. I don’t have any money in the bank, save for the little I have in my checking account, which is always fully depleted at the end of every month. I spend every cent I earn and then some. I’m always in debt, always ready for the day when everyone else will lose their money. On that day, thanks to my advance planning, I won’t have any to lose. I’ll only have debts to wipe out, like my uncle’s customers, come the Revolution.
Not everyone would react in that particular fashion. But every refugee bears the scars. It’s no accident that emigrants from Communist countries are among the most virulent anti-Communists imaginable. Their cynicism about its false promises and its brutal leaders is profound, because they’ve lived it.
It’s funny, too (and not “funny ha-ha”), how similar all these stories are, even though the countries might be different. The pattern could not be more clear, and yet so many people think that somehow the pitfalls can be avoided and true “fairness” can be achieved—next time. There is something in human nature that falls prey to this dream, and it is a something can be taken advantage of over and over by cynical and power-hungry dictators.
And then it’s too late—and it’s never going to taste the same.