Categories
From The Archives

Our Man in Havana: Face-to-Face with Fidel Castro

“Everyone who comes to Cuba has been brainwashed. Skillful prop­aganda has told them Havana is a haven of heaven.” That’s Steve Ryan talking; see his indispensable “Havana: Sucker Trap of the Caribbean,” published for your edification in the February 1957 issue of Exposed magazine (the one with Diana Dors on the cover). “Forget the Maine” is Ryan’s message. Remember the dirt, the beggars, the shoeshine urchins, the porno postcard vendors, “the thin, rag­ged women carrying babies too hungry to cry,” the guy who makes his living exhibiting a be­draggled, cawing perico trained to fire a cap gun, the hordes of hookers who can barely wait for nightfall so they can “flow over the city like a tidal wave in search of americanos.”

What’s the story? “When Ba­tista took over in 1952,” Ryan explains, “he sat on an empty wallet.” The ousted Carlos Prio “had scattered eight million in bribes during his term and Batista was stuck with the tab. The only hope for solvency was to find an angel. Ninety miles away sat the United States . . . fat, pompous, sex happy — ­and loaded.” Hey meester, you want muchachas, gambling, 24-hour crap games, a daiquiri at Señor Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar, a night at Tropicana el cabaret más fabuloso del mundo, plus live sex show in a three-peso hotel room? You name it, you got it. “This is Cuba,” warns the implacable Steve Ryan. “Geared to Ameri­can tastes . . . with moral stan­dards so low you’d need a sub­marine to reach them.”

Well, a lot of things have changed since 1957, but Havana remains a cornucopia of ’50s imagery. It’s actually in fashion! Even modest bungalows out in the suburbs sport curlicue grill­work and harlequin mosaics, jazzily tapered columns brandishing kidney-shaped sun roofs. Half the cars on the road are Eisenhower-era De Sotos and Buicks, patched and repatched and painted tropical colors: mint green, dusty pink, hot canary, blaz­ing turquoise. Driving west along the sea­wall on the Malecón freeway you see the terraced towers of palatial hotels, blind­ingly white against the diaphanous De­cember sky. Vegas strip garish, Miami Beach deluxe, they rose even as Fidel and his bearded ones, los barbudos, were making revolution in the Sierra. There’s the Capri with its rooftop swimming pool and Salón Rojo nightclub, the Riviera (built, they say, by Meyer Lansky) with its free-form fountain sculpture and an­cillary, blue-domed something or other, once a mambotorium inaugurated by Miss Ginger Rogers. Amazingly, the Hil­ton logo is still decipherable on the glass doors of the renamed Habana Libre. Of course, the former casino is now the Salón de Solidaridad, and there’s the inevi­table Vietnamita exposition downstairs by the dollar shop, where you can buy a handstitched leather platter bearing the likeness of Che Guevara for only $140.

The French have moved over to the Libre, but all the rest of us foreigners, here for 10 days for the fifth Havana Film Festival, are holed up at the Hotel Nacional, around the corner from Casa Czechoslovakia, a block and a half from the spot where Sergio Corrieri picked up Daisy Granados in Memories of Under­development, not far from the concrete umbrella of the people’s Coppelia Ice ­Cream Center (more flavors than Baskin-­Robbins). Built in 1927, the Nacional is a stately dowager with a flaming past. It was here that the officers of the old re­gime resisted the first coup staged by then-sergeant Fulgencio Batista. In 1957, Steve Ryan called the hotel “a pile of money sitting on a rock overlooking the Malecón” with a “controlled gaming room” as “hallowed as a church.” When the Nicaraguan revolutionary priest Er­nesto Cardenal stayed here 13 years later, he noted with pleasure that “young pro­letarians” — white and black — were chat­ting in the lobby “with the confidence once possessed by millionaires.” Now the place is full of Aeroflot personnel — beefy pilots and no-nonsense stewies taking their r&r . . . only 90 miles away! The flotskis even have their own lounge up on the fifth floor, complete with fridge, TV, blackboard, and bound copies of Pravda.

[related_posts post_id_1=”580720″ /]

Outside the Nacional, brazen young swindlers in Bruce Lee T-shirts offer to sell you pesos at twice, three times, four times — the record is seven times — the of­ficial rate of exchange. But if you’ve read your Steve Ryan, you know that “gam­bling in Cuba is about as safe as stepping in front of the Super Chief.” Every day there’s a new story making the rounds about some gringo shmegegge exchanging his dollars for a worthless mess of Batista money, Mexican pesos, or just a fat wad of paper sandwiched between two legiti­mate bills. Although trafficking in pesos begins at the Miami Airport — one couple on the tour swears that some Hare Krish­nas tried to make a deal — you can’t walk out of the hotel without being ap­proached. These kids are persistent, too. The most entertaining way to handle it is to adopt the self-righteous persona of an American Communist. Some guy offers you five to one and, in your sternest pidgin Spanish, you say Pero compañero, esto es contra la ley — But comrade, that is against the law. When he doubles over with laughter, you make your escape.

The truth is, there’s not so much to do here with pesos anyway. (“This is a city that is bound to please a monk, a medita­tor, anyone who in the capitalist world has decided to withdraw from the world,” Ernesto Cardenal noted. “Here there is no bourgeois joy, but here there is true joy.”) Havana’s hot, dusty neighborhoods are dotted with curiosidad shops that wouldn’t seem out of place on Canal Street, selling miscellaneous pieces of hardware, old radio tubes, and second-­hand camera parts (as the ancient autos attest, the Cubans are masters of recy­cling). But most stores open late, close early, and don’t stock much besides cot­ton shirts, cheap toys, translations of The Godfather frugally designed to save pa­per, and jars of preserved Bulgarian figs.

One day there’s a book fair, and some­one unearths a 1936 American tourist-guide called Cuban Tapestry. We consult it like the I Ching and learn that “Cuba, is foreign. Havana is foreign. No amount of contact with big Tío Sam, across the Florida Strait, will ever make the island capital an American city. The Cuban likes his huge good-natured ‘uncle,’ for alone among Latin Americans he senses no covetousness in our attitude towards him. He believes the United States his awkward, bungling, but sincere cham­pion. . . . ”

 

Freedom in Cuba can be defined as freedom from the United States. Cuba is not simply the first Latin American nation to successfully defy big Tío Sam, it has openly opposed U.S. policies for the last 25 years. And, although the forced reorientation of the Cuban economy is a shock from which the island has yet to recover fully, it is certainly arguable that the U.S. trade embargo has helped Fidel Castro more than it has hurt him. The lack of consumer goods is a sign of revo­lutionary virtue. The American threat encourages national unity, permits total mobilization, and fosters a heady sense of geopolitical adventure.

Before the revolution, Cuba enjoyed one of the highest per capita incomes in the tropical world. But this apparent prosperity was founded upon 25 per cent unemployment, landless peasantry, insti­tutionalized political corruption, a con­tinual oscillation between dictatorship and democracy, utter dependence on for­eign capital, and the vagaries of the American market. Only two years before Cuban Tapestry was published, the American greenback was the lone paper currency used in Cuba. Until the Tri­umph of the Revolution, the U.S. ambas­sador was the island’s second most pow­erful man (at least), and the U.S. safely regarded Cuba as its most reliable ally. The Cuban economy was actually a sub­set of the American one. Cuba sold the U.S. sugar and bought virtually every­thing else — from nuts and bolts to TV sets and automobiles — at the company store. Americans owned Cuba’s major banks and biggest factories as well as 90 per cent of the island’s utilities. The U.S. exerted greater influence here than in any Latin American country, with the possible exception of Panama.

Now handmade signs on every block routinely excoriate yanqui asesinos, and — our naval base at Guantánamo aside­ — the official U.S. presence is reduced to the so-called “Interest Section,” located on the ground floor of the former Ameri­can embassy, an incongruously large glass building on the Malecón. Opposite the entrance is a lurid neon sign with a rifle­-toting Cubano giving the raspberry to a frothing Tío Sam. Every time the Inter­est Section gringos walk out their front door they get zapped in the face with the same pink, yellow, and orange blinking message: Señores Imperialistas, No Les Tenemos Absolutamente Ningun Miedo! We’re not scared of you! (Not exactly so: many Cubans are convinced that if Rea­gan is reelected, he will certainly invade them. “We expect another Vietnam,” one official told me. “We have the whole is­land prepared.”)

[related_posts post_id_1=”567276″ /]

To get inside the Interest Section­ — which I did, accompanying a friend who had her passport stolen in an after-hours dive called El Gato Tuerto, the One-­Eyed Cat — you have to first convey your business to the bored Cuban soldiers posted around the building, then con­vince the teenage American marine man­ning the reception area that you’re ko­sher (impossible, actually; the fact that you’re in Cuba automatically means you’re not). While he deliberates, you practice your upside-down reading by noting the handy Spanish phrases taped to his desk: What is your name? What do you want? Please go away! Once inside, you find an ostentatiously over-air-conditioned waiting room decorated with framed travel posters of San Francisco and Aspen, and furnished with a plastic Christmas tree and an expensive load of useless, pseudo-oak cabinets. Not since the Miami airport have you seen such waste. The inner courtyard can barely contain the satellite dish (major league, albeit not as huge as the one the Cubans use to monitor American TV). Some nest of spies: the single secretary turns out to be an employee of the Cuban govern­ment. Next to her desk she keeps an in­stitutional-size can of Tang. A week in Havana and this seems exotic.

After 24 years of embargo, modern Americana is so rare in Cuba that you’re jolted when you see a Viceroy baseball cap, a bootleg Michael Jackson tape, or a cup fashioned out of a Coca-Cola can. Only the most obscure Disney char­acters — individual dwarfs out of Snow White, the rabbit from Alice in Wonder­land — are to be found on walls and store­fronts. The almost complete eradication of Mickey Mouse is no less striking than the absence of Jesus Christ. As you walk around Havana, gawking at the home­made signs of a fanged Tío Sam devour­ing Grenada — Abajo el lmperialismo Yanqui! — that embellish each block’s Committee for the Defense of the Revo­lution bulletin board, people will inquire whether you’re Argentine or German or, most often, Russian. When you tell them that you’re a norteamericano, they’re taken aback or amused, occasionally nos­talgic, but never, in my experience, hostile.

It’s astounding how many Cubans seem to have lived on East 103rd Street between 1947 and 1949. There’s still an emotional bond; we do, after all, share the same national sport. Once upon a time, Cuba had the Havana Sugar Kings — baseball club of Sandy Amoros, Vic Davalillo, Tony Taylor, Leo Cardenas, Bert Campaneris, Tony Perez, Camilio Pascual, Elio Chacon — International League farm team for the Cincinnati Reds. In 1958, the Sugar Kings were mired in last place and all but bankrupt. After the Triumph of the Revolution, Fi­del offered to bail the team out. “The Sugar Kings are part of the Cuban peo­ple,” he is reported to have said. “It is important for us to have a connection with Triple-A baseball.” The 1959 season was a tumultuous one and, as fate would have it, July 25 turned to July 26 with the Sugar Kings and the Rochester Red Wings tied 4-4 in the bottom of the 11th. The patriotic Cubans began celebrating their revolution’s name day. A party erupted, out came the congas, but when Red Wing third-base coach Frank Verdi was grazed by a spent bullet, the game was called on account of gunfire in the stands.

There was a lot of angry talk then of yanking professional baseball out of Cuba — the details can be found in How­ard Senzel’s Baseball and the Cold War — but the red-hot Sugar Kings went on to win the International League champion­ship and then the Junior World Series. This was the time of miracles — when the last could be first, and the revolution opened Cuba’s beaches, nightclubs, and parks to all. By the 1960 season, however, relations between revolutionary Cuba and the Republican mainland had grown perilously frayed. On July 6 — shortly af­ter the American-owned oil refineries re­fused to process the Russian crude that Fidel bartered for the sugar the U.S. wouldn’t buy — Secretary of State Chris­tian Herter summoned baseball commis­sioner Ford Frick to Washington. Three days later, some evil alchemy transformed the Havana Sugar Kings into the Jersey City Jerseys. Severed from Triple­-A, Fidel howled with rage. It was one more act of treachery and aggression against the Cuban people: “Violating all codes of sportsmanship, they now take away our franchise!”

[related_posts post_id_1=”110506″ /]

So much for socialist baseball in the capitalist world. Nine years ago there was talk of a U.S.-Cuban series, but that got scotched by Henry Kissinger on account of the situation in Angola. Meanwhile, Cuban amateur teams have continued to dominate international play. Thus it’s with keen anticipation that we socialist baseball fans take a powder from the fes­tival for a Sunday doubleheader at Latinoamerica Stadium. Free admission and open seating notwithstanding, the ballpark is emptier than Shea on a week-day in August. You just march down to the first-base line and help yourself to a box. Does this indifferent turnout indi­cate a lack of interest in two mediocre clubs — the Havana Metropolitanos and the Guantánamo Guantánamos, respec­tively 14th and 12th in the 18-team league? Yet, it is only December; the sea­son is young. The first game is a classic, with los Metropolitanos beating los Guantanamos 3-2, when R. Lopez lofts a J. Matos fast ball over the left-field wall for a jonrón in the bottom of the 10th. (Guantánamo retaliates in the nightcap by peppering hapless R. Arocha for jit after jit to build a 7-0 lead by the middle of the third.)

Contrary to Senzel’s memories of the Sugar Kings (“a slick and speedy ball club and so colorful,” “they used to bunt a lot, hit and run a lot, try to steal home, and execute other daring feats”), the games are low-keyed to the point of som­nolence. The fans are almost all men, many seem to be pensioners basking in the sun. Our entrance causes a mild stir, and – qué coincidencia! — here’s one of the festival guides remarkably unsur­prised to see us. “Sit anywhere,” he in­vites us. “How about here?” It is interest­ing to note that while the Cubans employ cheap and durable aluminum bats (illegal in the major leagues), they have — despite the embargo — adopted the designated hitter, el bateador designado.

There’s no cerveza to be had; instead, vendors sell hits of sweet black coffee in the sort of tiny paper cups mental hospi­tals use to dispense Thorazine. Could that be why, despite some atrocious calls – including a foul ball down the third-base line that goes for a two-run Guantánamo double — there are neither rhubarbs on the field nor razzing from the stands? Or does the crystal light of the four o’clock sky have everyone daz­zled? Far from shooting off machine­-guns, the fans are so well socialized they scoop up the foul balls that are hit their way and toss them back onto the field.

In Revolutionary Cuba, not just sporting events but health care, public tele­phones, and burials are free. Day care, too, for the children of working mothers. Education is universal and compulsory. Cuba-watchers say the rural areas have been developed at the expense of the cit­ies, and Havana is still doing penance for its sinful past. The capital is shabby but clean, delapidated yet orderly. You can drive your rented Russian compact total­ly off the map, out to where the pave­ment ends by the cement factory in the deepest estuary of Havana Bay, and the hovels you find are only hovels — small, run-down stucco houses that appear to be electrified. They’re not tin shacks stacked up on cardboard boxes fronting on a raw sewage canal. Even in this alley of poverty, the kids look healthy and well-fed, playing baseball in the street and wondering what in the world you’re doing there. If this were Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro, you might fear for your life. But Havana isn’t Port-au-Prince, let alone New York. You can strolt for miles at midnight through the central city, the dark streets illuminated only by the blue glow of TV sets, and never experience the slightest anxiety. Mugging Russians, we joke, must be a capital offense.

Just as Soviet communism will always suffer from the reality of the Russian winter, so Cuban communism will always benefit from the island’s eternal summer. Often, as you walk, you get a whiff of salsa and catch a glimpse of some steamy living room, crowded with dancers. Every open window yields some fantastic ar­rangements of plastic flowers, porcelain animals, crumbling plaster, and icons of Che. Revolutionary martyr, advocate of the New Socialist Man, Che is a far more popular household deity than Fidel; his resemblance to JC can’t be denied. Bus drivers keep his image on their decal­ decorated dashboards, next to pictures of their novias, commemorative pennants, and plastic kittens with bobbing heads.

There’s an orange neon portrait of Fidel on the Malecón advising that La Revolu­ción can never be crushed, but his most widely distributed image is that of public servant supreme — a silk-screened poster of the leader dressed in fatigues, a rifle slung over his shoulder and the ambigu­ous command Ordene! Order Me!

The Catholic Church seems to have been driven totally underground — or else to Miami — but there are vest-pocket shrines to José Martí in every neighbor­hood, and many Cuban documentaries attest to a burning religious fervor. Such films are no more objective than a Pepsi­Cola spot and no less revealing for their blatant artifice. Che hoy y siempre (Che Today and Always) is the latest in a se­ries of graphically innovative shorts by the Chilean exile Pedro Chaskel. They’re formal variations on a sacred theme, not unlike medieval altarpieces. Miguel Tor­res’s Condenadme, no importa (Con­demn Me, It Does Not Matter), taking its title from Fidel’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech, is another kind of holy relic. Its incredibly well-faked “documentary” footage purports to record the failed Moncada raid of July 26, 1953, Fidel’s trial and subsequent imprisonment. The filmmaker has already made one previous pseudo-documentary, Crónica de una in­famia, concerning a 1949 incident in which a drunken U.S. marine desecrated a statue of José Martí with his yanqui urine. He plans another such “recon­struction of a history that has no docu­ments” to celebrate the January 1959 Triumph of the Revolution.

[related_posts post_id_1=”419505″ /]

Luis Felipe Bernaza’s Aquí y en cual­quier parte (Here and in Whatever Place) is a “love song” to “the new heroes of the Revolution,” the young Cuban sol­diers in Angola. Lyrical shots of combat training are mixed with choreographed guerrilla rituals and the vocal accompani­ment of some dulcet compañera. Along with Israel, Cuba must be one of the most highly mobilized societies on earth. Militia manuals are available in all book­stores. The ministries, politburo, and central committee are dominated by mili­tary men. The army has a film studio as well, and produced Belkis Vega’s España en el corazón (Spain in the Heart), a history of the Cuban international bri­gade during the Spanish Civil War. Not surprisingly, the film eschews nostalgia and stresses historical continuity (although it fails to note that revolutionary Cuba developed close economic ties with Franco’s Spain). Of course, most of Cu­ba’s Spanish Civil War vets were also veterans of the pre-1959 Cuban CP, an outfit which had opposed Fidel Castro until six months before the Triumph of the Revolution. Perhaps that’s why it’s Raúl — always a Communist — Castro and not brother Fidel who hands out the medals at the vets’ reunion. As for those Cubans who fought in the Abraham Lin­coln Brigade, they aren’t mentioned at all.

Che hoy y siempre was greeted with warm applause, Condenadme, no importa got a standing ovation, Aquí y en cualquier parte rocked the house with rhythmic clapping. But the documentary hit of the festival was Estela Bravo’s Los Marielitos — a film shot by a North American crew and edited in Havana — in which 11 Cubans who left the island dur­ing the mass exodus of 1980 compare their old lives with what they found in America (visualized mainly as Florida concentration camps and Lower East Side squalor). The subjects, naturally, are doozies. “In Cuba, I couldn’t drink. In Cuba there is no freedom,” one rumdum hiccups. Another rationalizes his flight as a perverse act-of loyalty to Fidel. Every­one has a lot to complain about, from shitty health care to the American habit of smoking marijuana in the street. For the finale, the filmmakers produce a suc­cessful engineer who stands outside his Miami ranch house and admits that he’s miserable.

Los Marielitos was telecast during the festival and Cubans often asked about it with pity and wonder. “Is it true that there are people sleeping in the streets of New York? And that you can get killed for· money at 10 o’clock in the evening? Are rents really so high and for apart­ments such as those? Why are blacks not permitted in the same hospitals as whites? Are there that many people who have no jobs?”

Twenty-five years ago, less than three months after los barbudos entered Ha­vana, the revolutionary Cuban regime en­acted its first cultural reform, creating the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficas, ICAIC. Headed by Fidel’s old college buddy, Alfredo (no relation to Che) Guevara, ICAIC appro­priated cinemas and studios, taking charge of all Cuban film activity. Official mythology has it that, although Cuba has always been a movie-mad island, there was no Cuban cinema before the revolu­tion — only ersatz Mexican musicals, bad­ly made copies of Hollywood detective films, bogus Argentine melodramas, and sleazy pornography. Within 10 years, ICAIC films were famous all over the world.

First there was Santiago Alvarez — the director of the “Latin American News­reel” series, producing one noticiero per week, a filmmaker who pulled together a Che Guevara obit less than 48 hours after the news of his death, and who once said, “Give me two photographs, a movieola, and some music, and I’ll make you a film” — the greatest revolutionary docu­mentary-maker since Dziga Vertov. Then came Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, mixing Antonioni alienation with revolutionary pachanga, even as Julio Garcia Espinosa’s The Ad­ventures of Juan Quin Quin and Manuel Octavio Gómez’s The First Charge of the Machete conjoined formal innovation and revolutionary politics with a fervor unseen since the Soviet school of the ’20s. And after the epic Lucía won a gold med­al at the 1969 Moscow Film Festival, 26-year-old Humberto Solás was hailed as the new Eisenstein. (A recent poll of Cu­ban audiences listed Potemklin, Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Gold Rush, and Modern Times as the five most significant films of all time. Lucía, finishing 15th, was the highest ranked Cuban work.)

The late ’60s were the halcyon days of the New Cuban Cinema, but Fidel’s 1968 endorsement of the Warsaw Pact inva­sion of Czechoslovakia, the 1970 failure of the 10 million-ton sugar harvest, and the following year’s First National Con­gress on Education and Culture­ — brought the directors down to earth. Doc­umentaries were privileged over fiction films. There was a campaign against “for­eign tendencies,” “elitism,” and homo­sexuals in cultural affairs. ICAIC contin­ued to be run by the filmmakers them­selves, but formal experimentation de­clined. Since then, although Cuban movie attendance has continued to rise and the Cuban film industry currently spends far more per feature than any other in Latin America, only two movies ( the late Sara Gómez’s One Way or Another and Pastor Vega’s Portrait of Teresa) have made much impact on the international scene. But who knows what goes on in the heart of Havana? This is an anniversary year and all the heavies — Tomás Gutierrez Alea, Humberto Solás, Santiago Alvarez, Pastor Vega, Manuel Octavio Gomez­ — are scheduled to premiere new films.

[related_posts post_id_1=”563435″ /]

Immediate disappointment: Vega’s La Habanera — said to concern the love life of a Cuban shrink — is not yet completed, while Alvarez’s Refugees from the Cave of the Dead — his first fiction film, a doc­udrama of the Moncada raid — is so uni­versally regarded as disastrous that, al­though Santiago is a member of the central committee, the film isn’t even available to be screened in the festival market. Attention shifts to the premiere of Humberto Solás’s Amada, and with good reason. Two years ago, Solás’s mega-peso adaptation of the 19th cen­tury Cuban classic Cecilia Valdés con­sumed the lion’s share of ICAIC’s re­sources. Unveiled at Cannes, the film sank like a stone, then bombed with the home audience as well. Perhaps not coin­cidentally, ICAIC chief Alfredo Guevara was relieved of his post, shipped off to Switzerland as the new ambassador to UNESCO, and replaced at ICAIC by Ju­lio Garcia Espinosa, author of the famous manifesto “For an Imperfect Cinema.”

Understandably defensive, Solás seems to have taken the most militant (that is to say, anti-European) aesthetic stance of all the directors who contributed state­ments to the current issue of Cine Cu­bano. His position makes sense once you see that his film totally contradicts it. Solás may be skating on thin ice: Amada turns out to be an elegantly mannered, Viscontian period piece detailing an un­consummated adulterous affair between two members of the fin-de-siecle Havana bourgeoisie. A vehicle really for the su­perb Eslinda Núñez (the domestic in Memories of Underdevelopment and the second “Lucia”), Amada was not gener­ously received by the Cuban audience. In his post-screening remarks, Solás stressed his competence (pointing out that while Cecilia took 15 months to shoot, econom­ical Amada was completed in a mere eight weeks) while gamely insisting on the film’s political content — the frustrat­ed love is “a reflection of the crisis in the fight for independence.”

Nearly half of ICAIC’s new documen­taries are films with musical subjects, a bid, some think, to produce more foreign exchange. “Just as Hollywood directors must make the obligatory western,” Julio García Espinosa has suggested, “Cuban filmmakers should be required to make a musical.” Espinosa himself started a mu­sical around 1978. Titled Son o no son (a pun on the name of a Cuban musical mode and Hamlet’s “to be or not to be”), the film was evidently structured as a series of rehearsals for a musical revue at the Tropicana that never quite jells. Son o no son remains incomplete, however, and so the first director to accept the challenge is Manuel Octavio Gómez. Like Espinosa, Gómez has a long interest in popular culture as a vanguard form, and his Patakín — which takes its title from an African word for fable, its discreet crane shots and Jerome Robbins choreog­raphy from the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s, its strident colors and slangy, innuendo-ridden dialogue from Cuba’s 19th century Teatro Bufo — transposes two figures out of Yoruba mythology to contemporary Cuba. Shangó, the thunder god, is here an irresistible lumpen lay­about — when he shows up in his neigh­borhood, even octogenarians begin to rumba — while his nemesis, Ogun, is a staid model worker who drives the trac­tor on a collective farm.

With musical numbers more bossa nova than salsa, Patakín establishes a certain amiable innocence, abetted by a Tashlinesque sense of humor and some beach scenes that would hardly seem out of place in How To Stuff a Wild Bikini. The film pokes mild fun at the bureau­cracy and frequently waxes reflexive. (“Aren’t you paying attention to the pic­ture?” characters ask each other when the plot grows convoluted.) But in addi­tion to reclaiming a genre for Cuban film­makers, Patakín makes a political point, being the most candid study of machismo of the several the festival offers. Al­though the virtuous Ogun defeats Shangó in a climactic boxing match — the finale has showgirls storming the ring with bal­loons and confetti for a mass cha-cha­-cha — Shangó’s appeal is never denied. “All men want to be Shangó,” Ogun’s lady friend tells him. “Not even you want to be Ogun.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”669095″ /]

Although the Cuban audience appears to adore Patakín, it’s predictable that not all Oguns will find it so amusing. Indeed, it is the only Cuban premiere to get an afternoon rather than an evening slot. There is a streak of proletarian puri­tanism in the Cuban Revolution, and sure enough, Patakín is panned in the second-string CP daily, Juventud Re­belde (Rebel Youth). The music and dance are “inorganically inserted into the plot,” the movie is filled with “forced jokes” and “stereotypical behavior.” Ma­king “insufficient use of expressive modes of cinema,” it is an altogether dis­appointing effort from a director of Gó­mez’s stature. That the critic takes Patakín to task on formal grounds — rather than engaging its ideological line — only underscores the movie’s political content. But you can’t truly appreciate Patakín until you’ve seen Tropicana.

Tropicana! El cabaret más fabuloso del mundo, located in an outdoor jungle garden! It’s part of every package tour, and it’s best seen with a group of Ameri­can leftists. Imagine las contradicciones! Sexist? Of course — y un poco racist tam­bién. Tropicana! Formerly run by yanqui gangsters using George Raft as their front; the One and Only Tropicana is not simply el paraíso de las estrellas — the paradise of the stars — it’s the Pasty World of Atlantis, the story of Cuba in song and dance con mucho más razzma­tazz, it’s el teatro del embarrassment revolucionario!

Feathered chandeliers floating over­head, showgirls in top hats and sequined bikinis strut down the aisles dodging the frozen-faced waitresses with nimble pre­cision while flashing practiced smiles at bewildered Vietnamitas. The chanteuse on stage threatens to teach us how to love. The espactáculo begins. Omigod, is that capering bellhop actually wearing black face? Compañera, pass the rum. Is this number really a Yoruba ceremony celebrating the end of slavery — boys in silver lame pants and Day-Glo doo-rags? Did the Taino Indians truly sing like Yma Sumac and cavort about like the June Taylor Dancers? And dig that wild and crazy Czechoslovakian at the next table. Will he make like Desi and call on Babaloo? Oh no! It’s caballero y dama time. Lace mantillas, fluttering fans, lot­sa “mi corazón,” castanets. Más rum par favor.

Tropicana! At once ridiculous and im­pressive, ultimately infectious. During the revolution, the July 26 movement planted bombs here. Now they treat the place like a national museum. (Ask a Cu­ban Communist what he thinks. Watch him laugh and tell you that when he was a juventud rebelde he saw Liberace make his grand entrance here riding on an elefante. Yes, and he was playing the pi­ano.) With a maximum of mucho mass flouncing, the whole chorus appears in pink Flash Gordon jumpsuits singing “Never Again.” The show’s not over yet, folks: it’s time for La Habana Conga! A multicolored waterfall is descending in the background. The palm trees are scin­tillating with red, blue, and silver lights. Dry-ice geysers are shooting up at our feet. Everyone is singing Yo soy Tropi­cana! (“What’s this about orange juice?” a drunken gringo wants to know.)

The performers tell us they are a col­lective. They thank some visiting Ruma­nians, the Central American boxing champs, a Yugoslav trade delegation. They offer a fraternal hand to the Soviet people. You offer a fraternal hand to the nearest living creature and go off to dance La Habana Conga yourself.

Compared to Patakín, the new Gutiérrez Alea, Hasta Cierto Punto (To a Cer­tain Point ), is fairly predictable stuff. Al­though beautifully paced and edited, it’s a small film that, as Alea himself ob­serves, owes quite a bit in its mixture of drama and verité to Sara Gómez’s One Way or Another. A married, middle-aged dramatist, working on a script about the problems of women in the labor force, gets involved with a young compañera who works in the port, raising a number of not too startling questions about the relations between the sexes (as well as the classes ). Still, it was satisfying to see the film win the grand prize. Everyone was relieved that one of the hometown boys had come through.

Few things are duller than film festival award ceremonies. The halls where they’re held are often embarrassingly empty. The Cubans solve this problem by making invitations to a reception hosted by Fidel Castro contingent on attending the ceremonies — which are worse than most, since every ovation is a standing one of militant solidaridad. Afterwards, there’s a long wait over at the Palace of the Revolution, but finally the doors open, you’re on line, and there he is­ — large and graying with an unhealthy­-looking ruddy complexion and deep wrin­kles around his uncannily glowing eyes — ­el último diablo, the Cuban of Cubans in a spiffy olive green dress uniform. A quick hypnotized handshake and on to the best spread we’ve seen: lobster, shrimp, skewered chunks of barbecued chicken and pork, mounds of spicy corn­meal casserole, broiled red snapper, huge breads baked in the shapes of alligators. (“Now I know why they wouldn’t let us bring cameras,” someone cracks.)

Everybody is busy gorging themselves, washing the food down with 30-year-old rum — smooth as satin and straight to the cerebral cortex — when it suddenly be­comes apparent that . . . He’s in the room! It’s Fidelmania! Forget Pete See­ger, the evening’s other celeb and possi­bly the only man in Havana wearing a flannel shirt, Fidel is instantly besieged by a frantic mob of filmmakers desper­ately flacking their films. “Hey, Fidel! Did you see my movie? I’ll get you a special screening, man!” Methodically making his way around the room, Fidel seems to have come alive working the crowd. Only five minutes before, people were criticizing the Cubans for using actresses to hand out the awards — so tacky, so macho. Now, it’s as if Robert Redford had turned up at your neighborhood Pathmark. Reserved Brits clutch souve­nir swizzle sticks and swear to treasure them forever. Seasoned feminists tremble like schoolgirls, stuff napkins in their mouths, and shriek, “He touched me!” Canny pol that he is, Fidel does have an eye for the ladies — patting their heads, kissing their cheeks, whispering in their ears.

Functioning on automatic pilot, I’ve blundered into excellent field position just as Fidel comes around the bend. He spots the attractive compañera next to me, and as he rushes over to shake her hand for the third time, she tells him, “This guy has a question for you.”

“Right,” I say. “It’s about beisbol.

Beisbol. The entourage stops dead. Suddenly it’s me and Fidel and the trans­lator and the bodyguards and the compa­ñera in the bizarrely world-historic eye of the storm. “Yes,” I say. “I want to know why Cuban baseball uses the designated hitter.”

The translator translates. Fidel consid­ers the question and begins framing his reply. It’s like a major policy statement. “The designated hitter,” he says through the translator, “is part of the official in­ternational rules of baseball. As a mem­ber of the international community, Cuba, of course, must adhere to these rules . . . ”

“Wait a minute,” I hear myself say. This must be the 30-year-old rum talk­ing. “The designated hitter isn’t part of the official rules of baseball. Only one of the major leagues even uses it — the American League. Why should Cuba copy the American League?”

All around us Cubans are beginning to laugh. Did the yanqui catch Fidel? Clear­ly, the ball is still in my court, but I don’t know what to say next. Pitcher is Fidel’s position. Should I ask him how he likes giving up his turn at bat? (Ordene!) Or would that seem unduly provocative? Should I inquire how this specialization fits in with his conception of the New Socialist Man? Too theoretical. Cau­tiously, I decide to venture an opinion. “Speaking for myself, I think the desig­nated hitter ruins the strategy of the game.”

But now Fidel has formulated a line. Quickly he begins speaking through the interpreter. “That is regressive,” he maintains, cocking his head earnestly. “We must not be afraid to change the existing rules. The rules of all games must be called into question.” Now Fidel is beginning to cook: “For example,” he says, “I think we should make new rules for basketball. I propose we have three kinds of basketball. One for people who are under five feet tall. Another for peo­ple who are five and a half feet tall. And a third for people who are over six feet tall.” Fidel is watching me intently. “And that way,” he concludes, “the Vietnamese will be able to win a basketball game!”

The Vietnamese! What is this, 1968? The Vietnamese won their basketball game 10 years ago! I jumped all over Fi­del’s first pitch, but this curve ball has me baffled. The Cubans laugh. I laugh. Fidel grins: He pumps my hand vigorous­ly and the cult of personality moves on. I’m immediately surrounded by a mini­cult of Brits and Americans. What did he say? What did you say? What is a desig­nated hitter, anyway? Some guy actually wants to set up an interview. Mañana for that, compañero.

Mañana, I’m on the plane wishing I’d spent more time at the beach and still wondering what that riff meant. In bring­ing up baseball was I reminding Fidel of Cuba’s cultural links to the United States? And in invoking Vietnam was he alluding to the limitations of U.S. power? The Cuban identification with Vietnam is total. Was Fidel suggesting we judge Cuba on its own terms? And is that a novelty Americans can’t bear? ■

Categories
Living NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Ozzie The Mouth

A friend of mine listened to Ozzie Guillen’s press conference about his admiration of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in Spanish and swears that he also said this – or at least this is the way it translates: “I love the United States’ embargo on Cuba– it’s one of my favorite embargoes.”

Is it possible that Ozzie was just trying to say something like “You have to hand it to that tough old bastard” — rather than that he admired Castro in any kind of personal sense? I don’t know because I’ve never understood two consecutive sentences that Ozzie Guillen has ever said about anything besides baseball (and sometimes not even then).

In Ozzie’s School of Management, Lessons from the Dugout, the Clubhouse and the Doghouse, due out in May from Times Books/Henry Holt, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Rick Morrisey writes, “Guillen doesn’t want anyone to hate him. You can count on that. But it will happen wherever he goes. One person’s entertaining manager is another’s loudmouth. He’s polarizing without even trying.”

]

A couple of predictions Morrisey makes:

“When the Marlins are struggling, Ozzie will talk, often, about getting fired.”

“He and [owner Jeff] Loria will have their share of dust-ups, especially if the owner acts out during games”

“A person or group will feel insulted by something Guillen says. The
mayor of Miami. Marine biologists. Cuban Americans, Somebody.”

“Somebody”? How prophetic.

I took these from an advanced reading copy, but you can’t help wonder
where the publisher might hold the book so Morrisey can add an addendum
on Ozzie’s latest pop-off. But then, by the time they got that one
wrapped, Ozzie will no doubt have offended someone else.

Categories
FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

The Allied Forces’ Plan to Poison Hitler’s Food Revealed

Could Hitler have been defeated using food poisoning? Probably not. But a new book reveals the £1 million plan British spies tried to implement that involved dosing the Nazi leader’s dinner, and why it would never have worked.

So, what was the Brits’ poison of choice?

It wasn’t arsenic or salmonella. According to a Telegraph article citing the author of Secret Weapons: Technology, Science and the Race to Win World War II, the plan was to give Hitler the female sex hormone estrogen in order to make him less aggressive. Apparently, estrogen is tasteless and so would not have been detected by Hitler’s food testers, who, of course, would also have been “feminized” by the tainted food.

It’s not the first time food poisoning was considered to fight an enemy leader. The U.S. hatched a plan to poison Fidel Castro’s food and cigars with a substance that would make his hair and beard fall out, which was supposed to have the Samsonite effect of taking away his power in the eyes of his followers. Not quite a plot of Shakespearean magnitude, but pretty darn devious, had it been carried out.

Categories
Living NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

FREEDOM REIGNS

The Cuban-American Miami rapper Pitbull has made more than his share of ferociously celebratory Spanglish strip-club jams (“Toma,” “Culo,” “Bojangles,” “Go Girl”), but he’s been forced to deal with two spirit-dampening specters for his whole career: Fidel Castro and Steve Gottlieb. Last month, both of them effectively disappeared: Castro, the dictator about whom Pitbull had made plenty of angry, frustrated joints, retired, and Pitbull’s exploitative contract with Gottlieb’s TVT Records may have ceased to be a major issue when the label went bankrupt. So now look for the excitable rapper to get really, really excited. Openers Baby Bash from California hit last year with the proto-“Low” T-Pain smash “Cyclone.” But beyond that one sort-of-OK song, he has nothing to offer. Show up late.

Fri., March 21, 9 p.m., 2008

Categories
Living NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Giuliani’s Immigration Problem

With second-tier finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire ending his year-long frontrunner status, America’s Mayor is looking more and more like America’s Loser. But polls in Florida and the breakthrough states of Super Tuesday, as well as the split decision in the first two Republican primaries, give Rudy Giuliani a still-plausible chance on the road to this summer’s convention. Hope, as Barack Obama would put it, is his only option.

Giuliani was in Florida the night of his Iowa and New Hampshire losses, and that is where he will make his stand on January 29, after laying off in Michigan, Nevada, and even South Carolina. He calls it a “big-state” strategy, though it looks more and more like merely a recognition of his own dismal immediate prospects. If he is staking his candidacy on Florida, however, he will have to come to grips with an issue foremost on Republican voters’ minds there: immigration. But his campaign is on a collision course between that wedge issue —exploited the way gay marriage was in 2004—and Giuliani’s own immigration résumé.

Giuliani is not just a former New York mayor who has to answer to the GOP for policies that were benevolent to immigrants. Nearly three decades ago, when he was the third most powerful person in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department, he was also its point man on immigration. In the post of associate attorney general, as well as when he was U.S. Attorney in Manhattan in the late ’80s and mayor in the ’90s, he established a pro-immigrant record that goes far beyond his already-documented support of health care and other benefits for illegals. And if that doesn’t play well with Florida primary voters, neither will the time he took a tough stance on immigrants and wound up being rebuked by federal judges—in part for his treatment of Cuban refugees.

The exploitation of immigration as a campaign issue has already shaped the presidential fortunes of three present or onetime frontrunners: John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Giuliani.
McCain’s early national lead disappeared with his prominent link to a Bush-backed immigration bill considered by every other GOP presidential hopeful, including Giuliani, to be too welcoming. Clinton’s slide began when she tried to take both positions on the question of drivers’ licenses for illegals in a primary debate. Giuliani all but abandoned Iowa, meanwhile, where polls indicated that immigration was the highest concern for Republican voters, and where his so-called “sanctuary city” record as mayor was near the top of the list of shifting policy positions that hurt him. Giuliani’s desperate declaration in December that, as mayor, he wanted to deport all 400,000 of the city’s undocumented immigrants but found himself “stuck” with them—a slight variation on his 1994 observation that undocumented immigrants were the kind of people “we want in this city”—became one of the galling contrasts that crippled him in Iowa and diminished his national numbers.

Giuliani has recently taken to trying to inoculate himself against his pro-immigrant past by invoking Reagan (10 times, for example, in the ABC debate right before the New Hampshire vote), the theory being that the grand old hero of the Grand Old Party—also routinely cited for a variety of other reasons by Giuliani’s opponents—might give him some cover. But Rudy himself has contended in recent debates that Reagan was no xenophobe: The president “did straight-out amnesty” and “would be in one” of Mitt Romney’s negative commercials today, Giuliani pointed out.

What Giuliani didn’t say was that, as the Justice Department official who oversaw the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and as a member of a 1981 White House working group on immigration, he helped craft the Gipper’s first-ever amnesty bill, which was passed in 1986 and ultimately legalized three million undocumented immigrants, mostly Mexicans. It’s that law—echoed in many ways by the 2006 bill that Giuliani opposed—that is widely seen as having spurred millions more to come to America in anticipation of future amnesties. Giuliani testified at a 1982 federal trial in Florida over INS detention policies that he was “the singular individual” responsible for immigration issues at the Department of Justice, and that he’d been deeply involved in drafting Reagan’s immigration policy. Giuliani said that it “felt like” he was spending 100 percent of his time on immigration issues. A 1983 New York Times story reported that Giuliani “was active in promoting the administration’s immigration bill last year, which sought to grant amnesty to illegal aliens.”

Giuliani now says: “The first thing is, there should be no amnesty.” His Florida chair is the state’s attorney general, Bill McCollum, who made his name in state politics by leading the fight against the amnesty provisions in the Reagan bill and sponsoring an amendment to block it when he was in the House that lost by a scant seven votes. Shortly after the defeat of the McCollum amendment, Reagan said: “I supported this bill. I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally.” While the Reagan administration, including Giuliani, had argued for years before the bill’s final passage that legalization would lead to a reduction in illegal immigration, a record-breaking 850,000 new undocumented immigrants were said by the INS to have arrived in 1989, attracted by the promise of a repeat of the just-completed Reagan amnesties.

[

Today, Giuliani insists that, if elected, he will end illegal immigration in 18 months to three years through a national ID-card program—which is somewhat ironic, given that Reagan dismissed a similar proposal with a joke at a 1981 cabinet meeting, saying: “Maybe we should just brand all the babies.” The GOP sponsor of that earlier attempt at an ID card—the since-retired Wyoming senator Alan Simpson—tells the Voice that the rejection of the card doomed the rest of the bill, which attempted, principally through employer sanctions, to restrict future illegals. It was Giuliani’s immediate boss, Attorney General William French Smith, who chaired Reagan’s immigration task force and dropped the card from his final proposal. If Giuliani has now seen the light on the ID-card issue, he never mentions how the administration he formerly served in trashed it in the past.


Giuliani’s record also has special resonance for the state of Florida and its unique Republican base, which includes right-leaning Cuban-Americans, given his handling of the infamous Mariel boatlift. When Reagan and Giuliani both took office in 1981, they inherited the problem of what to do with the 125,000 Cubans that Fidel Castro had literally dumped into the country’s lap in the last year of the Carter administration. After Castro’s police fired on Cubans trying to emigrate through the Peruvian embassy in 1980, Castro announced that people who wanted to leave the country could do so, and soon 10,000 people had gathered at the embassy. Embarrassed and angered, Castro began dispatching boats jammed with Cubans and bound for Florida out of the town of Mariel, and then, so he could denounce the departing flood as “scum,” he emptied some of his jails and mental institutions and put thousands of the unwanted on the same boats. The Carter administration had promised to grant resident status to Mariel Cubans (minus the criminals). But Reagan put a temporary stop to that: Instead, the INS categorized the Mariel refugees as “entrants” for more than three years, an uncertain status that deprived them of family unification and other rights.

The INS (under a statute overseen by Associate Attorney General Giuliani at the DOJ) also ordered the deportation of a Cuban refugee who had stowed away on a freighter that arrived in Florida from Argentina in December 1981—the first time that a Cuban had been barred from entering the U.S. since Castro came to power. When another stowaway was flown directly back to Cuba a month later by the Reagan administration, 5,000 Cubans protested in Miami, and one prominent Hispanic columnist proclaimed it “the end of an era.”

Besides implementing White House policies, Giuliani also ran the detention camps where thousands of the Mariel refugees—some criminal and some not—were held. In response to inquiries from the president about why 950 of the Mariel Cubans were still being detained at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas a year and a half after the Reagan administration had taken office, Giuliani wrote a June 6, 1982, memo explaining that the Cubans “have problems that prevent their release into the community.” Since none were criminals, Giuliani listed their problems as: “250 mentally ill and retarded; 400 antisocial; 100 homosexuals; 100 alcoholics or drug users; 100 women, babies, elderly and handicapped.” Why gays (a crime in Castro’s Cuba) or women with babies, among others, had to be detained was not explained. Giuliani was also in charge of the 1,050 Cubans jailed in an Atlanta prison—many of whom were serious criminals, including murderers and rapists. But a federal judge ruled in 1983 that the Justice Department could not hold the aliens indefinitely without establishing on a case-by-case basis that their continued detention was justified—an indictment of Giuliani’s actions. (That decision was ultimately reversed by an appeals court that found the Cubans had no rights.)

In late 1984, Castro and the Reagan administration reached an agreement that permitted the repatriation of the worst of the criminals who had come to America as part of the boatlift. But until then, and throughout the years that Giuliani oversaw Cuban-refugee matters, the Reagan administration had refused to allow up to 23,000 Cubans whose immigration to the U.S. had been approved by Castro. This included 1,500 ex–political prisoners whose entry had been approved by the Carter administration. Over the protests of U.S. officials in Havana who had arranged the transfer of the political prisoners and others who had families in the U.S., Reagan broke off talks with Castro for years.

[

Despite this record, Giuliani has been courting Cuban votes at large Miami rallies recently, emphasizing his decision as mayor to bar Castro from a 50th-anniversary United Nations event. Ironically, his campaign website boasts—as an example of his counterterrorist prosecutions as U.S. Attorney in Manhattan—that he “put an end to the Omega 7 anti-Castro group,” a reference to his 1984 prosecution of the group’s founder, Eduardo Arocena, who killed a Castro attaché to Cuba’s U.N. mission. But Omega 7 has its supporters among the most hardened anti-Castro Cubans in Florida, and was once so influential that Giuliani wound up honoring one of its leaders at a City Hall ceremony in the ’90s.



photo: Richard Levine

In 1981, Giuliani personally appointed Doris Meissner as acting INS commissioner. In an irony that could come back to haunt the former mayor, Bill Clinton also named her to head the agency when he took office in 1993, and she ran it until she retired in 2000. While Meissner remains a respected expert at the Migration Policy Institute, she is so disdained by the Tom Tancredo right—whose support Giuliani is now seeking—that Bill O’Reilly recently branded her “a disaster,” claiming that “her impotence contributed to 9/11.”

Since Meissner had worked in the Carter Justice Department on immigration issues, “Rudy could have gotten rid of me,” she told the Voice, “since my name appeared on the White House list of holdovers.” Instead, “he made me the acting commissioner,” a job she held for almost a year, until a Reagan ally from California was appointed. Then, says Meissner, Giuliani “backed making me executive associate commissioner,” the number-three post in the agency, where she remained until 1986, returning once Clinton was elected. “Rudy was very agreeable,” Meissner recalls. “He signed off on most of what I brought him. Then, when he became mayor, we viewed him as one of the really progressive elected officials in the country on immigration. He couldn’t have been better; he feels it and breathes it. We were always on very good terms. He was the perfect voice for the complexity of the issue.” She says that she has since revised her opinion of Giuliani after realizing that Rudy had only been saying “what worked for him politically at the time” and “is speaking now to a different set of constituents.” It is, she concluded, “as if a different person is talking.”


In fact, as mayor, Giuliani endorsed at least three extensions of Section 245(i) of the immigration code, which allowed hundreds of thousands of illegals to remain in the country for up to three years while they awaited a green card or tried to adjust their status, often by marrying a U.S. citizen. While Giuliani’s Washington lobbying office engaged in low-key advocacy for the first extension in the mid-’90s, he played a more public role in 2000, pushing a Clinton-backed bill called the Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act, which permitted 640,000 illegals to remain in the U.S., and in the third extension—introduced by George Bush shortly after he took office in 2001—which would have protected another 200,000 illegals. A few days after Giuliani took Bush to Ellis Island for a naturalization ceremony on the new president’s first visit to New York, the mayor announced that he was “joining” Bush “in supporting” the third 245(i) extension. The House was poised to approve it on September 11, 2001, but it was withdrawn and modified after the attack, and finally approved in March 2002.

Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney have made sure that Republicans hear about Giuliani’s fight as mayor to keep city employees from informing on illegals to the INS. The mayor had filed suit after two new federal laws in 1996 superseded a city executive order, initially issued by Ed Koch and reaffirmed by Giuliani, that barred city employees from feeding the INS information. As well known as that pro-immigrant action has become, Giuliani’s simultaneous formation of an Immigration Coalition that included such reviled right-wing targets as George Soros and Bianca Jagger has passed unnoticed. Rudy announced their names at yet another Ellis Island ceremony after he was introduced by his director of immigrant affairs, Angelica Tang, who described him as “our nation’s most tenacious champion of immigration and the best friend of the immigrant community.” But when Giuliani announced his campaign-advisory committee on immigration, Tang—who is said to have remained close to him in recent years—was not a member. She was replaced by experts of a decidedly different bent, like Jan Ting, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for the Senate in Delaware, who ran a stridently anti-immigrant campaign in 2006.

[

Giuliani ultimately lost his court battles challenging the 1996 immigration and welfare laws, though he went all the way to the Supreme Court. And even as the case dragged on for years, he proposed spending $12 million in city funds to set up a half-dozen offices to try to naturalize the immigrants expected to lose their benefits as a result of the new federal requirements. All of this proved to be campaign bluster for his 1997 re-election, since the Clinton administration, according to Meissner, simply took no action to enforce the overturning of the city’s executive order, and similar provisions in the welfare-reform act were subsequently changed.

In 1983, while still at the Justice Department, Giuliani also helped create the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which oversees the immigration courts and has been denounced as “alien-friendly” by critics. Giuliani participated in the decision to install William Robie as the agency’s first head and chief immigration judge. Robie was an apolitical career staffer in the DOJ whose 10-year tenure at the helm of EOIR earned him the top award of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. The Robie reign was in sharp contrast to the way that John Ashcroft moved in the Bush years to politicize these same courts, dumping many of the appeals judges in particular, and turning this judicial branch into what Meissner now calls a “rubber stamp” of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the post-9/11 successor to the INS.

Meissner confirmed that Robie, like her, reported to Attorney General Smith “through Rudy” and that Giuliani was their joint “first-line supervisor,” noting that Robie and Giuliani had worked together in the same unit at the Justice Department in the Ford administration. Meissner said that Robie and Giuliani embodied a merit-based civil-service approach to immigration-court appointments. She said the purpose of the 1983 reorganization was to make the courts independent of the INS, so that they were “outside the agency whose decisions they were reviewing”—a change that would inevitably lead to more reversals of the INS’s denials of residency, refugee, or other status to prospective immigrants. A 1984 article in the UCLA Law Review noted that EOIR changes reduced the anti-immigrant “prosecutorial bias of new judges,” and Robie was cited as stating that none of the first four judges appointed had previously worked at the INS, the one-time career path for these appointments.

Giuliani moved on in mid-1983 to become the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. In 1987, the Simpson-sponsored law that Giuliani helped craft went into effect, providing criminal sanctions against employers who harbored or transported illegals, as well as for those who engaged in a repeated “pattern or practice” of hiring them. While cases were brought in Chicago, San Antonio, Houston, and Los Angeles—four of the top INS sites—none were brought while Giuliani was still in charge of the Manhattan office. A Rand/Urban Institute study in 1990 said that INS officials specifically reported that federal prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan” had rejected criminal cases presented to them.” The study attributed this “resistance” by federal prosecutors to the fact that “their calendars are filled with more pressing criminal matters, such as organized crime cases.”


Reagan’s amnesty program, meanwhile, had contained a provision called SAW (Special Agricultural Workers), which conferred resident status on anyone who had worked in agriculture for 90 days during the previous year. While the estimates were that only 250,00 workers would apply for SAW amnesty, more than 1.3 million did, and almost all were routinely approved by the INS. The New York Times reported as early as 1989 that the SAW program was widely described as “one of the most extensive immigration frauds ever perpetrated against the United States government.” Vernon Briggs, a Cornell immigration scholar, says that SAW was “massively abused.”

“Many an urban resident claimed SAW status,” writes analyst David North, who did studies for the Urban Institute and the Ford Foundation on the program and specifically uncovered examples of phony “agricultural workers” in Manhattan. He reported that 888,637 legalization applications under SAW and other amnesty sections of the 1986 law were initially denied by INS investigators, though only 60,020 final denials were approved.

The Rand study found that INS offices in the seven major immigrant cities adopted enforcement priorities and that one, Houston, made “SAW fraud” its top concern. New York did not. North, who has studied SAW more than any other analyst, said he had “no knowledge of any actions taken by Giuliani’s office,” noting that California prosecutors were making cases. “That I know of no Giuliani action does not prove that his office did nothing about it,” North added, though a check of news clips also failed to turn up any cases. The most notorious SAW prosecution at the time occurred in Newark, where a thousand illegals falsely claimed to have worked on a puny 30-acre farm that was charged with selling affidavits affirming their employment for INS submission.

[

In Giuliani’s current attempt to recast himself as tough on immigration issues, he never mentions any prosecutions of immigration fraud or employer violations, which suggests that there were none. Instead, he has referred to his mass detention and interdiction policies against Haitians in the early 1980s, apparently believing that this is the single part of his immigration record that will work well with Republican voters. But it’s a record that he ran from when Newsday first exposed it in the 1989 mayoral campaign, concerned that he might be hurt in liberal New York by charges that his harsh policies brutalized tens of thousands and were blasted by several federal courts. Now Rudy sees the Haitian camps—which a Times editorial said at the time “started to smell like the de
tention of Japanese-Americans in WorldWar II”—as an entree for him into the anti-immigrant heartland. Similar policies against asylum seekers from the right-wing regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala were also reversed by federal judges, though Giuliani the candidate doesn’t talk about them as often.

He also tries to pose as a mayor who routinely referred thousands of illegals arrested on other charges to the INS, complaining that the agency rarely deported any of them. If the INS would have deported all of the illegals in New York City, instead of the 700 to 1,500 it deported each year, Giuliani says, “I would have turned all the people over.” While that statement is wholly inconsistent with his description in 1994 of undocumented aliens as “some of the hardest-working and most productive people in this city,” he did say at a 1995 press conference that he’d “like to see the INS dealing with people who commit crimes,” and his lawyers told reporters in 1999 that the city supplied information on 4,000 illegals a year who pass through city jails, but that only a few hundred of them were deported. But this was more of an occasional public gripe than a recipe for action. The city was sending information on many people who had yet to be convicted of any crime, creating a database so mixed that an already-overwhelmed INS would have had to sort it.

In addition, Doris Meissner says that Giuliani “never complained” to her or her office about the deportation rate, though she has no doubt that “you could think” the INS wasn’t doing enough. “I think I would’ve remembered if he did [say that],” she added. She does recall joining her old friend Rudy at a massive Ellis Island naturalization event that he arranged during his mayoralty and hearing from him that the agency was “not being sufficiently compassionate” about a group of Mexican illegals. That’s quite a contrast with what she now terms his “simplifying, demonizing, and vilifying” of the undocumented.

The cumulative Giuliani record on immigration is virtually unmarketable in this year’s anti-immigrant GOP climate. He has come to embody the contradiction at the core of his party, where the rhetoric of today is at odds with the actual performance of all three of the most recent Republican presidents, from Reagan to the two Bushes. Clinton’s own border-protection and employer-sanction record is arguably better than Reagan’s—or even Bush’s. When Giuliani was overseeing the INS in 1982, Congress added $100 million beyond the agency’s request—a lot of money in those days—to the INS budget, because members of Congress were more interested in restricting illegals than the administration was. Asked about illegal immigration in Texas during the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan said that “the way to solve the problem of undocumented aliens” was “to give them documents.” And his immigration understudy, Rudy Giuliani, even told the Bar Association of the City of New York in 1981: “There is no choice but to legalize these people. To hunt them down, apprehend them, and expel them from the country is impractical, a waste of limited resources, and ultimately destructive to the continuing tradition of America.”

Rudy likes to cite his long and deep involvement with the issue, saying he’s been working at it for 25 years—which is actually a slight understatement. “There’s nobody that cares about immigration and understands the values of it more than I do,” he told The Washington Post. But in what will clearly be the decisive days of his presidential campaign—especially in states like Florida and South Carolina, where the issue polls at the top of voter concerns—he is haunted by his history. He is a loss or two from oblivion, and his better self, from an earlier era, is beating the man he’s become.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

The Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell

A cautionary tale of what happens when you try to make a cult classic before the cult has even seen the film, co-directors Jonny Gillette and Kevin Wheatley’s “futuristic historical documentary” (presented under the long creatively diminished National Lampoon banner) worships at the punk-rock shrine of Alex Cox comedies like Repo Man and Straight to Hell (with apologies to Mr. Cox, since the similarities end there). Two decades after the nuclear apocalypse, in A.D. 2097, a wisecracking heir to the Kennedy clan (Wheatley, sort of like Ryan Reynolds crossed with Jeremy Piven) emerges from underground and proclaims himself Vice King of New America. Along with two humanoid ex–Secret Service robots and a cannibal vixen, the gang road-trips across the country to battle it out with a spawn of Satan, a descendant of Fidel Castro (get it?), and other suit-wearing rogues. As they chase and kill each other in the desert, the cheapest of splatter effects and hand-drawn animation ensues. Funnier on paper than in reality, this self-impressed film has the stop-and-go pace of a student driver, taking time out to title-card every character and cutting to folklore historians who serve as clunky narrators to scenes that are written in expository dialogue anyway. A couple of chuckles actually stick, but for post-apocalyptic anarchy and thrills, you’re better off renting Six String Samurai or a Mad Max flick.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Salvador Allende

Beloved by his country’s Marxists, Christians, social democrats, and Fidel Castro—as well as despised by the right-wingers, middle class, and especially Richard Nixon (who reportedly called him an S.O.B. and a bastard)— the controversial Chilean president is ultimately painted sympathetically, and quite convincingly so, in this artful 2004 doc from Patricio Guzmán (The Battle of Chile). Richer than a mere posthumous portrait, the film is a wistful testimony to a faded political ideal, eulogized by Allende’s surviving friends, family, and loyalists, and Guzmán’s own soft-spoken narration. “How was he both revolutionary and democrat?” asks the director, citing many of the ways that Allende’s not-that-radical blend of socialism succeeded—including the nationalization of big business, the redistribution of land, and the vast reformation of Chile’s welfare system. Via old photos and archival footage, some of it shot by Guzmán decades prior, El Chico’s charisma comes through, no more so than when his 1972 U.N. speech about the dangerous rise of multinationals earned him a standing ovation. Humanizing though it may be—friends reflect on his humor and love of chicken casseroles—the film sidesteps much of the criticism against Allende in his late career (that he mishandled the economy and tended toward the autocratic, for starters). But Edward Korry, the former U.S. ambassador to Chile who talks about the Nixon-plotted conspiracies against Allende, only helps to martyr him more. (Salvador Allende is screening as part of Anthology’s series, “An Urgent Cinema: Classic & Radical Latin American Cinema.”)

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events

The Waiting Game

Two bodyguards circle in the background as Fidel Castro, pale as death and wearing a red tracksuit, emphatically points and pontificates in the video Honorary Guest. Filmed inside the gallery the day after this rambunctious show of contemporary Cuban art was installed, the video depicts artist and curator Glexis Novoa discussing the various works with El Presidente (played by Asael Rosales). This doppelgänger of time and place captures the show’s essential question: How do you make art under a regime that places capricious strictures on art-making? The more than 80 Cuban artists presented here find an array of solutions, running from the humorous—Alain Pino’s large photos, hung from the ceiling like revolutionary banners, of women and youths in Castro–esque beards made of shaving cream—to Henry Eric’s poignant, if macabre, installation recounting the construction of funerary urns for the dead loved ones of families unable to afford customary rites. Walls of ephemera document decades of performance and conceptual art—photos of artists playing baseball, dirty jeans from dances (the Beatles’ music was once banned on the island), and pictures of artist Angel Delgado defecating on the national newspaper, a stunt that earned him a six-month prison sentence. Alexandre Arrechea’s two-channel video White Corner delves into racism, as the dark-skinned performer stalks himself with bat and machete. Alongside the sculpture and paintings are drawings made with menstrual blood and crushed insects, plus a calendar of the years since the 1959 revolution, which depicts Castro’s face slowly fading away. Like Cuba itself, this bountiful exhibit lives in the shadow of the Fidel deathwatch.

Radclife Bailey

Blue lights cast an eerie glow over an undulating heap of bowed, wooden slats that cover most of the gallery floor. Gradually, these gently curved pieces, some as long as your arm, reveal their former function: white and black piano keys. An African sculpture juts from the tangle, anchoring one end of this splintery ocean; a model sailing ship, covered in black glitter, rides atop the jagged tempest. Bailey’s arresting juxtapositions strike an elegiac chord, with the dismembered keyboard evoking the vicious trade in African ivory even as the overall form conjures thoughts of the Middle Passage. Jack Shainman, 513 W 20th, 212-645-1701. Through June 29.

John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres

There’s a genuine emotional carriage to these collaborative wall sculptures, which depict people that Ahearn and Torres met while executing murals in Brazil. The life-size figures were cast in fiberglass, and careful application of enamel paint powerfully evokes individual characteristics. Senhor Antonio‘s mottled gray beard and deeply lined mouth edges toward a smile, one tempered by the experience of long life. Marlon and the Dancer (2005–07) offers a boy who appears flummoxed by his curvaceous, scantily clad partner, while her faraway eyes imply thoughts quite distant from the youth in her arms. Alexander and Bonin, 132 Tenth Avenue, 212-367-7474. Through June 30.

‘Selection Box’

This smartly curated and wittily installed group show begins in the main gallery with Bruno Peinado’s Air Jordan Magic Tree Mercedes Fame Dreamcatcher—a slab of aluminum cut into corporate logos and festooned with colorful, fuzzy tassels—and finishes in the rear space with Virginie Barré’s The Dreamers, three body-size and -shaped white zipper bags suspended from the ceiling. Elsewhere, Joshua Stern’s silver print of figures constructed from wooden dowels—who inhabit a shadowy, Vermeer-style room of leaded windows and tile floors—speaks to an actual, half-round window frame with peeling paint, doily curtains, and a tiny Jesus figurine, by Gerard Williams. Other conversations among various works involve food and plants, but it’s Peinado’s second wall-hung aluminum piece that has the last word. This coffin-size box, finished in black automobile paint and misshapen by a hellacious dent, sports the apt title Flat Black California Custom Game Over. Parker’s Box, 193 Grand Street, Brooklyn, 718-388-2882. Through June 25.

‘Daniel Lopez’

Cribbing its title from a pseudonym that the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet used to hide his thievery, this lively show of Chilean artists pushes a number of emotional buttons. The four heads of a uniformed junta painted on the wall have been replaced with convex security mirrors that reflect your every move; elsewhere, an embalmed white rat has been stretched over a microphone, perhaps a metaphor about insidious propaganda, but undoubtedly a hilariously creepy sculpture. And Iván Navarro’s video, Homeless lamp, the juice sucker (2005) must not be missed. A guitar strums and a sad song in Spanish commences as two young men trudge through Chelsea pushing a shopping cart fabricated from fluorescent tubes. They scrape weeds away from the bases of street lamps, unscrew access plates, and jury-rig outlets to light up their “homeless lamp.” The lovely melody continues as one subtitled phrase—”Emiliano Zapata once shouted/’I want land and freedom!’/and the government laughed/as they buried him”—scrolls across a shot of the glowing cart in front of steel security gates and dumpsters; expensive cars and designer stores provide visual dissonance. Still, the cart itself sits in the gallery, a truly odd and beautiful object, reminding us that art, whatever else it may be, is the ultimate luxury good. Oh well. White Box, 525 W 26th, 212-714-2347. Through June 30.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Living Media MUSIC ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Orange Revolution’s Message

After the fraudulent November 2004 election in Ukraine, a mass democratic protest electrified the world and, in a second election, made Viktor Yushchenko—still recovering from being poisoned, allegedly after a secret dinner with the Ukrainian secret police—president of an independent Ukraine. Recently, Yushchenko said that the Orange Revolution—as it came to be called (see Andrew Wilson’s Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Yale University Press)—”proved that individual yearnings for freedom are universal and that abuse of public trust can be overcome anywhere.”

From November 29 to December 3, 2005, Congressman Linco ln Diaz-Balart (Republican of Florida) visited Ukraine to—as he says—”begin the process through which our south Florida community will offer assistance to the victims of the nuclear tragedy of Chernobyl in 1986 and other effects of the ecological destruction caused by the communists during their decades in power.”

Meeting with President Yushchenko, the congressman gave him a message from a Cuban physician, Oscar Elías Biscet (see my column “Castro’s Black Prisoner,” June 15–21, 2005). Diaz-Balart told Yushchenko:

“This Cuban physician was not able to give me his message personally because he is a political prisoner who at this moment suffers in solitary confinement in a cold, damp underground dungeon simply for believing in democracy and human rights. I received his message from his wife, Ms. Elsa Morejón. Dr. Biscet sends you and all of your colleagues of the Orange Revolution, for freedom and democracy in Ukraine, a message of friendship and solidarity.

He also expresses his deep gratitude, on behalf of all the political prisoners in Cuba, for your vote and your support at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva for human rights in Cuba.”

As Diaz-Balart gave this message to Yushchenko, Sylvia Iriondo, head of the Cuban American human rights group Mothers and Women Against Repression, presented the president of Ukraine with a photograph of Biscet and three other Cuban political prisoners (René Gómez Manzano, Jorge Luis García Pérez, and Normando Hernández).

“Thank you,” said the leader of the Orange Revolution. “I will never forget this message, this gesture of friendship. I will never forget the Cuban political prisoners.”

Meanwhile, as Castro’s mounting crimes against Cubans’ yearnings for freedom are seldom reported in the American media—except for Meghan Clyne in The New York Sun and Mary Anastasia O’Grady in The Wall Street Journal—Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights) reported on December 7:

“Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet is seriously ill and suffering from chronic gastritis and hypertension. The conditions in which he is serving his 25-year prison term—imposed after an unfair trial in 2003 for his nonviolent advocacy of human rights—are deteriorating.

Throughout much of his time in prison, Dr. Biscet has been held in substandard punishment cells, often in solitary confinement or with violent criminals. For long periods of time, he has been deprived of any outside communication, visits or vital medications sent by his family. He is currently being held in a windowless cell which lacks adequate water and from which he is infrequently taken outside.”

Dr. Biscet, a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr., has been especially tormented by Fidel Castro—who knows who this prisoner is and where he is—because Biscet refuses to wear the usual prison uniform. He has also protested the vicious treatment of other prisoners.

Castro, while not sensitive to the sufferings of his prisoners of conscience (as Amnesty International designated them), is, however, sensitive to criticism of his brutality from abroad, especially from his supporters in the European Union. Accordingly, 15 severely ill prisoners have been released on medical parole after international protests on their behalf.

Therefore, Human Rights First—which calls for Castro “to unconditionally release all those imprisoned on the basis of the peaceful expression of their beliefs and for their nonviolent promotion of human rights and democracy”—urges you to send a message on behalf of Biscet to:

Dr. Fidel Castro Ruz

Presidente de los Consejos de

Estados y de Ministros

La Habana, Cuba.

This is an excerpt from the sample letter (which you can get from Human Rights First, 333 Seventh Avenue, 13th floor, New York, NY 10001, Attention: Elena Steiger):

“The Cuban government is obligated by the 1998 UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders—
a document that Cuba was active in drafting [emphasis added]—to protect the rights of all individuals to freely share information about human rights and advance fundamental freedoms. . . . I strongly urge the Cuban government to unconditionally release Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet. . . . Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.”

Meanwhile, as reported in the December 17 issue of The Economist, “this year, at the urging of Spain’s Socialist government, the European Union dropped the mild diplomatic sanctions it slapped on Cuba after the [2003] roundup of dissidents.

“An Ibero-American summit in Spain condemned the American embargo [on Cuba] but said nothing about Cuba’s lack of political freedom.” (Emphasis added.)

I too oppose the American embargo because it provides Castro a rationale for oppressing dissenters as he uses the U.S.’s hostility toward him. And I also oppose the cold and cruel Bush administration restrictions on Cubans here visiting their families in Cuba.

You can also say this, if you agree, in your letters to Castro while you remind him that you and many others around the world—socialists, libertarian conservatives, and plain believers in human decency—ask the presidente to act in the very name and spirit of human decency to release Biscet and the other nonviolent prisoners of conscience. Thereby we can all join Viktor Yushchenko in his message to Fidel Castro.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Living Media MUSIC ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Castro’s Black Prisoner

Congressman Charles Rangel—a frequent, forthright defender of civil liberties on national television—has long been a paladin of black political and human rights in this country. He also worked to help remove South Africa’s apartheid government, and he has been arrested at the Sudanese embassy in Washington for protesting the continuing genocide in Darfur.

Because of his record, I was surprised when—as nonviolent Cubans had the courage to gather in Havana on May 20 for the first public mass meeting for their freedom during Castro’s 46-year dictatorship—Rangel was among the only 22 members of the House of Representatives who voted against a resolution (392 in favor) supporting this “historic meeting.”

Then, as noted in last week’s column, Rangel attacked American politicians who “refuse to give the [Castro] government the respect that it deserves.” And he dismissed the Cubans defying the dictator—who, in 2003, locked up for long sentences more than 70 dissenters.

Said Rangel: “I don’t think it helps to be supporting insurgents overthrowing the [Castro] government.”

In view of this strange position for a passionate opponent of repressive governments, I asked several people who know Rangel if they could explain it. They were as surprised as I was, and couldn’t.

But since Rangel also recommended reaching out to Fidel rather than “isolating” the people of Cuba, I have a suggestion as to how he himself can do just that. Surely Fidel would welcome this supportive, highly visible, anti-Bush-administration congressman if Charles Rangel were to go to Cuba to ask about one of the dissidents whom Amnesty International designates “a prisoner of conscience”—and who was named president of honor at the May 20 meeting of the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Havana.

In its March 18, 2005 report on these prisoners, Amnesty cites “Oscar Elías Biscet González, 43. Sentence: 25 years . . . Prison: Combinado del Este Prison, Havana.”

This is not the first time Dr. Biscet, a black physician, has been put away. When he was on the outside, as head of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, Biscet was locked up for three years for “disrespecting patriotic symbols.” At a news conference, this follower of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Dalai Lama committed the disgraceful crime of hanging a Cuban flag upside down. What sentence would Charles Rangel have given him?

Then in 2002, as Mary Anastasia O’Grady—a valuable chronicler of human rights abuses in Latin America—reported in the May 6, 2005, Wall Street Journal:

“Dr. Biscet’s plan to create small groups meeting in private homes to promote human rights landed him in jail again and he received a 25-year sentence.”

She noted that the website free-biscet.org reported that since Biscet was put away, “he has staged protests against Cuba’s violation of human rights at the prison with acts of civil disobedience, such as fasting and holding prayer services.”

During one of those acts of civil disobedience—his wife, Elsa Morejón Hernández, says—Dr. Biscet was among the prisoners who shouted, “Down with the Castro-Communist dictatorship.” Like civil rights fighters in the United States and South Africa, Dr. Biscet has refused to cower in his cell, and at times that’s been one of Castro’s “punishment cells.”

In these windowless three-foot-wide underground rectangular cells, the toilet is a hole in the floor; there is no access to light and no water, except that provided by the guard at his considerably less than compassionate discretion. As a political prisoner, moreover, Dr. Biscet often is forced to share his cell with nonpolitical inmates, some of whom have committed violent crimes.

Last year, according to an article on free-biscet.org, he was deprived of food rations for periods of time. “The family found Dr. Biscet’s high blood pressure under control [he also has severe digestive disorders] but found him very thin, having lost around 60 pounds of body weight since his incarceration in Prison Kilo 8. [He has since been transferred to the Havana cell named above by Amnesy International.] His teeth are totally deteriorated due to the dire prison conditions he has suffered . . . and lack of medical attention which he refuses to accept because he distrusts the intentions of the military medical personnel at the prison.”

Himself a doctor, Biscet is aware that the priority of military doctors at a prison is not the state of the patients but the commands they receive from their political superiors.

For example, consider the medical care of the American detainees, as reported in “The Abu Ghraib Scandal You Don’t Know” by Adam Zagorin in Time magazine (February 14, 2005): “[T]he medical system at the prison became an instrument of abuse, by design and by neglect.”

Dr. Biscet finds ways to send messages from his cell, among them “My conscience and my spirit are well.” As Mary Anastasia O’Grady writes, “Perhaps his worst transgression is his courage, which makes him a dangerous inspiration to the many Cubans that are now organizing in small groups [throughout the country].”

Charles Rangel could be an inspiration to prisoners of conscience not only in Cuba but in other nations—and to the “ghost prisoners” whose names we do not know, and who are held in secret locations around the world by the CIA—if he went to Havana and spoke to Fidel Castro about Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet.

Fidel is an imposing presence, but so is Charles Rangel. In reaching out to Castro, the congressman could ask to see Dr. Biscet. In that small cell, Charles Rangel could provide this unbreakable black prisoner with reminiscences of another man of conscience and courage—Dr. Martin Luther King.

But now, New York City councilman Charles Barron—who once feted Zimbabwe’s brutal dictator, Robert Mugabe, at City Hall—says of Castro (The New York Sun, May 26): “He is a true champion of human rights wordwide.” What world is Barron living in?