Front Door to Cuba Front Door to Cuban History

A brief excerpt from:
Conversations With Cuba
By C. Peter Ripley

From the foreword by Bob Shacochis

"Are books dangerous?" I asked Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the Cuban Parliament. "Do you think that a book can be a weapon?"

Implicit in the question were years of imprisonment suffered by Cuban writers judged subversive by the state, poets made to eat their own poems, novelists whose work would never be published and read in their homeland.

The year was 1995, my second visit to Cuba, this time as a guest of the American Publishers Association, which had organized the first-ever U.S. book fair on the island. Literary intrigues were heating up. The Cubans maneuvered to block the public display of one of the more blatant anti-Castro books the APA had slipped into its luggage. The U.S. Interests Section in Havana hosted a party for the group to introduce us to a collection of writers whose lives had been made difficult by government harassment, censorship, isolation, and, occasionally, incarceration. Dissident writers were barred from a joint meeting between American authors and members of the Cuban Writers Union, whose president at the time, Abel Prieto, was verbally attacked by human rights activists traveling with our entourage.

"Can a book be a weapon? Alarcón repeated dismissively. "No, I don't think so, unless you hollow out the pages and place a gun or a bomb inside."

It was, any reasonable person would agree, a most disingenuous answer, coming from one of Fidel Castro's inner circle. For Cuban writers, free and independent expression was, and often is, a crime against society, enforced capriciously by the authorities as their mood of siege waxes and wanes.

Mr. Alarcón and the Cuban authorities certainly are aware that books can be dangerous, highly effective weapons in any campaign against ignorance, intolerance, authoritarianism, and repression. Alarcón's duplicity reminds me of a second anecdote, of equally sinister import. When contra rebels, financed by the U.S. government, launched their ugly little war against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the operation inspired an anti-contra demonstration, replete with calls for the end of U.S. involvement in Central America, in downtown Miami. The demonstrators were, for the most part, Anglo activists, and they were set upon by counter-demonstrators, for the most part far-right Cuban Americans, who charged into the crowd, fists swinging in fury. A few days later, a friend of mine spoke with a prominent attorney in Miami's Cuban American community, arguing with her about the violent manner in which her ideological fellow travelers had broken up what was otherwise a peaceful demonstration.

"You and your people don't understand the First Amendment to the Constitution," my friend argued. "People have the right to demonstrate and express themselves freely."

"On the contrary," the lawyer, herself an exile, replied. "We understand it. We just don't agree with it."

To understand freedom and yet to not agree with it is a breathtaking admission, given the magnitude of suffering it engenders, and one that provides valuable insight into the complexity of the ongoing Cuban tragedy and its ever distant resolution. "Necessary rules"-muzzling the opposition, for instance-are, throughout the ideological spectrum of unchecked power, responsible for unnecessary sins: the purges, the violence, the hatred and absolutism that contaminate the righteousness and purity of cause on both sides of the modern Cuban experience.

So goes the story of the twentieth century and its revolutions, especially those decades that encompassed the Cold War. When the left and the right butt heads, common people pay the price with their liberty. When the extreme left and the extreme right butt heads, the common person is devoured. When the bottom rises against the top, the middle is swept away in the flood. When the bottom replaces the top, any genuine movement toward the middle is seized upon as counterrevolutionary. And far too often, the difference between the old masters and the new masters is simply rhetorical, a matter of language, a matter of style.

For a while at least, the Cuban revolution seemed different, seemed to break the mold, seemed to be a victory for the dignity and freedom of the common person-and then it didn't seem that way at all-and on both sides of the Florida Straits, one rule was constant: If you disagree with us, you'd better keep your mouth shut.

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