After 9/11, George Bush began firing fear-loaded spitballs at Congress and the media, which reacted by being frightened. Five years and three months later, Gore Vidal in Havana countered W’s discords of panic with chimes of truth.
On December 12, at the University of Havana, Vidal dismissed “our little President” (“presidentcito,” said the interpreter) and mocked him into proper perspective – the worst and most dangerous president in US history: “I’m a wartime president.” The audience of students and professors laughed at Vidal’s imitation.
Three days before, on the evening of December 9, Culture Vice Minister Ismael Gonzalez and Book Institute President Iroel Sanchez greeted met Vidal at the Jose Marti International Airport. His entourage included former South Dakota Senator James Abourezk (D) and former President of the California Senate, John Burton (D) as well as San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, myself and a small group of Gore’s friends and admirers. The Cuban press quickly grabbed him.
“What brings you to Cuba?” a Prensa Latina reporter inquired.
“I came to Cuba with my broken knee to help break 40 years of embargo.” He had not accepted previous invitations because “I lost one of my knees the last time and I almost sent my knee to you, and it would have been more interesting than myself.”
A few reporters giggled. “But I have an artificial one,” Vidal became serious, “and could come here to see the beginning of the end of colonialism in the Western Hemisphere.”
He told the media that he “worried about the collapse of the Republic. We have lost habeas corpus and the Constitution that we inherited from England 700 years ago. Suddenly, we were robbed of it. The current regime has done it, and the legal bases of our Republic have gone with it, and as I am one of the historians of that Republic, I am not happy.”
How did he see Cuban reality as opposed to what the US government reported? “They never told us why we should hate the Cubans. I think Kennedy and his compatriots were motivated [in their aggressive anti-Castro policies] by vanity.” He said, “My friend John F. Kennedy was running for president,” (1960) and he foolishly allowed the CIA’s Bay of Pigs invasion to take place. “Vanity has played a large role in the relationship,” he added, referring to the terrorist war aged by the brothers Kennedy against Cuba after the April 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco.
Vidal paused and jumped backward in time. “When we invaded Cuba [in 1898] it was only a pretext to start the war against Spain and end up taking the Philippines, as we did in the end.” The Cuban reporters taped and wrote. “I hate to say it,” Vidal continued with a smile, “but you were just a step for the United States to reach Asia, although we always had our eyes on the Caribbean.”
Vidal the historian recalled how after World War II, Harry Truman began to say: “‘the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming.’” At the onset of the Cold War, the Russians having suffered 20 million dead, “there was barely anybody to come. Even so, the decision was made: the only way to rule the country is by terrorizing everybody. Bush is trying it – with some success.”
Vidal explained to Cuban audiences that “We had our first coup d’état following 9/11, and it happened like in no other real country, oh no. Ours is influenced by television, by Hollywood... Now we have a president’s son; his father didn’t know how to talk, and the son has failed at it too. The president’s only job, according to the founding fathers who drafted the Constitution, was to write the State of the Nation address once a year: how much money has come in, how much has been spent, how much was lent.”
Vidal the actor imitated Bush’s smirk: “We’ve got to help the Iraqis with democracy to make the world a safer place.” Vidal the historian advised: “Think about the future when you declare war on someone and make a good estimate of how much it will cost.”
On December 10, Vidal saw history in parts of 16th Century buildings in Habana Vieja, recently restored by architects to look like the original churches and government buildings. That night, he dined with Culture Minister Abel Prieto, a man “who saved culture in this country,” according to a Cuba poet.
Prieto called Vidal “the moral conscience of the United States.” In his mid fifties, with long, Beatles style hair, and wearing jeans and a sport shirt, Prieto has waged a two-decade long struggle with harder liners to give writers maximum freedom to express themselves in films, print and graphic and plastic arts – not on TV, radio or in print news.
Prieto became known throughout Cuba when he challenged Fidel who in a television forum disparaged writers’ and artists’ need to travel. Fidel publicly admitted his error and apologized. In his tenure, the poet-writer as Cabinet Minister has even muted the harsh line between exiles and island artists by accepting exile literature as part of the overall Cuban patrimony.
“Our cultural policy is not decided by the market as happens in so many places, where the people may not know of a great writer or musician of their own country and, however, know perfectly well the intimacies of Michael Jackson.”
Prieto explained that Cuba “cannot design a future for the Cuban where every family has - as seen in the Yankee films - two cars, a pool or a chalet. However, we can guarantee conditions of a decent life and at the same time a rich life in spiritual and cultural terms. It is a conception of culture as a form of growth and personal realization that is related to the quality of life. In this sense, we are convinced that culture can be an antidote against consumerism and against the oft repeated idea that only buying can create happiness in this world. I think that that is our goal.”
Vidal saw little consumerism in Cuba. “It has been reassuring,” Vidal told a Cuban reporter, “to see a country doing things well, as should be, while my country is doing things poorly.” Vidal visited three universities in his short stay: The University of Habana, the University of Information Sciences located at Lourdes, west of Havana on the site where in 2001 the Russians abandoned their only base from which to monitor US compliance with the test ban treaties.
Cuban geeks, professors and students, explained and showed their new higher learning institution to Vidal, who admitted to his ignorance about computers. We then visited the Latin American School of Medicine, where Gore met US and Latin American students – among thousands of foreign scholarship recipients -- receiving free medical education, including text books and uniforms. Vidal and the accompanying politicians left impressed with the school and the idea behind it – educating people to become doctors who otherwise could not afford medical school.
The next day, December 12, a Cuban guide whisked Vidal through the National Fine Arts Museum – it would require a full day to see it all -- and then to the National Ballet School, where the 81-year old master of irony gazed in wonder at the boys and girls exercising discipline over their gloriously conditioned bodies. He then met with Alicia Alonso, founder of Cuba’s ballet company whom he had met in the 1940s – she says she still dances -- when she performed as prima ballerina at the New York City Ballet. Nostalgia turned to celebration at the University of Havana’s Magna Aula auditorium. The Rector honored Vidal with a plaque on the University’s 270th anniversary. I thought he should have received such honors in the United States for the twenty five novels, numerous plays, screen plays and books of essays and history he has contributed to our literary culture. Indeed, he is part of the US national treasure. How ironic – and perhaps just -- for a great historian and man of peace (and irony) to receive respect in Cuba, while the New York Times has ignored or panned his works – or offered them to undeserving reviewers. Irony? The Times did, however, promote Bush’s war by putting reporter Judith Miller’s fantasy stories (Iraqi weapons of mass destruction) on its front page.
Vidal’s latest, Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir (2006), has not yet appeared in Cuba, but Cubans waited for him to autograph Burr, published in Cuba. Vidal addressed students and professors, artists and writers on the theme of US empire overwhelming the Republic. When asked about the US Office of Foreign Assets Control fining of director Oliver Stone $6,322.20 (Stone was filming an HBO documentary “Comandante”), for violating the Cuban embargo in 2002 and 2003 (paying for services in which the Cuban government has an interest), Vidal quipped: “I hope he gives the money to charity instead.” “I’m not afraid of being fined for traveling to Cuba” Vidal declared. Indeed, “I can also sue, we still have courts. I would welcome an opportunity to perhaps file suit against the government.”
“He’s a true patriot,” said the Cuban writer next to me.
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. His FIDEL film is available on DVD. His new book, A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD, with an introduction by Gore Vidal, will be published in February by CounterPunch Press. This interview is the first of two parts.