Carlos Eire: “Castro’s literacy campaign and authoritarianism go hand in hand”

Bernie Sanders has taken some heat for praising the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s literacy program.

Watch:

Carlos Eire, author of one of the best books I have read in the last decade, Waiting for Snow in Havana, is a Yale historian and native of Castro’s Cuba. He brings some historical context to Sanders’s praise of Castro’s literacy program in a recent piece at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

Unfazed by the howls of indignation — honest or feigned — over his recent praise of communist Cuba, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has reaffirmed his admiration for the Castro regime’s social policies over the past few days. He has done so while simultaneously insisting that he’s “very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba.”

But can the achievements of any monstrous regime ever be praised? Is it really possible to separate the cruelty of any dictatorship from any of its policies? In the case of communist Cuba, a further question arises: Is it possible to believe any of the claims it makes for its own achievements, given that it generates its own statistics and promotes its own version of history?

One has to wonder how accurate the Sanders version of Fidel Castro’s literacy campaign really is — whether it truly was an unalloyed success, good and noble enough to justify the firing squads, torture chambers, gulags and other disagreeable inconveniences that were inseparable from it. And anyone who would care to do some fact-checking, as did The Post’s Glenn Kessler a few years ago, will quickly discover that the Sanders version of Cuban history is far from accurate.

First, consider the issue of literacy in Cuba before Castro came along. Was pre-Castro Cuba a nation of illiterates, and Castro’s literacy campaign as great an accomplishment as Sanders avers? Not at all. A Cuban census from 1953 found that 77.9 percent of the island’s total population was already literate, and that in urban areas the literacy rate was 88.9 percent: among the highest in Latin America and higher than in some benighted rural counties in the United States. Seven years later, in 1960, according to data compiled at Oxford University, the literacy rate for the entire island was 79 percent.

So the scope of Castro’s 1961 literacy campaign, much admired by Sanders, is more myth than reality. Moreover, the image of pre-Castro Cuba as a primitive society rescued from poverty and illiteracy by a so-called revolution is a deceitful caricature, one brilliantly conceived by the Castro regime to make its brutality seem less offensive — merely “authoritarian” rather than monstrous.

Read the entire piece here.

What a Historian Does During Vacation

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Ezra Fitz

With the first leg of the Believe Me book tour behind me, I decided to spend a few weeks in August (including an Outer Banks ,NC vacation), relaxing and consuming things that I do not usually consume during the rest of the year:

I read Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.  Anyone familiar with Dreher’s The Benedict Option should read this book as well.  Dreher’s memoir about his sister and his Louisiana hometown made me think differently about The Benedict Option.

I read Carlos Eire’s moving memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy.   This book will be with me for a long time.  Eire, a Yale religion professor, tells the story of his Cuban childhood in the years before and after the revolution.

I read Hannah’s Son, Stanley Hauerwas’s “theological memoir.”  Hauerwas, the man who Time once called the “America’s Best Theologian,” writes about his upbringing in the Texas working-class, his close relationship with his son, his experience with a mentally-ill wife, his engagement with the world of academia, his spiritual journey, and, of course, his theological views.

I went back and reread Huxley’s Brave New World.  Many are reading this book again in the age of Trump.  The comparisons between the World State and Trump’s America are a bit of a stretch, but Huxley’s points about the differences between building a society based on “truth” and “beauty,” and building a society based on “happiness” and “comfort,” are always worth thinking about.

I learned a lot about Dominican culture from reading Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  I don’t understand Spanglish very well, and had to look-up the meaning of some of the words, but overall it was worth my time.  There are some great New Jersey scenes in the novel.

My daughters sucked me into binge-watching the ABC Family drama Pretty Little Liars.  Don’t judge me!  My favorite line of the show came in Season 7 when Aria Montgomery asks her fiance, a novelist named Ezra Fitz, to remove a dead body from the trunk of her car.  Fitz tells Aria that they “need to deal with the problem in your trunk.”  Aria asks, “how?”  Fitz replies: “I have a master’s degree in American literature.  There’s nothing I can’t handle.”

Bring on the new academic year!

Think For Yourself

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Fifteen Ivy League scholars have published a letter encouraging young people from the class of 2021 to think for themselves.  The letter appears on the website of Princeton University James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Signers include Yale historian Carlos Eire, Princeton political scientist Robert George, Princeton humanities professor Joshua Katz, and Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon.

Here it is:

We are scholars and teachers at Princeton, Harvard, and Yale who have some thoughts to share and advice to offer students who are headed off to colleges around the country. Our advice can be distilled to three words:

Think for yourself.

Now, that might sound easy. But you will find—as you may have discovered already in high school—that thinking for yourself can be a challenge. It always demands self-discipline and these days can require courage.

In today’s climate, it’s all-too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture. The danger any student—or faculty member—faces today is falling into the vice of conformism, yielding to groupthink.

At many colleges and universities what John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of public opinion” does more than merely discourage students from dissenting from prevailing views on moral, political, and other types of questions. It leads them to suppose that dominant views are so obviously correct that only a bigot or a crank could question them.

Since no one wants to be, or be thought of as, a bigot or a crank, the easy, lazy way to proceed is simply by falling into line with campus orthodoxies.

Don’t do that. Think for yourself.

Thinking for yourself means questioning dominant ideas even when others insist on their being treated as unquestionable. It means deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions—including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize and against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.

The love of truth and the desire to attain it should motivate you to think for yourself. The central point of a college education is to seek truth and to learn the skills and acquire the virtues necessary to be a lifelong truth-seeker. Open-mindedness, critical thinking, and debate are essential to discovering the truth. Moreover, they are our best antidotes to bigotry. 

Merriam-Webster’s first definition of the word “bigot” is a person “who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.” The only people who need fear open-minded inquiry and robust debate are the actual bigots, including those on campuses or in the broader society who seek to protect the hegemony of their opinions by claiming that to question those opinions is itself bigotry.

So don’t be tyrannized by public opinion. Don’t get trapped in an echo chamber. Whether you in the end reject or embrace a view, make sure you decide where you stand by critically assessing the arguments for the competing positions.

Think for yourself.

Conor Friedersdorf has some context at The Atlantic.

Carlos Eire on Pope Francis in Cuba

Carlos Eire is the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University and a scholar of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic (Counter) Reformation. He is also a Cuban-American.  

Eire is an excellent religious historian, but is perhaps known best for his memoirs chronicling his experience as an eleven-year-old boy who in the early 1960s fled to the United States without his parents as part of Operation Pedro Pan.  His 2003 memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy won the National Book Award. He followed that in 2010 with Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy.

Last week Eire turned to First Things magazine to criticize Pope Francis’s failure to speak truth to power during his visit to Cuba.  It is a stinging critique.  Here is a small taste:

We should cheer any time a pope mingles with sinners. It’s what Jesus did, and what his vicar on earth is supposed to do, too. Sin and evil need to be confronted, not ignored, and those who are unjust should be urged to repent and mend their ways. Unfortunately, there is little to cheer about when it comes to the mingling Pope Francis did with the Castro brothers in Cuba, and with other heads of state in Latin America who praise and emulate their dictatorship. Pope Francis seems much too comfortable with Latin American dictators and with their symbols of repression.

A few months ago, when he visited Ecuador and Bolivia, Pope Francis mingled with presidents Rafael Correa and Evo Morales, avowed disciples of Fidel and Raul Castro with tyrannical tendencies, but he refrained from speaking about their human rights abuses. He also received a blasphemous hammer-and-sickle crucifix from Evo Morales and accepted this gift with a smile. What if that crucifix had been in the shape of a swastika rather than a hammer and sickle?

That incident was a portent of things to come in Cuba, where Pope Francis has smiled his way through meetings with blood-soaked tyrants and failed to speak out about human rights abuses on the island, or to challenge the cruelty of his hosts. Pope Francis also failed to meet with any of Cuba’s non-violent dissidents, despite their urgent pleas for an encounter. This is not so much the “preferential option for the poor” as the preferential option for oppressors.

Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino explained this approach by saying that the Catholic Church in Cuba had to avoid “partisan politics.” This is the same prince of the Church who has called for the arrest of asylum-seeking dissidents in his churches, and in April of 2012, at Harvard University, ridiculed these persecuted Cubans as “former delinquents” and “people with psychological disturbances” who lacked “any cultural level.” Despite his frequent calls for “reconciliation,” Ortega has referred to Cuban exiles as “gusanos” (worms or maggots), the unchristian epithet that the Castro regime has applied to all its opponents for over half a century.

The papal entourage eventually decided to give in to the dissidents’ pleas for a meeting at the last minute, as an afterthought, but the results were predictably disastrous. When some democracy advocates were suddenly and unexpectedly invited to meet with Pope Francis at the Apostolic Nunciature in Havana all of them were arrested as soon as they left their homes. In addition, many other non-violent dissidents were rounded up or placed under house arrest, to prevent them from attending the pope’s open-air Mass. Meanwhile, the Castro regime sent busloads of its own hand-picked supporters to the papal Mass, to ensure that Pope Francis would have a sufficiently large audience of politically-correct Cubans. Worst of all, the selection process for those who were crammed into those buses was vetted at the parish level by the Cuban Catholic Church, and approved by its bishops.

When four dissidents somehow managed to get close to Pope Francis, despite the efforts of church and state to keep all such Cubans away from him, they were quickly attacked by plain-clothed state security agents and whisked away to prison. Has Pope Francis denounced these injustices, which amount to religious persecution? Has he voiced concern over the compliance of his bishops in this persecution? No. Not a word. His silence is deafening.

Read the whole piece here.  It doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it deserves.