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.

The Author’s Corner with Gregory Downs

the second american revolutionGregory Downs is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. This interview is based on his new book, The Second American Revolution: The Civil War-Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Second American Revolution?

GD: A gnawing pit in my stomach and a sense of unfinished business and a golden opportunity. The gnawing pit was from a feeling that I hadn’t done what I genuinely intended to in my American Historical Review essay “The Mexicanization of American Politics: The United States’ Transnational Path from Civil War to Stabilization.” I began that research with an interest in the interaction between domestic/national politics and international events, in the way that events in other nations shaped the discourse around what was possible or probable, and I wanted to use this to show U.S. politics as less bounded than our received terms convey, to explore the mutual construction of what gets classed as national and trans-national history, and to capture the ebb and flow of ideas through particular domestic political contexts. In the process of following the inflow of ideas about Mexican crises to U.S. politics in the 1850s-1870s, however, I never got to the truly interactive nature of those connections, and so in some ways reproduced a domestic framework, in which the United States was influenced by cultural ideas about other nations. This made me uncomfortable, as I knew there was a great deal to the Mexican side of the story that I hadn’t explored, and it also gave me a sense of unfinished business: how could I go further in exploring the mid-19th century as a broad crisis in republican theory, in which calculations of how (and whether) republics survived were shaped by ideas and political actors moving from one nation to another. There was much more to be said about the relationship between the United States mid-century crises and those in other countries.

The opportunity came in the Brose Lectures which gave me a format and an excuse to explore ideas that were historiographically important but might not fit easily into a book. And as I began reading and thinking more deeply, I became more impressed with the ways that the literature was already working to incorporate a multi-sided view of the U.S.-Mexican influence (especially in work by Erika Pani and Pat Kelly and others) and also with a thread I had worried over earlier but not followed: the centrality of Cuba. By following Cuban revolutionary exiles, I was able to find a way to follow circuits into and out of different countries’ domestic politics and to explore the connection between the revolutionary remaking of U.S. political structures and a global revolutionary wave that rose and then fell in the mid-19th century.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Second American Revolution?

GD: The Civil War was not merely civil–meaning national–and not merely a war, but instead an international conflict of ideas as well as armies. Its implications transformed the U.S. Constitution and reshaped a world order, as political and economic systems grounded in slavery and empire clashed with the democratic process of republican forms of government.

JF: Why do we need to read The Second American Revolution?

GD: The book examines the breadth of U.S. politics at a moment when we need to recover our sense of the bold and of the possible. Much of the book is dedicated to exploring those international currents I mentioned, and those have important (I believe) historiographical ramifications for U.S. history and potentially some interest for historians of Cuba and the Caribbean and 19th century Spain.) But the book also turns inward to examine the norm-breaking boldness of U.S. Republicans in the 1860s as they created new states, forced constitutional amendments through, marginalized the Supreme Court, and in other ways significantly altered the political system. Then, I argue, they covered their tracks in order to make their achievements seem moderate, and we have helped them do so by scolding them for their moderation. But in fact no political candidate offers solutions anywhere near as bold as “moderate” 1860s Republicans; no one matches John Bingham in threatening to dissolve the Supreme Court entirely if it doesn’t recognize the role it must play. Instead we have fallen into calling for respect for norms that are—as in the 1840s and 1850s—no longer respected. When faced with those norm violations, we tend to call for the referees. But there are no referees, other than the electorate. And to the electorate we make claims about broader failings but can’t offer plausible solutions; we tell them the political system is broken but don’t fix it. I think we need to recover our boldness and abandon our sense of futility. Rethinking the constitutional transgressions of the Civil War is one way we can expand our own political thinking to make it at least approach the boldness of allegedly moderate 1860s Republicans, and thus discover ways out of problems like the contemporary Supreme Court, the Senate, and other sticky but intractable problems of U.S. politics.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

GD: As a child I was raised between Kauai and my extended family’s home of central Kentucky and my extended family’s eventual new home in Middle Tennessee, and I was from a young age fascinated by the differences between those places, by the way that race and politics and memory worked so differently in Kauai than in Kentucky, and by the shadow that events (the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy or the Civil War) continued to gnaw upon the present. I worked as a journalist and as a high school teacher, so I didn’t always know that I would be an academic historian, but I always believed that the study of the past was venerable, difficult, and essential.

JF: What is your next project?

GD: I am working on completing my friend Tony Kaye’s manuscript on Nat Turner, a project he was working on when he died. After that I have many projects I am contemplating and am enjoying the time to reflect on what I most want to do and most feel challenged by.

JF: Thanks, Greg!

What a Historian Does During Vacation

Pitz

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!

The Religious Power of Baseball

Obama Cuba

Sean O’Neil starts his piece on the sacredness of baseball with Barack Obama’s comments in Cuba about the so-called national pastime.

I did not play a lot of baseball as a kid; I was more of a basketball player, but there is something about baseball that is so fundamentally woven into our culture. And in some ways, at a time in our lives where everything is a mile a minute and kids are on their phone all the time and there’s just this constant stream of information, there is nothing like going to a ball park and just everything slowing down a little bit, and the rhythm of the game gives you a sense of appreciation about all the blessings we have. It’s still a family game in a way that is really hard to match.

O’Neil ends his piece by bringing attention to ESPN radio personality  Dan Lebotard’s take on the recent game between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Cuban National Team.  Here is a taste:

When Le Batard watched the video of a Cuban dissident momentarily seize ESPN’s broadcasting platform in Havana to yell against the human-rights abuses of the Castro regime, before being swiftly and forcefully apprehended and pushed into a car, Le Batard felt no ambiguity. Nor could he muster words. He choked on tears and motioned for a commercial break to his radio broadcast.

Sporting events, like civil religion, can provide pluralistic spaces of resiliency in the face of terror. Many claim baseball did that after 9/11. Obama is a believer in that legacy. But the power of sports to produce heightened emotional states of unity, which scholars call “collective effervescence,” can also give it a shared power with religion to occlude injustice in this world, to bury it in cheap, playful sentiment. Sports, like religion, and like the American Dream, will thus continue to be contested symbolic terrain, where the stakes can prove much more complicated than zero-sum games, and the vexed emotional legacies much longer-lasting than nine innings.

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.