The New Cuba?

A sign showing Cuban President Raúl Castro, and saying ‘May the earth tremble, compatriots!,’ Havana, Cuba, December 2014

The American novelist and historian Waldo Frank was an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban Revolution. Through three decades of writing about Latin America, he had adapted some of the central themes of the Hebrew prophets to the region that so fascinated him. He came to see Central and South America as a possible new Promised Land where all the American republics could reencounter their political roots in “the democratic Judaeo-Christian vision of the whole man.” In January 1959, when Frank was nearly seventy, he saw the triumph of the Cuban Revolution as the fulfillment of his vision. In the autumn of 1959, the Cuban government, at the behest of Fidel Castro, signed a contract with Frank to write a “biography of Cuba.” Frank would be paid $5,000. The book was entitled Cuba: Prophetic Island.

Frank portrayed what he saw as the rebirth of Cuba under Castro: division of the land, literacy campaigns, the struggle to lower the rate of infant mortality, the opening of formerly private beaches to the general public, the surge in construction of houses, industrial plants, hotels, and farm buildings. And what moved him most of all was the “embrace” between Fidel the redeemer and the Cuban people: “One could feel the sense of possession, as if the island lay really within his arms: the whole island!” For Frank, Fidel was no dictator, he was an artist of power: “Ruthlessly rejecting, selecting, finally shaping it to form.” In the face of so impressive a display of justice and creativity, Frank judged elections to be a “bothersome delay” and freedom of the press “a nuisance.”

But the story of the book ended badly for Waldo Frank. Disturbed by some criticism that he directed at the personal power that Fidel was clearly accumulating, the Cubans refused to publish it.1 When the book finally appeared under the imprint of a small left-wing New York publisher, it was savaged with ferocious reviews from both the political right and left. Isolated and embittered, Waldo Frank died in 1967.2

Frank’s overall vision was similar to that of various generations of young Latin Americans (and many of their older mentors) inspired by the example of the Cuban David defying the Yankee Goliath. Cuba’s formal adoption of communism did not lessen this wide range of support, but it gradually began to diminish as disturbing news came out of the island: the creation of work camps in 1965, Cuba’s falling into line with the Soviet satellite states in supporting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, a repression of critical writers in 1971. An exodus of 125,000 Cubans, most of them very poor, who fled to Miami by sea in 1980, further damaged the reputation of the regime.

But it took a…

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