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While tapes of the 81 year old Gore Vidal’s interviews with Cuban reporters played on Cuban TV, he had a private lunch with a retired Cuban diplomat and his wife, which offered Vidal some insight into the revolution.
“When I was five years old, my father would give me messages to take to comrades. The police wouldn’t bother a little kid, of course. So, you see, I grew up as a communist although I had no idea what it meant.” He laughed. Vidal nodded with a smile.
Then, at age 13, the Batista police caught him. He played ignorant, so they tortured him – beat him badly. He smiled as he told the story. “You see, I was always a revolutionary, even though I had little idea of what messages I was carrying. When you live under a repressive regime, you become a natural conspirator.”
His wife commented on how she spent her eight years in New York while her husband was stationed there as part of Cuba’s UN Mission.
“It wasn’t easy adapting with two kids to life first in Manhattan and then in Queens.”
Vidal soaked in their conversation and asked questions to draw them out.
The diplomat’s wife, a teacher, talked about how in the mid 1980s she had been called to Angola to teach the Cuban troops, how difficult life was and how honored she felt to be able to serve on “such a noble mission.” Her husband nodded. “If the Cuban and Angolan forces hadn’t intervened,” he added, “who knows what would have happened with South Africa, Angola and Namibia.”
He referred both to the initial Cuban military intervention in Angola in 1975, when Cuban forces stopped the CIA-backed counterrevolutionaries invading from the east and the South African forces from the South.
I had a flashback to March 1977, when Castro gave a detailed account to CBS correspondent Bill Moyers (who was filming a documentary on the CIA and Cuba) of how he and the other government leaders had decided to heed Angolan Prime Minister Agosthino Neto’s plea to intervene and save the former Portuguese colony’s newly won independence.
With a map (which said US Department of Defense), Fidel showed Moyers where Holden Roberto’s CIA-backed forces had moved and where the South African and mercenary army were heading. “Neto telephoned me and asked for military help. I conferred with my comrades on the Politburo and all agreed we should do it if possible. I also called (Prime Minister) Michael Manley in Jamaica, who also supported the move and offered Jamaica as a landing place. But that would not help us. Jamaica is very close to Cuba. Then, with Manley’s support, I called Forbes Burnham (PM of Guyana) and he offered us landing rights.”
Fidel scoffed at the notion – promoted by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — that the Soviets had dictated the Angola intervention. “As our troops left on the refitted commercial planes for Luanda, my brother Raul took off for Moscow to inform the Soviets and ask for their help in providing military equipment.”
The Cuban troops stopped both invasions. Angola celebrated her independence in November 1975 and then got bogged down in a bloody civil war against UNITA, led by Jonas Savimba and financed by the CIA. The crucial battles, however, took place in 1987-88 at Cuito Cuanavale, in southern Angola.
The former diplomat evinced pride in the way Cuban and Angolan forces delivered devastating losses to the apartheid South African army.
Vidal agreed that these battles and not the supposedly brilliant diplomacy of State Department Africa specialist Chester Crocker convinced South Africa to abandon the strategy of maintaining puppet governments in her surrounding states. The military losses were too great. So, Namibia became independent, Angolan sovereignty was sustained and Nelson Mandela emerged from prison to become President. At his inaugural in May 1994, he whispered audibly in Fidel’s ear so that the TV microphones picked it up: “You made this possible.”
This glorious past in which Cubans changed the history of southern Africa had faded quickly after the fall of the Soviet Union. Mandela noted Cuba’s role in changing South Africa’s destiny. The fall of the Soviet Union changed Cuba’s trajectory.
It not only made overseas military expeditions virtually impossible, since the Soviets provided Cuba with significant help for such successful overseas operations, but it cut off the free oil and billions of dollars worth of other aid. Cuba’s foreign trade, mostly with the USSR and the Eastern bloc, spiraled downward.
The Cubans at the lunch table sighed nostalgically. They had lived fifteen years under the “special period,” during which the heady days of the revolution had turned into prolonged hard times. Lengthy blackouts occurred, during the mid summer heat so that not even electric fans could circulate the air. Added to this the state drastically cut down on what had been a guaranteed food supply. Cubans spent hours each day without running water. Rafters by the tens of thousands hit the water to seek better times in Florida.
Most Cubans toughed it out and gradually began to experience better times. But US policies that had from 1959 on aimed at destroying the revolution, intensified under George W. Bush’s two terms. Cuban leaders responded as always by taking whatever measures they thought necessary to deflect US hostility. As the revolution neared its 48th anniversary, and without a very sick Fidel active at the helm, what approach would the leaders take toward the colossus of the north?
In the evening of December 13, Gore Vidal, the former Senators, Jean Stein, Dennis Herrera, City Attorney of San Francisco, his assistants, Matt Tyrnauer from Vanity Fair, myself and the others met with Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque.
He told the group that Cuba wants to talk to the United States. The only condition: respect for Cuban sovereignty. In the course of the hour-long meeting it became obvious that Cuba had little to offer – other than total surrender. It could not offer to remove the embargo or travel ban from the United States, nor relinquish its naval base from US territory. The final meeting took place with a US diplomat. After a few minutes of small talk John Burton asked, “What did Cuba do to the United States?” Burton had previously talked about how China had killed thousands of US troops in the Korean War as had Vietnam in their war. Both of those countries were ruled by Communist Parties. “Christ,” Burton said. “Saudi Arabia doesn’t even have one party and they don’t let women drive.”
The diplomat fudged, claimed that Cuba’s problems came from its own conditions and were not the result of US policies.Burton repeated: “What did Cuba do to us?”
The diplomat continued to talk around the question, referring to Cuba’s poor human rights record.
Burton stood. “You’re not going to answer my question,” he snapped. “So, I’m leaving.” He nodded to Vidal and the others and walked out.
“He’s my kind of politician,” Vidal later remarked. “Alas, termed out of office!” He referred to California law that limits legislative office holding to three terms.
At the airport prior to departure for Cancun, one of the Cubans who had worked with the group nodded appreciatively toward Gore. “Why don’t people like Mr. Vidal get elected to office in your country?” he asked.
“Unfortunately,” I joked, “the American voters would probably consider him overqualified.”
Not getting my barb, he continued: “He has wisdom, something that seems so lacking in your political leaders.”
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.