Host: Christopher Lydon
(I) What's Coming in Cuba?: A Conversation with Patrick Symmes
Is Cuba, after Fidel Castro, in for a Velvet Revolution? or a civil war? or more of the same?
The marvelous Patrick Symmes, who has a keen ear for Cuba’s own prophets, is haunted by the miserable chants of a woman in Central Cuba who told him, “we’re going to suffer… we’re going to suffer!” But will the suffering come from a settling of scores when Raul Castro, too, is gone? From raw violence along color lines, or between have-nots and have-less? From a homecoming of the children of Miami exiles? From a mad rush to condos and every other kind of money-making development? From drugs, drug-money and guns?
Patrick Symmes hung his remarkable history of the Cuban revolution on a single school picture — and the family stories of about 250 boys who went to prep school with Fidel Castro at the Jesuits’ Colegio de Dolores in the 1940s. The New York Times Book Review listed The Boys from Dolores among the ten best books of 2007.
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(II) Cuba for the Long Run: Adrian Lopez Denis
Adrian Lopez Denis finds it laughable that even the best of the Anglo-American media, The Economist and The New Yorker, made iconic covers of cigar smoke (and crushed cigar butts) when Fidel Castro bowed out of office — a man who quit smoking 40 years ago, in a country that has produced a generation of creative young survivors since the heyday of the 1959 Revolution.
Adrian is a social historian at Brown (Ph.D from UCLA), and the son of a medical doctor in Cuba. He likes to say that only George W. Bush sees the transition in Cuba these days as a turning point of any kind. He sees nothing spectacular coming out of Cuba soon, “no headlines in the next five years,” much less a civil war.
Adrian’s emphasis in our conversations is always on the continuity of informal realities in Cuba: the vitality of the informal economy, the power of family networks and the “transnational households” that keep Havana and Miami connected, and the pleasure-seeking “culture of informality” that overwhelmed the commissars from Eastern Europe. An authoritarian tendency is part of the long Cuban tradition. So, too, is a profound problem of racial suspicion and discrimination, a legacy of slavery that the Revolution only chipped at. So in Adrian’s account of Cuba, nothing is quite what it seems or what any of the slogans suggest. And most of the consequences Cuba deals with are the unintended ones.
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(III) Cuba on our Minds: David Kaiser’s JFK
The journalist and diplomat William Attwood is the exceptional spirit in David Kaiser’s new history of the JFK assassination, The Road to Dallas. Attwood leaps off the page as a man of imagination and mettle who (on a first reading) might have saved the Kennedy brothers and redrafted hemispheric relations.
Out of LOOK magazine and the Adlai Stevenson campaigns in the 1950s, Attwood came into the Kennedy administration as JFK’s ambassador to Guinea in West Africa, with a long-standing free-lance interest in Cuba. In late October, 1963, Attwood was looking for high-level permission to renew a conversation with Fidel Castro in Havana, specifically to pursue indications from Castro that, as Kaiser writes, “if the United States would lift the economic blockade against Castro, he would evict the Soviets from Cuba.”
But nobody in the Kennedy command was interested in anything that sounded like a relaxation of hostilities with Castro after the Bay of Pigs fiasco (April 1961) and the Missile Crisis (October 1962). In the fateful autumn of 1963, McGeorge Bundy in the White House, Robert Kennedy himself and the chiefs at State, Defense and the CIA all “agreed that it would be better for Attwood to return to private life before meeting with Castro.”
A golden opportunity so narrowly missed, as I remark here in conversation with David Kaiser. But Kaiser, the much-praised historian at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I, brings me up short. I’d mistaken a double twist in his book. Kaiser says: “The men who wanted to kill JFK” — notably the Mafia and the fiercest of the anti-Castro Cubans in the U.S. — “would not have been pleased by any attempt to normalize relations with Castro. On the contrary…” JFK might have sealed his fate more certainly by encouraging Bill Attwood’s detente initiative.
In a round of conversations about the obsessive lure of Cuba, this is a historical digression on the eternal question of Who Killed JFK. We seem to be coming closer to the eternal answer, with Cuba at the core.
Our guest David Kaiser argues (to me, persuasively) that Lee Harvey Oswald was the triggerman and fallguy for a diversified conspiracy of men and interests that wanted President Kennedy dead. Oswald was the “who” that killed Kennedy, but the historian’s emphasis after nearly 50 years is on the “what” that killed him. In a story crackling with lethal ironies, the “what” was the convergence of two passionate public campaigns of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The first, by the mob-infected Kennedy brothers, John and Robert, was to crush organized crime in America. The other, initiated by the Eisenhower administration, was to eliminate Fidel Castro and Communism from Cuba, by virtually any means imaginable, including assassination by American mobsters. Oswald, in David Kaiser’s telling, was a multi-purpose assassin who with minor shifts of circumstance might have shot Castro before he ended up shooting Kennedy. But he seems to have been working the mob’s plan on November 22, 1963; and of course it was the mob’s man Jack Ruby who, two days later, shot Oswald in Dallas police custody to shut him up.
It is still a hair-raising tale of a host of men — Richard Helms, Sam Giancana, Jimmy Hoffa, Loran Hall, Carlos Marcello, David Atlee Phillips among the scores — with Cuba and killing on their minds. “Where did these men find the audacity to kill a president of the United States?” Kaiser asks. He believes JFK had compromised his immunity by taking girls from Frank Sinatra and by playing the assassination game against Castro. He argues that RFK lost official immunity by the recklessness of his vendetta against Jimmy Hoffa. “All these men knew that Hoffa’s comment about the attorney general — that Robert Kennedy would not rest until Hoffa was behind bars — was true for them as well. These were desperate times that called for desperate measures?”
Kaiser clarifies the story of a crime, the killing of a king, that — as Olive Stone’s JFK suggested — touched each of us, and the country, with some of Hamlet’s madness.
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(IV) Cuba in Our Ears: Ned Sublette
In his irresistible, virtually danceable history of Cuba and Its Music, Ned Sublette’s grand argument is that Cuba was, and remains, the locus of the “tectonic collision” of the deepest plates of African and European musical expression. And because the traffic in slaves to Cuba was so huge (more than to all the rest of North America) and went on so long (into the 1880s), also because African religion, and drums, were never inhibited in Cuba as they were in the United States, Cuba was the place where the African musical aesthetic put down its strongest roots in the new world. This is the “aesthetic” that Ned Sublette describes in his book, underlying all the Cuban music we’ve heard from the mambo craze to the Buena Vista Social Club and beyond.
Listen to Ned Sublette count the ways in which our music comes from Cuba, and let your ears decide. Jazz drum kits, he says, added hi-hats to simulate Cuban polyrhythms. He makes it clear that Richard Berry’s rock’n'roll classic “Louie Louie” and Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” were straight steals. All rock’n'roll, Ned Sublette likes to say, is derived from the Cuban cha-cha-cha. And then there’s Dizzy Gillespie’s own wondrous account of his historic alliance with Chano Pozo.
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