Archive for January, 2010

the commie who stole christmas

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

I can’t wait until Cuba opens up to historical scholarship.  Do you speak spanish?  Are you enjoying history?  Take some Latin American courses in college (UCSD & SDSU have some great people in this area) and then you can apply to go and maybe someday some archives will be open, and some people will be open, and we can start really discovering what has gone n in Cuba for the last 50 years.

For the state to declare itself “aetheistic” and to remove Christmas as a government sanctioned holiday is one thing.  For the population to submit to these decrees is another.  It reminds me of the story of the Pueblo before their infamous revolt of 1680.  The one succesful revolt of native Americans against the Spanish.  Prior to the revolt of course the Spanish had “outlawed” as best they could native religions and enforced Christianity on the Pueblos.  We know now though that many Pueblos continued to practice their religion underground (figuratively) or melded their own religious beliefs with those being imposed on them.

How do you think the Cubans reacted?  Did they just walk away from their Catholic beliefs or do you suppose they practiced them in secret?  What do you suppose happened to Christmas, and Easter in the day to day life and experience of Cubans?  It will be an interesting story to tell one day for sure.

the man who invented fidel

Monday, January 25th, 2010

So Batista said he was dead.  Rumors persisted and finally a ny times reporter was allowed (by Batista!) to go in to the Sierra Maestra mountains and find Fidel and interview him.  Here is the review of the book about the infamous reporter here by the Washington Post;

Writing about Cuba is not for sissies. Covering this fiercely contested slice of Caribbean real estate has singed the fingers of many, but few have felt the burn as badly as New York Times correspondent Herbert L. Matthews.

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, Matthews was the first in a long succession of reporters bedazzled by the wily Fidel Castro — think of the 2002 televised interview sessions that inspired David Letterman’s “Top Ten Signs Barbara Walters Is In Love With Fidel Castro.” (One of them involved her telling him, “You have led a violent overthrow of my heart.”) But Matthews enjoyed a singular distinction, as he noted to his editor in 1958, “as [the] inventor of Fidel Castro.” Of course, Castro didn’t need Matthews to invent him, though it’s hard to imagine Castro having achieved a more satisfying result without the eager Timesman.

In December 1956, UPI gullibly trumpeted a government report that Castro had been killed; in fact, the 29-year-old leftist rebel leader was hiding out in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Desperate to jumpstart his revolution — and his life — Castro dispatched an emissary to find an A-list messenger.

After a grueling trek, slogging through the near-inpenetrable Sierras, Matthews was told to wait in the wet, chilly, dark woods. It was dawn before Castro, ever mindful of stagecraft, descended from the hills — establishing his standard, media-savvy operating procedure. The result was a heroic portrait that landed on page one of the Times and ran for three days.

Anthony DePalma, another Times reporter, carefully chronicles Matthews’s Cuba story and decades-long career. Cuban history aside, The Man Who Invented Fidel is a cautionary tale about the uses and misuses of the media.

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, the erudite and multilingual Matthews enjoyed an unusual hybrid perch as both editorial writer and news reporter. It was a woeful arrangement for which both sides would pay dearly. But Matthews, an elegant writer and dresser (he was partial to fedoras, gloves and spats), had become the paper’s golden-boy correspondent. It didn’t hurt that he was a favorite of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the paper’s publisher (and grandfather of the current one), or that Sulzberger’s wife, Iphigene, was godmother to Matthews’s son.

Even prior to his stint writing editorials, Matthews’s coverage often took sides: Mussolini’s fascists in Ethiopia and the anti-Franco forces in Spain. Matthews’s failure in covering Cuba stemmed not from his original, flattering Castro interview but from his analysis over the next decade. He never grasped that Castro’s scorching hunger for personal power would quash any democratic reforms. In late 1959, Matthews was still assuring his publisher that Castro intended “to clear the Reds out of the army” and wanted “good relations with the United States.”

The reality was far muddier. In December 1961, UPI reported Castro declaring that “I am a Marxist-Leninist and I shall be to the last days of my life.” In fact, Matthews believed that UPI had gotten the story wrong: In a rambling, five-hour speech, Castro had actually stated that his political ideology had evolved slowly. Nevertheless, the “confession” stuck — and made life for Matthews, who had assured his readers otherwise, a living hell.

Hate mail began to arrive at the Times, some addressed to “Comrade Matthews,” and magazines like Time and Newsweek questioned his judgment. But the most memorable attack came from the young conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr., who headlined his tongue-lashing article in American Legion magazine “I Got My Job Through the New York Times.” (Curiously, UPI’s Francis L. McCarthy, who was responsible for reporting both Castro’s “death” and the mistranslated speech, never received the opprobrium served on Matthews.)

DePalma makes clear that Matthews was not a “useful idiot” in the mode of Walter Duranty, the Times Moscow correspondent who went famously soft on Stalin. Matthews’s sin was that he was incapable of “simply explain[ing] the world,” writes DePalma, and his irrepressible longing “to change it.” Even Castro came to weary of Matthews’s self-appointed role as Cuba expert and meddler. “I am sick and tired of that old man who thinks he is my father,” Castro complained at one point.

DePalma is especially good on the rivalry between Matthews and Ruby Hart Phillips, the Times’s resourceful woman in Havana, though there are a few missteps here: DePalma understates the alliance between Cuba’s Communist Party and the dictator Fulgencio Batista, as well as Castro’s fame prior to Matthews’s notorious interview. (Castro had been a household name in Cuba since his assault on the Moncada military barracks in 1953 and his subsequent trial.) There is also some clumsy diction and repetitions that beg for another round of rewriting and editing.

Most usefully, DePalma’s rendering of the Matthews/Castro/Times triangle is an illuminating meditation on some burning media issues. Few readers will fail to see parallels with a more recent flap concerning the overly credulous Times reporter Judith Miller and her reporting on Saddam Hussein’s supposed doomsday arsenal.

After a decade of painful marginalization, Matthews resigned in 1967 and went off to write books, hoping, like Castro, that history would absolve him. It didn’t. He died in 1977. Some at the Times, like executive editor Turner Catledge, had second thoughts about their treatment of Matthews, writing that “in retrospect I have the haunting thought that Matthews was more sinned against than sinning.” It is an assessment with which DePalma seems to agree.

Kiss 22 – its all so complicated

Friday, January 8th, 2010

The uprising commemorated in the stamp is of course not Hungary, but Berlin, 1953, reduced to a parenthetical reference in this chapter.   Berlin in 1953, Poland and Hungary in 1956 – what was happening?

In Berlin new policies were being implemented driving prices up, taxes up, quotas up and leaving pay the same, or even reduced if quotas not met.  A mass exodus of the professionals to the west (pre-wall remember) was taking place but the policies also led to a massive worker uprising / strike which was crushed under the treads of Soviet tanks.  The number killed, wounded and arrested remains difficult to say but we can say that there certainly were many. 

Remember the little talk we had about diplomacy and language the other day?  When Khrushchev goes to Poland this is the reason he is not recieved by the official party.  When Eisenhower goes on the air to discuss world developments in Suez, diplomacy is the reason (though maybe mistakenly according to my read of Kissinger) that he says nothing of consequence about events in Hungary.

Remember the last elections in Iran?  People in the Iranian government said, and probably still say that all the agitation was caused by the west (by the US).  Obama was very careful in his language to try to show that the US was entirely hands off in the actions of the Iranian people and I think similarly here Eisenhower did not want there to be any semblence of a possibility that someone would believe the Hungarians were being aided by the US lest there be a discrediting of the movement and an excuse for the Soviets to treat the uprising as an international provocation.  Of course it turns out the Soviets needed no such excuse.

It is interesting to note as well that Kissinger points out from the days of the Tsar, to the Soviets to the post Cold-War world Russians have treated bordering states similarly, or at least tried to.  He was writing 15 years ago before the events in Chechnya.

So why did things go differently in Poland than in Hungary? Why did Soviet tanks turn around in Poland and why were leaders executed in Hungary?  How might Eisenhower or the UN played things differently here?  Please remember all of this when we get to “Prague Spring” of 1968 and the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1980.