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Birnbaum v.

Carlos Eire

Our man in Boston talks with memoirist and historian Carlos Eire to discuss Cuba and Operation Peter Pan, when 15,000 children were airlifted away from their parents.

Carlos Eire by Robert Birnbaum

Though Cuba is less than 100 miles from the coast of Florida, it might as well be in the Antarctic for all that Americans know about that “infernal little Cuban republic,” as Theodore Roosevelt called it. A long, bittersweet (mostly bitter) history joins the two North American nations, but it would seem Cuba only rises to yanqui awareness intermittently.

Havana-born Carlos Eire, a Yale scholar, published a memoir of his childhood in Cuba, Waiting for Snow in Havana, in 2003 for which he won a National Book Award. Eire recently completed his personal narrative with the publication of Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy, which details how Operation Peter Pan airlifted him (an 11-year-old boy) and 15,000 other Cuban children to Miami in 1961 without their parents to begin new lives in the United States.

Professor Eire’s story is a gripping one and our conversation explores the specificity of his immigrant experience as well as the broader topics of the failures of the Cuban Revolution, an ill-conceived U.S.-Cuban foreign policy, and a shared appreciation of Cuban culture.

 

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Robert Birnbaum: Where does your last name come from?

Carlos Eire: It’s from northwestern Spain. There is an oral history in my family—which I don’t trust.

RB: Why not?

CE: [It claims] we have an Irish ancestor. And that he came over to northwestern Spain fleeing Cromwell in 1641. It’s also the name for Ireland.

RB: Reversing the conventional view of Spanish-Irish immigration.

CE: That’s a totally false myth.

RB: [laughs]

CE: The Spanish who were shipwrecked on the coast of Ireland from the Armada—most of them were killed. The dark Irish, the black Irish, are really Celtic in origin, as opposed to the red-bearded Irish who came from the Vikings. So that’s the deal. But anyway, there is this oral history that he came from Ireland—which is quite possible because there was a nearby monastery that took in Irish refugees.

RB: How far back is your family Spanish?

CE: Way back.

RB: At what point did the Spanish part of your family come to Cuba?

CE: My father’s family—1820. In the case of my mother’s family—1920. My mother was conceived on the transatlantic voyage—so she is kind of Spanish.

RB: Your father is old country—

CE: And on his mother’s side actually also, late 19th century.

RB: For whom did you write this book? And tell me about the first book.

CE: I didn’t have anyone specific in mind or any group in mind. I just write these things. I think, and I have learned from experience, so many different kinds of people can approach this subject through concentric circles—immigration, Cuba, family history, personal history, or autobiography. You can come at these books from all different angles and walks of life. Even when I wrote the first one, when I had no prior experience to responses from readers, I didn’t write to anyone in particular.

RB: There was no audience that you were visualizing? So you were writing for yourself.

CE: In the case of the first one, I was conscious as I was writing it that I was writing for non-Cubans. To explain pre-Castro Cuba and what happened.

At first I had eyeglasses that no American kids had. So I was easily identified. Large Ray-Ban type frames—the same as Fidel Castro had. As soon as those broke, I got new ones. That was my path to Americanization.RB: I wonder about literature that proposes to tell that story—do you know John Sayles’s novel Los Gusanos?

CE: I started it but never finished it.

RB: Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban?

CE: A beautiful book.

RB: What are the books prior to your book that you feel had done a decent job of explaining Cuba to non-Cubans?

CE: Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Tres Tristes Tigres, translated as Three Trapped Tigers. I think it’s the best.

RB: Really?

CE: The best in capturing the—

RB: How many non-Cubans would have read it?

CE: The thing is there are two translations and neither one—it’s an untranslatable book, that’s the problem. It’s one of the very few books in the Spanish language that actually consciously tries to pun in Spanish. It’s full of allusions to Lewis Carroll and other writers, and then every character in that book speaks with their own Cuban accent. We had several accents, and that part is truly untranslatable. It’s hard for Americans to get access to pre-Castro Cuba through that book.

RB: How about the movie version of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana?

CE: It’s amusing.

RB: [laughs]

CE: The police captain who had a wallet made out of human skin played by Ernie Kovacs—an exaggeration of sorts.

RB: I wonder if that was in the novel or added by the director, Sir Carol Reed?

CE: Probably, probably.

RB: Even recently there was a book called The Havana Habit, by Gustavo Perez Firmat—it’s clear that if you mention Cuba there are always perked-up ears. I am not sure why when you talk to people, that their sense of Cuba still suggests mystery. In the real world that doesn’t play to Cuba’s advantage—Americans have never pressed for a decent and realistic policy towards Cuba, neither before nor after Castro.

CE: It’s the same as any other quote-unquote “small country” elsewhere. There is no interest in the country unless it has something to offer to Americans. Otherwise, it’s just forgotten. One of the very first things I noticed upon arriving in the United States and going to school here is that when I opened my geography and history books, the description of Cuba did not match my knowledge of Cuba. And the same was true of Latin America. They were lumped into one loose category.

RB: Did that spark skepticism about other things you were being taught?

CE: Definitely, definitely. Even as a child of 11 when I first encountered this I said to myself, “There is something wrong with this picture.” Then I realized that the picture had a real-world component, which was the ignorance that I encountered repeatedly.

RB: And racism?

CE: Yeah, there is some element of racism.

RB: You weren’t called a “spic” even though you are blonde?

CE: I was called a spic, yeah. I spoke with an accent for a number of years. I worked hard to get rid of it. At first I had eyeglasses that no American kids had. So I was easily identified. Large Ray-Ban type frames—the same as Fidel Castro had. As soon as those broke, I got new ones. That was my path to Americanization.

RB: [laughs] A disguise.

CE: But I worked hard to get rid of my accent. Kids want to blend in. Kids don’t want to stand out.

RB: I looked at the Simon & Schuster trailer, and you end the description of the book by saying that in a sense it was about immigration, being an immigrant, and how that’s common to the human experience. I find that troubling because it homogenizes the immigrant experience—what’s specific to immigration is that every immigrant is different.

CE: Of course. Even immigrants from the same country have different experiences. But it is possible to extract a kind of universal experience which is what I focus this book on—this one universal constant. Everyone who moves to a different country has to become a different person. Their former self dies—whether they want to or not. And I mean that metaphorically. What actually happens, and what I try to describe in the book, is that you get successive layers of yourself. Your former single self that you thought was a single being becomes more complex as you live in another culture.

RB: Do you have any sense of what your view of being an immigrant might have been had you come here with your parents?

CE: It would have been very different, in that my childhood wouldn’t have ended so abruptly. And it did. The minute I landed in Miami, my childhood ended. I could no longer be assured that some adult was going to take care of me or be nice to me, which is what childhood tends to be all about for the lucky. Of course, it would have been very different, but it wouldn’t have changed many of the basics. My home life would have been different, but I don’t think my school life would have been any different.

RB: My immigrant experience growing up in Chicago was different.

CE: Everything is related to time and place. And one’s age. Going to a large multi-ethnic city like Chicago is very different from going to Miami.

RB: For sure.

CE: There were two cultures in Miami that I experienced. There was a large Jewish presence and there was the South American culture. There was very little in between: Cubans, and of course the invisible people, the African Americans, who had no place in the schools. I never encountered them in the schools, which were still segregated. Coming as a Cuban to Miami at a time when the city was being flooded by Cubans and transformed on a day-to-day basis was very different from my experience as soon as I moved to central Illinois. I didn’t feel foreign—

RB: Bloomington, Ill., where Illinois State University is?

CE: No, Normal, Ill.. It’s the hometown of Adlai Stevenson. That’s its claim to fame. I went to his funeral and I got to see President Johnson and Vice President Humphrey. A big moment for me as a kid, feeling very American at that cemetery. I didn’t feel Cuban there. By that point, there was only one other kid in my class in junior high school who had not been born in the U.S.—he was German, and he got more abuse than I did. He had a very German name and was given the “Sieg Heil” all the time.

RB: So what has changed in American attitudes toward Cubans? Are Cubans the only ones excused from being called “spics”?

CE: We are not.

RB: You’re not? Seriously?

CE: Seriously. It’s gotten worse with this new category, Hispanic. It sounds a lot like “spic” and it’s kind of an extension of “spic.” Hispanic or Latino. We are all the same. That’s the new prejudice.

RB: Cubans are given immediate access to citizenship—Cubans are all legal aliens.

CE: I was talking about the social dimension, not the legal one.

RB: But the resentment can’t be about immigration status.

CE: In the larger social consciousness, a Hispanic is a Hispanic. Anyone from a country in which Spanish is spoken is Hispanic. It doesn’t matter if you are blonde and blue-eyed from Spain or if you are Japanese as [former] Peruvian president Alberto Fujimora was. Or black. It doesn’t matter. Hispanic is considered a race in the United States. And there is a little box to mark under race, “Hispanic.” So we tend to all get lumped in the same category. In terms of the legal status, policy and so on, there is no uncontrolled migration from Cuba anymore. There are dozens of people on rafts, but very few manage to make it because of the so-called wet foot/dry foot policy. If you are caught out at sea, you get sent back. Actually, there was a tragic case a few years ago when these people made it to one of the Florida Keys, a very small one. But it wasn’t connected to the mainland by highway, so they got sent back.

RB: Oh my.

CE: A draconian interpretation of the policy. And actually, if you are caught just 10 feet off the beach in the water, you get sent back. That policy was put in place under President Clinton. And it is still the buffer that prevents Cubans from being uncontrolled immigrants. But they get political asylum, and in a way what was negotiated under Clinton, which was to give x number of Cubans entry into the U.S. every year, to protect the U.S. from uncontrolled immigration. Which is what the Castro regime has undone every time relations between the U.S. and Cuba have gotten really bad or tense. He unleashes thousands—and yes, everyone who can get on a boat, does. And that creates all sorts of problems.

Your former single self that you thought was a single being becomes more complex as you live in another culture.RB: Since Elian Gonzales, Cuba has not been on the horizon of American attention.

CE: No.

RB: Occasionally some activists are arrested or released, but that doesn’t have much staying power in the news cycle.

CE: Actually the Elian case is interesting because it involved only one individual. Just one, and it became inescapable. There is a case now that could have easily turned in into Elian in reverse. I have yet to see any interest in it and it has been going on for a year. It is the case of Alan Gross, an American who went down with a Jewish group to visit the tiny Jewish community that remains in Cuba. He went with cell phones and laptops to give to these Cuban Jews and he was arrested exactly a year ago.

RB: Not for trading with the enemy?

CE: No, no. It’s Cuba. Cuba arrested him for distributing the cell phones and laptops and has yet to charge him. [Update: Gross recently was tried after 15 months in a Cuban jail and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.—ed.] He’s been in prison for a year without being charged, which is against all international law. His wife has spent every penny she has had to move into public housing, the State Dept is doing nothing, and this has yet to enter the public consciousness. A few days ago, the White House released a statement that Alan Gross is the top impediment to improved relations between Cuba and the U.S.

RB: Is that supposed to give the Cubans cause to release him?

CE: What most people think is that he is being held as a bargaining chip to get back the five Cuban spies who are in American prisons. But he has not been accused of spying. His crime, if it is a crime, was distributing means of communication to the outside world.

RB: If I search-engined his name, would I see a few references?

CE: Oh yeah, Alan Gross. Look him up.

RB: It surprises me that Jewish groups have not actively taken up his cause—

CE: I think they tried—the efforts have hit a wall. Actually several walls, at different levels. The Elian story is peanuts compared to this in terms of personal suffering. He is sick, very sick in Cuba. His wife has had to use all their money. His daughter has come down with breast cancer.

RB: Who is he, Job?

CE: Nobody cares. I also think back to that American woman soldier who was captured in Iraq.

RB: Private Lynch?

CE: Yeah, the attention she got.

RB: A totally fabricated story.

CE: Right, and this man has actually been imprisoned for a year.

RB: How Cuban are you?

CE: [pauses and sighs] In an interview published in Bomb magazine, an interviewer who was Latin American but not Cuban described me as the least-Cuban Cuban that she has ever met. [Both laugh]

RB: Did you find that insulting?

CE: No, I think I know what she means. At some levels regarding certain things, I am Cuban, but concerning others I am not.

RB: There are people who proclaim their ethnicity emphatically. If you went back to Cuba would you get off the airplane and kiss the ground?

CE: No, and I wouldn’t feel at home.

RB: When I talked to John Sayles about Los Gusanos, he mentioned Argentines who had been away from their country for 25 years, and while they very much considered themselves Argentines, they would not want to return.

CE: In my case I have spent such a huge percentage of my life in the U.S. I am 60 now and came here when I was 11. The proportion—plus it was so far away in time—it’s an unbridgeable distance. That Cuba ceased to exist a long time ago.

RB: You are not a champion of Cuban cuisine who only listens to Cuban music as opposed to salsa (which Cabrera Infante denigrated).

CE: No, I’m not—I mean, I like many things about Cuban culture, but I like many other things too. And whatever is good from anywhere in the world is good, so.

RB: How angry are you about the turn your life took?

CE: I have to be honest with myself that there is a level of anger that will never go away. But I finally figured this out thanks to an email I received this past week. Somebody heard me on NPR and described what remarkable anger she detected. So I had to think about what that might mean. And I realize it’s easier to let go of anger when an injustice is over and in the past, but when an injustice is ongoing and there is no end in sight, it’s very hard to let go of the anger. Especially if it still lives. The metaphor I used in replying to this email was to imagine this: a woman is being raped, and her father and brother have to watch. They are angry because they can’t do anything about it—expecting them not to be angry while the rape is going on is impossible. However, afterwards they can come to terms with what happened and find a way to cope with the anger.

RB: In the book as you are writing it, it’s hard for me to get whether you are trying to recapture the mind of the 11-year-old. The tone and the emotional color about Cuba and the revolution was much more maturely formed.

CE: Well, you know the child’s voice is an artifice. It’s impossible for the adult not to show up. I can’t even begin to imagine how one would write with a pure child’s voice—it’s impossible in my mind. I write about my first encounter with censorship, the first time I went to a movie that I had seen many, many times before and was told I couldn’t see it. I think that description, which is full of anger, contains a bit of adult transcription, but the story’s kernel describes what I felt at the time.

RB: You are correct, you can’t duplicate the child’s voice. What I am trying to understand is how angry you were as a child.

CE: I was very angry, and actually that anger was one of the main reasons that drove my parents to send me here. They were afraid for me. They were afraid of what would happen to me because my criticism of the way things were was unstoppable. It was as if someone was trying to choke me and I was trying to breathe. Complaining, criticizing, and being angry about what was happening was essential as breathing. I felt my autonomy being violated in so many ways. Even as a 9-, 10-, 11-year-old I couldn’t do anything else but be angry.

RB: You could have been a rebellious kid when you came here—you didn’t take that path.

CE: We are pretty much born the way we are.

RB: [laughs] Yeah.

CE: And it would take a lot for me to become rebellious the way I would have been rebellious in Cuba. I would never be rebellious against my parents. Who have I rebelled against here? I had no parents—

RB: The couple who served you turkey.

CE: Well, they were too nice. My foster parents were too nice.

RB: Rejecting their turkey was almost rebellion.

CE: Right, I would not eat that turkey.

RB: What do you do at Thanksgiving?

CE: I am a vegetarian. What did I have? I can’t remember. The kind of rebellion that American teenagers go through would have been inconceivable to me. I had nothing to rebel against. I was on my own from 11 on. And the adults I lived with basically left me alone, totally unsupervised. I could do whatever I wanted.

RB: What was there to do?

CE: Depending on which house I was at, with my American foster parents who served me turkey, there wasn’t much trouble to get into in that neighborhood in Miami. But the house I went to after that, in a group home run by a Cuban couple full of quote-unquote “juvenile delinquents,” I could have gotten into a heap of trouble. The thugs in that house continually tried to involve us in crime. Either in fighting other gangs or in stealing. I could have, but I didn’t want to go that way. At my uncle’s house in Bloomington, Ill., which to me has always been like Hannibal, Miss., a very Tom Sawyer kind of place—my brother got into all kinds of trouble. Cutting school, going out to the cornfields to spend the day there. Drinking and causing problems for my uncle. Yeah. But I didn’t go that way.

RB: You got a good sampling of America as a kid—Miami, small-town Midwest, Chicago.

CE: Chicago is quintessential America, and even the accents in Chicago are quintessential. My brother who stayed there sounds like Mike Ditka.

In an interview published in Bomb magazine, an interviewer who was Latin American but not Cuban described me as the least-Cuban Cuban that she has ever met.RB: Ditka—talk about quintessential Chicago.

CE: And the Saturday Nite Live skits—Da Bears. That’s Chicago right there.

RB: The first Mayor Daley was also hard on consonants. I am sorry I grew up there, there is a way that I can go back. Too laden with—actually, that brings me to the notion that we don’t really ever forget anything. It’s just a question of things that can trigger recall.

CE: Right. That’s been my experience.

RB: Do find yourself all of a sudden recalling something not obviously connected to the moment you are in?

CE: When I wrote each of these books, I think I went into a kind of self-hypnosis where I lived it and relived it as I wrote it. It’s not something like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, where all of a sudden I am somewhere else. No, it doesn’t happen that way. When I am writing all of this comes back. Memory is a funny thing. There are things that trigger very visual memories. There are things that trigger smell and sounds. When I hear certain Cuban music, the real thing from way back when I was a child, immediately I am thrown back on the scene, wherever it was that I first heard that song or where I was conscious of hearing that song. I am there again and it is the strangest thing.

But even after writing the first book and getting responses from readers who had been part of that very same story, their accounts differed from mine. I learned how incomplete our personal memories are. We only see a slice of what is happening. It’s our slice, our memory—here’s an example that was most shocking for me. In the first book I say at the very end that not one of my friends came to the airport to say goodbye. Well, not true. I found out in an email in 2004 from Miguelito, my friend who lived a block away. He works for UNESCO in Paris and I got to meet him when I went to a conference in France. The first thing he asked me was, “Do you remember me being at the airport?” “No.” He described everything perfectly. Even more shockingly, he said, “How strange that you don’t remember me being there because that’s the day that changed my life.” The way he put it was that “that was my first step towards prison.” He did end up spending eight years in prison for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. But he said seeing my family split apart like that made him think for the very first time that maybe what was happening was not good. And yet I don’t remember him being there. No matter how hard I try to picture Miguel at the airport, I can’t. But I know he was there because he described everything perfectly. Even who had traveled in which car. [laughs]

RB: Is there an organization for the veterans of Operation Peter Pan?

CE: Yeah, there are several organizations.

RB: Several? Why would there be a need for more than one?

CE: Because we are scattered all over the country. So in places where there are high concentrations of Cubans. The one in Miami is the core and has the highest number of members. For instance, for the 50th anniversary they had a celebration in Miami which I couldn’t attend.

RB: Was Operation Peter Pan ever a news item?

CE: Whenever the kids arrived, there were local news stories about them. But there is no meta-narrative in the American press and as best as I can figure out, the reason for this is the camps that received us in Florida immediately scattered us to the four winds. So we were invisible. Plus we dribbled in—it is not like 14,000 kids landed suddenly. It was over a two-year period. So we were invisible in large measure. The only time we cropped up is when these strange kids, usually in groups, arrived at some location where they didn’t quite fit. Like Idaho.

RB: [laughs]

CE: Or—I just got an email yesterday concerning a group of Cuban kids who were sent to Green Bay, Wis. There are those who have argued that the entire airlift was a publicity gimmick—a negative publicity gimmick cooked up by the CIA. Well, if it was, it was the worst job of publicity that anybody has ever engaged in. No one seemed to know. And when I mention this event—protracted as it was, it was a single event—people say, “What?”

RB: Is there precedent for this—had this been done for any other country?

CE: No, but the precedent for this airlift was the Kindertransport that rescued Jewish children from the Third Reich.

Without Penny Powers, who had been part of the Kindertransport, many agree this may not have taken shape in the way it did. She had this template in mind.RB: To Britain, not the U.S.

CE: But here is the connection—most people don’t know this story. Here is one of the more interesting bits of the story. The American School in Havana is where this airlift was generated. One of the teachers there, a British woman named Penny Powers, had been part of the Kindertransport and knew how to set up and run such a thing. Thanks to her there was a structure to impose on this ad hoc solution—getting these kids out. At first it was the kids of parents who were already struggling against the Castro regime, who were afraid of what would happen to their children. There were several in the school—the headmaster had connections in the State Department. And then it mushroomed in to something much, much larger. But without Penny Powers, who had been part of the Kindertransport, many agree this may not have taken shape in the way it did. She had this template in mind. In terms of numbers it was much larger than the Kindertransport.

RB: Cuba became a small destination for Jews fleeing the Nazis—but there was the ship that was turned back—

CE: There was a movie—I can’t remember the name. A ship was turned back and actually sat in Havana Harbor for quite some time. It was heartbreaking—they were sent back to the Third Reich. And in Havana there was a large Jewish population, at least to me as a child it seemed large. Aside from the Chinese the other obvious large group of—

RB: Isn’t there an Arab club or something on the Pasao de Prado [a notable promenade in Havana]?

CE: There were a good number of Lebanese in Cuba. They were not as visible and present as the Chinese and the Jews. All three groups were heavily involved in business—they were merchants mostly.

RB: There is a Chinese barrio. Is there a Jewish section?

CE: There wasn’t a Jewish neighborhood, but there is one street in particular where textiles were sold—Calle Buraya, where the old Spanish wall used to stand. It’s where my mom went all the time to buy her fabrics. And this was my constant encounter with Jews, all of whom are the children of immigrants, who spoke Spanish as a Cuban would. They didn’t have a European accent. Exactly as when I came to the U.S.—it was the grandparents who spoke with an accent. But there were Jewish kids in my school, and it was always amazing to me that they knew so much about the Bible.

RB: There is an anthropologist named Ruth Behar who written about the Jews in Havana. I think she even made a film.

CE: Fidel Castro’s mother is of Jewish descent—Sephardic.

RB: His actual mother, not one of his father’s wives? Did he ever marry her?

CE: He eventually did. They [Fidel and Raul] were legally recognized as the father’s children. This plays a key role in the development of the brothers’ personalities. That they were outcasts for a number of years before their father officially recognized them.

RB: This is speculation—lots of Cubans have animus towards Castro and the Revolution and lot what has happened. But take me back to 1959—Batista was no enlightened leader and had there been no revolution, would not the next leader have been just another version of Batista just as we saw a host of Duvaliers and Trujillos? What would have happened?

CE: Here is the narrative that most Americans don’t realize has been co-opted, hijacked. The real narrative as most Cubans know it is: Fidel Castro was only one of many individuals and his group was only one of many, many groups fighting against Batista. When Batista fled suddenly on New Year’s Eve 1959, for a week no one on the island knew who was going to assume charge. It was not a given that it was going to be Fidel Castro. The most powerful group that many historians, outside of Cuba, credit with actually having caused Batista the most grief were the university students in Havana, because they were urban guerrillas. The urban guerrilla warfare was the real terror for Batista. Not what was going on in the mountains. That was way off in the middle of nowhere. The university students had all sorts of different political visions for the future of Cuba. As different as they were, the vast majority included very democratic ideas for the future of Cuba and actually going back to the 1940 Constitution, which is one of the most liberal constitutions written in this hemisphere. It guaranteed all sorts of rights to workers long before the U.S. had them. The problem was that Cuba had a beautiful constitution and no leader to enforce it. Then Castro very quickly edged out everybody else. So this myth that he has created about himself as the option to Batista is a myth that needs to be constantly reexamined.

RB: What about the role of the U.S. in encouraging and/or subverting any governments or democratization in Cuba. Batista was not denounced by the U.S. and I remember a statement that the second most important person on the island was the American ambassador.

CE: Well, Cuba was in many respects a colony of the United States. There is no denying that—since 1898, when the U.S. won the war against Spain and quote-unquote “liberated” Cuba, there was heavy American involvement in Cuban politics. Cuba was a very politically immature society and it was a lethal combination of great prosperity due to sugar and political immaturity, which creates a series of very unstable governments. The U.S. repeatedly intervened and there was the Platt Amendment to the Cuban constitution that granted the U.S. the right to step in. It is kind of like having a psychotic mother—[both laugh]—who loves you one minute but the next minute, you better watch out if she is not happy with what is going on. In many ways Cuba is the only colony that U.S. has ever lost and it was lost in a very messy and miserable way.

RB: And embarrassing.

CE: Right. But when the U.S. finally pulled the plug on Batista, that’s when he left. And why he left. The U.S. said, “No more for you.” I don’t know what the U.S. government expected would happen. But there are many ways in the history of the Republic of Cuba that Cubans have tried to deal with Washington as a partner on equal terms and have not succeeded. Even afterwards, there were many Cubans on the island who knew about the [Soviet] missiles and warned the U.S. that there were missiles. And individuals in Washington who should have listened to them refused to listen. So there is this condescension which leads to problems everywhere.

RB: In the movie Fair Game, Valerie Plame is an operative in Iraq dealing directly with the Iraqi atomic scientists who can’t believe the U.S. still thinks they have a nuclear program. So who is looking at the intelligence and for what purpose?

CE: It is tragic, and as one of my colleagues in political science explained it to me, the central problem is that the area experts who actually know what is going on never ever rise to the to higher levels. It is the policy experts who don’t know anything about individual places who make all the decisions. That’s what drives so much of American policy and why the U.S. constantly stumbles. I wept openly in 1991—I am about to cry again—the Gulf War. President Bush tells the Kurds, “Rise up. Rise up. Claim your place.” And they do. And then what happens?

RB: They get gassed by Hussein.

CE: Every night when I saw the news I couldn’t help but weep.

RB: The U.S. did that with Hungary in 1956.

CE: Right. And what happened in the Philippines after the Spanish defeat is another chapter that is easily forgotten.

RB: This would be the American history, which is not taught. I confess I had great sympathy for the Cuban revolution when I was 12 years old—it was a counterpoint to what I saw as evil American foreign policy—a criminal policy.

CE: The way in which the entire island has been subjected to a totalitarian nightmare to me doesn’t balance out. But I realize that much glamour still surrounds the Cuban Revolution, especially the figure of Che.

RB: Well, Che is still a poster boy.

CE: It’s the anti-Americanism and that they quote-unquote “stood up.” But the Cuban exiles who landed at the Bay of Pigs—1500 men—most of them had fought against Batista. But it was their trust in the United States—

Cuba is the only colony that U.S. has ever lost and it was lost in a very messy, miserable way.RB: I understand there was a righteous opposition—

CE: The gentleman who is driving me around Boston today just told me this morning—practically blew me off my feet when he told me he was in the army at the Bay of Pigs invasion. He was the second wave that never happened because at the very last minute Jack and Bobby Kennedy pulled the plug on the operation. It was already way too late and it left those 1500 men to be killed and imprisoned. Trusting the United States is always a difficult and dangerous thing for any sort of small country that can’t deal with the U.S. as an equal.

RB: Cuba is a nation that is overwhelmingly African in racial makeup—it was racist before Castro. When I was in Cuba, I talked to a black man who said his father could not even have worked in the hotel I was staying in. I found it hard to believe that another regime taking over the government would have changed the lot in life of the Afro-Cubans.

CE: It would have been better. Here’s the deal. Cuba is about 60-70% African right now. In 1958 it was the other way around. Cuba had a population of two million at independence in 1902. Between 1900 and 1930, one million European immigrants moved to Cuba, literally completely changing the country’s complexion. There were many people in Cuba who were of slight African descent who declared themselves as white—same thing here in the U.S. So the 60-70% white is the fudging of claims. Now it has flipped—60-70% black. Not a single general, not one, is black. Look at all the government ministers, hardly any. And the most damning testimony about racism in present day Cuba that I have read comes from Eugene Robinson—

RB: The Washington Post columnist—

CE: A self-avowed liberal who wrote the Last Dance in Havana, a wonderful book. He loved Cuban music so much he went down there to check out the Cuban scene and was expecting to find a post-racial society. Instead he found more harassment and more racism the he had ever encountered in the U.S. He was continually stopped by the police and asked for his identification papers. The police were mostly white. He could not believe how racist Cuba is.

RB: I doubt any form of government can wipe that out. That’s my sense of Cuba, post-Castro—large African population and white leadership class.

CE: I had an interesting conversation with Carlos Moore, a black Cuban with Jamaican parents. He was part of the early years of the Revolution, very much in favor of it. He was very dark skinned. He detailed to me how in Cuba as in Louisiana and other places in the South, the darker you were, the farther down in your social class—and he, being the son of Jamaican parents, was at the absolute bottom. Early on, perhaps in the first two or three years of the 1960s, he kept saying that the fight over Cuba’s racism had only just begun. But was thrown in prison and was actually condemned to death for saying that there was still racism in the revolution. He has a book that just came out—the title is the name they used for Cuban blacks of Jamaican or Haitian descent, Pichon: Race and Revolution in Castro’s Cuba: A Memoir. It’s a beautiful book that details his life. I asked him, just in general, “Do you think there will ever be an end to racism—will the human race ever be able to overcome this?” He said, “No.” And then we hugged. [both laugh]

RB: I suppose there will always be bright moments.

CE: It’s so complex and so sad. But at the bottom there is this universal problem that transcends political boundaries. In a Caribbean country like Cuba where they had slavery until 1888, I realized that the really old black people I had seen as a child were probably born as slaves. It is difficult to see that overturned but the so-called Revolution has made it worse rather than better for African Cubans. As a matter of fact most of the soldiers who were sent to Angola and Ethiopia were poor black people. Sadly, there was a long tradition in Cuba before independence of freed slaves who had a fair degree of social standing—they had property. Some were very well off and actually some of the leaders of the fight against Spain were blacks. But then this huge wave of immigration came in and the island became very white. Add to this another layer of recently freed slaves, how were they ever going to acquire property with all these immigrants coming in and American business interests? There is no way someone recently freed and totally destitute could get a stake in the place. And the most twisted irony in all this for Cuba is that Cuban culture is very African—the food, the music. What people call Cuban music, take away the African element and there is no such thing. Even the way Cubans talk, the Cuban Spanish accent has an African component to it. It is the sloppiest of all Spanish accents and it has a kind of African lilt to it. I hear African languages especially from West Africa and I don’t understand what is being said. But it sounds very familiar to me—the cadence and the way things are pronounced. And yet these are the people who are excluded from rulership and ownership even to this day—that’s the saddest thing.

In a Caribbean country like Cuba where they had slavery until 1888, I realized that the really old black people I had seen as a child were probably born as slaves.RB: You have three children. What is your legacy to them in terms of your Cuban cultural heritage?

CE: My books are my legacy to them. That’s about it. We never lived in a place with a large number or any Cubans.

RB: You live in Guilford, Conn., near New Haven.

CE: There are three other Cubans in town, all totally Americanized, like me.

RB: Do your children have any interest in traveling to Cuba?

CE: No, and they have never expressed any to me. It’s not part of our household. I spoke Spanish to all of them when they were born and for all three of them their first words were in Spanish. But as soon as they realized that their father was the only crazy lunatic who spoke like this, I hit a wall. My wife doesn’t speak Spanish, so they all resisted. My youngest put it all in perspective for me when he was four years old. My mother never learned English and every encounter they had with their grandmother abuela—they called her Grandma Abuela—was weird. My then-four-year-old said, “Why doesn’t Grandma Abuela speak human?” We all laughed but I cried inside at the time. That’s how kids saw it.

RB: Where did they grow up?

CE: In Charlottesville, Va. and Guilford, Conn.—you can’t get more non-urban and non-Latin and non-ethnic. In Guilford there are three ethnic groups. There are the descendants of the Puritans—founded in 1639. And then there are Italians and Irish. That’s it.

RB: At Yale, when some Cuban cultural or political event takes place, are you the go-to guy, the resident expert?

CE: No, but other places think of me this way. I receive numerous job announcements for positions in Caribbean history or Cuban history. I have to laugh. But occasionally something happens where I step in—one incident when someone was trying to organize a rally to celebrate the great triumph of sending Elian back to Cuba. And I complained that was crossing a boundary as a political boundary and not a university event. The president [of Yale] stopped it. I was glad that at least that they could see it that way. Either way, I wouldn’t want the university to celebrate any kind of political rally about anything as an official event.

RB: Has Yale been a congenial place for you to be?

CE: Yes, it has. It’s a place where everyone is extremely busy.

RB: [laughs]

CE: That’s just it, everyone is always very busy.

RB: Goal-oriented and type-A personalities.

CE: There is so much to do, it’s kind of like living at fast-forward speed—that’s what it feels most of the time. But it’s a wonderful place.

RB: Having now written two memoirs do you have any interest in writing on other subjects?

CE: I don’t give it much sustained thought. These books have come as great surprises. I am not sure. I like doing my scholarship. What I have come to realize is that my scholarly books take years to write and these other books without footnotes take months. I am 60 years old now—the average life span for a male in the U.S. is 72 or 73, which means that’s one scholarly book. These books reach far greater numbers of people. In one way these books are history and I am reaching people as a historian and as an eyewitness simultaneously. I didn’t write them to publicize my life. I really wrote them to tell a certain history—a first-person account. And in that respect, they may not be scholarly but they may be the best history I have written—better than any of my footnoted books. But down the pike I am not sure what will come.

RB: Well, thank you very much.

CE: Thank you.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum