It's a fair assumption that few punk rock nerds—readers of magazines like Maximum Rock n' Roll and the recently departed Punk Planet—have ever heard of the band Porno Para Ricardo (Porno For Ricardo). Unlike the post-punkish Welsh band Manic Street Preachers, who played a set of heavy-handed political songs for Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in 2001 (including the treacly agitprop ballad "Baby Elian"), Porno Para Ricardo aren't welcome on any state-sanctioned stage in Havana. You see, Porno Para Ricardo are a Cuban band and their singer, the growling, snarling 39-year-old Gorki Aguila desires political freedom more than "free health care." Such issues are of little concern to Manic Street Preachers and Audioslave, another pro-Castro band that recently played Havana. Both can afford a measure of radical chic. Both record for Sony.
That rich rock stars shill for his tormentors and fawn over his jailers would doubtless irritate Aguila, though would he begrudge them their capitalist success? As he recently told an interviewer, "Communism is a failure. A total failure. Please. Leftists of the world—improve your capitalism! Don't choose Communism!" For statements like this, for writing songs like "el Coma Andante," ("The Walking Coma"), and for prominently featuring a photo of the band feeding the Communist Party newspaper Granma into a meat-grinder on its (U.S.-based) website, Aguila was arrested on charges of "social dangerousness."
When members of the international news media took interest, the Cuban authorities relented and released the singer. The band's CDs are still banned and Porno Para Ricardo still gets no radio play, but Aguila is again "free."
Last week Yoani Sanchez, proprietor of the well-known Cuban blog Generación Y and one of Time Magazine's "100 most influential people of 2007," was summoned to her local police station and informed that she had "crossed the limits of tolerance" and was associating with "counter-revolutionary elements." Fellow blogger Claudio Cadelo was called in too, as were other not-so-furtive web diarists planning to attend a conference on digital journalism. In response, some Orwellian ministry or another quickly passed a law forbidding "the use of applications that affect the integrity or security of the State." In other words, cut out the blogging or face jail time.
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So here we are, two years after the vainglorious and lymphatic tyrant Fidel went into repose, retiring into a well-furnished, well-protected, and well-stocked villa, to churn out turgid, rambling, and dyspeptic articles detailing his revolutionary "successes," mocking Yanqui "failures." It was predicted—or perhaps merely hoped—that his brother Raul, the dour ideologue and former head of the military that now runs Cuba, would gesture towards openness, allowing the average citizens to own DVD players they couldn't possibly afford, for which films were all but unattainable. But bloggers and punks, journalists and librarians are still harassed and arrested. Accurate counts are difficult to come by in dictatorial dynasties, but estimates put the number at 250-plus political prisoners still languishing in squalid, filthy prisons.
Despite this lack of progress, prominent journalists and celebrities still manage inelegant pirouettes around the truth, arguing that the Cuban revolution is something worth celebrating. In a cover story for the November 25 issue of The Nation, actor Sean Penn details his pilgrimage to Caracas and Havana, to sit at the feet of—and act as a stenographer for—Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and Cuban co-dictator Raul Castro. Marc Cooper, a contributing editor at The Nation and former translator for Salvador Allende, commented on his personal blog that the "horribly embarrassing" piece surely qualified for the "The Oliver Stone Bad Writing About Cuba" prize.
Nothing surprising here. Penn has previously written of visiting with Fidel and being disarmed (as if this was necessary) by "his affectionate smile." On Raul, he writes excitedly that "his eyes are bright and his voice is strong"; he "moves with the agility of a young man"; he is "warm, open, energetic and sharp of wit." More than two years after taking the reins of power, Penn says that Raul Castro "may well be a great" man.
Penn describes how he was compelled to return to both countries after "digest[ing] my earlier visits to Venezuela and Cuba and time spent with Chávez and Fidel Castro. I had grown increasingly intolerant of the propaganda." Now, it should be stressed that the insidious propaganda to which Penn refers, which forces a normally reasonable man to a point of intolerance, is not Venezuela's state-run and aggressively Chavista television station VTV, nor the ludicrous state newspapers in Cuba, Granma and Juventud Rebelde.
There is much to say about Raul Castro's bloody legacy, about his pivotal role in destroying a once wealthy and culturally rich nation, but a few anecdotes are necessary to contextualize Penn's fawning interview. A former revolutionary comrade recalled that, in the days before and immediately following their 1959 ascension to power, Raul and Che Guevara "competed in killings and viciousness," executing all suspected of being "agents" of Batista or "counterrevolutionaries." Another former comrade and friend of the Castro brothers, the writer Norberto Fuentes, told Brian Latell, author of the book After Fidel: Raul Castro and the Future of Cuba's Revolution, a "chilling" story of Raul's "cold-bloodedness." In 1966 Raul inexplicably exhumed the bodies of those he ordered executed in the city of Santiago, encased them in a collective concrete "coffin," and deposited the corpses in the deep seas off the island.
But none of this seems to bother Penn. Indeed, in what appears to be a preemptive sop to his critics, Penn asks Castro about "allegations of human rights violations" in Cuba and writes that Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, a leftist Cuban dissident and former comrade of Castro who recently repatriated himself to Havana, "acknowledges" that human rights concerns in Cuba are the result of the anti-Castro "manipulations" of Miami Cubans. (Incidentally, Menoyo spent 20 grueling years in Castro's prisons where he was tortured and, as a result, is blind in one eye and deaf in one ear.)
It's not all Miami Mafia bunk, says Penn, because "there are about 200 political prisoners in Cuba today, approximately 4 percent of whom are convicted of crimes of nonviolent dissent." So there are only eight political prisoners in communist Cuba that have been "convicted" of "nonviolent dissent?" (If Penn thinks the American military court system at Guantanamo is bad, he might want to investigate how "convictions" are obtained by the Castro brothers.) According to Reporters Without Borders, "Nineteen of the journalists arrested during the March 2003 'Black Spring' continue to serve jail terms ranging from 14 to 27 years in appalling prison conditions. With a total of 23 journalists detained, Cuba is the world's second biggest prison for the media, after China." Freedom House's 2008 report on Cuba observes that "Members of groups that exist apart from the state are labeled counterrevolutionary criminals and are subject to systematic repression, including arrest; beatings while in custody; loss of work, educational opportunities, and health care; and intimidation by uniformed or plainclothes state security agents."
None of this bothers the average Cuban, he writes, because unnamed American government officials and "prominent dissidents acknowledge" that "the ruling Communist Party would win 80 percent of the electorate" if the country ever got around to having an election. So why not test this theory and silence international critics? Because not even the regime believes that they have the support of the country's vast proletariat. As one student recently told the New York Times, young Cubans "don't believe in a world where the Internet is forbidden and your whole world is Cuba with the rest blocked out." Indeed, even Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, the leftist dissident Penn cites, recently told a reporter that "Talk to young people, and 90 percent will tell you their dream is to leave the country."
But there is no need to leave, even if such a thing was allowed, he explains, because Castro the Slightly Younger is ambling down the road to freedom and greater openness. Take this sentence, in which Penn argues, without any evidence, that the rise of Raul Castro could provoke a wave of democratic reforms: "In a report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, US State Department spokesman John Casey [sic] acknowledges that Raulism could lead to 'greater openness and freedom for the Cuban people.'"
That this bowdlerized quote from Tom Casey actually comes from an interview with the Associated Press, quoted on the left-wing Council on Hemispheric Affairs website, says something about Penn's skills as an investigative journalist. But did Casey really suggest that Raul Castro might usher in an age of openness and freedom? Not exactly:
"The changing of the guard is not significant of and by itself," deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters, repeatedly referring to Raul Castro as "dictator lite" or "Fidel lite.""It will be significant if in fact it leads to greater openness and freedom for the Cuban people and ultimately to a democratic transition," he said. But, he cautioned that "the general analysis is that Raul Castro is 'Fidel lite.' He is simply a continuation of the Castro regime, of the dictatorship."
There is no freedom in Cuba, nor will there be, as long as the Castro family is steering the ship of state. And the recent arrests of dissidents simply buttress what all but the most deluded have known for 50 years. But those who gasped in horror that America's elections were rigged in 2000 and 2004, that warned against a sinister plan afoot in 2008—think Greg Palast, Robert Kennedy Jr., Gore Vidal—seem not to mind systematic and acknowledged voter intimidation in Venezuela or, in the case of Cuba, the total absence of democratic elections. Why must cretinous celebrities such as Penn insist that Cubans remain guinea pigs in a failed social experiment in which he isn't required to participate?
And while it is perhaps unfair to beat up on a credulous, self-important, and solipsistic vanity journalist like Sean Penn, it does serve to remind that the Hollywood narrative of revolutionary Cuba—perpetuated by, among others, Oliver Stone, Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte, Benicio Del Toro, Steven Soderbergh, Naomi Campbell, and Michael Moore—stubbornly, like Fidel himself, refuses to die.
Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.