A review of Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana by Ann Louise Bardach

In January, Fidel Castro began his 46th year as absolute dictator of Cuba. Soon Cubans will mark his Golden Jubilee, with due bitterness. Their rights are almost nonexistent; so is the rule of law. To incur the displeasure of the dictator is to risk imprisonment, torture, execution. In this respect, Castro's Cuba is not unlike every absolute dictatorship throughout history.

With this difference: Seldom has a totalitarian dictatorship been so beloved—or at least defended and excused—by free people. In our universities, Castro is apt to be celebrated as a Third World hero, or rationalized as the product of American imperialism. In our media, he is romanticized and sometimes lionized. (The interviews by Barbara Walters are in a class by themselves.) A steady parade of Hollywood personalities troops before him, and listens with fascination to his all-night monologues. The soft spot that American (and other) elites have for this tyrant is an ongoing sadness for Cubans both on the island and in the United States.

The cries of Cuba's prisoners are strangely ignored. Jeane Kirkpatrick describes this as "both a puzzling and a profoundly painful phenomenon of our times." Another U.S. ambassador to the United Nations—the late Vernon Walters—said of Free World journalists, "They would go to the death searching out Franco's or Pinochet's prisoners. But the attitude toward Castro's is, 'They probably deserve to be there anyway.' Anti-Communist prisoners are of no interest to anybody. A prisoner of a left-wing government is highly suspect, probably a fascist."

A second "puzzling and painful phenomenon" is the attitude of our elites toward the Cuban- Americans, especially the community in Miami. It is almost certain that the Cuban-Americans are the most despised and defamed minority in the country. The Elián González affair—recall the boy who was rescued from the sea and then returned to Cuba—left no doubt about this disdain. Cuban-Americans as a group are pained by this phenomenon, but also resigned to it. They seem destined to be seen, not as patriots devoted to freedom, but as a crude, embarrassing rabble whose "obsession" with their homeland has warped U.S. policy.

Into all this walks Ann Louise Bardach, a writer associated with Vanity Fair and a visiting professor of international journalism at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Bardach gained some notoriety in 1994 when she penned a hit piece on Jorge Mas Canosa, the Cuban- American leader, for The New Republic. Mas sued, and the magazine settled—a legal result about which the author fumes in her book.

The conceit of the book, as the preface makes clear, is that it will find "fresh and useful perspectives," avoiding "the swirl of stale rhetoric and hyperbolic propaganda that envelops the subject" of Cuba. The stale and hyperbolic words she has in mind, really, are those that damn Castro's regime for what it is. Bardach likens the Cuban drama to the American Civil War, pitting family against family. This is a "huge family feud," Havana versus Miami, never mind that Castro's "family"—his nomenklatura and still-believing supporters—is relatively small.

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The book bargains to be an exercise in moral equivalence, to use a phrase familiar from the Cold War. In a blurb, Gay Talese praises "a wonderful book—absolutely masterful at presenting both sides of the Cuba debate." Both sides? The persecutors and the persecuted? Castro and Mas? "Hard-line" Americans and "soft-line" Americans? The answer is unclear. Another blurbist, Sander Vanocur, says—with exquisite evenhandedness—"Since 1959, Fidel Castro has played the Antichrist for the United States, and vice versa." I would say that Castro has "played the Antichrist" chiefly for the Cubans he has either jailed, tortured, killed, exiled, or immiserated, which, all told, is pretty much everyone. But then, I am guilty of "stale rhetoric" and "hyperbolic propaganda."

As Bardach sees it, Mas—who established the Cuban-American National Foundation, and who died in 1997—was, like "his nemesis" Castro, another "belligerent oriental" (from the East of Cuba). Sure, Castro might have "hijacked" the Cuban revolution, but "exiles seeking freedom have been shunted into silence by hardliners bent on revenge, retribution, and power." Bardach writes—as many of us have—of Castro and the Diaz-Balarts, a family with which the budding dictator was entangled in Cuba, and which has gone on to political prominence in the United States. (Two brothers, Lincoln and Mario, serve in Congress.) Says Bardach, "the Castro-Diaz-Balart relationship can be viewed as the Cuban equivalent of the Hatfields and the McCoys." Interestingly, however, the Diaz-Balarts run for office in a democracy. Bardach finds it "ironic" that Cubans who fled the island's notorious Committees for the Defense of the Revolution "instituted almost a mirror system in Miami." A writer who could say such a thing should not condemn others for hyperbole.

In a conversation some years ago—about Cuba, as it happened—Robert Conquest reminded me of an observation by Orwell: that anti-Communists were always called "rabid." They were "rabid anti-Communists." You never heard, for example, "rabid anti-Nazis." Similarly, Ann Louise Bardach applies the worst adjectives to those who oppose Castro: They are "bellicose," "militant," "zealous," and so on. At one point she speaks of "Castro haters." That phrase is worth pondering, because what lover of liberty— what partisan of human rights—could fail to hate what Castro has done? Listen to Bardach about Lincoln Diaz-Balart: He is "an ardent Republican with a fulsome desire to see the end of Fidel Castro, fueled in part by a family vendetta." An ardent Republican with a fulsome desire. What a fulsome desire is, is anybody's guess. What Lincoln Diaz-Balart is, is a democrat, who would like to see the country of his birth—and all countries—free of totalitarian dictatorship. This desire ought to be normal.

Have a little more Bardach on Diaz-Balart: The congressman has "infused U.S. Cuba policy with a fevered emotionality." Now the author's language borders on ethnic stereotype. But it is true that Diaz-Balart is passionate on democracy, human rights, and all that other mushy stuff. I am reminded of a television debate I witnessed involving Helen Suzman, the great liberal politician in South Africa. A Boer opponent of hers accused her of being "hysterical." She responded roughly as follows: "I am hysterical, because a system so evil as apartheid makes me hysterical. Why doesn't it you?"

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Even while she is applying the worst to the anti-Communists, Bardach tends to be gentler with the Communists. Castro's is a "government" more than a "dictatorship," or a "regime." She wags her finger at President Bush's "steamy invective," and his "boilerplate demonization" of Castro. Aside from the fact that "boilerplate demonization" of Castro is spot-on, the author herself engages in such demonization of the Miami Cubans.

Her account of the Elián saga is dripping with condescension, ridicule, and downright meanness. She puts the boy's "Miami relatives" in the worst possible light, joyfully chronicling their every fault and foible. Never does she pause to consider the unusual circumstances in which these fairly simple people found themselves. The journalist Bardach is not good at slipping into other people's skin—anti-Communist skin, that is. That she believes Elián should have been returned to Cuba is fair enough. Maybe she is correct. But she makes no serious attempt to understand the views of the other side. The book suffers from a gross lack of balance.

Bardach's Miami is a cauldron of extremism, corruption, and mercilessness—almost exclusively. She quotes David Rieff (another of her blurbists, incidentally) to the effect that the city is "an out-of-control banana republic within the American body politic." Bardach herself characterizes the Cuban-Americans as "the roughest, toughest crowd this side of themujihadeen." Almost never are they credited with anything positive. The author tars them—again and again—as racist, echoing a pet claim of the Castro regime. Missing from the book are the following questions: "If Miami is so racist, and Castro so black-friendly, why are so many of the leading dissidents and political prisoners black? And why are blacks virtually absent among Castro's nomenklatura?" In her denigration of Miami, Bardach sneers at Gloria Estefan—the city's "patron saint of music"—and rips the Miami Herald as a patsy for the hard-liners. This would certainly comes as news to the hard-liners.

In her portrait of Jorge Mas Canosa, Bardach is probably at her worst. This portrait is a cartoon; it does not contain a human being, but a pure, almost comical bogeyman. In reality, Mas was a mixture of the admirable and the dubious, as most people are. He worked himself up from nothing and became something very difficult to be: an exile leader, and a successful one. Through the years, Mas made his share of enemies, and many of these enemies were happy to pour their complaints into Bardach's ear. She was no doubt right to publish them. But, here again, she would be more credible, and more useful, if she summoned a little balance.

When it comes to Fidel Castro, Bardach is a different cat—eager to understand. Her account of the dictator is interesting, although it can be a little breathless in the style of People magazine or Paris Match: the women, the adventures, the charisma! In an interview with him, Bardach asked whether he was "tired of fighting, tired of playing David and Goliath with [the United States]." That is a view of himself that Castro likes to further: the little revolutionary David up against theyanqui Goliath. Sadly, he is all too Goliathlike to his own people, who are powerless to fell him. To Bardach, he is a "formal man with oldworld manners, bordering on courtliness." Ever, she is "struck by the decorousness of this man." You will be glad to know that "he looks younger than his seventy-six years," and that "few sun spots have blemished his surprisingly elegant hands." She is not entirely in the tank for him, however, judging that "Castro has remained very much a riddle." Sonow she is subtle, now she is nuanced, now she goes for balance! Would that she had the same regard for Castro's foes.

She offers the familiar view that Castro is a "natural politician." Some of us have wondered, How would we know? Let him run for office. In her description of one of Castro's marathon speeches, Bardach is almost orgiastic: "His voice climbed louder, his expressive hands [surprisingly elegant, too, recall] kneading the air. Another hour passed. His voice rose to a thundering crescendo and then it was full-tilt boogie. He had performed the rhetorical version of Ravel's Bolero." Was it good for you, too? The author notes with evident relish that Castro's family has been long-lived, with one relative even making it to 105. In her mind, the moderate, reasonable position is to "set the groundwork for an orderly transition after Castro's natural passing." Apparently, Castro has a right—a natural right?—to rule Cuba for the rest of his life. This is defeatist at best, and sadistic at worst.

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The tragedy of Cuba Confidential is that it could have been a great book. Bardach interviewed a lot of people, on both sides of the Florida Straits (although I believe she is a bit gullible about the degree to which Castro's subjects may speak freely). She writes well. Given her access, and the time she was able to spend, she had a magnificent opportunity to write the sweeping, understanding book she seems to have planned. But her contempt for the messy, rambunctious, democratic Cuban-Americans is too great. Indeed, her book is twisted with hate. She ignores almost completely Castro's prisoners and their awful plight. No, a writer cannot include everything, even in an ambitious book. But Vernon Walters had a point: Prisoners of left-wing governments are of no interest to anybody. Certainly not to writers for Vanity Fair or to professors, visiting or not, of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Some of us hope that the tide may be turning a little against Castro. His brutal crackdown on dissidents in March 2003 did not play well around the world. Some of his longtime supporters simply gave up. Said José Saramago, the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese novelist, "This is my limit…. Cuba has lost my trust; it has damaged my hopes; it has defrauded my illusions." Others' illusions linger, however, as does Castro. As Bardach warns—with unseemly pleasure—he could live till 105, keeping his expressive and surprisingly elegant hands wrapped around the throat of a forlorn people.