Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
There was a tank outside Havana’s Museum of the Revolution with a bilingual sign next to it that said, “from [this tank] Commander in Chief Fidel Castro shot US vessel Houston during the mercenary invasion at Bay of Pigs in April 1961.”
Wow, I thought. Really? Fidel Castro, commander in chief of all Cuban forces, personally operated a tank at the Bay of Pigs, and personally fired on, and hit, a US ship. I was skeptical.
A bit later, a stone’s throw away and still on the museum grounds, I found another tank. It had a nearly identical sign next to it. Apparently Fidel also personally operated this tank and personally fired on and hit the Houston.
Well now, this was too much. Fidel Castro was a remarkable man, but he drove two different tanks during the same battle and hit the same target?
I enjoyed my time well enough in Cuba. But Cuba is an authoritarian country. And sometimes authoritarians tell outlandish lies. The task of the intelligent visitor, or indeed the intelligent citizen, or even the intelligent person, is to tell truths from falsehoods. It’s a task with which Americans are growing more familiar with each passing day.
The museum itself was replete with claims of US imperialist sabotage of Cuba, some of which I had heard of and knew to be true (such as the Bay of Pigs invasion itself, and Operation Mongoose), some of which I had never heard of but might have been true, and some that attracted my skepticism immediately.
One display, for example, claimed that the CIA introduced dengue fever into Cuba as an act of biological warfare. My brows furrowed upon reading this. Dengue is endemic to pretty much anywhere with lots of mosquitos, as someone (like me) who spent his childhood in Southeast Asia would know. Nations as wealthy and advanced as Japan and Singapore have dengue. So why would Cuba with its legions of mosquitos need the CIA to bring dengue to its shores?
A bit of subsequent research provided some context and allowed for a more charitable reading of the Cuban claim: In 1981, Cuba experienced a dengue outbreak. And at this time, Castro accused the US in a speech of causing the epidemic. According to a New York Times report from that time, what was novel about the outbreak was that it was of dengue-2, one of the four strains of the disease in existence but previously uncommon in Cuba. Cuba had had a dengue-1 outbreak in 1977-78. And a dengue-2 outbreak following one of dengue-1 could be particularly devastating because the population would already be susceptible to hemorrhagic fever.
So if Castro’s claim was that the CIA brought dengue-2 to his country, that would be more plausible than that the CIA brought dengue generally. But the latter was the claim made in the museum. And there was a better explanation for the dengue-2 outbreak: Cuba sent troops to fight in the war in Angola, which began in 1975, where dengue-2 was found. And some of those troops must inevitably have returned home carrying dengue-2 with them. Closer to home, dengue-2 was found elsewhere in the Caribbean as well and could have naturally crossed over to Cuba.
In Cuba I met a group of Canadian vacationers. Their political opinions were of the vape shop-owning, new-agey, corporations are evil, it’s all a conspiracy variety. Josh, for one, loudly exclaimed that the New York Times and CNN were total propaganda. His politics, he said with pride, were entirely his own and not influenced by anything “mainstream.” His friend Andre, who seemed to agree that all Western media were a lie, was taken aback at the suggestion that Russian media might not be entirely truthful.
In other words, they were of that common breed of Westerners who had never experienced actual authoritarianism who liked to imagine that the liberal democracy under which they lived were a sham. They treated politics the way they’d treat indie bands: if everyone else was into it, then it couldn’t be cool. Never mind that truths aren’t music for hipsters; that more people believe in a fact, that it’s mainstream, doesn’t make it false. The obvious distinction between actual propagandists and journalists working in good faith who make mistakes seemed lost on them.
Which all got me thinking. The properly engaged citizen must be neither entirely skeptical nor credulous, but at some moderate point in between. Without reasoned skepticism, you’d believe any dear leader’s claim to personal heroism. Without some credulity, or some faith, you’d think that everything was as much of a lie as everything else. Which is to say, you’d think that there was no truth worth fighting for. Either outcome is fine with authoritarians. Neither outcome should be acceptable to a good citizen.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."