A week before the massive protests erupted in Cuba, I was celebrating Fourth of July at a friend’s house in Oakland, California, and listening to her tell me stories about her adventures there. She is a Jewish red diaper baby and today seems to identify as some sort of “libertarian socialist.” I found myself squirming as she enthused about the Left radicals she knows, and lamented the persecution of communists in the US. During the years of McCarthyite paranoia, American communists did indeed have their reputations, careers, and occasionally their lives ruined. A few were sent to prison, and in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of spying for Stalin and executed. I wanted to point out that the persecution of communists by communists during the Cold War was far worse, and that the Rosenbergs were in fact guilty, unlike the millions of people murdered or worked to death in Gulags by Stalin for allegedly operating as Trotskyist or Western agents or spies. Still, I was a guest in my friend’s home, so I held my tongue.
But when she referred to opponents of the regime in Havana as gusanos (“worms”), I felt I had to object. My hostess responded with a puzzled look and then blithely continued with her story. I left shortly after that, still angered. Why do Western radicals, especially those with a romantic interest in Latin America and a strong affinity for the Cuban Revolution, think it’s okay to dehumanize those with whom they disagree? My friend would no doubt be offended to hear communists or Jews described in those terms but believes it’s a perfectly acceptable way to describe those who, after all, are simply agitating for the rights and freedoms she is fortunate enough to enjoy. During my own years as a pro-Cuban communist sympathizer, I am ashamed to admit I used the same pejorative. I rarely gave it a second thought, since I considered those who opposed Castro’s noble project to be diabolical and so it seemed self-evidently appropriate. “Linguistic assaults,” Haig Bosmajian reminds us in his book, The Language of Oppression, “often are used by persons who show no visible evil intent.”
It was January 1st, 1994, that I took my first trip to Cuba as part of Mexican tour. I was the only gringo. On my first day there, a furtive encounter in a hallway alcove of the hotel in which we were staying changed everything. One of the maids spotted me alone and called me aside. Looking around to ensure no one was listening, she whispered, “You’re from the USA, right?” I nodded. She smiled and handed me a napkin on which she’d written a name and a telephone number. “Please call my sister when you return,” she whispered. “Tell her I’m okay and that I’ll be coming as soon as I can.” I must have looked perplexed because she elaborated: “We have no way of getting in contact with family in the US.” She asked me to promise I’d do as she asked, and when I did, she thanked me and hurried away.
This gusano wasn’t the monstrous counter-revolutionary imagined by regime propaganda; she was a kind and frightened person moved by desperation to ask a complete stranger for a simple favor that might have landed her in serious trouble had I betrayed her. Here was a degree of intimacy to which I wasn’t accustomed. Western tourists in the developing world rarely manage to understand the deepest concerns of the people they meet, most of whom are preoccupied with finding ways to part us with our money: the porters, waiters, salespersons, guides, street vendors, those trapped in the “informal economy.” Yet here was someone with no ulterior motive beseeching me to help her contact a member of her family. In this instance, there was no sob story and no grift—just a person risking everything to give me her trust.
How did she know she could trust me? Notwithstanding my sympathy for Castroism at the time, she intuited that I would be receptive to her plea. Cubans have developed a peculiar sixth sense about tourists. Usually, they will employ this ability to leverage some cash. A lapse in judgment can result in a visit from the police, so it’s a skill they’ve had to hone in the name of survival. They certainly can’t depend on their wages or ration cards. Cynical? Of course. But the necessity and poverty bred by communism are among the most effective teachers of free-market capitalism available and Cubans have had to be quick studies.
Over the course of that first week of 1994, I met many Cubans on the street with postcards or contraband they’d stolen from their workplaces trying to make a little money from tourists. Or doctors whose monthly wage amounted to less than $50 driving taxis to make enough money to feed their families. And each time one of these people confided in me—invariably in a low murmur for fear of vigilant eyes and ears—about the horrors of life under the regime, I felt humbled. And ashamed. How could I have supported this despotism for so long? And yet, still I agonized about whether to keep my promise to the hotel maid.
I’m sure I thought of throwing her napkin away. Carrying her message back to the US was surely a betrayal of the Cuban Revolution. But wouldn’t it be far worse to betray her trust? In the end, I brought the napkin home and eventually telephoned the maid’s sister in Miami. She was delighted to get my call and after I delivered the message we talked. She told me of her own anguish living under the Cuban dictatorship, and how she’d fled to Florida where she awaited the arrival of more family members. I remember listening and saying very little, but when I hung up, I felt certain that I’d done the right thing.
I have often wondered why it took me so long to learn the obvious lessons of my experiences in Cuba that January. But they did prepare me, somewhat, for my experiences with Venezuela 10 years later. By then, I was no longer sympathetic to communism, but I nevertheless fell in with the Chavistas right away. I began recording interviews with them in the Plaza Bolívar 10 years to the day after I arrived in Cuba for the first time. I traveled to Mérida where I befriended Chavistas at the ULA (University of the Andes) and found myself listening as they referred to the opposition as escualidos, quislings, weaklings, or the “squalid ones.” By this point, I couldn’t bring myself to do the same, and referred to them using neutral terms such as los opositores or la oposición instead.
During the year I lived in Mérida, these “linguistic assaults” never registered as anything worth mentioning or noticing—they were just part of the rhetorical scenery of revolutionary politics. So, for nearly a decade, I tolerated them, even though I declined to participate. And when I met these opositores, I found that they were as kind and generous and earnest as my Chavista friends, and occasionally more so. And then one day, I awoke to the realization that I’d been sleepwalking through a nightmare. I’ve told the story of my growing disillusion with socialist utopianism elsewhere in these pages, how it finally led me to turn to embrace Western liberalism. When vast peaceful post-election protests against the imposition of the new “President” Maduro in April 2013 were met with brutal state violence, I was forced to rethink everything. That process is still ongoing.
What I didn’t understand completely on July 4th became clear just seven days later, when thousands—perhaps tens of thousands, we’ll never know, since the Cuban dictatorship has such a powerful stranglehold on media—poured into the streets in a spontaneous rejection of the communist regime. President Miguel Díaz Canel called out his police and paramilitaries to beat people back into their homes. Government agents had been preparing for years and evidently felt no compunction about attacking gusanos who hours before had simply been their neighbors. As Bosmajian observed: “The distance between the linguistic dehumanization of a people and their actual suppression and extermination is not great; it is but a small step.” They have, after all, been purged of their humanity, in the good name of which they can now be repressed without pity.
Feature image: A man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Arroyo Naranjo Municipality, Havana on July 12, 2021. Thousands of Cubans participated in Sunday’s demonstrations, chanting “Down with the dictatorship.” (Photo by YAMIL LAGE / AFP) (Photo by YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images)
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.