Semper Fidel

Isabel Hilton
24 September 2001

Like Timothy Garton Ash, I know that the moment we each became aware of 11 September will prove unforgettable. In my case, it was in Baracoa, a little town on the east coast of Cuba. Even by Cuban standards it is remote. I was looking for an early lunch in a private restaurant. Two men were trying to tune a radio, probably looking for a Miami station. They said a plane had hit a building in New York. Then a shout from an inside room brought us all to the TV screen that was relaying CNN as it happened. Soon, half the neighbourhood was packed into the small living room. We were all aghast at what we were seeing.

If I had been asked before 11 September, how Cubans would have reacted to a terrorist attack on the United States, I would not have been sure. But to judge from that group and the people I spoke to in the days that followed, the primary reaction was one of straightforward humanity. They had no difficulty in making the distinction between the American people and the US government. They condemned the outrage in heartfelt terms.

Later, I learned of others whose response was less humane. One shocked friend described walking out of a meeting when a woman told her that she had “waited 40 years” for something like this to happen to them. But these were isolated reactions.

That night, I waited for the news. And waited. Fidel Castro was giving a speech. It lasted nearly four hours. As always, the news had to wait until he finished. His interminable speech dominated one channel. Short documentaries played on the other. I pictured the desperate continuity staff rummaging through the boxes, looking for fillers, wondering if they could possibly show that tired old film on the Great Wall of China again.

When Fidel finally finished, the lead item on the news, to my stupefaction, was the impending visit to Cuba of the President of Mali. The next item was Fidel’s speech. The third was New York. It began, of course, with Fidel’s reaction, before moving on to the report itself.

Fidel expressed sympathy for the victims and offered medical assistance. Then he went on to detail Cuba’s experience of terrorism over four decades. All of it, he said, was attributable to the United States. Many Cubans I spoke to later felt that he might have done better to refrain from those remarks at least long enough for the rubble to stop burning. But eloquent silence was never his strong point.

After that first day, the news was scant. Since the Elian affair, Cubans’ knowledge of the outside world has been shaped by a two hour early evening programme. Inaptly named Open Forum, it consists of a group of Cuban journalists relaying such news from the outside world as Cubans are allowed to know, while telling their audience what they should think about it. The programme is widely disliked by thinking Cubans who see in it just another effort at manipulation by the regime. But in the absence of other information, it has an effect.

The line that emerged over the next few days was an expansion of Fidel’s initial remarks. The chosen few criticized the belligerent tone of the administration’s announcements. They detailed the US government’s record of anti-Cuban terrorism: the hijackings by exiles, the assassination attempts by the CIA (now, since September 11, permissible activities once more).

Fidel himself offered to take part in an international effort to counter terrorism and lectured the American government on the futility of a violent response. “Violence only engenders violence”, he said. You might have thought that he himself had held power for more than forty years entirely through the ballot box.

Aside from the official response, there was another anxiety. Cubans have been told for 40 years that their troubles have a single source and for them even more than most, the United States looms as the only colossus, its influence over their fate further exaggerated by the distortions of official propaganda. Though many no longer believe the US to be their only, or indeed their principal problem, they nonetheless fear that they will somehow be caught up in the thrashing of their wounded adversary.

For me, the experience stimulated some uncomfortable reflection. The attack on the WTC has been described as an attack on freedom and democracy. No doubt it can be seen that way. But the experience of US influence in many countries of the Third World is neither of freedom nor democracy. It is rather the experience of a pursuit of political and economic domination that has consistently opposed local nationalist movements and preferred to support dictatorship and oppression.

If US policy aimed to bring freedom and democracy to Cuba, it has been a long running fiasco. Instead, it is an example of a powerful neighbour pushing for nationalist revolution, failing to understand that confrontation in the short term makes enemies in the long term.


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