Monday, August 10, 2009

A sense of Déjà Vu

On the nighttime flight back to Paris from Miami, where I had appeared on a most interesting panel covering Haiti with such scholarly luminaries as the sociologist Laënnec Hurbon and the political scientist Robert Fatton, I was struck by the following passage in a book by the historian Frank Argote-Freyre:

The government of enlisted men and student leaders was surrounded by powerful enemies. [A U.S. Ambassador] was personally embarrassed by the removal of [the president] and would do everything in his power to undermine the new government. The military officers, humiliated by the event of September 4, refused to return to their posts and share power with their former underlings. It was hard for them to imagine that el negro...a guajiro (country boy) from Banes was responsible for their ouster. Their sense of military honor and class superiority posed an obstacle to negotiation and clouded their perception of the new power structure.

The Dominican Republic in 1963? Nicaragua in 1979? Bolivia in 2006?

No, this is Cuba, and not the Cuba of the storied and over-romanticized 1959 revolution, but the Cuba of the 1933 revolution that ousted a dictator, Gerardo Machado, and his successor, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, and was largely led by a low-ranking soldier of origins of desperate poverty and indistinct racial identity named Fulgencio Batista, the same Batista who in later years became another in the island’s long line of reviled despots, and whose ouster paved the way for 50 plus years of communist dictatorship on the island.

Sometimes, people who don’t know the history of places (Haiti, for instance) like to see things in the stark relief of black and white, never allowing their certainty to be clouded by the million shades of grey that inform power, its acquisition, its use and its maintenance.

Reading Argote-Freyre’s riveting book, Fulgencio Batista: Volume 1, From Revolutionary to Strongman, I think back to some of Robert Penn Warren’s musings on the old drama of power and ethics in Huey Long-era Louisiana. Interesting questions are posed in the midst of such dramas, surely, and it is up to us as journalists to answer them as fully and as honestly as we can, as they are not as we wished they would be.

“It is convenient to look at the outcome of an event and then interpret backward to make everything fit a nice and simple interpretation,” Argote-Freyre writes at one point. “But simplicity has its limitations.”

Amen to that.

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