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How Do the Dissidents Feel? Cinematic Thoughts on the Cuba Deal

How Do the Dissidents Feel? Cinematic Thoughts on the Cuba Deal
By Carl Eric Scott
January 5, 2015 9:07 PM

“You have no idea how many people are in here due to senseless
heroics.” That’s a line from The Lives of Others, in which Stasi
interrogator Gerd Wiesler, speaking to Christa-Maria Sieland in the main
Stasi prison, is trying to get her to betray the fact that her lover has
written an article highly critical of the East German regime. His
argument, that it would be a waste of one’s life to get imprisoned over
a principled stand against snitching against loved ones, hinges on the
idea that the work of those working against the regime is futile. For
better or for worse, the regime is here to stay. The world has made its
peace with its existence.

Cuba’s communist regime may or may not fall in the next decade
(longstanding Cuba watcher Jay Nordlinger thinks it might soon enough,
and worries that Obama’s policy will get the credit–more from
Nordlinger on the deal here), but obviously, its leaders feel their deal
with Obama to normalize relations is more likely than not to shore up
their power. That is, their calculation is at least somewhat in line
with conservative Cuba expert Mark Falcolff’s:

The normalization of relations with Cuba comes at precisely the moment
that the Castro brothers need it the most, since their principal foreign
patron, Venezuela, is running out of money because of the collapse in
the world price of oil. …It couldn’t come at a better time for the Cuban
regime and gives it yet another lease on life.

Busy this Christmas season with visiting relatives, like most Americans
I’ve not followed this story closely. Perhaps that’s why I’ve yet to
read an adequate defense of Obama’s new policy—please provide a link if
you know of one, and no, the various editorials over at Huffington Post
don’t really pass muster—but I do assume there could be one of these,
particularly if couched in the idea that Obama could have consulted
Congress more on it. Our embargo did worsen the plight of the worst-off
in Cuba, it had gone on for a long time without much public debate, it
was not in harmony with key Latin American allies, and there is arguably
always a case against extended non-normalization of relations of this
kind. I have quibbles with and objections to all those points, but I
will say that Falcoff’s judgment that American supporters of normalizing
relations with Cuba are either a) persons who (errantly) think that this
will weaken the communists’ hold, or b) persons who actually want to
strengthen that hold with new infusions of cash, etc., is too simple.
Many Americans could conclude the policy has gone on too long without
having an opinion about a) or b) one way or the other.

All I’m saying is that I have some understanding for some of those who
support Obama on this, even though I think it’s a mistake. But let me
shift back to the dissident perspective: whatever your opinion about
Obama’s policy, I think you have some responsibility to face the
emotional cost of this decision to those it impacts most. Unknown Cuban
prisoners were undoubtedly taunted by their jailers with copies of the
news, taunted that their past “heroics” really have been proven
“senseless.” Castros and their ilk will rule Cuba for another
half-century at least, and so, those Cuban citizens who dared to suggest
that the nation could do better, whether they languish in prison or
whether they simply live in fear, without career prospects and
connections, will have been shown to have wasted their lives and
pointlessly harmed their loved ones. They made a gamble on the side of
liberty, categorical morality, and what God sees, and now we all see
that they should have stayed silent. So the cynical reasoning will go.

I’m sure there are some dissidents who basically support the
normalization, even if they have qualms about how little Obama got in
return, but the dissident voices we’re beginning to hear are mostly
critical. (Again, I would appreciate any other links readers are aware
of.) And that does nothing to remove the bitterness with which this
news was received by many Cubans unknown to us, such as the sorts of
Cubans portrayed in the 1996 film Azúcar Amarga, aka, Bitter Sugar.

In our recent book Totalitarianism on Screen: The Art and Politics of
The Lives of Others, co-editor Flagg Taylor and I argued that that film
was a major cinematic achievement, and really one of the best artistic
representations of life under communism in any genre. I wouldn’t say
either of those things about Bitter Sugar—I would give it no more than a
solid B as a film, even if to my mind it would deserve extra attention
due to its rarely-treated subject matter. The film shows how a young
man prepared to become devoted to the Cuban regime, and in a position to
be awarded for his support, is turned against it by the day-to-day facts
of his life, and by a love affair. The creepy importance of
prostitution in Cuba, and its relation to foreign tourism, is
highlighted, as are shortages of medical supplies, but otherwise, the
film essentially addresses the same sorts of issues that The Lives of
Others does. The all-encompassing corruption and oppression (however
“soft” or “subtle” it may be compared to earlier eras of Stalinist
massacres and Gulags) characteristic of “late totalitarian” communist
regimes, eats away much of one’s possibility of living a good life.

In our book’s introduction, Taylor and I say the following: “A
communist party in power rests its claim to authority upon its purported
knowledge of history and its claim that the dream of communism has been
at least partially realized. Thus, communist regimes must insist on
mass participation in a multifaceted and constant endeavor to maintain
the appearance of the triumph of the ideology. They likewise insist
that everyone chalk up any remaining difficulties to the predicted
resistance of class enemies. This is why such systems, according to
Václav Havel, are

…so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by
bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved
in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the
individual is presented as his ultimate liberation…Because the regime is
captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything…Individuals need not
believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they
did…For this reason, they must live within a lie.”

Make no mistake. This is the inner reality of the Cuban regime, a
reality that impinges day after day, year after year, upon nearly every
one of its subjects. Do not underestimate what it takes to resist the
lie. It takes the risks of perilous emigration across the seas, or of
dissidence within the society. Do not be surprised if those who have
taken the latter risk, or who simply know of those who have, look upon
this action by our president as a great betrayal, as an action that
suggests that the actions of liberty’s real heroes are utterly senseless.

Before I wrap this up, let me strongly request that commenters to this
post refrain from in any way comparing our life under President Obama
with that under a real totalitarian state like Cuba or East Germany.
Such would unfairly dishonor Obama, sure, but it is a truly obscene
moral equivalence for those who really lived and still do under such
regimes. That said, I’ll end with another quote from The Lives of
Others–the script was written by its director, Florian Henckel von
Donnersmarck:

Don’t I need this whole system? What about you? Then you don’t need it
either. Or need it even less. But you get into bed with them too. Why
do you do it? Because they can destroy you too, despite your talent and
your faith. Because they decide what we play, who is to act, who can
direct.

Without explaining it further–look, The Lives of Others is a 100%
must-see film, so I don’t want to spoil things for you–I’ll just say
that quote sums up the moral situation of the most privileged subjects
of the “soft” communist tyranny that was yesterday’s East Germany, and
which is today’s Cuba. That’s what life in communism holds for anyone
of talent and aspiration, even artistic aspiration: you have to get in
bed with them. That is what Cuba’s leaders have been offering their
subjects for decade upon decade now. Don’t we Americans owe those who
have rejected that deal, and especially those who have openly resisted
it, something better than the present policy shift? What do the
dissidents get? How do they feel? May our president remember their
plight and their point of view as he tries to get Cuba’s
tyrant-clique and our own Congress to implement this at-best highly
questionable policy. No doubt, his action has already wounded many of
them to the core.

Source: How Do the Dissidents Feel? Cinematic Thoughts on the Cuba Deal
| National Review Online –
http://www.nationalreview.com/postmodern-conservative/395771/how-do-dissidents-feel-cinematic-thoughts-cuba-deal-carl-eric-scott

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