The Original Think Magazine (Published since 1996)
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The Powerlessness of the Powerful

the powerlessness of the powerful

"There are natures so innately beautiful, so richly dowered by God, that the idea that they could ever alter for the worse seems unthinkable. You can always be tranquil on their account..." - Dostoyevsky


I remember a bright, hot day from my college years with peculiar clarity. I stood, sweating, atop a mountain I had just climbed with a Belgian friend. We stood in the Dominican Republic: across the valley lay Haiti. "Look," he said, pointing at a road far below where dozens of trucks were waiting at the border.

He explained to me that the trucks were full of Haitians who were being transported to the border by the army. Once there, they were sold to Dominican landlords for a nominal sum per head. The landlords would bring them to the sugarcane farms, where they purchased food and tools at impossible prices. Often they owed the landlord money at the end of the season: should the worker die, his children can inherit the debt. The impolite term for this is "debt slavery". It is practiced in the Caribbean to this day.

On the bus trip home, some soldiers with assault rifles boarded our bus and hauled off a couple of Haitians who had no papers. They guy next to me nooded approvingly. "If only Trujillo would return," he said wistfully. "At least in those days, there was order." Trujillo presided over several episodes where armed gangs slaughtered thousands of Haitians with machetes. Order, indeed.


Globalization is a loaded term, beset with political implications under the best of circumstances. In the current political discursive environment, where facts and definitions are accorded an easy malleability of which Goebbels can only have dreamt, such terms are best avoided.


We can speak of ever-closer economic integration matched by ever-clearer stratification; of the opening of borders and the closing of minds; of burgeoning democracy in the Third World and militant authoritarianism in the most venerable republics of the First. But even in the face of marshaled facts and proofs, such talk will be dismissed as unfortunate, cynical irony.

Perhaps with good reason. The very real contradictions of the march of progress in the last fifty years mask equally real and fundamentally irrevocable developments. Just as the previous century saw remarkable achievements in the emancipation of the mind from god and the body from want, the postwar era has seen the emergence of a radical progressive consensus concerning the rule of law in international affairs. And while this is primarily a utilitarian consensus, it has been paralleled by the development of a sophisticated - if poorly elucidated - moral consensus at the same time. I mark the initiation of this consensus as 1989, for simplicity's sake.

Those who were there doubtless recall the feeling: it was less a gradual development than a tectonic shift in the climate of political consciousness around the entire planet. I choose the analogy carefully. Like an earthquake, it clearly was a force whose latent power had been building for decades, and the individual events surrounding the final cataclysm must be considered incidental. The essence of this shift was a dawning realization that there is no greater good inherent to the essence of any nation-state that outweighs the basic rights of citizens to a decent standard of living and political self-determination, now and in the future.

Two figures from that period of my life are fixed in my mind as symbols of this most worthy of struggles. Fidel Castro, who single-handedly liberated his nation from the worst excesses of American neo-colonial rule and murderous latifundia capitalism; and Vaclav Havel, unshakeable patriarch of peaceful liberal democratic revolution throughout the Soviet Empire. Castro's magnificent defense of his revolution in History will Absolve Me and Havel's Power of the Powerless had incomparable formative effects on my thinking in those years.

How odd to find those two old revolutionaries hurling epithets at one another! Vaclav Havel has seen fit to lend his considerable moral authority to the campaign to remove Fidel Castro from office: Castro seems prepared to gamely defend his creaking Stalinist monolith to the bitter end. They both share the same purported goal of "building a free Cuba". But I wonder how much thought either of them have devoted to what their peculiar freedom really will mean for the average citizen of Cuba. Freedom for whom, and to what end?

I am no more a fan of 'Stalinist' politics than Havel. But does he prefer the democracy of stuffed ballot boxes and roaming death squads of Guatemala and El Salvador? I recall reports of a horrified reporter asking a Guatemalan general, years after the fact, how he possibly could have ordered the indiscriminate aerial machine gunning of Indian villages. His answer was instructive. "It is very simple," he said calmly. "The people had to learn that while we could protect them from the guerillas, the guerillas could never protect them from us." Simple, indeed.

The simple, incorrigible fact of Castro's regime is that every citizen of Cuba has access to sufficient food, medical care, and education to support a life of basic human dignity. The logic of political necessity which leads to aerial slaughter is markedly absent. I wonder if Havel has seen the thousands of families burrowing for shelter in the massive trash heaps outside of Caracas. I have, and I do not dismiss Castro's achievements so lightly.

These achievements cannot be dismissed, but they can be weighed. Cuba enjoys self-determination in the sense that it is not dominated by its stronger neighbor, the sad fate of so many other countries in the region. Yet the system clearly fails to allow its citizens to determine the path of their own lives, individually and collectively. Castro's eternal justification of repression and centralization, the threat of invasion, is both tired and unconvincing (less so today than two years ago, however). But this failure does not outweigh the successes, in my mind: not the dreamy, utopian success of building a worker's collective, but the concrete, difficult success of ensuring people's access to basic services.

Presumably Havel might rebut that I offer a false dichotomy - that there is surely a third way for Cuba which leads neither forward with Castro nor backwards toward Batista. I believe this is true as well. But this third way will not be reached through external pressure. The only way in which the interests of the Cuban people can adequately be represented is through measured, constitutional change from within.

The risks associated with a collapse sparked from without are simply too great. The result is all too easy to see: American developers and industrialists pouring across the Florida Straits like ravening locusts, backed by merciless military force and economic might. It will be the end of Cuban sovereignty, and the beginning of another sad fiction of capitalism and democracy in the region.

What happened to Havel and Castro?

I do not ask this facetiously. It was only upon my return from the Caribbean that I read Havel's works, and I still remember those stirring words:

" is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can coexist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety..."

It pains me to say it, but Havel has become part of the lie. He allowed himself to be used like a worn-out mannequin by that grinning idiot in the White House: used to help justify an unprovoked war of aggression whose terrible consequences we are only now beginning to understand. He links his once honored name to the despicable agenda of American imperialism in its most distressing form, the mad and obsessive need to dominate Cuba once again.

Perhaps anachronistically, I still view Castro as a hero, albeit terminally flawed. Power has corrupted him absolutely, and his is the dishonored fate of those who begin revolutions by emptying the prisons, only to end with them fuller than ever before.

I cannot believe Havel did not see through the hopeless farce of the war on terror, that he does not see the vile appetites of those diseased curs in the White House for what they are; I cannot bring myself to think that Castro actually believes his grim hold on power is fort he good of his people ... yet I must. The only alternative is to believe in both cases that a great capacity for moral reflection and strength has been wholly replaced by that savage mendacity which drops bombs in pursuit of peace and builds concentration camps in the name of freedom.

I must believe that both of them have become blinded by their own experiences. Havel cannot see beyond his own hard-won freedoms to see how meaningless they are when the mere struggle for existence is a constant concern. Castro is willfully ignorant of the vast benefits an orderly and timely transfer of power might bring to his nation. Neither can see how his very legitimate concerns are twisted and warped to serve an entirely alien agenda - that ancient Hobbesian farce in which individuals are mere interchangeable cogs in a living and enduring machine.

None of this may matter. With or without Havel and Castro, the lie is beginning to crack. As he himself said, "when a single person breaks the rules of the game ... everything suddenly appears in another light and the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably." There are millions of people breaking the rules of the game, pointing and laughing at an Emperor dressed in nothing but lies and blood.

While these two statues do battle, the Cuban people suffer. They may suffer more, far more, at the hands of those who would help them. For millennia this has been the inevitable way of things on the world stage. But no more. Statues of all kinds are being thrown recklessly down into the dust: so recklessly, indeed, that they sometimes kill those who do the throwing. In the end, it is always the people who dance atop the broken stone.