25 September 2001
The reaction of people in Cuba was heartfelt and human. For Fidel and the TV schedulers, the line was less straightforward.
Like Timothy Garton Ash, I know that the moment we each became aware of
September 11th 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 September 11th, 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.
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
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
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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Copyright © Isabel Hilton, 2001. Published by openDemocracy.
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Isabel Hilton is a staff writer for the New Yorker. Her latest book is The
Search for the Panchen Lama (Granta Paperback).