Arts Listings

Veteran Journalist’s Clear View of Cuba

By Conn Hallinan Special to the Planet
Wednesday January 28, 2009 - 07:27:00 PM

One of the more annoying subterfuges of American journalists is that reporters present themselves as “objective” blank slates on which the “news” etches itself. Under that artifice, the U.S. media wage a clandestine war against things they don’t approve of: Palestinians fighting for their own nation; uppity presidents of former client states, like Venezuela; virtually anything that has the slightest tinge of “Left.” And most of all, Cuba. 

What makes it so refreshing to read the work of seasoned reporter Reese Erlich is that he makes no bones about having a point of view and is not the slightest bit shy about telling the reader exactly what it is. And when that honesty of purpose is combined with more than 40 years of reporting experience, it provides a revealing look at that small island off of the coast of Florida, which has plagued Washington policy-makers and successfully resisted almost half a century of U.S. hostility. 

“The ideals of the Cuban Revolution remain valid: land reform, ending racism, ending U.S. domination, economic equality and self-sufficiency, among others,” writes Erlich, “but the Cuban Revolution has made serious mistakes and hasn’t progressed nearly far enough.” 

That line would get you tossed out of any mainstream media newsroom in the country. A reporter who expresses an opinion of what makes a revolution “valid” and what constitutes “progress”? Get out the garlic and wooden stakes. 

In reality, of course, all reporters have a point of view; they just lie about it. Erlich is upfront, not only about his politics but also about how they have altered over the four decades that he has been reporting on Cuba. That kind of honesty allows the reader a place at the table, in essence the right to see the information Erlich is reporting through a different prism than the writer’s. Dangerous stuff. And very good. 

Dateline Havana is part history, part contemporary politics, and part personal journey. But it’s not one of those self-indulgent personal journeys that are more about the writer than the subject matter. Erlich has visited Cuba 11 times, from 1968 to 2008. The “personal journey” includes the people he drinks rum with in the countryside, the dissidents, the U.S. congressman, the activist in Miami’s Cuban community. In short, there are lots of people in this book, and they talk and argue and tell jokes, and Erlich sits among them. That kind of “personal.” 

The book is also an amazingly concise history of U.S.–Cuban relations, a history that is a blur for most Americans but not for Cubans. This history is woven throughout the book on topics ranging from organic farming to democracy to racism. In fact, there are few “hard” subjects Erlich avoids: artistic freedom, gays, democracy, you name it, and he asks people questions about it.  

Erlich’s major focus is to challenge the idea that Cuba presents some kind of “strategic threat” to the U.S., and he demolishes the politics behind the stupidity and cruelty of the blockade. It would be nice if the incoming Obama administration read this book. After doing so, it would be hard to imagine its members continuing the policies of the past 40 years without being at least awfully embarrassed about it. 

But this book is not just about the bad gringos to the north. Erlich has strong ideas about things like the importance of democracy and grassroots power, which lead him to be critical of a number of Cuban institutions. While overall he is an admirer of what Cuba has accomplished, he is not one to sport rose-colored glasses.  

“In reality, Cuba is neither the totalitarian hell depicted in the United States nor the socialist paradise claimed by some of its admirers,” he writes. 

This is not to suggest Erlich is crippled by that other infirmity afflicting American journalism: even-handedness. He makes no bones about who is right and who is wrong in the long history of hostility between the two countries, but he feels that his job as a member of the Left and as a reporter is to write about what he sees, ask hard questions, and let people talk. One can only wish this brand of journalism would spread to the New York Times. 

The book is written on the occasion of the Cuban revolution’s 50th anniversary, but Erlich is as much interested in the shape of the future as in the story of the past. As he says in his introduction, Cuba is entering a period of “great uncertainty:” its leadership is aging, and neither the world nor the region look like they did even a decade ago. Erlich’s long-time experience on the Island—in the old colonial days they would have called him a “Cuba hand”—gives him a perspective that makes it possible for the reader at least to discern what some of the choices of that future might be. 



By Reese Erlich. PoliPoint Press, LCC. $22.95. 


Peabody Award-winner Reese Erlich is also the author of The Iran Agenda: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East and a writer for mainstream and alternative media. He will be speaking throughout the Bay Area from Jan. 26 to Feb. 4. Berkeley readers can hear him at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 2 at Black Oak Books.