The iconic author and historian speaks with Truthdig Editor Robert Scheer about his recent tour of Cuba, why he thinks the island has a bright future and why the United States, the world’s only superpower, has an inferiority complex.
Videography by George Edelman and Todd Wilkinson / Editing by George Edelman
Robert Scheer: All right, let’s begin. So you’ve had the grand tour of communist states from a failed one to a successful one turned capitalist. From Cuba—you went to Cuba—.
Gore Vidal: [Nods.]
Scheer: And then on to China.
Vidal: And on to China.
Scheer: What’s your take?
Vidal: My take is that Cuba is probably more successful for the people who live in it. It was so rare to see a contented people. Everything they’re doing, thus far—I don’t know what they’re doing secretly—but what they are doing is very good. There is no sullenness among the people which you get with great masses that don’t quite know what their government is. We’ve seen all the bad side of Cuba because we’re fed nothing else by the media. But I went through about three things there. One was the medical school. They’re turning out thousands of doctors. They’ve run out of hospitals for poor people in Cuba. They may have to import some poor people in hospitals because the kids from medical school can’t intern, so they’re going to have to intern in other countries, hence Venezuela as a possibility. But they are creating doctors, and the theory of those ruling echelons, as they say, is: “Look, we have no natural resources. We have no gold, we have no iron, we have no this, no that. All we’ve got are people.” What a thought! If only the Soviet Union had discovered that brilliant notion. “All we’ve got is people, so we’ll train them.” Castro has been generally benign. The bloodcurdling stories that we’ve been told by our government seem not to be true at all.
Scheer: You’ve met the man.
Vidal: No, I didn’t meet him, no. I’ve been invited by him a dozen times over 40 years, and for one reason or another I was never able to go. Then suddenly, the last invitation, I thought, “Oh, I’d better do it. I’m in the springtime of my senescence and presumably so is Castro.” We’re both 80, 81. And I thought, “I’d better do it.” The second I said yes, he goes into hospital. So I never saw him. But I certainly got to know the vice president, who’s the head of the Assembly there. I was fascinated. There were 20 or 30 Americans, mostly from around Manhattan, studying medicine. So I got these 30 Americans, also through their late 20s, and I said, “What’s it like?” I said, “You don’t have to snow me.” They said, “It’s just wonderful.” Every last one said, “None of us has the money or the means or the scholarships to go to medical school, so if we qualify, pass certain tests and so on, we get a medical education here in the hospital.” And I said, “What’s the quid pro quo?” The government is paying for their food, their lodging, their residence, their books. They said: “It’s very simple. We’ve been asked that once we’ve completed our medical training, that we’ll work in Cuba or in a country allied with Cuba. Venezuela or something. You know, sort of serve a little time, and then go out into the world and practice.” This is contrary to the American way. Everything we do, we do in bad faith. We’re always out to get somebody, particularly anyone foolish enough to put themselves in the hands of our government. They [Cuba] seem to be playing it pretty straight with these kids.
Scheer: Was Michael Moore there when you were there?
Scheer: Because on Tuesday we had a whole thing—. He’s making a movie, his next documentary. It’s about medical care problems.
Scheer: There was a picture of him down there in Cuba, filming. So maybe there’ll be some popular exposure, too.
Vidal: It would be nice.
Scheer: One interesting thing that got me about the Cuban medical system is—. They have sent these people everywhere—to Africa. ...
Vidal: Yes. Angola.
Scheer: Yeah, and everything. These are people you’d think would be candidates to defect. Because they’ve got this education. Surprisingly, they seem to be quite loyal.
Vidal: Would you rather live in Cuba or the United States just for quality of life?
Scheer: You’re asking me?
Vidal: I’m asking you. I’m asking, “Would one like to ...?”
Scheer: You want to know an honest answer? I went to Cuba the first time in 1960. I was there in ‘68. I did interview Fidel. I was there as recently as 19 ... whenever the anniversary was.
Scheer: ... 25th anniversary. I wrote about it for the L.A. Times. My answer is, unequivocally, I would rather live here. I require a certain individual freedom, even decadence, if you like. I know you’re going to tear my head off, but on an island, I felt claustrophobic. I felt it after the first . ...
Vidal: I agree ... about the island part. I don’t like islands, either. I spent some time in Ireland, too. Well, two things. First, let me finish up with the tour. The medical training. Then, as they only have people and as the new great thing in the world is electronic machinery, you have a vast university dedicated to that with thousands of students, and all this extra space. There’s, like, airplane hangars. And I said: “What’s all this space for? You expect 100,000 students?” They said: “No, no, no. Once we train them in building computers and so on, we’re going to manufacture them here and sell them around Latin America.” For very little or whatever they can get. Now here’s a marvelous utilization of a smart population. You just give them the tools and they go ahead. Every time I looked at one of these things and talked to the various ministers and so on I thought: “My God, how stupid the United States is. Why don’t we do this?” We have thousands of people out there with no training who are just as bright as the Cubans.
Scheer: Well, to begin with, why are we in a state of war with Cuba?
Vidal: Well, that’s vanity. The Kennedy boys got it in the teeth with the Bay of Pigs. Vengeance. An old Irish emotion.
Scheer: But why did they go into the Bay of Pigs? I remember—.
Vidal: It was part of the “We, Global Power” syndrome: How dare they stand in our way?!
Scheer: They overthrew a thug, Batista, right?
Scheer: Batista had been cozy with the mob. The place was a whorehouse, Havana.
Vidal: I know.
Scheer: I went down there in ‘60. I went down on one of the last flights that American Legion guys were going on in Key West. And on the little flight they tell you how you get laid and where you get the drugs and where you go to gamble. And this was after the revolution.
Vidal: Stay away from those small planes.
Scheer: [Chuckles.] The summer of ‘60, still, Havana was—. And you could see the decadence and everything. And while I was there—and there was certainly a good deal of a free market at that time, including prostitution and everything else that Americans like—we slapped an economic blockade on Cuba. People don’t know that in the fall of ‘60, before the Bay of Pigs, we slapped this blockade. At that point, Castro was still anti-communist, he was still the Catholic boy, the Catholic puritan.
Were you friendly with Arthur Schlesinger?
Vidal: Everybody was friendly with Arthur Schlesinger and sometimes to our regret.
Scheer: He was a principal, an architect of this policy.
Vidal: It was ADA. You remember all that. Trying to separate themselves. This is the liberals who wanted nobody to think they were communists because they still wanted to get government clearances and jobs in government, even the White House. It was, “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” That’s all we heard in the ‘50s.
Scheer: Castro was a good Catholic boy.
Vidal: A Jesuit—even worse.
Scheer: Well, he was rebelling against the drugs and the whorehouses, the crime. Cuba for the Cubans.
Vidal: And also against the American hegemony. It was bad enough to have had Spain for all those years, and then suddenly, these dum-dums from United Fruit had taken over these countries. He was trying to liberate his people.
Scheer: I asked Schlesinger about this, because Schlesinger—. During the Bay of Pigs—which, for the viewers who don’t know, this was the spring of ‘61, April ‘61, Schlesinger—this was in the New York Times—was kept as a prisoner there because the CIA guys didn’t trust him. So they locked him in a shed because they were afraid he’d babble to the media or something while this thing was going on. But he was one of the architects of this.
Vidal: Of course he was.
Scheer: But there’s no justification. Right? This was way before any missiles were put in. This was before close ties with—. The Soviets had blasted Castro until six months before he came into power.
Scheer: The Cuban Communist Party had not supported Castro until six months before he came to power.
Vidal: He was never a communist. I don’t think he is one now.
Scheer: So here we are. You’re visiting a country that has been distorted—.
Scheer: Right? Throughout this incredible ...
Vidal: Oh yes.
Scheer: ... lengthy existence of Castro, by a U.S. policy that was as mindless then as it is today in Iraq or anywhere else.
Vidal: Well, I think this is an American tic. I’ve been reading the American press for 70 years, is it, now? It seems like longer. And I have never read a story favorable to another country. Oh, yes, the Swedes have better medical care, better education, better day-care centers for working women ... but they’re all alcoholics. And they commit suicide. No, no, no! Yes. And I often ask sometimes when I have a dumb member of the press with me: “What is disturbing to you about Sweden? It bothers you that people aren’t dying of various diseases, they’re not starving to death? That they are looked after with a good education system and so on? Do you think they’re so bored then that we have to just jazz them up with poverty and plagues, the things that make our lives so exciting here at home?”
You can’t get an answer because it is so deep-rooted, it is lumping Protestantism from the very dawn of our country. And instead of dying out as it looked to be doing by 1945 when we all came home from the war, others were fanning it just for political gain, particularly in the South. So the solid South, which had been solid Democratic for a long time, shifted over, and that changed everything, and that may have had something to do with the demonizing of Cuba.
Zuade Kaufman / Truthdig