Postcard — November 19, 2015, 1:28 pm

Workers’ Paradise

After more than half a century of socialist revolution, Cubans exemplify sustainable living—whether they want to or not.

Photograph by the author

A beach in Cojímar, on the outskirts of Havana, in 2010. Photograph by the author

The flat basin of the Viñales Valley is a refuge from western Cuba’s forested rolling hills. Its red farm fields are punctuated by distinctive gumdrop-shaped limestone karsts called mogotes, topped with trees and stained by seeping minerals. Tourists come to Viñales to roll cigars on tobacco farms and hike between hills under big blue skies. I went for the snails.

On a rainy summer afternoon earlier this year, a ranger for Viñales National Park named Roilan Rojas led a friend and me up the steep side of a mogote, navigating us through a maze-like world of hanging vines and dark chasms in jagged limestone. Rojas studies snails with biologists from the University of Havana. He pointed out smooth and copper-shelled Zachrysia guanensis, slender and zigzagged liguus, hulking veronicella slugs. Many Viñales land snails are endemic to Cuba. Some only live in trees; others invade the shells of fellow snails and eat them from within. Rojas told me that differing colors of some snails are rarely seen together, even if they belong to the same species. I asked why. “We don’t know,” he said, and with a wag of his finger: “but we will know.”

According to Rojas, it’s only one of many mysteries about Cuba’s snails. The Liguus carbonaria, a snail with a white-tipped black shell, has been seen on only one mogote and only on two documented occasions, decades apart. Questions also remain, he said, about how long snails live, how densely they populate mogotes, and why their shells vary so widely in color. What is known, however, is that the snails of Viñales are biological treasures. The mogotes are too far apart for snails to migrate from one to another, so the creatures have been evolving in isolation despite being as little as a few hundred yards away. The result is a Galapagos effect, an unusually vast genetic diversity within one small geographic area. Some snail species live only on a single Viñales mogote.

There is ecological richness throughout Cuba. Swimming in the waters of María la Gorda, a remote bay on the western tip of the island, I floated along an idling speedboat with a few dozen pale and pink snorkelers. Despite the blaring reggaeton being projected into the water by the boat pilots, there were clusters of bright Caribbean fish feeding among the coral covering the sea floor. This reef encounters little human disturbance. A lone hotel dots María la Gorda’s pristine shore; dense and tangled tropical vegetation takes over on the compound’s edge. Tube sponges, sea fans, and brain coral thrive within swimming distance from the shore. Black coral, grouper, and whale sharks lurk deeper down. Relatively unthreatened by overfishing, nitrate runoff, and stomping tourists, Cuban reefs are among the healthiest in the world.

Generations ago, many of the planet’s coral reefs would have looked as unspoiled as María la Gorda. It’s fodder for the popular cliché that Cuba is frozen in time, its antique cars, aging colonial architecture, and low-tech lifestyle reminiscent of a long-gone era. If so, the country picked a good time to freeze. Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution sidelined Cuba for the most economically prosperous and environmentally destructive era in all of human history. The island boasts mature mahogany, an abundance of endemic species, and healthy wetlands. Much of Cuban agriculture is organic. Protected areas cover an impressive 20 percent of Cuban land. As the rest of the world has felled its tropical forests, the forest cover on the island has actually increased. 

In Cuba today, population growth is stable, malnutrition is low, higher education is free, and most tropical diseases have been eradicated. Cubans can expect to live seventy-nine years, slightly outliving Americans. No other country in the world has achieved such longevity while at the same time polluting so little. The average Cuban has a 4.7-acre ecological footprint, the total amount of land area needed to grow the food they eat, produce the goods they use, and absorb the carbon they emit. For humans to avoid depleting the earth’s ecological resources, we would all have to live on about 4 acres each, according to the environmental nonprofit Global Footprint Network. As of 2011, Costa Ricans each used 5.4 acres, Norwegians almost 12, Americans nearly 17.

Cuba owes this ecologically lean development to strong social programs, a dedicated cadre of conservationists, and, despite revolutionary leaders’ grand visions, a chronically erratic economy. “Cuba hasn’t been able to develop like it has wanted to. Cuba has wanted to increase its level of consumption—and now wants to even more, in fact—but it hasn’t been able to,” said Isbel Díaz Torres, head of the Havana-based environmental activist group Guardabosques. “It hasn’t known how. It has chosen bad international allies to do it on many occasions. And so that has brought us to the place we are now with low consumption, but it’s not because of a policy of ‘we’re going to consume less to have less environmental impact.’ In fact, the policy has always been the opposite.”

After taking power in 1959, Cuban revolutionary leaders expected that they would be overseeing the island’s rapid industrialization. They believed that bringing the economy under state control would free it from its capitalist shackles and unleash scientific socialist efficiency. In August of 1961, the head of Cuba’s newly created Central Planning Board declared that annual economic growth would soon hit a sky-high 10 percent, and that the island would have a European standard of living by the early 1970s. He and his counterparts instead oversaw a chaotic transition to socialism and a decade of near-total economic stagnation. “We didn’t have the development that we aspired to,” Díaz Torres said, “but we did aspire!”

The optimism of the Cuban leadership was derailed by not only the typical dysfunctions of centrally planned economies, but also the American trade embargo, which was in full force by 1962. “We made promises that have not been fulfilled,” Fidel Castro said on television in March of that year, announcing new food rationing policies. Shortages and long lines became a constant of Cuban life. Most citizens could count on access to electricity, a school, and a doctor, but meat, telephone service, and new clothes were often scarce. All the while, Cubans were exhorted to work harder and sacrifice for the revolution.

The island’s economy grew modestly until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the “Special Period.” In the span of a few years, the nation lost 70 percent of its oil supply and 80 percent of its total imports. Imported fertilizer and animal feed virtually disappeared. Blackouts lasted as long as ten hours a day. Soap and detergent were hard to find. Cubans began biking everywhere in the tropical heat, despite losing approximately a third of their caloric intake. Cubans lost an average of twenty pounds each, and fifty thousand went temporarily blind due to vitamin deficiencies.

Twenty years after the depths of the post-Soviet crisis, Venezuelan oil flows and diets have recovered, but life in Cuba still demands ingenuity and sacrifice. In Havana, a city of two million, behemoth city buses imported from China transport hundreds of people shoulder to shoulder, sweating. Masking tape holds soccer cleats together. Decorative floral arrangements are assembled from used steel wool and deodorant roller balls, painted in festive colors. Air conditioning is virtually nonexistent. Flan is often served by dessert stands in the bottom half of a used beer can. In August, the city was in the midst of a shortage of matches; the best way to light a cigarette was to find a stranger already smoking one. Cooking oil is stored and reused until it is saturated with burnt crumbs. “We practically cook with petroleum,” a friend told me. One day, when I went to buy pastries to bring to a colleague’s house, I left the bakery empty-handed because I hadn’t brought my own cardboard box to transport them in. Havana nightlife as I know it consists mostly of sitting on concrete under yellow streetlights, occasionally with a bottle of rum. Dinner plates are often thin on meat and produce. Cubans quip that Granma, the Cuban Communist Party’s daily newspaper, makes for fitting toilet paper. It’s only partly a joke.

On a hot July weekend, I traveled from Havana to the nearby Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve with about a dozen Cuban friends for a weekend of camping. A trip like this is a significant expense, but it is an attainable getaway for much of Havana’s middle class. 

When we hopped off the back of a truck at the entrance to the Reserve, there wasn’t another vehicle in sight. If a bus didn’t chance by, it would be a five-mile walk to our campsite in the blazing afternoon heat. We draped clothing over exposed necks to protect them from the sun. Oppressed by the heat, our group grew silent after a mile or two. “And you wanted to know what Cuba is like,” one friend said aloud to an imaginary interlocutor as we staggered forward.

The next day, as some of the group lounged off the previous night’s rum, I set off into the woods with Juan Miguel Díaz Cordobes, a resident of Las Terrazas, one of the settlements within the reserve. He told me how, in 1966, Che Guevara trained guerrillas in this range of wooded hills for what would become his failed, fatal effort to foment Cuban-style revolution across Latin America. According to Díaz Cordobes, in the late Sixties, the Cuban government persuaded the region’s scattered rural dwellers to relocate into a series of barracks-like apartment buildings in centralized towns. It then established the Biosphere Reserve and planted cedar, pine, majagua, and ocuje trees. 

In Las Terrazas, Díaz Cordobes works at a livestock corral, gigs as a cook and tour guide, and lives together with his wife, two kids, parents, and two siblings in a three-bedroom apartment. As we meandered along the Reserve’s trails, we saw tocororos, Cuba’s red-and-blue national bird; medicinal plants that locals use for throat, skin, and kidney ailments; “Devil’s Little Horse,” a buzzing wasp-like creature the size of a golf ball; dancing butterflies of many colors; massive anthills. When we passed a wild mango tree, Díaz Cordobes threw sticks up into the branches until fruit fell. Through gaps in vegetation on the ridgeline trails, miles of forest became visible, each tree sucking planet-heating carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Crickets chirped. Tocororos sang.

I asked Díaz Cordobes what residents of the Reserve, the tenants of all this natural wealth, would like to change about their lives. He paused and turned toward me. “I would like to move to the United States,” he said.

“Here, as much as you work, you don’t see the results. Lots of people here earn twelve dollars a month. With twelve dollars you can buy a packet of salt, a bit of chicken, rice, beans, and that’s it.” No money is left over for cooking oil, soap, or clothes. He signaled to the tall grass that encroached on the edge of the trail. “Can you imagine how long it takes to cut all that with only a machete?” he said. In the United States, he added, there’s more technology, goods are cheaper, and you get paid by the hour.

“I would work day and night if I could make five dollars an hour,” he said as dusk settled. “If I could see the results.”

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Number of toilet seats at the EU Parliament building in Brussels that a TV station had tested for cocaine:


Happiness creates a signature smell in human sweat that can induce happiness in those who smell it.

Trump struggles to pronounce “anonymous”; a Sackler stands to profit from a new drug to treat opioid addiction; housing development workers in the Bronx are accused of having orgies on the clock

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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