On the Use of Hip-Hop as Anti-Communist Propaganda

Leave it to U.S. government agencies to come up with creative ways to undermine the enemy — like using rap songs and hip-hop culture to bring down the Communist regime in Cuba.

In this fascinating story from 2015, Darien Cavanaugh of the worthy blog War is Boring explains just how the attempt went. Spoiler alert: it went very, very badly. To me, the most interesting part about it is the agency involved: USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, the kind of agency one sees often popping up in “color revolutions” like Maidan 2014 (of which I’ve written here) or Tahrir 2011, the uprising that put the Arab Spring of the early part of this decade in the international media’s radar, and led to mass-scale slaughter and the rise of the Islamic State in Syria, Libya and Iraq.

USAID was founded in 1961 by the “Cold War Warrior” administration of John F. Kennedy, with a mission statement that, as Cavanaugh notes, “highlights two complementary and intrinsically linked goals — ending extreme poverty and promoting the development of resilient, democratic societies that are able to realize their potential,” which is 1960s-speak for “regime change.”

For years, the story adds, critics in American media and elsewhere have accused USAID of having direct links with the CIA, including involvement for decades in covert activities abroad, with a particular early focus on South Vietnam.

“In South Vietnam, the U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID] provided cover for CIA operatives so widely that the two became almost synonymous,” investigative journalist Jeff Stein wrote in a 2010 Washington Post column.

In Latin America, pretty much everyone knows about the direct USAID-CIA connection, often used to undermine democratically-elected government not to DC’s liking. In Cuba, what we have is definitely not a democratically-elected government, but Washington’s obsession with the Caribbean island is a particular case. Let’s keep in mind that the other Caribbean island that the U.S. took from Spain in the War of 1898 is on track to become a (bankrupt) U.S. state.

Hip-hop arrived in Cuba in the early 1980s. USAID took a while to crunch the numbers but eventually came up in 2009 with a plan to infiltrate the Cuban hip-hop scene, to “‘break the information blockade’ and inspire young people to rise up against the Castro regime through the power of rap and dance,” Cavanaugh explains:

 

The Cuban government initially treated hip-hop and rap in much the same way it dealt with other imported music. The Ministry of Culture didn’t ban it, but it didn’t support it either.

That changed in 2002 when the ministry created the Cuban Rap Agency. The agency supported hip-hop on the island and promoted Cuba’s hip-hop stars abroad.

The government endorsed the genre, provided the performers toed the communist party’s line. The Castro government banned outspoken critics such as the rap group Los Aldeanos from performing publicly in Havana.

That censorship forced the group to join the Cuban hip-hop underground, despite the group’s popularity.

Personally, I think an important caveat should be added here. In my experience, lots of people who have never been to Cuba and don’t know much about Cuba ignore the fact that only about 10% of Cuba’s population is black. I wouldn’t be surprised if USAID’s staffers, many of whom were wholly ignorant about Iraq’s ethnic divisions before the 2003 invasion of that country, were under the impression that Cuba is some sort of Haiti with a bunch of White Spanish Communists on top.

Then again, under one-drop rules common the U.S., one can also make the case that many more Cubans are in reality “African-American,” the main target demographic for rap music and hip-hop culture.

 

Because of its reputation as a front agency, USAID cannot legally operate within some countries, including Cuba. So when the agency decided to infiltrate the Cuban hip-hop scene in 2009, USAID took a different route — it subcontracted the work out to another organization.

USAID gave Creative Associates International — a development company based in Washington, D.C. — a contract to coordinate a multimillion-dollar plan in Cuba that involved promoting hip-hop performers and festivals.

The company also created a “Cuban Twitter” platform called ZunZuneo and brought young activists from other Latin American nations to Cuba to inspire dissent.

Serbian contractor Rajko Bozic headed the Creative Associates hip-hop program. Inspired by the student movement’s protest concerts that helped destabilize former Serbian Pres. Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, Bozic posed as a promoter.

This reference is priceless, and a reminder that the 2000 “revolution” against Milosevic, a Cold War-style ploy if I ever saw one, was a trial run for so much that came later in Eastern Europe, the post-Soviet Stans and the Middle-East: a combination of U.S. soft power, NGO cash, sanctions with European connivance and U.S. strong-arm diplomacy working beautifully tandem to further the interests of the world’s superpower. Back to Bozic and his well-funded mission:

He sought to enlist Cuban rap star and Los Aldeanos front man Aldo Rodriguez to ignite a youth-led movement that would topple the Castros.

Rodriguez and Los Aldeanos were perfect for the mission. The Cuban hip-hop scene adored their music and respected their outspoken lyrics criticizing the Castro government.

They had already been under scrutiny for the songs El Rap es Guerra [“Rap is War”] and Viva Cuba Libre [“Long Live Free Cuba.”]

“I’m tired of following their plan / Socialism or Death is not a slogan,” Los Aldeanos raps in one song. “People marching blind, you have no credibility / Go and tell the captain this ship’s sinking rapidly,” they say in another.

Bozic’s goal was to intensify government pressure on Los Aldeanos and foment hostility towards the government’s oppressive censorship.

A big issue here is that Bozic, of course, never told Los Aldeanos his aims or that he worked for USAID. I doubt that they ever asked. Some things are better kept unsaid. Then again, these are guys who grew up under Communism, so thay may have been easily fooled by his assurances that Bozic “worked in alternative media and marketing” and offered to produce a TV series on the group as well as other young music artists.

Bozic said he would distribute the series via DVD and thumb drive to circumvent Cuban censors.

Although the Cuban regime had banned the group from publicly performing in Havana, Los Aldeanos put on a concert for 150 fans in Candelaria on June 5, 2009.

Bozic and his crew filmed the show, and kept the cameras going when the police showed up afterwards to arrest Rodriguez. But the crew ducked away before attracting attention to themselves.

Soon after Rodriguez’s arrest, Bozic spent two days trying to convince Colombian rock sensation Juanes to allow Los Aldeanos to open for him at his concert scheduled for Havana in September 2009.

Juanes is a music superstar in the Spanish-speaking world, mind you. A Shakira-level Colombian celebrity. This is not the minor leagues we are talking about.

While Bozic worked with rap artists, Creative Associates pursued social media. It brought computer equipment into the country to set up its illegal Internet network and the ZunZuneo social media platform.

At its peak, ZunZuneo had 40,000 users according to the AP, or 68,000 users according to a post titled “Eight Facts About ZunZuneo” on USAID’s official blog.

Creative Associates used the platform to blast out hundreds of thousands of texts to its users asking if they thought Los Aldeanos should join Juanes on stage in the lead up to the Havana concert. At the time, none of the users nor Los Aldeanos knew who had sent the texts.

Juanes declined to share the stage with the dissident hip-hop group, but did give a “shout-out” to it after his performance and posed for photos with the group.

USAID is, of course, a cash-rich operation. Around the same time it tried to team up with Juanes, Creative Associates began taking Cuban hip-hop artists to “leadership training” workshops in Madrid and Amsterdam:

It wanted to indoctrinate them so they would serve as agents of social change.

A Cuban video jockey named Arian Monzon, whom Creative Associates considered to be their “contact of highest confidence” in Cuba, helped select the musicians and organize the trips through his networking site, TalentoCubano.org.

Among other lessons provided at workshops, the groups learned how to use guerrilla marketing and graffiti campaigns to promote their music and political message.

In July 2010, Los Aldeanos performed at Serbia’s Exit music festival — one of the biggest in Europe — and attended the leadership training workshops.

But the hip-hop program proved fruitless despite the money and effort expended by the U.S. government. “Instead of sparking a democratic revolution, it compromised an authentic source of protest that had produced some of the hardest-hitting grassroots criticism since Fidel Castro took power in 1959,” the AP reported.

American senators were openly critical of the USAID program after learning of it.

Nobody likes a loser.

“USAID never informed Congress about this and should never have been associated with anything so incompetent and reckless,” Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy told the AP when asked about the report. “It’s just plain stupid.”

“The conduct described suggests an alarming lack of concern for the safety of the Cubans involved, and anyone who knows Cuba could predict it would fail.”

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake was equally harsh. “These actions have gone from boneheaded to a downright irresponsible use of U.S. taxpayer money,” he told reporters.

The Creative Associates campaign relied on naive youths from Cuba and Latin America. The immigrants came to the island disguised as aid workers, but were actually there to introduce subversive ideas to Cuba’s youth through the hip-hop scene.

I’m not sure that any aid worker in human history has ever refrained from introducing subversive ideas to local youth. But, again, best not to ask so you don’t have to be told:

Many of them were unaware of the role they were playing in the political tug-of-war between Havana and Washington. This created a particularly dangerous situation for those involved.

By 2011, the Cuban government discovered the scheme and cracked down on Creative Associates and its affiliates. “On at least six occasions, Cuban authorities detained or interrogated people involved in the operation,” The Guardian reported.

Many of the performers that USAID and Creative Associates promoted either fled Cuba or quit performing out of fear of government reprisals. Los Aldeanos moved to South Florida, where their sound has taken a more commercial and less political turn.

The Cuban Rap Agency now wields much firmer control of the hip-hop movement in Cuba, promoting groups such as Doble Filo and Obsesion that are more friendly to the communist cause.

And the Castros are still in power.

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España, Franco y los Judíos (2)

(Viene de la primera parte)

En Julio de 2013, Malcolm Gladwell escribió un interesante y engañoso perfil en el New Yorker de Albert Hirschmann, un economista alemán que, junto con el reportero estadounidense Varian Fry, ayudó a más de 2.000 judíos a escapar de la Francia de Vichy.

El largo artículo me resultó chocante por la forma en la que el famoso Gladwell explica cómo aquellos miles de personas, hombres, mujeres, niños, ancianos, llegaron a Estados Unidos: Hirschmann y Fry los escondían en villas en el sur de Francia, y luego llegaban a Lisboa, donde tomaban un barco hasta Estados Unidos. La palabra “España” aparece sólo siete veces en el texto, y la palabra “Franco” una, y todas las apariciones corresponden a la narración de los tiempos en los que Hirschmann luchó como voluntario comunista en la Guerra Civil española.

En el mundo mental de Gladwell, España, los más de mil kilómetros de fronteras, montañas, ríos y valles entre el sur de Francia y Lisboa, no existen. Es fácil comprobar que casi todos los judíos ayudados por la red de Fry y Hirschmann llegaron a Lisboa después de pasar días o semanas cruzando España, donde recibieron asistencia, techo y alimento; pero en el artículo de Gladwell todo esto no existe: lo que hay es un portal virtual que conecta el sur de Francia con el puerto de Lisboa. España está ausente en esta narración sobres judíos que escapan del Holocausto. Es un vacío, un agujero negro.

Es curioso que tal no sea el caso de Suiza, otro frecuente objetivo de los refugiados del nazismo. Por ejemplo, la peripecia de Francoise Frenkel, una judía que logró pasar a Suiza (¡tras tres intentos fallidos!) fue lanzada a la fama hace unos años por el periodista Robert Fisk. Y no hay crítica alguna a las autoridades suizas en la narración de Fisk o los escritos de la propia Frenkel, sólo admiración ante la humanidad del simpático guardia suizo de fronteras que la encuentra en el bosque.

La realidad, en cambio, es que Suiza rechazó a miles de judíos en la frontera (entre 10.000 y 25.000 según las propias autoridades suizas), enviándolos de vuelta a la Europa ocupada, frecuentemente durante el periodo en el que el Holocausto ya estaba en marcha; y colaboró con las autoridades alemanas para marcar los pasaportes de judíos con una “J” que avisara a los aduaneros.

Tales hechos no han impedido que el papel de las autoridades suizas, tan ambiguas, sea alabado calurosamente. Algo similar ocurre con Suecia, frecuentemente alabada por el importante papel de Raoul Wallenberg en el rescate de judíos húngaros, a pesar de su política restrictiva contra los refugiados judíos que huían de los territorios bajo control nazi hasta 1942, el año en que empezó a quedar claro que Adolf Hitler perdería la guerra.

Hay que tener en cuenta que tanto Suecia como Suiza eran naciones neutrales, ricas y completamente aisladas tanto de la Segunda Guerra Mundial como de los conflictos que se extendieron por Europa durante los años 30. España, en cambio, había sido arrasada por una Guerra Civil que dejó casi medio millón de muertos y gran parte del país destruido, con los alimentos racionados hasta los años 1950. Cuando Hitler invadió Polonia en 1939, España ya estaba para el arrastre, y el bloqueo continental que impuso el Reino Unido a partir de la derrota francesa en Junio de 1940 sólo empeoró las cosas.

En estos años, España recibía anualmente un millón de toneladas de trigo importado, y suministros de gasolina al doble o triple del precio de mercado, procedentes de EEUU. Los suministros pasaron a depender de los certificados navicert que concedía el gobierno británico a las flotas mercantes de los países neutrales, para eludir el embargo a Alemania y los países ocupados. La dependencia era total: como cuenta Carlton Hayes, embajador de EEUU, en sus memorias “Wartime Mission in Spain” (1946), en abril de 1943 la aerolínea Iberia se quedó sin gasolina para sus aviones y EEUU sólo aceptó suministrar 320 toneladas al mes a cambio de recibir información sobre los pasajeros en los vuelos a Tánger, un centro internacional de espionaje.

A pesar de estas condiciones extremas, España nunca cerró las fronteras a los refugiados de la guerra, como sí hicieron en ocasiones Suiza y Suecia. En mi entrada anterior a esta serie, he ofrecido los datos sobre el rescate español de judíos que proporciona Haim Avni en su libro “Franco, España y los Judíos”. Sus estimaciones están en línea con el consenso de los investigadores sobre el tema: la Enciclopedia Estadounidense del Holocausto calcula que unas 30.000 personas, en su mayoría judíos, escaparon Francia vía España sólo entre 1939 y 1941, y unas 10.000 más durante el resto de la guerra. También hay estimaciones más altas.

Entre estos refugiados, como Gladwell indicó en el New Yorker, estuvieron Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Alma Mahler y el propio Hirschmann. Nadie parece tener una palabra de agradecimiento para España y sus autoridades; si la han tenido, yo no la he escuchado.

De todos modos, sería exagerado decir que en España se recibió a todo el mundo con brazos abiertos y collares de flores; las tribulaciones, y la cara y cruz de las experiencias de muchos, se pueden ver en esta página de Avni:

cara y cruz.jpg

Luego está el caso del pensador Walter Benjamin, que ha envenenado la historiografía sobre el franquismo. Benjamin se suicidó en Portbou, Gerona, el 26 de septiembre de 1940, aterrado por la posibilidad de ser devuelto a las autoridades de Vichy.

El grupo con el que viajaba fue autorizado a proseguir camino al día siguiente, sin problema alguno, como tantos otros. Avni escribe que, en 1940, el cruce de la frontera era bastante fácil y muchos refugiados sin papeles llegaron sin incidentes hasta Barcelona; los que eran capturados eran internados en prisiones provinciales, bajo la normativa legal habitual para la inmigración ilegal, pero no devueltos a Francia (*).

El caso de Benjamin también está complicado por las frecuentes alegaciones de que Benjamin pudo no haberse suicidado, sino haber sido asesinado por agentes estalinistas que sabían que Benjamin planeaba publicar escritos antisoviéticos desde el exilio.

Esto, con todo, es irrelevante. El 25 de noviembre de 1940, dos meses después de la muerte de Benjamin, el secretario de Estado de EEUU Cordell Hull recibió una petición de ayuda del embajador de la Francia de Vichy,  Gaston Henry-Haye, quien describió la llegada al territorio de la Francia No Ocupada de miles de “Israelitas” que habían sido expulsados desde los territorios alemanes de Wurtemberg and Baden.

El problema era enorme, explicó Henry-Haye, diciendo que la Francia de Vichy tenía tres millones y medio de extranjeros refugiados en su territorio, desde armenios hasta asirios pasando por polacos católicos, y carecía de alimentos para ellos debido al bloqueo británico. Henry-Haye pidió asistencia a Estados Unidos, que tenía relaciones diplomáticas con Vichy, para que algunos de los refugiados–en particular los judíos alemanes a los que el embajador veía en mayor peligro–pudieran emigrar a América, del norte, del centro o del sur.

El Departamento de Estado tardó varias semanas en responder. Cuando llegó la respuesta, Hull muy amablemente se negó a atender la petición:

“Las leyes de Estados Unidos respecto a la inmigración son bastante explícitas y no permiten mayor liberalización.”

En una carta enviada por un ayudante de Hull al presidente Franklin Delano Roosevelt, el Departamento de Estado explicó el motivo de la negativa: había que rechazar el “chantaje totalitario” que proponía Vichy, que estaba bajo presión alemana para expulsar refugiados de Europa continental (**):

“Si cediéramos a esta presión, los alemanes le echarían encima a los franceses a los judíos restantes de Alemania y los territorios ocupados, en la expectativa de que los franceses a su vez persuadirían a este país y otros de América para recibirlos “.

Esta era la actitud del gobierno de Washington en la víspera del Holocausto, lo que representa también una respuesta a aquéllos que piensen que la actitud española con los refugiados judíos era una forma de buscar congraciarse con Estados Unidos: en este periodo, Washington no quería estos gestos (en la fase final de la guerra, sí empezaron a apreciarlos).

Mientras tal intercambio de correspondencia ocurría al otro lado del Atlántico, aún en paz, la hambrienta España recibía refugiados por decenas de miles. Y el que está sin arbolito en Yad Vashem es Franco, cuando su subordinados Sanz Briz, Romero Radigales y Perlasca son Justos entre las Naciones. En la siguiente entrada examinaré más de cerca el papel exacto del gobierno español, y algún otro gobierno fascista de la época, en este asunto.

(Continuará)

(*El artículo de Wikipedia en inglés sobre Benjamin y las circunstancias de su muerte está tan lleno de mentiras y manipulaciones–escribe que quizá los compañeros de Benjamin fueron autorizados a seguir camino porque la policía española, que venía de una guerra de tres años, se asustó por el suicidio de un civil, lo que es propio de una mente infantil, un insulto a todos los españoles y una muestra de desconocimiento total de las circunstancias históricas y legales–que merecería la pena un análisis separado sobre la construcción de propaganda)

(**Este, y otros episodios similares, son relatados en el excelente libro sobre los comienzos de la II Guerra Mundial “Human Smoke”, de Nicholson Baker)

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Geli Hitler: Berlin Station

(This is a short extract from chapter 6 of my novel “Geli Hitler,” available here)

In the event, Maier found a seat in one of the many trains connecting Stettin to Berlin, but there were no places left in the overnight express to Munich. He dragged himself and his suitcase to a small, somewhat decent pension just outside Berlin’s central station, where he found himself sharing a first-floor room with a tall, middle-aged man who slept in tender embrace with a violin case. Whatever there was inside the case, Maier preferred not to find out.

The night was long. The man with the case snored. Soon after midnight, there was a clatter in the street, just a few feet away from Maier’s bed. Shoes hurried down the pavement, whistles were exchanged, then some incoherent shouting. It might have been kids running around for fun; if not for the fact that the din returned soon thereafter, with the added sound of fight: a whine, a call, a high-pitched cry for help. Then more running around.

Maier rose. He put some clothes on and grabbed his gun. The other man had stopped snoring but preferred not to look at Maier. At the pension’s entrance—not really a reception, more like a wide corridor with a small room to one side, where the place’s business was conducted—a thin, young man was standing, uncertain of what to do. Maier didn’t know who the man was, but he supposed he was some kind of night-watchman.

“What’s that noise out there?” Maier asked, in a low voice.

“It was the same thing last night,” the young man said. “I think it’s some bums, they are probably drunk. They fight.”

He didn’t seem all that willing to get out to check his facts on the ground.

“I’m a policeman,” Maier said. ”I’ll go have a look.”

The young man turned to him.

“People say the bums steal from poor people at the station. They close down the station every night, so some people with trains departing the next morning try to save some money and spend the night by the main gate. People from the provinces. The bums go after them.”

“What about the local police?”

The young man shrugged. His elbows were pointy, his arms little more than bones and skin. He was no fighter, that much was clear.

Maier stepped out, gun in hand. It was a cold night, too cold, he imagined, to find many thrifty provincial travelers huddled by the station. Gray mist hung from the working lamplights—around half of them. Maier wondered: in Italy, Mussolini had risen to power on the promise of making trains run on time; in Germany, despite the war and the inflation and the economic crisis that had come last trains still ran in time—so perhaps Hitler might have to win the election on the promise of making lamplights work.

Round the corner, the dark mass of the station beckoned. Movement to the right, movement to the left: bums hiding in the shadows, possibly. That walk to the station, Maier understood, was the kind of thing he should never tell his wife about: why the hell was he running the risk of walking in the dark in a strange city, surrounded by people who might dislike him extremely.

Then again, he was the police. He noticed a group of people on benches not far from the main gate. Ten perhaps, old and young, one boy and one girl; surrounded by suitcases, some of them laying together, as a sort of palisade against the wild Indians in the mist. They stiffened at the sight of Maier.

“I’m a policeman,” he said, putting his gun away.

“It was about time,” the oldest man, one in his seventies wearing a heavy overcoat, said.

“I’d like to know if you have anything to report,” Maier said, unwilling to object.

“Just some crazy people running around,” said the old man, now firmly established as spokesman. “Two of them came to ask for money. Bums. We didn’t give them any. Are they dangerous?”

The man had a defiance about him, cold dark eyes, a long face; and a slight foreign accent. The women, the children, the men in the group: they all were dark-haired, and their clothes and guarded glances had a vague Eastern air about them. Maier found himself looking for all-so-slightly hooked noses, but then looked away. He didn’t know what the purpose of it all was: they could be dark-haired Germans, or Hungarians or God knows what; would it make any difference if they were Jews?

“I’ll stay with you for a while, if you don’t mind,” Maier said.

“On the contrary,” the old man said.

Since Maier was betraying his Jewish wife, and might possibly even leave her, it was best for justice in the universe if the people he was protecting at the station were Jews, a voice inside Maier suggested. He pondered the issue for some time, watching the mist grow more quiet as the minutes passed; he was unable to reach any conclusion but, as always, the very act of considering his ethics made him feel virtuous and true.

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España, Franco y los Judíos (1)

En 2013, yo era nuevo en Twitter y pensaba que en las redes sociales habría gente que se dejaría impresionar por argumentos eruditos: no sé, al menos uno o dos. Qué te voy a contar.

Esta conversación es de entonces: un residente en Barcelona, súper pro a tope Israel, le explica a sus seguidores que Franco estaba muy feliz de ver a Hitler matando a los judíos españoles. Y yo respondo, haciendo referencia a dos libros sobre el tema de Arcadi Espada (“español, buff”) y Stanley Payne (“¡hispanista inglés!”):

antifranco

Después de que yo dejara la conversación, David Yabo siguió desvariando por ahí sobre imaginarias fosas de judíos en Andorra (¿los mataba el régimen nazi andorrano, siguiendo direcciones franquistas, amigo Yabo?) y tal.

Luego, Yabo volvió brevemente cerca de tierra, para argumentar que los descendientes de un diplomático son una especie humana superior, cuya opinión es de un rango más elevado que el de los historiadores y contradice cualesquiera documentos históricos que uno pueda aportar:

antifranco2

La conversación de me quedó grabada sobre todo por la referencia a Yad Vashem, el museo del Holocausto en Israel, como suprema fuente de autoridad: una muestra clara de que no importa tanto lo que uno haga, sino que uno convenza a los demás de que ha hecho algo importante.

Un par de años después encontré en una librería de segunda mano un monográfico sobre el tema: España, Franco y los Judíos, de Haim Avni, en traducción española del inglés de 1982, publicado por Altalena.

Este libro contiene muchísima información sobre el tema, pero que quede claro lo primero: que los familiares de Angel Sanz Briz (quien fue primer secretario de la embajada de España en Budapest en 1944) que dicen creer que su labor humanitaria la hizo por su cuenta y riesgo se equivocan y, es más, tratan de hacerse con laureles que no les corresponden (que en todo caso les corresponderían su ancestro): él era sólo un empleado del gobierno español que hizo lo que se le mandó con los fondos y la autoridad que se le concedieron para hacerlo, según escribe Avni.

Múltiples detalles sobre las aventuras de Sanz Briz aparecen en el reciente libro de Arcadi Espada “En nombre de Franco” (2014), que creo que no es del todo justo con el cuerpo diplomático español, pero concluye sin lugar a dudas que Sanz Briz no era El Angel de Budapest, sino el Hombre del Régimen en la capital húngara.

El libro de Avni, muy anterior, contiene menos detalles sobre Sanz Briz en particular, pero llega a una conclusión aún más amplia que la de Espada: que Sanz Briz fue sólo uno entre muchos.

Si alguien puede tener dudas al respecto, he aquí una lista (incompleta) de los empleados del Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores que cita Avni por haber colaborado a salvar judíos del Holocausto: Miguel Angel Muguiro, expulsado de su puesto en Budapest por su duras críticas contra el régimen húngaro y sus gestiones en favor de los judíos, sustituido por Sanz Briz en 1944; Giorgio Perlasca (quien prosiguió la tarea de Sanz Briz en Budapest después de que éste se marchara a Suiza aquel mismo año); Manuel del Moral, cónsul en Tánger; José Félix de Lequerica, embajador en la Francia de Vichy; Bernardo Rolland, cónsul general en París;  Eduardo Gasset y Sebastián Romero Radigales, cónsules generales en Atenas; Juan Palencia y Tubau, embajador en Bulgaria (quien llegó al extremo de adoptar a dos huérfanos judíos, veinteañeros, para salvarlos, y recibió la Cruz de Isabel la Católica por su heroísmo).

Esta larga lista hace surgir la duda: el Estado de Israel votó a favor de la entrada de España en la ONU, en 1955, pero votó en contra cuando España lo intentó por primera vez, el 16 mayo de 1949, unos días después de la aceptación del propio Israel, a propuesta de varios países latinoamericanos que buscaban anular el boicot diplomático impuesto al régimen franquista en 1946.

En 1949, el presidente israelí Abba Eban—quien citó  la cifra de seis millones de judíos muertos en el Holocausto, incluyendo un millón de niños pero no la ayuda española para rescatar judíos—anunció que Israel no podía estar de acuerdo “por la asociación del régimen de Franco con la alianza Nazi-Fascista”.

Avni escribe que, en la primera fase de la Segunda Guerra Mundial, casi 30.000 judíos, la mayoría con visado para Portugal y más allá, escaparon Europa a través de la España fascista. En la segunda mitad de la guerra, sobre todo a partir de 1942, los citados diplomáticos españoles y otros dieron papeles y salvaron a unos 3.235 judíos de otros países europeos, mas 800 españoles, y el país aceptó el paso de 7.500 judíos adicionales en tránsito. ¿Sabía Eban todo esto cuando dio su discurso en la ONU? ¿Lo sabías tú, lector, antes de que yo te lo contara?

(Continúa aquí)

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How Gorbachev Ended Up Believing American Propaganda

The biggest question about Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who essentially agreed to demolish the Soviet Union (*) is why. He took over in 1984 and, in less than the time-span of two U.S. presidential terms, the space-faring, globe-encompassing superpower he had once presided over was gone for ever.

The conservative explanation for this is that Gorbachev was smartly tricked into defeating himself by Ronald Reagan and his clever moves, such as the Star Wars missile defense that contributed to the Soviets bankrupting their economy out of fear that their nuclear deterrent would become obsolete. A more consensus-like explanation is the economy, you know, the economy. The Soviets produced terrible blue jeans and, after decades of a crappy, decreasing standard of living, nobody could take it anymore.

None of these two explanations account for much of what Gorbachev did. Without getting too much into the fascinating nitty-gritty of the period (which is well covered in John O’Sullivan’s 2008 “The president, the Pope and the Prime Minister,” for example, and some other books), there are some key open questions that illustrate Gorbachev’s actions and motivations. None more so than the question of why Gorbachev allowed the reunification of Germany within NATO.

This is an absolute key issue for the modern world. Just imagine how everything would look like if the leading country of the European Union were, instead of a key NATO member and U.S. ally occupied by tens of thousands of U.S combat troops, a neutral non-aligned power without U.S. troops. Just imagine how everything would look completely different, particularly the Russian periphery.

This outcome, that of Germany outside of NATO and American tutelage, was within Gorbachev’s power to obtain. In a recent issue of the London Review of Books, Neal Ascherson comments on William Taubman’s latest Gorbachev biography:

In his great speech to the UN General Assembly in December 1988, Gorbachev announced enormous unilateral cuts to Soviet conventional forces in Europe, and said that a society’s ‘freedom of choice’ should be respected without exceptions. The frightful suspicion that Soviet power might no longer stand between them and their angry populations began to seep into the skulls of the smarter East European leaders: others, as in East Germany, still dismissed that as unthinkable. Dissidents and ordinary people calculated that there was now a fair chance – no better than that, yet – that Soviet tanks would not invade if they took matters into their own hands. The outcome was the multiple liberations of 1989. Gorbachev clearly hoped that the overthrow of Communism would be followed by some form of democratic socialism. But when that looked increasingly unlikely, he didn’t panic. He simply didn’t care enough about that part of the world. One of his finest legacies was that he precisely didn’t bring about revolutions in East-Central Europe. By standing aside, he allowed a generation of Poles and Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and Germans to create the nourishing myth that their freedom had been won by their own courage on the street. When they woke Gorbachev one November morning to tell him that East Germany had opened the Wall, he merely said: ‘They did the right thing.’

By 1990, the reunification of Germany was on the table, Ascherson and Taubman write:

In 1990, while establishing the presidency and fending off Yeltsin, Gorbachev was also coping with the enormous new question of Germany’s future. The West, including Chancellor Kohl, assumed that he would oppose German reunification, but he accepted it. Then they thought that he would probably refuse to allow a united Germany to remain in Nato, and would certainly veto the extension of Nato into what had been East Germany. But in May he came to Washington and suddenly agreed with Bush that ‘united Germany … would decide on its own which alliance she would be a member of.’ The Americans couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Gorbachev’s own staff were thunderstruck. Why did Gorbachev not drive a much harder bargain over Germany, when he clearly had the chance? Taubman isn’t the only one to ask that question. The moment was so dramatic and desperate that if Gorbachev had asked for German neutrality as the price for recognising German unity, there was at least a possibility that the West might have agreed… Whatever his motives, Gorbachev’s reluctance to put up a fight over Germany had enormous consequences. Some were domestic: in abandoning the Soviet foothold in Germany, won at the price of such bloodshed, was he not betraying all that the Soviet people had gained in the Great Patriotic War? As one of many abusive letters to him put it, ‘Mr General Secretary: congratulations on receiving the imperialists’ prize for ruining the USSR, selling out Eastern Europe, destroying the Red Army, handing over all our resources to the United States and the mass media to the Zionists.’

Of course, there were promises made to Gorbachev by the West, that were later broken. Ascherson again:

Though Taubman doesn’t put it like this, the West took Gorbachev’s co-operation for weakness. He expected an economic and financial reward for his concessions: it didn’t come. Crucially, in February 1990, James Baker, the US secretary of state, and Chancellor Kohl assured Gorbachev that Nato wouldn’t expand eastwards, certainly not towards the Soviet frontiers. But Gorbachev failed to make them write it down and Bush later told Kohl that he and Baker had gone too far. ‘To hell with that! We prevailed. They didn’t. We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.’ A few years later, by 2004, all the ex-Warsaw Pact nations, including the Baltic republics and Poland, had been brought into Nato. After their triumphant experience with Gorbachev, Western leaders reckoned that they could get away with it. But the ‘broken promise’ grievance smoulders under Putin’s European policy to this day. Most Russians, whatever their view of Putin’s autocracy, still look on Nato’s surge up to their borders as the treacherous breach of an international agreement.

It wasn’t only Baker and Kohl who lied and cheated, though. It was the entire Western leadership, and very particular the U.S. government, that made specific commitments to the Soviets and then to the Russians, in exchange for withdrawals and disarmament, that were dishonored time and time again. You can check this extensive review of Western promises to Soviet leaders and then completely ignored.

Russia, in fact, was led to believe that it would be allowed to join NATO, which would then turn into an wide Western security alliance. As late as 2001, Vladimir Putin was still asking for NATO membership for Russia, which of course was always off the table. The Russians were told they were invited to a banquet, but they were only the main dish, as the transcripts of top-level U.S. and British conversations show.

The evidence is all over. Reviewing the same Taubman biography in theTimes Literary Supplement, Geoffrey Hosking writes:

Meanwhile, on the international stage, Gorbachev won plaudits from the outset. His open manner, his eagerness to discuss serious problems frankly, his ability to interact with foreign leaders were an agreeable contrast to his stiff, unresponsive predecessors. He had decided that the endless build-up of weapons in both East and West had contributed to the stability of neither, but was especially damaging to the Soviet Union, with its less developed technology. He wanted to replace the arms race with a new security structure for the whole of Europe, a “common European home”, as he repeatedly called it, in which both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would be dissolved.

He believed favorable US press coverage, in which he was only praised to contrast him with the hated Reagan, showed the Americans’ heart. No, seriously:

The rapturous reception he received from crowds in London, Paris, Rome, and elsewhere boosted his inveterate optimism: Gorbachev believed that his dream of a harmonious Europe was more advanced than it really was. Especially optimistic was his acceptance in 1990 that a reunified Germany should join NATO, as he never even received a written agreement that NATO would not expand further eastwards. It is true that he desperately needed financial help from Helmut Kohl’s wealthy Germany. All the same, to surrender so much without gaining reciprocal concessions seems remarkably sanguine. And of course, the resentment engendered in his homeland by his compliance (his Soviet opponents berated him for retrospectively “losing the Second World War”) underlies today’s disillusioned relationship between Russia and the West. Yet the fault was not his alone, as Taubman emphasizes. In effect, Gorbachev’s great achievement was the end of the Cold War. But that achievement was hijacked by the United States and NATO, which, instead of working to consolidate peace and mutual security as he had envisaged, took advantage of Russia’s weakness to impose their own version of security by expanding NATO one-sidedly.

Who ever thought there was any other possibility? Who ever thought the US had spent trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives just to set clock back to where it was in 1933?

The West’s failure to offer Gorbachev more support in 1991 was a major missed opportunity, the product of statesmen who lacked vision. As Margaret Thatcher, by then out of power, observed: “Just a few years back, Ron [Reagan] and I would have given the world to get what has already happened here”, and added that if the West did not come to Gorbachev’s aid, “history will not forgive us”.

In August 1991, Gorbachev’s opponents had set up an “Emergency Committee” and launched a coup to bring him to heel or overthrow him. Some commentators have charged that this was actually Gorbachev’s Machiavellian way of defeating Boris Yeltsin, a view Taubman rightly rejects as utterly out of character. However, it is true that Gorbachev had paved the way towards this moment when, overwhelmed by pressures in the winter of 1990–91, he briefly fell back on the cruder authority structures of the past by appointing a number of politicians who believed in restoring the Party’s full power. It was they who later formed the Emergency Committee. The coup in a sense represented Gorbachev versus Gorbachev. Or the result of Luther briefly trying to return to being the Pope.

Taubman treats Gorbachev’s stormy relationship with Yeltsin as a largely personal one and recounts it in great detail, justifiably. But it was also an institutional conflict. Once the Russian Federation, much the largest constituent republic of the Soviet Union, won tan­gible power of its own, it represented a dangerous rival to the Soviet Union itself. In August 1991, Yeltsin, now elected and therefore fully legitimate President of the Russian Federation, famously mounted a tank and challenged the authority of the Emergency Committee, warning that he would use Russian law to prosecute them. In other words, the event which finally condemned the Soviet Union to extinction was a clash between Russia and the Soviet Union.

At this point, one must remember just who Boris Yeltsin was. This is a man who abandoned communism after walking into a U.S. grocery store during a goodwill tour; an erratic drunk, by 1991 Yeltsin was openly propped by the American government, for which he acted as an agent, surrounded by American advisers. The trend went into overdrive in the newly-independent Russia and the 1996 election in which the U.S. cheated and bribed as much as needed to ensure Yeltsin’s corpse would be re-elected, and then gloated about it.

Yeltsin, by the way, was also duped by the Americans regarding NATO. They repeatedly promised no NATO expansion into the former Warsaw Pact. Repeatedly, and in writing, even though they also let Yeltsin dupe himself, and believe what he found most convenient to believe. But the gist of the American message was to include Russia within the European defense arrangements: you know, the exact opposite of making Russia the target for the European defense arrangements, as was the case in real life. Then again, Yeltsin was a playful idiot, so there’s that mitigating factor for all involved.

The key here is to realize that Gorbachev and Yeltsin were not alone. Lots of people, perhaps a majority of the Soviet elite, came to believe America propaganda that democracy, unilateral disarmament and cuddling was the way to go forward and to have Russia accepted as a pal of the West: Yuri Bezmenov most certainly did.

Here, one can see a Youtube video of a 1984 TV interview conducted with Bezmenov in which the former KGB asset explains how, fundamentally, he thought the whole ghastly Cold War was a misunderstanding: if only Communism were discarded, the Americans–good people at heart, as seen in Frank Capra movies–all roadblocks would be removed to permanent friendship between Russian and American peoples.

Bezmenov sounds like an intelligent guy in the interview; he certainly explains a lot of KGB tricks, and makes excellent points about how Communist subversion worked in the 1950s and 1960s. He lived long enough to see the very first stage of the American rape of the USSR, and died in 1993, before most of the egregious theft of state property was conducted (by Americans and others, as well as Russians).

I’m not sure what he would think of the present state of U.S.-Russian relations, and the fact that the least anti-Russian American government of the last two decades is willing to confront Moscow in all fronts and set up American troops in Ukraine, just  because, like the U.K. before, the U.S. empire can’t fail to confront any possible adversaries, of whichever ideology, especially if they’re not a big American supplier. Hosking again:

Taubman summarizes Gorbachev’s strengths as “innate optimism and self-confidence, a substantial intellect, a fierce determination to prove himself”, and an “ability to maneuver to get what he wanted”. Yet he adds that Gorbachev’s “overconfidence in himself and his cause gave him the courage to reach so high that he overreached – and then warped his judgment when what he was trying to build started to shatter”. Mikhail Gorbachev’s achievements were indeed remarkable, but so were his failures: “he was a tragic hero who deserves our understanding and admiration”.

Or, like an actress once put it: Good girls go to heaven, while bad girls go places.

(*It was, of course, Boris Yeltsin who eventually got rid of the Union and gave us a world with an independent Belarus and Turkmenistan; but Gorbachev, as supreme Soviet leader like Stalin and Brezhnev before him, had endless opportunities to avoid this particular outcome, which he didn’t take; which is not to say that a worse outcome couldn’t have followed)

 

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Todo es política y la literatura aún más

La política no es un problema para la literatura, hasta que uno empieza a encontrar los argumentos políticos en cierta obra repugnante (*). Esto viene del Times Literary Supplement, la más prestigiosa revista literaria británica, edición del 3 de Noviembre de 2017:

La semana pasada, mencionamos las “quejas” en algunas escuelas de los Estados Unidos contra (la novela) “Matar a un ruiseñor”. La reciente retirada del libro de un listado de lecturas escolares en Mississippi fue en respuesta a las objeciones de algunos padres en la línea de “hay términos usados que hacen que la gente se sienta incómoda”, un eufemismo en referencia a un término racista pasado de moda. El registro de censura literaria de la American Language Association también muestra quejas sobre la novela de Harper Lee, en torno al cargo de “blasfemia”.

Nada es al gusto de todos, y nuestra predicción es que en el futuro el Ruiseñor le desagradará aún a más gente. No sólo es racista y profana, sino que transgrede una nueva prohibición: la “narrativa del salvador blanco”. El “salvador” putativo en este caso es el abogado Atticus Finch, que defiende a un hombre negro acusado injustamente de violación.

Entre otras narraciones de salvador blanco están Adventures of Huckleberry Finn e Intruder in the Dust, publicada en 1948, el año antes de que William Faulkner ganara el Premio Nobel. Lucas Beauchamp es salvado de un linchamiento seguro por una joven y un niño pequeño, ambos blancos. La historia se nutre de una típica red faulkneriana de mestizaje y malversación blanca, pero no esperes que eso la proteja de la policía anti-salvador blanco.

El último libro que tuvo problemas fue American Heart, una novela para jóvenes adultos de Laura Moriarty. Cuando se le hizo una crítica en Kirkus Reviews, que se especializa en reseñas adelantadas para uso de libreros y bibliotecarios, American Heart ganó una estrella, algo así como una estrella Michelin, pero de libreros.

Después de aquel atroz clímax, una tormenta de Twitter, Kirkus decidió eliminar la reseña de su sitio web. Cuando volvió a publicarla, perdió la estrella y agregó algunas “correcciones editoriales”. Una incluía la adición de la palabra “problemática”; el problema era que en la novela de Moriarty”, ambientada en un futuro cercano, una mujer blanca de Missouri ayuda a un refugiado musulmán en el otro lado de la frontera. ¿Narrativa de salvador blanco? ¡Borra esa estrella!

El asunto ha sido muy discutido en los Estados Unidos. La Sra. Moriarty está mortificada. El editor de Kirkus, Claiborne Smith, afirma haber actuado en respuesta a la reacción del público. Dice que actuó con “la plena colaboración del crítico” quien, como todos los críticos de Kirkus, es anónimo.

Es política de Kirkus asignar libros sobre la base de un código de colores. El término para lo que, en la práctica, es una ideología basada en la raza del crítico es “Revisor de la Voz Propia: escritores que pueden recurrir a la experiencia vivida al leer textos”. American Heart, con una joven musulmana de color, fue asignada a. . . una joven musulmana de color. Sin embargo, su “experiencia vivida” no fue suficiente y se insertaron puntos de vista políticos mejorados en una etapa posterior.

(*Después de 20 años escribiendo sobre política, no encuentro ninguna política repugnante, por deformación profesional, seguramente, o por saturación.)

 

 

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Elizabeth Bishop Once Danced with a Man who Danced with a Girl who Danced with the Prince of Wales

In the Times Literary Supplement, Michael Hoffman puzzles me with a review of Megan Marshall’s “A miracle for Breakfast,” a biography of the much-celebrated poet Elizabeth Bishop. I understand that Bishop must have been good at the business of writing; otherwise, there is no easy explanation why so many people praised her work. She’s been dead for 38 years, after all, so she won’t be sending thank you notes or recommendations that the New Yorker has another look at your stuff.

The trouble with Hoffman is that he’s a incompetent admirer: given 4,000 words to explain Bishop’s greatness as depicted in Marshall’s biography (which, by all accounts, is praiseful of the subject), he just doesn’t do much.

In the Wall Street Journal you may get 1,500 or 2,000 words, at most, to explain the underlying reasons for the multi-annual collapse of a business or a country, and this only for Page One stories (“leders” is the internal name) of which there are exactly 365 in a natural year: 4,000 words should be enough to give us evidence in support of Bishop’s claim to greatness. But, in all of that space, Hoffman only includes three pieces of Bishop’s creative writing, and very little to no discussion of their impact, style or merit.

Again, I haven’t read much of Bishop but I’m sure she’s great. I’m sure she’s totally fantastic. She’s the kind of writer that reminds me of the old Chinese saying (very much in vogue in Singapore) that if fifty people are queuing in front of a restaurant that’s where you should go. She was heavily celebrated in life, to the point that she had a biographer in the 1960s, over a decade before she actually died, and she did ponder which literary generation she belonged to, according to Marshall: “It is odd how I often feel myself to be a late-late Post World War I generation member, rather than a member of the Post World War II generation”, she’s quoted as saying (you know, the WW II generation “to which technically she belonged,” Hoffman helpfully adds). No writer uncertain on her station thinks much about which generation she belongs to; I certainly never did it. Hoffman goes on to drop names:

She sends Marianne Moore mangoes from Miami, along with careful instructions as to how to peel and eat them salubriously… “You know what I want, Richard?” Bishop remarked to Richard Howard, showing her fellow poet and fellow homosexual round her unfinished dockside apartment, “I want closets, closets, and more closets!”… Since her death in 1979, Bishop has been so universally and I think often falsely or sentimentally championed by us, we don’t see the contrariness or the heroic effort of living against her time and culture; we like to think of her in San Francisco, blithely passing a joint to Thom Gunn or accepting one from him, and generally letting it hang out after all, all or some. In 1967, in Greenwich Village, she teased her friend Robert Lowell: “I never appear without earrings down to my bosom, skirts almost up to it, and a guitar over my shoulder. I am afraid I am going to start writing FREE VERSE next”.

ALL CAPS, doing drugs with Thom Gunn! Signs of genius, as we all know in the early 21st century. I think she once danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales. The pianist Arthur Gold is later marshalled in remembrance of Bishop; his comments are tailored-made to be appreciated by a London-based publication, like the TLS is:

There was something physically graceful and very elegant about Elizabeth. She had what I call genius hair (vibrant, very alive hair); a delightful smile, when she was familiar with you; and a very warm, rather sad, half-shy and half-loving air. She was very, very soignée, always going to the hairdresser, always looking terribly neat, extremely put together, and her clothes were very, very thought out. Elizabeth loved clothes. They weren’t distinguished clothes but always suggested a tiny bit of English elegance – not American jazzy elegance… Another astute observer, the future Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank, notes: “There was not this kind of American casualness about her at all as a person”.

By this point it’s clear to all well-bred readers that Bishop wasn’t one of those ghastly Midwest Americans who, like, vote for Trump and stuff. She had, in fact, “terribly light wit and ineffably light charm and love of laughter and love of domestic pleasure, and all the cozy things that I like in people,” Gold is again quoted as saying.

Indeed, Bishop was likeable to the well-bred; she didn’t go about borrowing money. She didn’t much care about extracting money from the hard-working masses either. Hoffman quotes her:

 

“The good artist assumes a certain amount of sensitivity in his audience and doesn’t attempt to flay himself to get sympathy or understanding.”

Of course, like many people who don’t care much about money, the thing with Bishop is that she had plenty. A poor rich girl who was esentially an orphan since a very young age, she hit college with cash to spare:

In many ways, Bishop’s life was favoured. She was left money, had a trust fund (perhaps a future biographer will go into detail, Marshall doesn’t) and didn’t need to work beyond the odd experimental week in the “U.S.A. School of Writing” on graduating from Vassar, or the US Navy optical department in Key West in 1943. She had well-off and generous friends, not the least of them her personal physician over decades, Dr Anny Baumann, dedicatee of her second book of poems, A Cold Spring (1955)… She had the wherewithal to buy at various times a house in Key West, a house in Ouro Preto, Brazil (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and a harbourfront condo in Boston. It was a life that left her time to read, write, draw and play the clavichord. She seems also to have been an ambitious, Northern-inspired housekeeper with a “Nova-Scotian array of jellies, pickles, etc.”, and a great cook; had an important, varied and much-loved record collection; kept male and female friendships going over years, even decades, by letter; lived among children (a domestic in Brazil named one of hers “Elizabetchy” in her honour); had a dearly loved toucan, “Uncle Sam”; took an interest in furnishing and interior design; and followed politics, both in Brazil and in Richard Nixon’s increasingly Brazilian USA. A life that had all the distractions and amenities of colours, textures, fabrics, scents – a life, not the production-geared monotony and worksheets of so many of her peers and successors.

One remembers The Paris Review’s interviewing Malcolm Cowley in 1982, when he was 84; among the first questions the magazine posed was this: “Do you regret not having concentrated more fully on your poetry?” Cowley said yes. His problem, he added, “was the essentially middle-class feeling that I had to support myself.”

Bishop was also lucky with publishers. She never came across the likes of Natalia Ginzburg:

Her writing found champions early and often, and it seems almost without exception (among them Marianne Moore, Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, John Ashbery); and was sought after by publishers from James Laughton to Robert Giroux to Ian Parsons to Christopher Reid and Michael Schmidt. She had a preferential “first read” contract with the New Yorker for over thirty years; won a seemingly unending string of prizes and awards; and no doubt profited while living abroad from the ever-strengthening dollar… “I am a little embarrassed about having to go to Brazil to experience total recall about Nova Scotia,” she wrote to Katharine White, who gratefully accepted “In the Village,” Elizabeth’s tale of childhood in Great Village, for the New Yorker.

I do love that detail, how the editor “gratefully accepted” her story for publication. Quoting Henry James, Hoffman refers to the richness of this “envelope of circumstance.” It helps explain why Bishop was never one to meet deadlines (to which, apparently nobody ever objected):

There is actually a whole area of non-performance in Bishop: a book of stories (she wrote barely a couple that were up with her best); reviews (she offered herself to the New Yorker as poetry reviewer following the death of Louise Bogan, and wrote not a single one); non-fiction or travel pieces for the New Yorker (again, no fueran); perhaps weirdest of all, an introduction to Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home (for which in the end she produced a doctor’s letter). She has many poems that mysteriously take her years, which is baffling as in my experience words don’t keep their softness or stay “live” for any longer than clay or oil paint, a day or two, or a week or two at the most. A slow poem, or a delayed poem is a failing poem. And yet there they all are, “A Miracle for Breakfast”, “The Moose”, “Pink Dog” and many more – a process then itself mythologized, as though it were worth anything, or meant anything – or many that were never finished at all… She would never finish the story “Homesickness,” about her mother.

Not for Bishop the concentrated effort and daily dedication of, say, John Le Carré:

She jotted observations and ideas in notebooks she carried with her, so that she seemed to others always to be writing. But the process was never efficient and could be “painful,” she once explained to a friend: “she first wrote a poem in her head, but the act of writing, putting it down, was usually a letdown, so then she either put it away, destroyed it, or rewrote it.” Drafts were covered with cross-outs, often emphatic ones, and severe judgments like “TERRIBLE.”

 

Hoffman clears his throat: “One hesitates to say whether she was lazy, unfocused, distracted, self-critical, inhibited, perfectionist, or some or all of these, but it colours one’s sense of the kind of poet she was.” He then compares her production levels with Larkin; I’m not sure I would put them in the same sentence for any reason, but Hoffman does. The admirer goes on:

“If I had to choose one branch of her output, I would probably choose the brilliant letters: they at least were written and thought out and sent. They seem like an ideal blend of life and work. Having been mostly pretty indifferent to the unfinished and uncollected poems for several years, I am starting to see things there that I am grateful for.”

One appreciates the sincerity. But sometimes I think the letters are the last refuge of the mediocre writer, so that won’t do. Hoffman does quote the poetry, so here it goes, this 1959 poem about Brazil, the country where she was so kind to her own maids and gardeners:

 

Meanwhile, you’ve never seen

a country that’s more beautiful

– or this part of it anyway –

the delicacy of the green hills

the new bamboos unfurl the edges

are all so soft against the pink watery skies

below, the purple Lent trees

Shall we change politicians?

An honest madman for a swap the playboy for the honest madman?

And is he really honest? It’s a kind of joke –

 

 

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