In 1959, Jack Paar, then host of The Tonight Show, interviewed Fidel Castro in Havana. That was the last time an American late-night host filmed in Cuba — until, that is, Conan O’Brien hightailed it down to Havana recently.
The one-hour episode, aired last week, featured the Harvard-educated comedian in a variety of hilarious — and predictable — fish-out-of-water scenarios: a rhythmless O’Brien at a dance class; freestyling with a Cuban band; dining at a paladar; touring a rum museum; learning to roll cigars; and, my favorite, hanging with teens at El Malecón, smoking cigarettes and swigging rum out of a box.
Viewers no doubt laughed out loud, cheered as O’Brien (twice) exclaimed “Viva Cuba!” and came away with a fuzzy feeling.
And therein lies the problem.
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While no one expects O’Brien, an entertainer, to stealthily interview dissidents — that would be ridiculous — presenting the happy-go-lucky view of Cuba, reduced to rum, music, and dancing, is, however, equally ridiculous.
Sure, O’Brien issued a quickie disclaimer that Cuba has “many complicated social and political problems,” but he then commences what PJ Media called an “80-minute infomercial for the Western hemisphere’s longest running and bloodiest dictatorship.”
Some of it seemed carefully staged by the Cuban regime, right down to the curiously English-fluent Cubans O’Brien repeatedly encountered and the well-dressed, well-fed bystanders milling about. Even the brief historical information was straight out of a regime-approved book, with O’Brien explaining: “In the 1940s and ’50s, [Cuba] was the Las Vegas of the Caribbean, but in 1959 Fidel Castro led a revolution that toppled the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, which led to a U.S. economic blockade that has lasted for 53 years.”
Close, but no cigar.
“Las Vegas of the Caribbean”? What an interesting way to describe all of pre-Castro Cuba. A large land (roughly the size of England) abundant in natural resources, Cuba was much more than just the nightlife in Havana. Sure, glitzy casinos in the capital helped its riches, but so did an enormous economy of sugar, tobacco, textiles and cattle. In 1950, the Cuban peso was worth as much as the U.S. dollar.
Yet the notion of Cuba simply as a playground dominated by the mob is a myth long pushed by the regime and its sympathizers to illustrate nonexistent Batista-era ills. Chicago and New York were far more mob-ruled than Havana ever was.
O’Brien’s remark also implies the embargo was simply a reaction to Castro ousting Batista. He even uses the regime-favored term “blockade” rather than “embargo.”
Yet the embargo, instituted by President Kennedy, was only after two long years of Castro — along with the gay-bashing, rock-music-hating Argentinian, Che — sticking it to the United States, including confiscating a staggering $1.8 billion in American assets and even executing American citizens.
Perhaps the worst bit came courtesy of O’Brien bemoaning capitalism’s potential effect on the beautiful old buildings. Since when are crumbling, unsafe residential units considered charming? Surely not by those forced to live in them. “Will the sudden influx of American money make things better for the average Cuban?” O’Brien muses. “Definitely, maybe, I’m not sure. Every square inch of this place is bursting with character, but in three years: Baby GAP, Chase, Foot Locker.”
O’Brien, who gladly accepts his $12-million annual salary, isn’t entirely sure about capitalism. Cuban rum must be strong.
Ultimately, how is an I’m-not-here-for-politics, I’m-just-here-to-have-a-good-time profile on Cuba even acceptable? O’Brien insists his purpose was a simple person-to-person exchange, waxing poetic in one segment: “At a human level, there’s so much we share.”
Is there, though? Americans believe in basic civil rights: freedom of association, the freedom to speak freely, a free press and even a zany notion called elections! We believe an individual should be able to jump on a plane or boat, and leave if he wishes, without the threat of facing a firing squad for doing so. The island prison begs to differ.
We do not believe in apartheid, where our citizens are banned from the same hotels as tourists. We even speak of Internet access as a fundamental right nowadays, yet ordinary Cubans have little to none because the regime wants to control all discussion.
Sadly, lest O’Brien doubt the effect of his rosy-gumdrops-land promotion, headlines such as “Conan O’Brien visits Cuba and reminds us it’s actually a pretty normal place” now exist.
A land where merely having a relative who reads a subversive book or says the wrong thing can land one in prison — is now described as “normal.”
The term “useful idiots,” reportedly used by Soviets to describe those Westerners who unwittingly promoted their greatness and turned a blind eye to their flaws, is too harsh to apply to the well-intentioned O’Brien. As the episode concluded, however — with O’Brien gyrating in his Panama hat alongside clowns on huge stilts in a tyrannically ruled nation that was portrayed in a positive light — for a moment, the term seemed quite fitting.
Good job, Coco.
A.J. Delgado is a Miami-based writer and lawyer. She writes about politics and culture.