Gore Vidal was in Cuba for five days, following a frantic and packed program that took him from the University of Computer Sciences, the Latin American School of Medicine, the University of Havana's main campus, to the National Ballet School, from Old Havana to the park in honor of John Lennon where a bronze replica of the lead Beatle is found, seated as if he were a nearby neighbor.
For the brief span of an hour, Gore Vidal agreed to chat with us for this interview. He is the most erudite American writer of his generation and the most corrosive critic of the present Republican administration. But Vidal does not simply speak to us. He interprets what he says. Modulating his voice, he brings to life George W. Bush, Eisenhower, FDR, an obscure Pentagon bureaucrat, and even himself, mocking all of them with the irony contained in a visage that belies his 81 years of age.
He is more interested in being remembered as an historian than as a novelist. Although his works easily triple his age (we can find in his bibliography novels, tragedies, comedies, memoirs, essays, film and television screenplays), he has a singular obsession: the loss of the Republic. "The main bit of wisdom that I learned from Thomas Jefferson, and he from Montesquieu, is that we cannot maintain both a Republic and an Empire simultaneously. We have been rapacious imperialists since the Mexican War in 1846."
The Birth of an Empire
RM: In Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams and Jefferson, you talked about the first imperialist war in modern history, with the intervention of the United States in Cuba. Was the island the desired treasure?
GV: American imperialist history started long before. It was inevitable that the original English settlers, not to mention the Dutch and the French who occupied the eastern seaboard of the US, would look west where there was more wealth. It's curious that the only American president that liked democracy, Thomas Jefferson, was the first to push the limits of the Constitution. We have to recognize that our founding fathers hated democracy and they hated tyranny so they made sure we wouldn't have a Hitler and we wouldn't have chaos, which is how they thought the Athens of Pericles was. Ironically the third president, Thomas Jefferson, who gave us our identity in the declaration of independence, had recourse to weapons. He not simply told us that all men are created equal, but that they have inalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. No government had ever said that before. So we began in a rather special place, it didn't last long thanks to Jefferson, he bought up that which is now 20 States and made the famous Louisiana purchase. Millions of people were added to the US because of the vast amount of land that he bought, rather illegally. And so, we just aimed west and inevitably we were going to turn imperial against our neighbors. The first of our neighbours that we attacked was Mexico in 1846 en route to what we really wanted which was California and that was at the time of President [James] Polk.
RM: Up to that time the Americans had been furious land conquerors, but only in their own continent.
GV: Our first deliberate imperial president, (Jefferson was a reluctant imperialist), was Theodore Roosevelt, and he was looking around for more property to add to the US, which is where Cuba comes in. Theodore Roosevelt was ambitious and very imperial. In the summer recess of those golden days (I was brought up in Washington DC) the heat was so great that the entire government left town, we've never had such peace, such prosperity as when the American government was on vacation. During that time however, something happened on this island when a certain battle ship of the US was sunk and the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst blamed it on the Cubans, because in back of the Cubans was the Spanish Empire which was our real target. Cuba was used to inspire an anti-Spain sentiment that would justify the involvement of the US in the war. Hearst claimed that he had made it up, but it was actually Teddy Roosevelt who pulled the strings of those events. First as William McKinley's vice president, and later, when he died, as president of the United States. So, Roosevelt and several friends, one of them Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, very powerful in the Senate; and another one, Henry Adams, our great philosopher of history, they decided that we really should expand. Adams said, "Whoever controls Shanxi province in China"-which is now Manchuria and parts of Korea-"controls the world," because it is the richest section in minerals, in mining, in energy and the Chinese empire was crashing. All of Europe was trying to get a piece of China and we decided we'd get our piece.
RM: Cuba was a stepping stone to reach the Philippines.
GV: Yes. That's when we made an alliance with the Philippine insurgents, revolutionaries, who wanted to separate from Spain in order to have their own republic. We promised them we would do it, we would have a "noble" movement in the United States called Cuba Libre, which was the official motto of the Spanish American War, which in the end had nothing to with Cuba Libre, which ended up as a rather disagreeable drink of rum and coca cola.
RM: So, they went marching off to war
GV: So he went to war; the first thing Roosevelt did -McKinley was out of Washington- was to send our fleet to Manila, to
"help" the insurgents. He lied to them. He made them think that we were going to establish a Philippine government and then we didn't, so Spain is now finished as an imperial power. The United States, with McKinley and Teddy, opened a new stage of imperial American expansion, and continued the greatest comedy in our history.
Hypocrisy is always terribly funny. McKinley said "I got down and prayed to God, after we seized Manila. What am I to do now with these people, these poor people? What will we do for them?" And he said, "God spoke." (It sounds very familiar today), God spoke to him and said, "We must help these people and we must Christianize them." The Secretary of State responded, "Mr. President, they're already Roman Catholic," and McKinley said "that's what I mean!" So there we were on a religious mission in the Philippines on the edge of the richest section of China and that was the first great imperial adventure in the midst of which Cuba was no longer 'Libre'. The United States was already occupying it and Puerto Rico also. We were taking over much of the Caribbean and we retained it for a long, long time, under special mandates and so forth and so on.
RM: During your years in Guatemala you established a friendship that warned you of US intervention in that region. Did you see it coming?
GV: Well, I thought that our expansion was finished in 1898. Between 1846 when we got Mexico, 1898 when we destroyed the Spanish Empire and we got the Caribbean and we got the Philippines, which was really what we wanted. I just thought why would we do that? After all we had conquered Germany and we'd conquered Japan, we were occupying both countries and each one was a world and not just a nation. We had the first global empire thanks to President Roosevelt, another imperial Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He wanted to destroy European colonialism wherever it was; the United States would then take over with some sort of mandate to "look after" the countries that we had "liberated", as he liked to put it. And that got us, formally, into the business of empire.
Mario Monteforte Toledo, a good friend of mine, was vice president of Guatemala and he was also in charge of the assembly there, the Parliament. He used to come to Antigua where I had a house. He was living in Guatemala City where the government was, and he said "well we don't have much longer you know," and I said "what are you talking about?" and he said "your government has decided to seize Guatemala" and I said, "oh, come on, we just got Germany, we just got Japan, what are we going to do with Guatemala? It's not worth our while!" Oh, he said, "It's worth the while of the United Fruit Company and they control these things." And this is the first time I understood hemispheric politics. Yes, I knew about yanqui imperialismo, I knew all about that, but I thought much of it was exaggerated and you know, we had conquered the world in 1945. It was the end of the pretensions of the European powers and also of Japan so I said "Well Mario, I don't believe it," Well he said, "as we are speaking President Arévalo," a very nice man, and elected as a pure democrat, with a small "d", and Arévalo had said, "well we've got to have some revenues, and the United Fruit Company has never paid taxes. We're going to tax them minimally on the bananas and so on that they sell all over the world. We make nothing, they make everything." Simultaneously, the ironies of history, Henry Cabot Lodge- son of the Henry Cabot Lodge who was a Massachusetts senator, who was in favor of the conquest of the Philippines-, called President (Dwight David) Eisenhower, and said Arévalo and his group in Guatemala are "communists" and they are going to seize all the lands of United Fruit.
We know what happened afterwards. They forced Arévalo to leave Guatemala and then it finally came to a head in 1954 when the freely elected president of Guatemala Jacobo Arbenz was dismissed by the American Ambassador, John Peurifoy, and General Carlos Castillos Armas was put in his place, and from that moment on we have put nothing but warlords in charge of Guatemala. It's been a bloodbath for its citizens for most of these years. It is better now, but it's still not very good.
Mark Twain said after our refusal to grant free government to the Filipinos, "the American flag should be replaced not with the stars and stripes, forget them, it should be the Jolly Roger, the skull and crossbones, because we bring murder wherever we go."
RM: in The Golden Age you said FDR could have avoided the Pearl Harbor attack that took the US out of its peaceful isolation and decided its entry into the war. To what extent is that true?
GV: Well nations, like individuals, tend to work from templates; there is a plan in their heads which worked once before and may work yet again. We've always found that whenever a president is murdered it's always a "lone crazed killer" who is evil. He does it for no reason. No reason is ever given because we might find out what the politics behind it were. The American people are never told the politics about anything. So we've always had this reluctance. Our rulers don't want us to know why things are done.
So Roosevelt, with the best will in the world, saw that Hitler would be dangerous not only to Europe but in the long run to the United States; after all we are a mercantile power. We trade. With Hitler in charge of Europe, life was going to be very difficult for us. Eighty percent of the American people in 1940, and I was one of them, were against going to war in Europe against Hitler. Roosevelt did the next best thing. He was our great Machiavelli, who knew more about how the world worked than any previous president, and Roosevelt, who saw that sinking our ships, which got us into war against Germany in 1917, was not going to get us into the war against the Germans in 1941. He needed something to cause an important trauma and made the Americans' mind up regarding the war. Therefore, he provoked the Japanese into attacking us at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
It was a brilliant plot and it worked. The Japanese had just signed an alliance with Germany and Italy, the Tri Partite alliance. If anyone attacked one of the three the other two would come to their aide. It was a defensive, not an aggressive, treaty. The Japanese realized that Roosevelt had them in the bag. He had given them an ultimatum, one: get out of China; well they'd already created a country called Manchuria, out of the northern part of China. They had been trying for years to conquer China, and now they get orders from four thousand miles away, "get out!" He said, if you don't, I will turn off all of your benzene, particularly aviation fuel, which they needed for war planes, and for war ships, and scrap metal, cause they had no supplies.
Everybody thinks, how crazy it was for this little country to attack such a big country as the United States, well they weren't crazy, what they intended to do, was give us a big shock, which would make us think about other things for a time, by attacking, sinking the fleet at Pearl Harbor. During that period they thought it would take the United States a year to build another fleet, which was about right. They would then go south to Java and Sumatra and seize the Dutch oil fields, taking Singapore, Malaysia, everything else along the way. It was a good plan and it worked, but Japan had no idea of the speed with which we could re-arm. Roosevelt did. Remember we were once a great industrial power. We're not anymore. The first sign of our industrial power was assembly line automobiles, and steel plants. We could do everything fast. We turned out thousands of B-17´s, the flying fortresses. This was indeed the plane that won, for the United States at least, WWII.
RM: You were a privileged observer of that pre-war period.
GV: I was raised in Washington D.C. during the Roosevelt administration. So Roosevelt, during our economic depression, designated 8 billion dollars to re arm the United States. 1940 marked the end of massive unemployment. For the first time in years, people were quite content, because we'd had the depression and we were on our way to have the greatest war machine on earth, something which has since become a curse.
RM: Do you blame Harry Truman for the United States becoming the authoritarian country it is today? Many Americans do not share this opinion. George W. Bush, for example, has said recently that the man who dropped the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a good president.
GV: Well, remember two things: most Americans have no information at all on history, on geography, or on what's going on in the world. They don't know about these things. Roosevelt had made arrangements so that we would detach the colonies from France, Holland, Portugal. By 1945 when the war in Europe and in Asia ended, we would get them, and we would become their masters. Americans knew none of this, and they still don't know. They're not taught this; the rulers do not want them to know it.
Truman was personally rather popular. He was a nice little man. He knew nothing at all about geography, history, religion, he knew nothing. Behind him he had a Prince Metternich, who was Dean Achinson, the Secretary of State, a great international lawyer. And he knew everything. He was the one who then designed the totally militarized state that emerged by 1949/50 under Harry Truman. And it all comes down to one document, the National Security Council document number 68. There were several points. We were to be forever at war with somebody. We were going to fight communism everywhere on earth even if it didn't threaten us. It was a holy war, just as now we've made one on terrorism and Islam, equally stupid and equally irrelevant.
The man who should have been president in 1945 was Henry Wallace. However, he was replaced by a Mr. Nobody, a southern right winger named Harry Truman, from Missouri; who took over the government when Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945.
So we got a terrible president because he was so bad that they built him up into an idol, everybody's. Everybody who knows nothing admires Harry Truman, and they don't know why. He's just such a nice little man. He was a nice little man, but he ended the Republic and set us on this wave of conquest. He went yelling and screaming to the people that the Soviet Union was on the march, that they were about to seize Greece, that they were immediately going into Italy, they could then cross over to France, and cross the Atlantic at any time. We hear echoes of this in the current little man, Mr. Bush, who says: [imitating GW Bush] "well we can't fight them over there we're going to have to fight 'em over herefight them over here" We don't have to fight them; they have no way of getting here. But no American can ask questions like that because they will be thought unpatriotic or silly.
RM: According to your own words, "the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995 are explained according to a law of Physics: there is a reaction to every action". You were speaking about the hatred spread by the United States around the world and in its own country. Was this a prophecy?
GV: Well I wouldn't directly connect it with what happened on 9/11. What happened after McVeigh did what he did, except that we now know that he really didn't do it by himself, somebody else was involved, quite a few people were involved. But essentially the Clinton administration and we now look back on it as being a very American one, in the best sense of the word-drew up his Draconian rules about terrorism in the United States just to get revenge on the ghost of Timothy McVeigh.
And that became the USA Patriot Act. After 9/11 happened the Bush Administration found these papers, from the Clinton administration in the Justice Department. They activated all of them and that is the USA Patriot Act. It has just about removed our Constitution. It just annulled everything about sacred liberties and that was the result of McVeigh.
A child of five who knows nothing about the law can tell you that 9-11 requires a police response. We've been hit by the Mafia. You can't go to war without an enemy nation to attack. You can't have a war without a country, try and explain that to an American, I don't think they know what a country is. We certainly know 80% of them believe that Saddam Hussein that had a country called Iraq was working in tandem with Osama Bin Laden, who was living in a beautiful palace in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It's all nonsense. They had no connection the two. But Bush wanted to complete the work of his father, and to show that he was bolder than his father, he would be "Bush of Baghdad" not quite Lawrence of Arabia. Americans think they are the same person, and that both of them attacked us on 9/11.
RM: A recent CBS poll shows that 75% of the population in the US is not in favor of him or his policies. His popularity has plummeted to historic levels. Will Bush be the most hated president in US history?
GV: When I said I am not a prophet that doesn't mean I can't occasionally guess what's coming. I knew that what those they call the neo conservatives in the United States (the old word that was used to describe them was "fascist"), they want to use American power in order to get the corporations which are generally gas and oil to maximize profits. They want to manipulate the constitution so that it is rendered meaningless. They want supreme power, and circumstances allowed us to elect a man that's a real fool, literally a fool.
If the American people had a free press, an alert media, he could never have been elected anything. He's not competent; if you listen to him talk for ten minutes its clear he doesn't know what he is talking about. He's desperately trying to read a teleprompter and nothing really makes sense, and without one of his advisors he can't face anybody when it comes to a question.´
Since Woodrow Wilson left the oval office in 1921, no US president writes his own speeches. The president reads what other people write. Sometimes the President agrees with it, and sometimes he doesn't. Eisenhower used to read his speeches as if he were discovering something new on the paper. During his first presidency, the country was astonished when he said in the middle of a speech: "If I'm elected president I will go to.Korea!?" He was serious. Nobody had said anything to him before that surprise. But anyway, he went to Korea.
Well had the American people seen that and if we had a media that was interested in the Republic, and not in profits, the whole story would have been different; after all, Albert Gore did win the election in 2000 by the popular vote, some 600,000 votes ahead of Bush. And eventually the intervention of the Supreme Court into that election falsified the entire election. So we became overnight a banana republic without any bananas to sell. And that is our problem at the moment.
RM. The Bush administration has led the country into such a disaster that Fidel himself said recently that he believes the United States public will oust President Bush before he finishes his term. Do you see this happening?
GV: The people running the Bush Administration are so mindless and radical that they're apt to start bombing Russia, or start bombing Iran. They would have to start a diversion, so they can scream: "true patriots come to the aid of the Commander in Chief in war time" [imitates Bush]. That's their rubric. Well that's all nonsense. In other words, they create events. They create panic.
Two days after 9/11 there was somebody in the government saying, "it's not if they attack again, it's when!" The nonsense had already begun. Then we say, well it's been seven or eight years and they haven't attacked and they say "well that's because of the precautions that we take at the airports oh! You don't like them! Because you have to take your shoes off, but at the same time that is what has saved you from an attack." Well, prove it! We can't prove it, they retort, without revealing our secret sources. It's circular.
I hope that the Democratic Congress which comes in, with the chairmanships of congressional committees, including the Judiciary, gets every last one of them under oath before Congress to answer these questions.
RM: What would be necessary to re-establish the Republic?
GV: Listen to the great words of our greatest president, Mr. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at his first inauguration. The country was collapsing, economically the banks were coming down, money was short, and he struck a great political note which other presidents have generally imitated until we get down to this junta he said [imitating Roosevelt] "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." That is the basis of the Republic. Don't be taken in by fear. There are people who make money out of fear. That's their job, just to frighten.
I'm not for real revolutions, because they always bring you the opposite of what you want. The French Revolution brought the world Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis XVI after all, was not as bad as that. So you very seldom get what you want if you have a violent revolution. I think we're going to have one due to economic collapse
There was a headline in one of the big American papers the other day that the army was begging the administration for money. They don't have the money to make fools of themselves in Baghdad. They've got to raise it somewhere; we have no tax revenues because all the rich people have been exempted from tax as well as corporations. It used to be that 50% of the revenues of the Federal government came from the taxes on corporate profits. Its about 8% now, they've just eliminated it. Corporations don't pay tax and rich people don't either. So they've not only helped all their rich friends who now have enough money to finance the Republican Party with billions of dollars so they can tell lies about anybody in the country and pretend that the patriots of the country are traitors. It's a very good trick both economically for them and it's a bad trick on us real Americans, we don't like it. We've lost the Bill of Rights; we lost the Magna Carta, on which all of our liberties are based for 700 years. No, it's not been an amusing time.
WE HAVE A CRISIS OF RIGHTS
RM: In your memoirs, you mention that during a conversation with JFK he told you about his plan to assassinate Fidel, and that his alliance with the extreme Cuban American right had become a nightmare for him and his brother, Robert. Are these groups related to their deaths?
GV: Well it had total control, I think it is much less now, Kennedy had to give his life for it, you know. Though the assassination we now know was done by Mafia, out of New Orleans, and a man called [Carlos] Marcello was in charge of it. They were trying to get Bobby Kennedy. Marcello who was the boss of New Orleans and also of the Havana casinos at one point, [Santos] Trafficante who ran the Mafia in Tampa Florida, said we've got to get rid of Bobby, they have this recorded, the FBI. We've got to get rid of him, and Marcello said, "if a dog bothers you, you don't cut off the tail," and that was the death sentence for Jack Kennedy.
RM: What is you perception of the true influence this Cuban American community has had on US policy towards Cuba in the last 40 years?
GV: They managed to have an enormous influence on the country, and I think this is less now. This has always been a very corrupt state; Florida has been a corrupt state from the beginning, from the days of the confederacy. The addition of a bunch of angry Batista lovers did not help the political situation down there, and a lot of these people had a lot of money or they made a lot of money and could be counted upon to support anybody who hated Castro and hated what is being done in the modern Cuba and they'd vote for him. Florida is a big state, it's a key State. We have something called an electoral college which often decides elections and it has so many voters which are based on how many representatives get elected to Congress and so on. Well Florida is beautifully situated for any demagogue who appeals to the Batistaites, or just anybody who still wants to fight communism. They're still marching, and they're going to arrive on the beaches in no time at all. They are very slow to understand, obviously, partly because they've been misinformed, misinformed. By their government, by the media, which worked with the government. And so we have a misinformed population and Florida is still one of the first places candidates go to and try and get votes. But it's much less now, so, count on that, it's a bit of luck.
It's a very complex 18th century machinery to keep us from having democracy. Our founders didn't like democracy, I find I often have to repeat that a few times, but they didn't like it. And now of course we're bringing democracy to Iraq and all these other countries who are longing for it.
RM: Silence and lies have kept five Cubans unjustly imprisoned in the US. Could you comment on what you know about the case and your opinion on it?
GV: I know of the case through lawyers, not through the media. And it seems another stupid thing our government is doing. It is my understanding that President Clinton and President Castro got together on this one, to try and stop the terrorists in Miami who were bombing tourist offices to discourage tourism to this country. The two presidents were in agreement that this was a bad thing and that they should try and stop it. So Clinton put the FBI on it and I don't know what Castro did, but he went along with it and then the FBI suddenly starts to arrest five Cubans who were dedicated to protecting Cuba and innocent tourist owners of tourist agencies from terrorism, from bombers.
We love imprisoning people almost as much as we like the death penalty which is just the brightest star in our diadem. So you have a country mad about torture, murder, and execution, lifelong sentences in prison. The mindset is all there, it goes back to I'm not going to go into the background but it is protestant Puritanism: everyone must suffer, if they've done anything wrong. If you're rich God loves you: that's the proof. And if you're poor, he doesn't like you: that's the proof. It's not a healthy mindset for any people and I'm afraid the State of Florida has got a great many of those people as well as what they've picked up from the Batistaites.
So, the Five, the Cuban Five as they are known in legal circles in America, I think are all in prison with what seem like eternal sentences for having obeyed two presidents one here and one in America to stop these crazy bombers from killing innocent civilians.
And the government that will do that, knowing the consequences, you know our government in not as stupid as it seems, it does evil things because that's the way you keep control. Don't think they didn't learn a lot from the twentieth century dictatorships. And so it is very important that they behave like this to insure that we don't stop the people who are bombing the tourist agencies in Miami. We are now almost lawless because we've lost so many of our protections under the Constitution. So we have a crisis of law, a crisis of politics, and a constitutional crisis.
RM: Oliver Stone was recently sanctioned by the US State Department for violating the blockade against Cuba. His crime was traveling to Cuba to make two documentaries about Fidel. Are these measures constitutional?
Gore Vidal: Well of course it's a violation, as the first amendment grants us freedom of speech, the fourth amendment of the constitution is the bill of rights, which guarantees our rights to assembly and so forth. We have had since 9/11 a coup d´etat in the United States, the first we've ever had, in which a group of rather dishonest oil and gas people were able to seize the power of the State and by so doing they ended up with the Congress in their hands, they ended up with the presidency and much of the judiciary and much of the courts. It happened very fast. It's quite unique. It will be a great story one day at the moment it's just something the people don't understand. What they've never seen before doesn't exist really. Well they're seeing it now, in situ, as archaeologists, and it's a very unpleasant sight. Out of that come the sanctions, as you put it, on Oliver Stone, who has every right to make any movie that he wants to make and in whatever circumstance, as long as he breaks no laws, and no laws have been broken here. They [Bush and Cheney] just don't like it, oh! My goodness me!
RM: Are you afraid of any reprisals against you when you return to the US?
GV: I trust they'll never like anything I say or write or do.
RM: One last question. You've been here for a few days already. Is Cuba anything like what the media presents to North Americans?
GV: [Laughs] Are you crazy?!!! NO! We're told everybody hates it here; everybody is starving to death, and they put out stories in Cuba on how they have wonderful doctors but in fact they are terrible doctors and nobody goes to them, any Cuban who is sick goes to the Mayo Clinic in America!
There is no lie that our government will not tell and has not told. So no correct picture gets through. One of the reasons I'm doing television here, is I feel every now and then I do have some audience out there. I can talk about what I've seen. I've seen the influx of doctors, would be doctors into Cuba. I've been in that building which used to be a Russian Naval Base, and is dedicated to teaching a whole generation about medicine, about community services, something Americans hate, you know, everybody is help for himself, grab all the money you can and then run away, to Tahiti or someplace. I was talking to 8 or 9 Americans from New York, Massachusetts, who are studying medicine here. I said, "well, is it as good as they say," they said, "oh yes it is, its rather better, better than anything we could get at home, going to ordinary medical universities." Why don't we do the same for the health of our people and other countries? I see what you've done with medicine, from Africa to the deepest Amazon or wherever.
We had a great Constitution, and a great legal system. Only by the restoration of that can we have a country with aspirations and with indeed successes like Cuba. Don't think I don't get extremely jealous for the United States, since I am a super patriot; I get very jealous.
RM: Will you return?
GV: Never make predictions.
Rosa Miriam Elizalde is a Cuban journalist living in Havana. She is the editor of Cubadebate, a Cuban online publication, and she has a weekly column in Cuba's daily newspaper Juventud Rebelde. She is the author of several books, including Los Disidentes, Chavez Nuestro and El Encuentro.