Farewell To Fidel

Fidel Castro has died.  The cigar-puffing, fatigue-wearing Cuban revolutionary , who was a thorn in the side of countless American presidents, was 90.

The news of Castro’s death is weird, because he’s one of those figures who seems like he should have been dead for a long time already.  After all, this is a guy who first came to power when Dwight Eisenhower was President, TV was a new form of entertainment, and Chuck Berry and Elvis ruled the radio.  Castro became a geopolitical figure when he played a central role in the Kennedy Administration with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  He seems like an anachronism from a long-dead era.

There seems to be no middle ground when you are talking about Castro.  He overthrew a corrupt and dictatorial regime, and some liberals tout some of his policies — such as the apparent quality and low cost of health care in Castro’s Cuba.  During the tumultuous ’60s, at least, he and his cohort Che Guevara had some of that revolutionary cachet and radical chic.  But Castro also was a died-in-the-wool communist, and there is no doubt that his regime was both brutal and repressive, clamping down on freedoms we take for granted and keeping Cuba in the dark ages economically.  People who have visited Cuba since the American embargo has been eased describe a struggling, impoverished country that seems to have stopped its progress in the 1950s.

Castro obviously was a significant historical figure, but how he will be perceived by history remains an open question.  Some of that perception will depend on how Cuba fares, now that some semblance of normal relations with non-communist countries is likely, and some of it will depend on what we learn about the inner workings of the Castro regime, and just how cold-blooded and terrible it was.

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B.Y.O.T.P.

The other day Kish told me a little story about one of her prior jobs that, I think, says something profound about the human condition.

It happened one summer during college.  She was working in a small Ohio town in one of those older buildings where you would find several different business offices on a floor.  In this building, the offices shared a single, unisex bathroom.

IMG_4041When Kish went to use the facilities for the first time, she noticed there was no toilet paper.  No squeezable Charmin.  No quilted Northern.  Not even a roll of some cheap, so-thin-you-could-see-through-it institutional brand.

So she stopped by one of the other offices to ask where the communal toilet paper could be found.  The women working there explained that the toilet paper was not supplied by the building manager; instead, all of the offices were supposed to contribute to a common toilet paper fund.  However, a guy working in one of the offices always failed to pay his fair share.  After a while, the workers in the other offices got so angry at his refusal to chip in that they decided not to stock the bathroom.  Instead, everyone would simply bring, and use, their own toilet paper.  And that’s what they did.

Never mind that such an approach would inconvenience and embarrass a client or customer of one of their businesses!  Never mind that it looked silly to see people marching toward the bathroom with their own personal roll!  Never mind that a time would inevitably come when one of the workers on the floor would forget their bathroom companion until it was too late!  No matter the consequences, the stubborn workers on the floor just weren’t going to support the freeloader.

What better example of why communism, as an economic system, has failed?

Eurotrip 2011: Prague

A view of Prague.

It was raining for most of the six days I was in Prague, and I was really absorbed in the book I was reading (Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, which I’d been meaning to read for a long time), so I spent most of the first half of my stay lounging around my hostel. I was lucky that it was one of those hostels that puts a reading light on the wall by every bed. I was so into the book that I hardly even spoke to anyone.

It didn’t help that the hostel, Sir Toby’s Hostel, was in sort of a dull neighborhood far from the city center. I usually prefer walking to public transportation, and the walk from the hostel to old Prague took at least half an hour and required crossing many busy, pedestrian-unfriendly streets.

Apart from the location, Sir Toby’s was an A+ hostel, with a friendly staff, free computers, a well-stocked kitchen, and several balconies and a garden area to hang out in. There was even a free barbeque on Canada Day – the first time a hostel has offered me free non-breakfast food. Strangely, there was no barbeque for the 4th of July, which I celebrated by buying a Zlatopramen beer – I wanted to buy an American beer, but I couldn’t find any.

After it stopped raining, I spent a lot of time simply wandering around Prague, admiring its beauty. As I mentioned in my entry about Vienna, Amadeus was filmed in Prague due to its abundance of 18th-century architecture. Most of the buildings in the old city are the kind you would see in the background of that movie.

Prague is also a great city for Gothic architecture. Scattered here and there are big, black, menacing tower-gates. In the center of the city is the Old Town Square, constantly jammed with tourists, with a Gothic cathedral and a clock tower from which a man blows a trumpet to mark every hour. There are numerous alleys branching off the square, and I had a lot of fun turning into one of them at random and seeing where it led me.

The clock tower in the Old Market Square.

One of Prague's gothic towers.

Prague’s most famous landmark is probably the Charles Bridge, a Gothic bridge with one of those scary black towers at the end. Unfortunately, it is always crowded with tourists and people making money off them – much of the bridge is occupied by caricaturists. Across the bridge, on the same side of the river as my hostel, is the Prague Castle, which contains within its walls the Saint Vitus cathedral, one of the most impressive cathedrals I’ve seen in Europe. It was so big I couldn’t fit it all in one picture.

The Charles Bridge.

The difficult-to-photograph Saint Vitus cathedral.

The only museum I went to in Prague was the Communist Museum, which told the story of the Czech Republic’s communist era and the 1968 Prague Spring revolt which was brutally suppressed by the Soviet Union. I enjoyed the Communist Museum, but it was one of those museums that doesn’t have many real artifacts, only paragraphs on placards on the wall, so going to the museum is sort of like paying to read a Wikipedia entry. They did have some communist propaganda posters, however, which I always find fascinating and actually sort of inspiring in their earnestness. They obviously tried to make the posters as striking as possible in an effort to inculcate the masses with communist values.

The text says, "We are building communism, we unmask the saboteurs and enemies of the republic, we are strengthening the front of peace!"

Like with Budapest, communism didn’t seem to leave much of a mark on Prague, architecturally. There is one leftover of communism in Prague, though – its affordability. You can get a half-liter beer in a bar for the equivalent of just over a euro, and in a convenience store for about 50 euro cents. My hostel cost only 15 euros a night, a really good deal for a top-quality hostel in July.

On July 6th, I left Prague on an overnight train to Krakow – hopefully, the last overnight train I will have to take on my trip.

Eurotrip 2011: Budapest

Eurotrip 2011: Vienna

Eurotrip 2011: Hamburg and Munich

Eurotrip 2011: Berlin

Eurotrip 2011: Copenhagen

Eurotrip 2011: Bruges and Amsterdam

Eurotrip 2011: Lisbon and Porto

Eurotrip 2011: Madrid

Eurotrip 2011: Barcelona

Eurotrip 2011: Rouen, Le Havre and Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Nice and Marseille

Eurotrip 2011: Venice and Milan

Eurotrip 2011: Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011: Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Istanbul

Not Another Brick In The Wall

November 9, 2009 will be the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That singular event — which led to the liberation of millions of people trapped in the communist dictatorships behind the Iron Curtain — is one of the most notable achievements of modern American foreign policy, ranking with the Marshall Plan and the enlightened governance of post-war Japan. For the long decades of the Cold War, American Presidents and politicians of both political parties steadfastly opposed communism and the expansionist efforts of the Soviet Union. That process culminated in the political and economic bankruptcy of the Soviet Union and, ultimately, in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

President Obama’s decision to change his plans, so that he will not attend the ceremonies commemorating the 20th anniversary, is extremely disappointing precisely because the fall of the Berlin Wall was a significant American foreign policy accomplishment that deserves to be celebrated by the American President. It also was an accomplishment that sent the kinds of messages that you would think President Obama would want to send — messages of resolution and commitment. In the wake of President Obama’s decision to retreat from the European missile defense system proposed by the Bush Administration and his decision to publicly revisit our Afghan policy, it would seem to be a wonderful time for a presidential visit to Berlin to commemorate a tremendous achievement that was the product of decades of concerted, bipartisan effort.

President Obama has often apologized for what he considers to be American excesses; why not celebrate what is unquestionably an American triumph? Why not let the American people bask for a moment in the grateful thanks of the peoples of eastern Europe? In an era where the President can jet off to Copenhagen to pitch the Olympics for his adopted hometown of Chicago, what could possibly keep the President from attending such a significant event?