The US, A Banana Republic after the Coup d'état of Sept. 11
Interview with Gore Vidal, Writer and Critic of the United States
Rosa Miriam Elizalde
(From the Mexican daily La Jornada)
December 21, 2006
HAVANA — He spent five days in Havana. He followed a dizzying schedule that took him from the University of Computer Sciences to the Latin American School of Medicine, from University Hill to the National Ballet School, from Old Havana to the park that memorializes John Lennon with a lifesize bronze statue of the Beatles' founder, sitting on a bench like a local resident's son.
The most erudite American writer of his generation and the most corrosive critic of the current Republican administration, Gore Vidal does not just talk; he interprets what he says. He changes his voice and you can hear George W. Bush, Eisenhower, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, some obscure Pentagon official and even Vidal himself, mocking them all with an irony expressed by a face that does not reflect his 81 years of age.
He would rather be remembered as a historian than as a writer of fiction. Although his works are easily three times his age — his bibliography contains novels, tragedies, comedies, memoirs, essays, movie and TV scripts — his obsession is single-minded: the republic has lost its way.
"The main bit of wisdom that I learned from Thomas Jefferson, and he learned it from Montesquieu, is that you cannot have a republic and an empire at the same time," he says. "Since 1846, when we went to war with Mexico, we have been rapacious imperialists."
• You blame Harry Truman for turning the United States into the totalitarian country it is today, an opinion that many Americans do not seem to share. George W. Bush has just said, for example, that the man who dropped the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a good president.
• "You must remember something: most Americans are not informed about history, geography, religion and whatever happens in the world. Roosevelt made all the arrangements so we could wrest the colonies from France, the Netherlands and Portugal after World War II. The Americans are still not aware of this. What they know about Truman is that he was a kindly little man who played the piano.
"Behind him was another Prince Metternich, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, an international lawyer who knew everything about everything. It was he who designed the militarized state that emerged in 1949, with a built-in CIA. Everything hinged on one document: National Security Council Memorandum No. 68 of 1950, which remained secret until 1975 and resolved that we should forever be at war with someone. We would fight communism, even if communism didn't threaten us. It established a de-facto Holy War, like the one we're waging now against terrorism and Islam, as stupid as it is irrelevant.
"Truman was so bad that they turned him into an idol. All ignoramuses admire Harry Truman but they don't know why. He ended the republic and placed us atop this wave of conquest. Truman shouted to the people that the Soviet Union was advancing, that it was about to seize Greece and immediately thereafter would go into Italy, France and later would cross the Atlantic.
"Today we find echoes of Truman in this little man, Mr. Bush, who says [IMITATING HIM]: 'Well, we can't fight them over there ... we're gonna have to fight 'em over here ... we're gonna have to fight.' [SPEAKS NORMALLY] And those enemies have no way to come to the United States to start a war. But no American can question such delirium without being tagged as antipatriotic or a fool."
'Bush of Baghdad'
• 'The terrorist attack in Oklahoma in 1995 can be explained by the laws of physics: there is no action without reaction.' That's what you said. You alluded to the hatred that the United States has sown in the world and in the country itself. Was it a prophecy?
• "Even a 5-year-old boy could see that the solution to the problem of terrorist attacks is simply a police action, because we're being attacked by a Mafia. You cannot have a war without an opposing country. Try to explain this to Americans; they don't even know what a country is. [The administration] managed that 80 percent of them still don't know that Saddam Hussein was not precisely Osama Bin Laden's best friend.
"They think the two worked like one and that both attacked us on Sept. 11. It's all nonsense. There was no connection whatsoever between Saddam and Bin Laden, but Bush wanted to complete his father's task and show that he was the bolder of the two. He wanted to be remembered as 'Bush of Baghdad,' something like 'Lawrence of Arabia.'
• A CBS survey this week reported that 75 percent of Americans disapprove of the government's actions in Iraq, while the president's approval index dropped to historic levels. Will Bush be the most hated president in the history of the United States?
• "If the American people had had a true free press and an alert communications media, this man would have never been elected. He is an incompetent being. We have had a lot of dumb presidents, but Bush can't even read well. At least in this, he's representative. You listen to him speak of 10 minutes and it becomes clear that he doesn't know what he's talking about. He's desperate, trying to follow the lines on the Teleprompter. Without one of his advisers by his side, he cannot answer questions.
"Ever since Woodrow Wilson left the Oval Office in 1921, no president has written his own speeches. The president reads what others write. Sometimes he's in agreement; others, not. When Eisenhower read his speeches, they were a discovery to him. During his first election campaign, the country was astounded when, halfway through a speech, he said 'And if I'm elected, I shall go to ... Korea?!' He was furious. Nobody had told him in advance about that promise. But he went to Korea, nevertheless.
"If we had had a press that was interested in the republic, not in the profits, history would have been different. There is some hope. After all, Al Gore won the election in 2000 by popular vote, with 600,000 more votes than Bush. The intervention of the Supreme Court and the trickery in the counting of votes falsified the result of the elections. Overnight, we became a banana republic without bananas to sell. That is our greatest problem today."
• Recently, President Fidel Castro stated that the Bush administration has led the country to a disaster of such magnitude that, almost surely, the people of the United States will not allow him to conclude his term of office. Do you believe this?
• "I wouldn't be surprised. The Bush administration is so extremist and has people with such empty minds that it is capable of bombing Russia or Iran [...] simply to distract people's attention from the other war and to keep the administration from crumbling ahead of schedule. We even know what he would shout. [IMITATING BUSH] 'The true patriots help and support the commander in chief in times of war.' [SPEAKS NORMALLY] That's his signature, even though it doesn't make sense and is stupid. They are expert in fabricating pretexts to create panic.
"Two days after Sept. 11, someone in government said: 'The problem is not if they will attack again but when.' That's when all that foolishness began. When we remind them that five years have passed and [the terrorists] haven't attacked us, they answer: 'That's because of the precautions we have taken at airports!'
"And they say [LOOKS AND SPEAKS AS IF TERRIFIED] 'We don't like those precautions either, because we have to take our shoes off at the airport. But it's those measures that have saved us from the attacks!' [SPEAKS NORMALLY] Well, if that's so, prove it. [TERRIFIED] 'But we can't prove it without revealing our secret sources!' they answer. [NORMALLY] It's a vicious circle.
"I hope that the Democrats, who now are taking over the chairmanship of legislative committees, especially the Judiciary Committee, will summon those generals to Congress, put them under oath, and make them answer our questions seriously."
Many people make money generating fear
• What is needed to restore the republic?
• "To heed the great warning by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our best president, during his inaugural speech when the country collapsed, money was scarce and the banks failed. He said [IMITATES ROOSEVELT] 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' [SPEAKS NORMALLY] That's the basis of our republic. I would tell the American people: Don't let yourself be fooled by fear. There are many people in the United States who make money thanks to fear. That's their job: to scare you.
"I am not in favor of a violent revolution now, because revolutions usually bring the opposite of what they sought. The French Revolution gave the world Napoleon Bonaparte, and Louis XVI was not as bad as Napoleon. But I think that in the United States we're going to have a revolution because of the economic collapse. Some days ago, one of the big headlines said the army was pleading with the government for money.
"They don't have enough money to continue to make fools of themselves in Baghdad! They're going to collect the money any way they can, and not at the expense of the rich. The rich don't have an obligation to pay taxes. Nor do the corporations. In the past, 50 percent of the United States' revenues came from taxes on corporate profits. Now, corporations pay less than 8 percent. [The administration] has freed all its rich friends from paying taxes, so they can donate the money to the Republican Party, with the commitment that [the party] will continue to tell lies to the country and certify that the patriots are traitors.
"It's been a great trick for them, from an economic point of view, but an awful plan for us Americans. And we don't like that. We lost the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta, on which all our freedoms were based for more than 700 years. No, it has not been a good time, and won't be."
We delight in jailing people and in imposing the death penalty
• Are you aware of the case of the five Cubans imprisoned in the United States for keeping the island government informed about terrorist plans in South Florida?
• "I know the case through the attorneys but not through the media. It seems to be another of the idiotic things our government is doing. I understand that presidents Clinton and Castro exchanged messages to stop the Miami terrorists, who had placed bombs in hotels and offices that sent tourists to the island. The two presidents agreed that this situation had to be halted. Clinton asked the FBI to come to Cuba and Castro agreed to that. Instead of arresting the terrorists, the FBI arrested the Cubans.
"We delight in jailing people, as much as we like the death penalty. It's the brightest star in our diadem. Our country is crazy about torture, murder, executions, life sentences. It's a perverse mentality that comes from a background of Protestant Puritanism. Everybody has to suffer if they have sinned. But if you're rich, God loves you. That's the proof. If you're poor, you don't please God. That's the proof. That kind of thinking is not healthy for anyone and in the state of Florida there are many people who think like that, in addition to those who arrived with Batista.
"The junta that imprisoned and sentenced them did so knowing full well the consequences. The Bush-Cheney, gas-and-oil junta is not as stupid as it seems. It does wicked things because that's how it keeps everything under control. Don't think that they didn't learn from the 20th-Century dictatorships. The case of The Five is one more proof that we have a crisis of law, a political crisis and a constitutional crisis."
• Oliver Stone has been punished by the U.S. Treasury Department for violating the blockade against Cuba. His crime was to have traveled to the island to film his two documentaries about Fidel. Are those measures constitutional?
• "Of course not. It's a violation [of the Constitution]. But on Sept. 11 there was a coup d'état in the United States, the first one in our history. A coup in which a group of dishonest people, an oil junta, usurped the power of the state and overthrew the Congress. It's a unique event and its details will make for a great story someday.
"This is something the people cannot quite understand, because Americans have a very simple mentality. What they don't know or haven't seen previously does not exist. Well, they're living it now, in situ, but they'll find out about it someday, like archeologists, and it won't be pleasant at all. The sanctions against Americans who want a normal relationship with Cuba are born of those circumstances. But Oliver Stone and any other American citizen have every right to many any movie they want under any circumstances, so long as they do not break the law. It's their constitutional right. He has not broken the law. What happens is that the junta doesn't like what he's doing. Oh, my goodness!
• Do you fear any reprisals against you?
• "I am usually prepared for the fact that nothing I do, say or write about this government will please the people in it."
• You have spent several days in Havana. Is Cuba the satanic island the press and the politicians show the Americans?
• "Are you crazy? No! They're always telling us that Cubans hate to be here. That everybody is starving. They come up with those tales that say that hospitals are terrible and that nobody goes to them. That the Cubans who get sick go to the Mayo Clinic in the United States. There isn't a lie that our government hasn't told us, when it comes to Cuba. In the United States, the lie is the lingua franca of the realm.
"Do you know why I go on television? Because I feel that there is someone who will see me and listen to me and to whom I can talk about what I've seen, without tendentious intermediaries. I can talk to them, for example, of the marvelous medical plans in Cuba. I visited a medical school that trains doctors from many countries to give community service to the poor, which is something the American system hates. In the United States, you learn medicine so you can grab all the money you can and flee to Tahiti or some other vacation spot and forget the people who suffer.
"I was talking to eight or nine people from New York and Massachusetts who are studying medicine in Cuba. I asked them if the training the received was as good as I had been told and they answered 'Yes,' that it's better than any training they might get in the United States. Why don't we do the same for our people and for the health of other people?
"Cuban doctors are in the most forgotten places, from Africa to the Amazon jungle. Only if we restore the Constitution could we have a country with aspirations and successes like those of Cuba. Don't think that I, as an American, don't feel envy of what I've seen in Cuba. I am a great patriot, yet I feel envy."
• Will you return?
• "I never make predictions.”
Rosa Miriam Elizalde is an outstanding Cuban journalist who contributes to the national and international media.