Mongo Santamaria – Afro Blue
Brenda Navarrete – Rumbero Como Yo
Celia Cruz y La Sonora Ponceña – Raices
Celia Cruz – Toro Mata
Luke Epplin interviews Oscar Hijuelos
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author on his new memoir, recovering his Latin roots in America, his relationship with Donald Barthelme, and how he found his voice.
Marcel Proust, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker all suffered isolating illnesses as children. Unlike Oscar Hijuelos, however, none lost his native tongue. Born to Cuban immigrant parents in 1951, Hijuelos grew up in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan. When he was four, Hijuelos’s mother took him and his older brother on a lengthy trip to her hometown of Holguín, along the northeastern coast of Cuba. Hijuelos contracted a life-threatening kidney disorder while there; upon return to the United States, he convalesced in a hospital in Connecticut for a year, estranged from his family and his native tongue.
Feeling bewildered and maligned for his ignorance of English, Hijuelos recalls that he began to associate Spanish, a language that before then had “wrapped around [his] soul like a blanket,” with disease and disapproval. Even though he never lost his comprehension of Spanish, he would soon become paralyzed when called upon to speak it. As he muses in his just-released memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes, “What I would hear for years afterward from my mother was that something Cuban had nearly killed me and, in the process of my healing, would turn my own ‘Cubanness’ into air.”
As a pale-skinned Cuban-American who struggled to speak Spanish, Hijuelos drifted through his childhood and adolescence with little sense of his own identity—an outsider both to his parents’s culture and to the multiple ethnic groups that populated his Manhattan neighborhood. He remained acutely aware that, in his own words, “something inside of me was missing, an element of personality in need of repair.”
That Hijuelos, whose novels paint vivid portraits of Cuban-American life in the United States, grew up linguistically and psychologically disconnected from his Hispanic heritage, comes as a surprise. But it was primarily through writing, albeit in English, that he would find the means not only to explore his childhood alienation but also to reconnect with his Hispanic roots.
Benicio Del Toro leads the charge for ‘Che’
Benicio Del Toro has made a career of playing men on society’s outskirts. Now as the revolutionary ‘Che,’ he shows his power.
By Mark Olsen
December 11, 2008
In films as varied as “The Usual Suspects,” “Basquiat,” “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas,” “Traffic” and “Things We Lost in The Fire,” Benicio Del Toro seems drawn to play the eccentric outsider.
Now in director Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” — which opens for a one-week run on Friday in Los Angeles and New York — Del Toro plays 1950s and ’60s revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Following Guevara from Mexico to Cuba to New York to Bolivia, the film — which will screen as a single 4-hour unit during its short run, and be broken into two separate films for the wider release in January — has a broad sweep, but also an eye for the specific, becoming perhaps the ultimate expression of Del Toro’s physical, enigmatic screen presence.
The project began with the 41-year-old Del Toro, who took an interest in Guevara’s book “The Bolivian Diary” and pursued the idea with producer Laura Bickford. This was just before his turn in the 2000 film “Traffic” (Bickford produced and Soderbergh directed), which earned Del Toro an Academy Award for supporting actor.
Del Toro’s work in “Che” appears to be a rare and a truly fortuitous match of actor and role.
“It certainly seemed that way to me immediately,” said Soderbergh of the way in which Del Toro suited the part. “I had the same sensation I had when I was working with Julia Roberts on ‘Erin Brockovich,’ the right person in the right role at the right time.”
Despite the film’s controversial reception following its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival — Variety called it “defiantly nondramatic” and “a commercial impossibility” — Del Toro, who also has a producing credit on the film, was awarded the best actor prize. Sean Penn, who led the festival jury, later called Del Toro’s work “one of the first tour de force performances in film history that doesn’t rely on the close-up.”
Keeping it true
Del Toro’s tall, broad frame is frequently shot by Soderbergh in a full-body shot, so that the actor works with his shoulders and hips as much as his eyes, while allowing other actors equal visual weight within the frame.
“When Che wrote he was very honest; that’s one of the first things that really moved me,” said Del Toro. “My first attraction toward Che was a book of letters he wrote to his family. There was an honesty in that, where he could be very self-critical, but also with a witty nod.
“The approach of the movie is to be true, factually true from what we gathered, but also true to him.”
Del Toro believes the film will have a life beyond whatever it may (or may not) make at the box office during its initial theatrical releases. It recently played to cheers in Havana and protests in Miami.
“One day, the movie will pop up and they’ll shake hands with it,” he says. “I remember the first time I heard [ Miles Davis’ landmark 1970 album] ‘Bitches Brew,’ I was like, ‘I can’t listen to that’. And then one time I was driving and one of the songs came on and everything changed. This movie, at some point it will change someone’s mind, what they thought it was.”
Before shooting the final sections of the film that portray Guevara’s time in Bolivia at the end of his life, Del Toro dropped some 35 pounds. For Guevara’s arrival in Bolivia in disguise, he shaved the top of his head rather than wear a bald cap. For his role in “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas” as the fictional sidekick Dr. Gonzo (based on writer Hunter S. Thompson’s friend and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta), Del Toro put on 40 pounds.
It seems only fitting that following the release of “Che” he will next be seen in a new version of ” The Wolf Man,” perhaps the ultimate story of personal transformation.
“I wish I could stay home,” he said of what draws him again and again to roles that require severe physical transformation and deep emotional commitment.
“I wish I could be asleep right now. But why do I do it? That’s the way the cookie crumbles for me, I’m that kind of actor. Do I invite it? Maybe. At the same time it invites me.
“It’s just who I am.”
Soderbergh’s epic ‘Che’ lands US distributor
TORONTO — Steven Soderbergh’s Che Guevara film biography “Che” has found a U.S. distributor that will release it in theaters this December to qualify for the Academy Awards.
IFC Films announced Wednesday it acquired domestic rights to the two-part, 4½-hour saga, which stars Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro as the Argentine doctor who became one of the heroes of Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution.
The film will play a one-week qualifying run in Los Angeles and New York in December for Oscar consideration.
It will reopen in theaters in January and be available to cable and satellite subscribers through IFC’s movies-on-demand service.
“Che” earned Del Toro the best-actor prize in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where the film premiered.
The acquisition was announced at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Che” also screened.
“‘Che’ is nothing less than the film event of the year,” said Jonathan Sehring, IFC Films president.
“By giving us the rise and fall of one of the great icons of history, Steven Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro, who gives an incredible soulful performance, have humanized him and given audiences around the world something that will be discussed for years to come.”
This speech was given by Author and Historian William Blum during the “Building A New World” conference at Radford University, Virginia, May 23, 2008.
I like to ask the question: What does US foreign policy have in common with Mae West, the Hollywood sexpot of the 1940s? The story is told of a visitor to her mansion, who looked around and said: “My goodness, what a beautiful home you have.” And Mae West replied: “Goodness has nothing to do with it.”
My assignment here today, as I understand it, is to enlighten you all on how to quickly end the war in Iraq. And how to prevent the United States from attacking Iran. Or Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and Bolivia. In short, how to put an end to the American empire.
Also, how to impeach Bush and Cheney.
And, while I’m at it, maybe, how to end poverty once and for all, how to save the environment, and how to legalize marijuana.
Well, good luck to us all.
Actually, as fanciful as all that sounds, I think that if the radical left had abundant access to the mass media, for a year or so, we could do it. It wouldn’t even have to be sole access, just as much time on radio and TV networks as the conservatives and NPR-type centrists and liberals have.
As some of you may recall, two years ago Osama bin Laden, in one of his audio messages, recommended that Americans should read my book Rogue State. Within hours I was swamped by the media and soon appeared on many of the leading TV news shows, dozens of radio programs, and a long profile in the Washington Post. In the previous 10 years I had sent in dozens of letters to the Post mainly commenting on their less-than-ideal coverage of US foreign policy. Not one was printed. Now my photo was on page one.
A few people who called into the TV and radio programs I was on attacked me as if I and bin Laden were friends and I had asked him for the endorsement. I had to point out that he and I were not really friends; in fact, I hadn’t spoken to him in months.
Some of the media hosts wanted me to say that I was repulsed by bin Laden’s “endorsement” . But I did not say I was repulsed, because I wasn’t. What I said was: “There are two elements, involved here: On the one hand, I totally despise any kind of religious fundamentalism and the societies spawned by such, like the Taliban in Afghanistan. On the other hand, I’m a member of a movement which has the very ambitious goal of slowing down, if not stopping, the American Empire, to keep it from continuing to go round the world doing things like bombings, invasions, overthrowing governments, and torture.
To have any success, we need to reach the American people with our message. And to reach the American people we need to have access to the mass media. What has just happened has given me the opportunity to reach millions of people I would otherwise never reach. Why should I not be glad about that? How could I let such an opportunity go to waste?”
But many, perhaps most, of those who called in were not hostile. During a 45-minute interview on C-Span and on some radio programs, several people called in to say how delighted they were to hear views expressed that they had never heard before on that station, or had never heard anywhere. I received more than 1000 emails from people I had never been in contact with before, most of which were supportive. I estimate that I sold about 20,000 copies of my book because of my increased exposure.
In summary, I think that there’s a very large audience of Americans out there just waiting for us to reach them. Many of them very much suspect that there are things seriously wrong with what the media, the White House, and the Pentagon tell them, but they don’t know enough to really be sure or to try to influence others. And they’re weighed down by the myths, the myths surrounding US foreign policy. I’ve gotten quite a few emails from people who tell me about friends and family who simply refuse to be swayed by the facts in my books or other sources. No matter how much these people are shown that what they believe is fallacious, they still refuse to reconsider their views. They say that the author must be quoting out of context or they simply don’t care what the argument is.
Now why is that? Are these people just stupid? I think a better answer is that they have certain preconceptions; consciously or unconsciously, they have certain basic beliefs about US foreign policy, and if you don’t deal with those basic beliefs you’ll be talking to a stone wall. Here are what I think are eight of those basic beliefs, or they can as well be called “myths”:
(1) US foreign policy “means well”. American leaders may make mistakes, they may blunder, they may lie, they may even on the odd occasion cause more harm than good, but they do mean well. Their intentions are honorable, if not divinely inspired. Of that most Americans are certain. They genuinely wonder why the rest of the world can’t see how benevolent and self-sacrificing America has been.
The idea that the United States is seeking to dominate the world, and exploit it economically, and is prepared to use any means necessary, is not something that’s easy for most Americans to swallow. They see our leaders on TV and their photos in the press, they see them smiling or laughing, telling jokes; see them with their families, hear them speak of God and love, of peace and law, of democracy and freedom, of human rights and justice and even baseball … How can such people be called immoral or war criminals?
They have names like George and Dick and Donald, not a single Mohammed or Abdullah in the bunch. And they speak English. Well, George almost does. People named Mohammed or Abdullah cut off an arm or a leg as punishment for theft. We know that that’s horrible. We’re too civilized for that. But we don’t consider that people named George and Dick and Donald drop millions of cluster bombs on cities and villages, and the many unexploded ones become land mines, and before very long a child picks one up or steps on one of them and loses an arm or leg, sometimes worse.
I like to ask the question: What does US foreign policy have in common with Mae West, the Hollywood sexpot of the 1940s? The story is told of a visitor to her mansion, who looked around and said: “My goodness, what a beautiful home you have.” And Mae West replied: “Goodness has nothing to do with it.”
That’s one of the important points you have to make about US foreign policy — goodness has nothing to do with it.
If I were to write a book called The American Empire for Dummies, page one would say: Don’t ever look for the moral factor. US foreign policy has no moral factor built into its DNA. Clear your mind of that baggage which only gets in the way of seeing beyond the clichés and the platitudes they feed us all.
So when American officials state or imply benevolent motivations behind their foreign policy, we should not let them get away with claiming such intentions. Supporters of US policies have that rationale profoundly embedded in their thinking, and I find it very useful in discussions with such people to raise moral questions about the government’s motivations. These people are not used to hearing such an argument. The media almost never mentions it. It’s almost disorienting for Americans. Or I sometimes ask them what the United States would have to do abroad to lose their support? What for them would be too much? Try that.
(2) The United States is really concerned with this thing called “democracy”. Even though in the past 60 years, the US has attempted to overthrow literally dozens of democratically- elected governments, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, and grossly interfered in as many democratic elections in every corner of the world. Moreover, it would be difficult to name a brutal dictatorship of the second half of the 20th century that was not supported by the United States. Not just supported, but put into power, and kept in power, against the wishes of the population.
The question is: What do the Busheviks mean by “democracy”?
Well, the first thing they have in mind is making sure the country in question is hospitable to corporate globalization and American military bases; and if this means forcing a regime change, so be it. The last thing they have in mind is any kind of economic democracy, the closing of the gap between the desperate poor and those for whom too much is not enough.
(3) Anti-American sentiment in the Middle East comes from hatred of our alleged freedom and democracy, or our wealth, or our secular government, or our culture. George W. has declared this many times. But polls taken in many Middle East countries in recent years, by respected international polling organizations, show again and again that the great majority of those people really admire American society.
There’s no clash of civilizations. It’s much simpler. What bothers them about the United States are the decades of appalling things done to their homelands by US foreign policy. That’s what motivates anti-American terrorists. It’s not the sex in American films and TV; it’s the American bombs dropping on their homes and schools. It’s not the alcohol and the miniskirts. It’s the American invasions and occupations; American torture; support of Middle East dictators; unmitigated support of Israel.
It works the same all over the world. In the period of the 1950s to the 1980s in Latin America, in response to a long succession of Washington’s awful policies, there were countless acts of terrorism against US diplomatic and military targets as well as the offices of US corporations. No one likes being invaded or bombed or tortured or having their government overthrown by a foreign power. Why should there be any doubt about this? But Americans have to be reminded of it.
I don’t think, by the way, that poverty plays much of a role in creating terrorists. The 9-11 hijackers, or alleged hijackers, were not a bunch of poor peasants; they were largely middle and upper class, and educated. Bin Laden himself is, or was, a millionaire. So we shouldn’t confuse terrorism with revolution.
(4) The United States has been pursuing a War on Terror. But the fact is the US is not actually against terrorism per se, they’re against only those terrorists who are not allies of the American empire. For example, there is a lengthy and infamous history of Washington’s support for numerous anti-Castro terrorists, even when their terrorist acts were committed in the United States.
At this moment, Luis Posada Carriles remains protected by the US government in Florida, though he masterminded the blowing up of a Cuban airplane that killed 73 people. Venezuela, a key location in this murder plot, has asked Washington to return Posada to Caracas. But the US has refused. He’s but one of hundreds of anti-Castro terrorists who’ve been given haven in the United States over the years along with many other terrorists from Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, and other countries.
The United States has also provided support of terrorists in Kosovo, Bosnia, Iran, Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, including those with known connections to al Qaeda. All to further foreign policy goals more important than fighting terrorism. What’s happened is that the War on Terror has served as a cover for the expansion of the empire.
Supporters of the War on Terror tell us that it’s been a success because there hasn’t been a terrorist attack in the US in the six -plus years since 9-11. Well, there wasn’t a terrorist attack in the US in the six-plus years before 9-11 either. So what does that prove? More importantly, since the first American bombs fell on Afghanistan in October 2001 there have been scores of terrorist attacks against American institutions in the Middle East, South Asia and the Pacific — military, civilian, Christian, and other targets associated with the United States, including two very major attacks in Indonesia with large loss of life.
But the worst failure of the War on Terror is that American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, including all the torture, have probably created thousands of new anti-American terrorists. We’ll be hearing from them for a terribly long time.
(5) If Saddam Hussein had in fact possessed all the terrible weapons the US claimed he had, the invasion and occupation of Iraq would then have been justified. Of the numerous lies we’ve been told about the war in Iraq, this is the biggest one, this is the most insidious, the necessary foundation for all the other lies. Think about it — What possible reason could Saddam Hussein have had for attacking the United States or Israel other than an irresistible desire for mass national suicide? Because that’s what would have followed an Iraqi attack on the US or Israel — if not a nuclear devastation of Iraq, then a non-nuclear devastation of Iraq.
But if in fact Iraq was not a threat to attack the US or Israel, then all we’ve been told about the war, before it began, and afterwards, is totally meaningless; all the accusations and discussions about whether the intelligence was right or wrong about this or that, or whether the Democrats also believed the lies, all meaningless.
And keep in mind, the same question applies to Iran: What possible reason could Iran have for attacking the United States or Israel other than an irresistible desire for mass national suicide? Of course, what worries Tel Aviv and Washington is not so much the danger of such an attack, but the fact that some day Israel might not be the only nuclear power in the Middle East, a serious loss of their ability to dominate.
Sometimes, when I have a discussion with a person who supports the war in Iraq, and the person has no other argument left to defend US policy there he may say something like: “Well, just tell me one thing, are you glad that Saddam Hussein was overthrown?”
And I say “No”.
And he says “No?”
And I say: Tell me, if you went into surgery to correct a knee problem and the surgeon mistakenly amputated your entire leg, what would you think if someone asked you afterward: Well, aren’t you glad that you no longer have a knee problem? It’s the same with the Iraqi people. They no longer have a Saddam Hussein problem. In general, the great majority of Iraqis had a much better life under Saddam Hussein than they’ve had under US occupation. That’s been confirmed again and again.
(6) There are many who believe that invading and occupying Iraq has been a horrible mistake, but that doing the same in Afghanistan has been justified. Afghanistan has become “the good war”. It was to revenge the deaths of September 11, 2001, was it not? Of course — in a rational world — revenge should be taken against those responsible for what happened on that infamous date. But of the tens of thousands of people killed by the US and its allies in Afghanistan the past six-plus years, how many, can it be said, had anything to do with the events of September 11? My rough estimate is … none. So what kind of revenge is that?
Yes, Osama bin Laden had been living in Afghanistan and that’s where the attack had been partially planned. But consider … If Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the terrible bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, had not been quickly caught, would the government have bombed the state of Michigan or any of the other places McVeigh had called home and where he had planned his attack?
Whatever one thinks of the appalling society the Taliban created, they had not really been associated with terrorist acts, and the masses of Taliban supporters shouldn’t have been held responsible if their leader, Mohammed Omar, one person, allowed foreign terrorists into the country, any more than I would want to be held responsible for all the Cuban terrorists in Miami. And most of the foreigners had probably come to Afghanistan in the 1990s to help the Taliban in their civil war — a religious mission for them — nothing the US government should have been concerned about. And remember, Mohammed Omar offered to turn bin Laden over to the United States if Washington presented proof of bin Laden’s involvement in 9-11. The United States did not accept the offer.
(7) In the Cold War, the United States defeated what was known as the International Communist Conspiracy. The legacy of the Cold War is still with us; it keeps coming up, often used by conservatives in one way or another as an argument in support of the War on Terror.
Let me take you back a bit now. If you think what you have now is government lying and deceit, let me tell you that in my day, during the cold war, the big lie, the big huge lie they pounded into our heads from childhood on was that there was something out there called The International Communist Conspiracy, headquarters in Moscow, and active in every country of the world, looking to subvert everything that was decent and holy, looking to enslave us all. That’s what they taught us, in our schools, our churches, on radio, TV, newspapers, in our comic books — The Communist Menace, the red menace, more dangerous than al Qaeda is presented to us today.
The Communist Menace was international, you couldn’t escape it. And almost every American believed this message unquestioningly. I was a good, loyal anti-communist until I was past the age of 30. In fact, in the 1960s I was working at the State Department planning on becoming a foreign service officer so I could join the battle against communism, until a thing called Vietnam came along and changed my mind, and my life.
It was all a con game. There was never any such animal as The International Communist Conspiracy. What there was, was people all over the Third World fighting for economic and political changes which didn’t coincide with the needs of the American power elite, and so the US moved to crush those governments and those movements, even though the Soviet Union was playing hardly any role at all in those scenarios.
Washington officials of course couldn’t say that they were intervening somewhere to block social change, so they called it fighting communism, fighting a communist conspiracy, and of course fighting for freedom and democracy. Just like now the White House can’t say that it invaded Iraq to expand the empire, or for the oil, or for the corporations, or for Israel, so it says it’s fighting terrorism.
Remember: The cold war ended in 1991 … the International Communist Conspiracy was no more … no more red threat … and nothing changed in American foreign policy. Since that time the US has been intervening, bombing, and overthrowing governments just as often as during the cold war. What does that tell you? It tells me that the so-called “communist threat” was just a ploy, an excuse for American imperialism.
Keep this in mind:
Following its bombing of Iraq in 1991 — after the cold war was ended — the United States wound up with military bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Following its bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, the United States wound up with military bases in Kosovo, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Hungary, Bosnia and Croatia.
Following its bombing of Afghanistan in 2001-2, the United States wound up with military bases in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Yemen and Djibouti.
Following its bombing and invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States wound up with Iraq.
This is not very subtle foreign policy. It’s certainly not covert. The men who run the American Empire are not easily embarrassed.
And that’s the way the empire grows — a base in every region, ready to be mobilized to put down any threat to imperial rule, real or imagined. 63 years after World War II ended, the United States still has major bases in Germany and Japan; 55 years after the end of the Korean War, tens of thousands of American armed forces continue to be stationed in South Korea.
The last myth I’d like to mention has to do with the media, and it affects the political views of Americans as much as any of the previously mentioned myths. It’s the idea that conservatives and liberals are ideological polar opposites. In actuality, conservatives, especially of the neo- kind, are far to the right on the political spectrum, while liberals are ever so slightly to the left of center. Yet, we are led to believe that a radio or TV talk show on foreign policy with a conservative and a liberal is offering a “balanced” point of view.
But a more appropriate balance to a neo-conservative would be a left-wing radical or progressive. American liberals are typically closer to conservatives on foreign policy than they are to these groups on the left, and the educational value of such supposedly balanced media can be more harmful than beneficial as far as seeing through the empire’s actions and motives. The listener thinks he’s getting more or less a full range of opinion on the topic and doesn’t realize that there’s a whole world outside the narrow box he’s being placed in.
The fundamental political difference between liberalism and Marxism is that liberalism sees a problem — such as America’s role as the world’s bully — simply as bad policy, while the Marxist sees it as something that flows out logically from US economic and military interests.
When a liberal sees a beggar, he says the system isn’t working. When a Marxist sees a beggar, he says the system is working.
Ideology is a very important concept and I think that most people are rather confused by it, which is due in no small measure to the fact that the media are confused by it, or they at least pretend to be confused. The official ideology of the American media is that they don’t have any ideology.
So all this I hope is ammunition you can use in trying to win over new recruits for the cause. And don’t be shy about raising such points even when “preaching to the choir” or “preaching to the converted”. That’s what speakers and writers are often scoffed at for doing — saying the same old thing to the same old people, just spinning their wheels. That’s what some would say I’m doing at this very moment. You are part of the choir, are you not?
But long experience as speaker, writer and activist in the area of foreign policy tells me it just ain’t so. From the questions and comments I often get from my audiences, in person and via email, and from other people’s audiences as well, I can plainly see that there are numerous significant information gaps and misconceptions in the choir’s thinking, often leaving them unable to see through the newest government lie or propaganda scheme. They’re unknowing or forgetful of what happened in the past that illuminates the present. Or they may know the facts but are unable to apply them at the appropriate moment. Or they’re vulnerable to being confused by the next person who comes along with a specious argument that opposes what they currently believe, or think they believe. In short, the choir needs to be frequently reminded and enlightened.
So that’s your assignment. Go out there and educate, and agitate, and subvert. There’s no magical tactic, only persistence. As the Quakers are fond of saying: If not now, when? If not here, where? If not you, who?
I thank you very much.
A couple of recent television reports on the ongoing campaign by the Cuban government to fight discrimination against Gays and the public debate currently taking place among Cubans regarding Gay rights and Gay oppression.