Dr. Zhivago visits Havana and feels at home

A few days ago we watched Dr. Zhivago on Amazon Prime, a three-and-a-half hour whale of a movie that calls for at least two bags of popcorn and multiple trips to the bathroom. Omar Sharif, as Zhivago, was at the height of his hottie-ness when the movie was made 55 years ago. That far back I probably was too, and unlike Omar, I’m still alive. A perpetually swooning Julie Christie, who played Lara, didn’t look too shabby either.

Omar during his salad days. 

What really struck me about Zhivago were the brief vignettes about life under early Bolshevik social engineering, including the attempt to solve the shortage of housing, and achieve instant economic equality, by confiscating private homes and, overnight, converting them into public housing for the proletariat. The transitions were overseen by some local schmuck, suddenly promoted to revolutionary avatar ever-ready to spout Communist one-liners and threaten anyone who voiced any doubts.

Dr. Zhivago’s author, Boris Pasternak, initially sympathized with the egalitarian goals of the Bolshevik revolution, but turned sharply away from them later in his life. The Soviet government, ever vigilant against any “fake news,” banned the publication of Dr. Zhivago at home and kept Pasternak from accepting the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature. The book ultimately was published in Italy.

Now turn to Cuba after the revolution, when the government set out to implement the same housing redistribution policies, leading to the same results: Tens of thousands of grand buildings in Havana turned into instant, overcrowded slums, as the result of neglect, a sputtering economy and gross mismanagement, all leading to a dire housing shortage that still plagues the country today.

For a vivid description of the sad condition of  Havana today, I recommend a visit to a blog published in Cuba called Generation Y, at https://generacionyen.wordpress.com/, written by Yoani Sanchez, a young and courageous Cuban journalist who has won international recognition for her work. Her latest post has a photo gallery of Havana today. Sad.

Havana: Apocalypse Now

Housing for the masses.

In a saner, more rational world, one could imagine a conversation between the Castro brothers, circa 1970, aboard their armored Mercedes, that might have stemmed Havana’s downward spiral.

“Bro, under the visionary, unerring leadership of the Party,” Raul says to Fidel. “Havana, once one of the grandest capitals in Latin America, has turned into a heaping, steaming pile of mierda. This whole Commie thing ain’t working out, bro. Maybe we should have checked what happened in the Soviet Union and learned from it.”

Of course, that conversation never took place, let alone lead to a loosening of the obsessive control of the economy dictated by Communist dogma. Except for small, sections of Old Havana restored for the benefit of the tourist trade, the city continues to literally collapse, piece by piece, and the shortage of decent housing is worse than ever.

Leaving Cuba for a second, now try to imagine if other world leaders had paid closer attention to  history, how many bloody wars, invasions, and multi-billion dollar debacles might have been avoided. Afghanistan? How did that work out for the British and the Russians? Vietnam? Did anyone check how that went for the French? Iraq? Syria?

In fact, as the American eagle impatiently flapped its wings, in preparation for invasions of those countries, someone probably did do a quick history check. But their cautionary findings promptly were overruled by superiors drunk with a combination of imperial hubris, wishful thinking (the Iraq war will pay for itself!), and the instant rush of adrenaline the beating the war drums brings to the male heart.

Imagine now what Havana might look like today if that conversation in the back of the Mercedes limousine had actually taken place. Imagine.

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