“Really Nick,” my friend replied, “you are getting so right wing. Cuba has universal literacy and the best health service in Latin America.”
I remember thinking at the time that literacy was no use to Cubans when the state told them what they could and could not read. As for the marvellous health service, alas my friend contracted severe food poisoning. Cuban doctors could do nothing to stop the vomiting and diarrhoea, which knocked him out for a fortnight. In the end, he had to heave his way back to England, and rely on the NHS to calm his swirling guts.
“I caught the bug in a private restaurant,” he said to me darkly, as he tried to rationalise the failure of Cuban communist propaganda to deliver on its promises.
I thought of him when I read the latest Wikileaks’ cables in this morning’s Guardian. Julian Assange’s motives in releasing them are a combination of the geek’s strutting vanity as he brags to the public that he has breached a government’s security system and that variety of bone-headed anti-Americanism, which holds that the Western democracies are the “root cause” of all the world’s ills. It is best represented by Michael Moore, one of the most disreputable propagandists of our age. I can never forgive him for Fahrenheit 9/11, which showed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a happy land where merry children frolicked in the park, a lie worthy of Leni Riefensthal. Wikileaks now tell us that his indulgence of tyranny did not end there.
For Assange this must be an annoying story. Far from showing State Department diplomats to be evil propagandists, his Wikileaks cables send the charge of mendacity boomeranging back towards his comrades. A dispatch from the American Embassy in Havana recounted how the Cuban Communist Party banned Michael Moore's 2007 documentary, Sicko, because it painted such a "mythically" favourable picture of Cuba's healthcare system that the authorities feared it could lead to a "popular backlash".
'The film attempted to discredit the US healthcare system by highlighting what it claimed was the excellence of the Cuban system.
But the memo reveals that when the film was shown to a group of Cuban doctors, some became so "disturbed at the blatant misrepresentation of healthcare in Cuba that they left the room".
Castro's government apparently went on to ban the film because, the leaked cable claims, it "knows the film is a myth and does not want to risk a popular backlash by showing to Cubans facilities that are clearly not available to the vast majority of them."'
Moore persuaded his audience to believe in the superiority of Cuban health care by filming at the Hermanos Ameijeiras hospital. He did not mention that the only way a Cuban can gain admission to the hospital is through a bribe or contacts inside the hospital administration. "Cubans are reportedly very resentful that the best hospital in Havana is 'off-limits' to them," the cable says, and adds that even its standards are not good enough for the nomenklatura.
'The Cuban ruling elite leave Cuba when they need medical care. Fidel Castro, for example, brought in a Spanish doctor during his health crisis in 2006. The vice-minister of health, Abelardo Ramirez, went to France for gastric cancer surgery. The neurosurgeon who heads CIMEQ [Centro de Investigaciones Médico-Quirúrgicas] hospital – widely regarded as one of the best in Cuba – came to England for eye surgery, returning periodically for checkups.'
If Michael Moore really wanted to see the care Cuban enjoy, he should have gone to Calixto Garcia Hospital, the diplomats conclude. A visit by American health professionals found that this "dilapidated" hospital, built in the 1800s, was "reminiscent of a scene from some of the poorest countries in the world.”
The bleakest denunciation of western fellow travelling I know of comes in The First Circle. Alexander Solzhenitsyn has political prisoners in Stalin’s gulag tell a story about Moscow’s hellish Butyrka prison. One day, a young captain takes the emaciated inmates of cell 72 to a version of paradise. Barbers spray them with eau de Cologne, laundresses dress them in silk and chefs provide them with their first decent meal in years. When they go back, they find the authorities have painted their cell in bright colours. Previously forbidden books and packets of cigarettes are scattered around the room. In place of the four-gallon slop bucket is a gleaming toilet.
The prisoners cannot understand their good fortune until the guards usher in a ‘Mrs R’, an American ‘lady of great shrewdness and progressive views’ who is clearly meant to be Eleanor Roosevelt. The governor tells her that they are not dissidents but rapists and murderers the Communist party of the Soviet Union in its magnanimity has decided to rehabilitate rather than execute. She does not ask to inspect any of the other cells and leaves, “convinced of the falsehood of the allegations spread by malicious scaremongers in the West”.
As soon as she has gone, the prisoners’ lice-infested rags and four-gallon slop bucket return.
The Michael Moore example shows that that kind of self-delusion – and that kind of willingness to delude others – did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall.