Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Pravda" doesn't equal "Truth"

Submitted another pointlessly long LTE to the pointless denizens of the Times, but sometimes activism requires catharsis simply to go on.

Re: White House Philosophy Stoked Mortgage Bonfire
Like bad marksmen or Wrong-way Corrigan, the famous aviator who accidentally flew from New York to Ireland instead of California, the Leftists at the Times unerringly end up, once again, in Moscow instead of Main Street. For anyone who wants to look at the facts without Red-tinted glasses; consider
"...for much of Mr. Bush’s tenure, government statistics show, incomes for most families remained relatively stagnant while housing prices skyrocketed. That put homeownership increasingly out of reach for first-time buyers like Mr. West."
Not that you would know it from the Times' story, but the reason for the skyrocketing prices which preceded Bush was skyrocketing demand created by Democratic programs -- easy money from the Federal Reserve, easy rates, easy sub-prime payments, easy borrowing qualifications for unqualified borrowers, easy confidence the government would never let anyone fail, and full assurance the government would help banks fail if they didn't lend to the people government wanted them to lend to.
While there's no question political pandering and outright stupidity by the fools in the Bush Administration bears part of the responsibility for the mortgage crisis, it is also unquestionable the preponderance of the problem started with Democratic Administrations promoting housing programs, beginning with the creation of Fannie Mae during the Great Depression, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, expanding with the Community Reinvestment Act under Jimmy Carter, and culminating with the apotheosis of corruption under Franklin Delano Raines, appointed under Bill Clinton.
How ironic that our next Depression may be caused by a program from the last one. But the pattern is always the same -- the "solutions" government offers are always guaranteed to make the problem return in the not-so distant future, as they are now with the "bailout" of everyone who is guilty and so much more.
But the truth is greater than absolution or blame of Democrats or Republicans, who differ little in principle or in practice today. Whether the Times will admit it or not, the mortgage crisis and meltdown was 100% a creation of *government* interference in markets, in the name of politicians promoting "social justice", buying votes, and lining their own pockets. It can't be whitewashed by blaming Wall Street, Main Street, or any street except both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The truth is: the people in Congress possess a power they should never have had: control of the economy. Corruption in the private sector is inevitable under such conditions -- because power doesn't corrupt just politicians, it corrupts *everybody*. That is the real reason for any failures of "Main Street". The only proper solution, the only solution that will prevent the problem from occurring or recurring, is to take away that power.
Alan Greenspan betrayed Ayn Rand's ideals of laissez faire capitalism long before the housing crisis, and long before he blamed those ideals in a lie before Congress. But as Rand used to say, reality is its own avenger, and the attempt to whitewash facts is one reason the Times itself has now had to mortgage their own building. Burying the truth doesn't make a dead body go away, and when a once reputable newspaper becomes more enamored of its own political agenda than informing, it has to become decaying carrion in a society where only a "news" organ such as the old Soviet "Pravda" (Russian word for "truth") can succeed.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Global Warming, the World is Growing Cool to Ya...

From a friend:

------ start message -------
I had an interesting conversation with a neighbor at a block Christmas party last week. He is a very highly paid private environmental consultant, and does work for governments around the world. He's been an ardent supporter of the UN IPCC global warming predictions, Al Gore, etc. I've avoided talking to him about global warming for several years because it turns into an argument that spoils the party - but I couldn't resist this year. I said I'd been reading some very creditable information that nature, not man, is causing warming. He said, "interesting, tell me what you've read."

So, I mentioned that increased solar output was primarily warming the earth, that warmer oceans were releasing dissolved CO2 & contributing more than burning fossil fuels, and that recent models including the effects of water vapor and clouds show their influence to be 20X greater than that of CO2. He said "wow, you read that, I'm surprised! I just happen to have spent the last week at a scientific conference where those and other results were reported - it appears the previous dire warnings of man's influence have been really overstated!"

He said this was a very mainstream scientific meeting, not something funded by petroleum or groups in denial. He said in addition, two other factors were in play: 1) the earths orbit, tilt, and wobble were all aligned to bring the earth closer to the sun than it has been for 30k years, 2) the solar warming was melting large areas of permafrost in Siberia, and the decaying peat was generating huge amounts of methane, which of course is 23X more potent than CO2.

He said despite this trend in the scientific community away from anthropogenic warming, it was not likely you'd hear much about this in the media anytime soon. In fact, he said the scientists were not eager to make it widely known, because as long as they can tie their research to global warming it is much easier to get research funded.

Morality versus the Arbitrary, and the Individual vs. the State

This is an exchange with a friend concerning the source of morality that came out of a discussion of the financial crisis and Alan Greenspan's horrible dishonesty in testimony before Congress, where he stated, in effect, that Ayn Rand's advocation of laissez faire capitalism was the cause of the financial collapse, rather than Greenspan's own betrayal of her philosophy over decades. My friend had read some limited writings of Rand decades ago, and I was rebutting his objections.


I meant to reply sooner, but I've been very busy.

Greenspan's remarks to Congress simply demonstrated his ignorance of Ayn Rand's philosophy and the "virtue of selfishness" (which Obama, of all people, was mocking the other day). Rand's point isn't that selfishness automatically brings about "best outcomes", even for oneself. As she discussed many times, the primary issue is moral, not practical -- we have a right to pursue and preserve our own values based on our own judgment. That's selfishness, in her view. Put another way, that's simply freedom. Put another way, it's simply the most fundamental human requirement for survival and happiness.

I copy below something from to illustrate my point. As she says,

"Just as the notion that “Anything I do is right because I chose to do it,” is not a moral principle, but a negation of morality—so the notion that “Anything society does is right because society chose to do it,” is not a moral principle, but a negation of moral principles... "
Greenspan, however, appears to have wrongly believed that self-interest is primarily a "practical" necessity of market operation rather than a moral one. "Self-interest" doesn't automatically guarantee the market will do what's best for itself, which is nonsense, of course -- particularly in what Rand calls our "mixed economy", a mixture of freedom and controls. The very nature of government intereference in markets (apart from legitimate functions of prosecuting actual crime and fraud) is that it corrupts everything and everyone, including the people Greenspan was apparently counting on to keep things going.

However, to address your point, it is certainly true that even honest people vary in their ability to reason and act correctly, but my answer is two-fold -- first, that in a truly free market, cataclysmic events like the collapse we've witnessed simply couldn't happen, and I'm not taking Greenspan's point of view here. Greenspan somehow seemed to believe, naively, I think, that a mixture of freedom and controls can work via the miracle of "self-interest". I don't, nor would Rand have claimed it, either. It can't. One (controls) poisons the other (freedom, of which free markets are simply an expression).

If you simply consider the scope of the federal involvement in the crisis, I think that bears me out. The Community Reinvestment Act grew and morphed over the years, particularly under Clinton, to openly encouraging "shakedown" operations of the type Obama was part of with Acorn -- threatening banks with demonstrations or worse if they didn't lend to inner city people.

The scale of fraud at Fannie Mae was much worse than Enron under Franklin Raines and his cronies, as they openly encouraged the issuance of sub-prime loans to even honest borrowers who could never make rapid increases in payments. The Federal Reserve, too -- printing money en masse. And the fact that the mere presence of the Federal government in the home-mortgage business created a widespread psychology among everyone in the private sector that even if loans or related businesses went bad (banks and insurers), they would be bailed out -- so people took risks they never would have taken in the absence of government involvement and just closed their eyes to the consequences.

I don't want to make a litany here -- it just goes on and on, and I only scratched the surface (I think as you know), but it illustrates how it corrupts everyone, and why you can't rely on their "self-interest" in that kind of political environment -- because people start factoring the government actions into all their thinking. Their "self-interest" of the moment no longer aligns with their real self-interest in the long-haul.

My second answer is that, people must be allowed to make their own mistakes, and other people have to be more cautious (caveat emptor) about the possibility [of fraud]. What's the alternative? There's no way any bureaucrat or political appointee is going to be wise enough, omniscient enough, or even care enough to enact and administer laws to the self-interest of 300 million people. All he has at his disposal is good intentions (maybe), the point of a gun (if you don't obey) or political pull (lobbyists and cronies).

But even with good intentions, there is no amount of regulations that will prevent people from making mistakes or committing fraud, and the more regulations there are, the more crippled businesses are by things such as Sarbanes-Oxley, and the more opportunities for fraud there are among the real crooks, and the more you will therefore see real crooks (like Paulson) elevated in the private sector to positions of influence over the economy -- their claim to fame is "working" the system, after all, and exploiting political pull, which is a power they can *only* draw on if there are government favors to be had, which can only be had if the government is involved in the economy.

The situation is either-or, as Rand says. You can have total control of everyone, or you can have freedom with the government out of the economy entirely. Anything in between will eventually lurch to towards statism, and that's the roost all these chickens are coming home on right now. The only role the government should play in the economy is to protect our rights by enforcing contracts and prosecuting crimes, but beyond that, the effect is entirely destructive.

------ Friend's Reply ----------

I thought Rand's statement on individual rights, societal rights, and moral negation was interesting but she doesn't answer the question of who has the right to decide what is moral. Her decision to proclaim the fundamental right as pertaining to the individual, the right to life and the fruit of one's labor, seems reasonable, but about as arbitrary a choice as those proclaiming societal & collectivists rights.

I don't think the US Constitution is quite as focused on the individual as she claims - whatever issues proved too thorny to deal with were relegated to States rights - the State being a societal entity, not an individual - so it tries to walk a line between individual and society. Our Declaration of Independence ascribes the rights it mentions as God-given. I think God is a pretty good basis on which to build upon, but then my god and someone else's god are likely to be quite different, so you can't prove anything by it. The best we can do in determining which system is right is to ask people which country and system of law they'd prefer to be governed by - then I think the US wins hands down.

--------My reply --------------

It isn't who gets to decide what is moral, but what. The view you describe ("The best we can do in determining which system is right is to ask people which country and system of law they'd prefer to be governed by") is essentially the view of Aristotle, whom Rand admired greatly (in a profound sense, actually), but disagreed with on a number of important points.
Rand's view is that morality has traditionally been defined by either subjective standards (eg, society), or intrinsic standards (eg, God). Her own view (and mine) is that there is a third alternative, reality (an objective standard, hence the name of the philosophy). That is, on the objective view, a moral code arises from the requirements of the life of Man. They are a necessity for his survival and happiness. In her words,
"Whether one believes that man is the product of a Creator or of nature, the issue of man's origin does not alter the fact that he is an entity of a specific kind -- a rational being -- that he cannot function successfully under coercion, and that rights are a necessary condition of his particular mode of survival."
By that standard he has to use his mind (reason) to apprehend reality, and all the rest follows from that, including individual rights to protect him from coercion, as she discusses in the second article I copied you ("Man's Rights").
"The principle of man's individual rights represented the extension of morality into the social system -- as a limitation on the power of the state, as man's protection against the brute force of the collective, as the subordination of might to right. The United States was the first moral society in history."
So, neither individual rights, nor a morality of rational self-interest on which they are based (in principle), are arbitrary, because the basis is a referent in reality -- the nature of Man, including not just his mind, but his capacity to value, and his need to survive, ultimately, by his own effort.
As a side note, Rand's concept of "rational self-interest" is definitely not of the "dog-eat-dog" variety, which she roundly criticized. A man who uses people and defrauds them is, in her view, the mostly profoundly selfless person (explicitly made clear in "The Fountainhead", in the character of Peter Keating), because he's sacrificing any hope he has for long-term happiness. This type of person tries to evade the fact that human happiness requires much more than material wealth.

Man's nature requires spiritual wealth (in her sense of the term) in the achievement of values by earning them, whether in a productive career, friends or family of high character, and the integrity to stay true to those values and defend them if necessary, even with one's own life, because betraying one's values would make life as a rational human being (what she terms "Man's Life") unbearable. Material wealth on this view, is the reward of integrity (to a rationally self-interested man, that is), and an effect of his virtue, but not the cause nor the primary goal of his existence.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Blackbeard tapdances while the West reprises the Follies Bergere

Yarr, here 'tis -- another riveting tale of Pirates Gone Wild. Yo Ho! I know I comment on these too much, but they're so damn entertaining in demonstrating how utterly toothless the Western powers have become...
"“They can’t stop us,” said Jama Ali, one of the pirates ...He explained how he and his men hid out on a rock near the narrow mouth of the Red Sea and waited for the big gray ships with the guns to pass before pouncing on slow-moving tankers. Even if foreign navies nab some members of his crew, Mr. Jama said, he is not worried. He said his men would probably get no more punishment than a free ride back to the beach, which has happened several times. “We know international law,” Mr. Jama said."
Well, someone knows the law. Why don't we set this guy up as a shyster chasing ambulances in... oh, wait. I'm thinking of Senator John Edwards.
"...This seeming impunity is especially infuriating to the new cadre of private security guards, fresh from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, hired to tag along on merchant voyages to add a layer of protection. ...They have their own ideas for dealing with seafaring outlaws. “We should make ’em walk the plank,” one British security guard said.
I'm for that. Arrrhhh.
"Despite tough talk, the guards are unarmed (because most countries do not allow them to bring weapons into port), so they are often forced to confront machine-gun-toting pirates with fire hoses. There was even a recent case, according to several security contractors, in which Filipino crew members pelted pirates with tomatoes in an attempt to stop them from scaling the hull of their ship. It did not work."
You gotta laugh. Really. Now here's where the bleeding heart reporter wants us to feel sorry for them:
" But the end of piracy could be an economic catastrophe — for many Somalis. Their country exports almost nothing these days, and more legitimate forms of business have largely died off. Entire clans and coastal villages now survive off piracy, ..."
And here's how the Italians deal it...
"Italian officers on pirate patrol seemed uncomfortable at the thought of actually capturing a real live pirate. There is not even a brig or place to hold the pirates on the destroyer. For visitors on board, lunchtime was the highlight. The officers summoned up from the oily bowels of the destroyer a banquet of homemade pasta, marinated eggplant sliced paper thin, prosciutto-wrapped dates and tiramisu, finished off with cool glasses of spumante. It seems that when Italians hunt for pirates, they hunt in style.
I think I'm going to re-write my pirate screenplay as a comedy. Something in the vein of "Operation Petticoat meets The Mouse That Roared", about a fleet of pirates on pink dhows who declare war on the world and win, while the world is at the U.N. debating the law of the sea.
Published: December 15, 2008

ON THE ARABIAN SEA — Rear Adm. Giovanni Gumiero is going on a pirate hunt.

Jeffrey Gettleman/The New York Times

Italian sailors on patrol on the Arabian Sea. Pirates based in Somalia are still able to operate in the area.

An Italian naval destroyer, foreground, escorted a merchant vessel that was carrying a cargo of humanitarian aid to Somalia in November.

From the deck of an Italian destroyer cruising the pirate-infested waters off Somalia’s coast, he has all the modern tools at his fingertips — radar, sonar, infrared cameras, helicopters, a cannon that can sink a ship 10 miles away — to take on a centuries-old problem that harks back to the days of schooners and eye patches.

“Our presence will deter them,” the admiral said confidently.

But the wily buccaneers of Somalia’s seas do not seem especially deterred — instead, they seem to be getting only wilier. More than a dozen warships from Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, France, Russia, Britain, Malaysia and the United States have joined the hunt.

And yet, in the past two months alone, the pirates have attacked more than 30 vessels, eluding the naval patrols, going farther out to sea and seeking bigger, more lucrative game, including an American cruise ship and a 1,000-foot Saudi oil tanker.

The pirates are recalibrating their tactics, attacking ships in beelike swarms of 20 to 30 skiffs, and threatening to choke off one of the busiest shipping arteries in the world, at the mouth of the Red Sea.

United Nations officials recently estimated that Somali pirates had netted as much as $120 million this year in ransom payments — an astronomical sum for a country whose economy has been gutted by 17 years of chaos and war. Some shipping companies are now rerouting their vessels to avoid Somalia’s waters, detouring thousands of miles around the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa.

The pirates are totally outgunned. They continue to cruise around in fiberglass skiffs with assault rifles and at best a few rocket-propelled grenades. One Italian officer said that going after them in a 485-foot-long destroyer, bristling with surface-to-air missiles and torpedoes, was like “going after someone on a bicycle with a truck.”

But the pirates — true to form — remain unfazed.

“They can’t stop us,” said Jama Ali, one of the pirates aboard a Ukrainian freighter packed with weapons that was hijacked in September and was still being held.

He explained how he and his men hid out on a rock near the narrow mouth of the Red Sea and waited for the big gray ships with the guns to pass before pouncing on slow-moving tankers. Even if foreign navies nab some members of his crew, Mr. Jama said, he is not worried. He said his men would probably get no more punishment than a free ride back to the beach, which has happened several times.

“We know international law,” Mr. Jama said.

Western diplomats have said that maritime law can be as murky as the seas. Several times this year, the Danish Navy captured men they suspected to be pirates, only to dump them on shore after the Danish government decided it did not have jurisdiction.

The American warships surrounding the hijacked Ukrainian freighter have intercepted several small skiffs going to the freighter, but let the men aboard go because American officials said they did not want to put the freighter’s crew in danger.

This seeming impunity is especially infuriating to the new cadre of private security guards, fresh from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, hired to tag along on merchant voyages to add a layer of protection. Burly men with tattooed forearms and shaved heads sipping Heineken and checking their watches are now common sights on the beaches of Oman, Kenya and Djibouti. They have their own ideas for dealing with seafaring outlaws.

“We should make ’em walk the plank,” one British security guard said.

Despite tough talk, the guards are unarmed (because most countries do not allow them to bring weapons into port), so they are often forced to confront machine-gun-toting pirates with fire hoses.

Or worse. There was even a recent case, according to several security contractors, in which Filipino crew members pelted pirates with tomatoes in an attempt to stop them from scaling the hull of their ship. It did not work.

The Italian naval officers say the piracy patrols are helping — already the Italians have rescued several merchant vessels surrounded by pirate skiffs. The Italian destroyer is part of a NATO mission that began in October.

“But the answer is to have a good, strong government on land,” Admiral Gumiero said. “That’s the only way to end this, for sure.”

That said, strong government is nowhere to be found. The piracy epidemic is not so much a separate problem as a symptom of the failed state of Somalia — a place crawling with guns, gangs and criminals that has not had a functioning central government since 1991.

The New York Times

In Xarardheere, much of the economy is based on piracy.

Many Somalia analysts think that it is about to get even worse. The Ethiopian military, which has been shoring up a weak and unpopular transitional Somali government, says it will pull out within a month.

The transitional government, split by poisonous infighting, seems on the brink of collapse. Islamic militants with links to Al Qaeda are poised to take over. Famine is steadily creeping toward millions of people, many withering away in plastic huts that are no match for the intense sun or the drenching rains.

United Nations officials are swinging into crisis mode, calling high-level meetings in East Africa and New York to address piracy and the greater Somali mess. Some United Nations officials are pushing to send in peacekeepers, but no countries are rushing to offer troops.

Some American officials have proposed chasing the pirates on the shore and raiding their dens, which are well known but so far untouched. Somalia’s transitional leaders, anxious for any help, said they would welcome that.

“This is a cancer and it’s growing,” said Abdi Awaleh Jama, an ambassador at large for the transitional federal government. “We have to extract it once and for all.”

More than 100 ships have been attacked off Somalia’s coast in 2008, far more than in any previous year on record. The economic costs are piling up, with higher insurance payments for shippers, higher fuel costs because of detours and new private security bills, not to mention the million-dollar ransom payments.

The cash-starved Egyptian government is poised to lose billions of dollars if ships from the Middle East and Asia stop using the Suez Canal, one of Egypt’s biggest foreign-exchange earners, and go around Africa instead.

But the end of piracy could be an economic catastrophe — for many Somalis. Their country exports almost nothing these days, and more legitimate forms of business have largely died off.

Entire clans and coastal villages now survive off piracy, with women baking bread for pirates, men and boys guarding hostages, and others serving as scouts, gunmen, mechanics, accountants and skiff builders. Traders make a nice cut off the water, fuel and cigarettes needed to sustain such oceangoing voyages.

Pirates are known as the best customers of all.

“They pay $20 for a $5 bottle of perfume,” said Leyla Ahmed, a shopkeeper in Xarardheere, a notorious pirate den on the Somali coast.

Maritime experts say that the naval efforts will take time. “Let’s wait and see,” said Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau in London. “You must appreciate it’s a very large stretch of water, a massive area,” he said, referring to the several hundred thousand square miles of sea where the naval ships are patrolling.

Then there is the nettlesome question of what to do with the pirates. Italian officers on pirate patrol seemed uncomfortable at the thought of actually capturing a real live pirate. There is not even a brig or place to hold the pirates on the destroyer.

“Our main goal is providing safe passage,” said Fabrizio Simoncini, the destroyer’s captain.

So far, they have done a decent job at that, escorting at least eight humanitarian ships, with 30,000 tons of badly needed aid for Somalia.

The Indian Navy recently announced that it had arrested 23 pirates, though it is not clear where the suspects would be prosecuted. Last week in Nairobi, Kenya, at an antipiracy conference, British officials outlined a plan for their navy to capture Somali pirates and hand them over to Kenyan courts.

But according to Kenneth Randall, dean of the University of Alabama School of Law and an international law scholar, “Any country can arrest these guys and prosecute them at home, under domestic laws that apply.

“I’m actually surprised people think it’s unclear,” he said. “The law on piracy is 100 percent clear.”

He said that international customary law going back hundreds of years had defined pirates as criminals who robbed and stole on the high seas. Because the crimes were committed in international waters, he said, all countries had not only the authority but also the obligation to apprehend and prosecute them.

The Italians clearly have the resources. Out on the front lines, or front waves, beefy Italian marines prowl the decks with machine guns. Radar screens blip and beep. Sailors make announcements over the destroyer’s radio, telling nearby cargo ships to put out an S O S with their position as soon as they spot any pirates.

The Italians said that, deep down, pirates were creatures of the sea, no matter how many navy ships were hot on their tail. “When the sea is calm, the moon is bright, the weather is good, it’s easy to see how the pirates are encouraged,” said Enrico Vignola, a lieutenant on the ship.

For visitors on board, lunchtime was the highlight. The officers summoned up from the oily bowels of the destroyer a banquet of homemade pasta, marinated eggplant sliced paper thin, prosciutto-wrapped dates and tiramisu, finished off with cool glasses of spumante.

It seems that when Italians hunt for pirates, they hunt in style.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Recommended Reading

I got to talking about science fiction books by Robert A. Heinlein with a friend who had only read a couple of bad ones written in Heinlein's later years, and he asked for a list of my recommendations. As with all things Robb and a keyboard, the list started simple and grew out of control, so I thought I'd provide it for others (I love an unwilling audience). I do this because Heinlein had a great influence on many others who eventually discovered Ayn Rand, and certainly on me.
Generally, the rule is ... everything Heinlein wrote before 1963 is worth reading, with the exception of his fantasy (not much of it, but it bores me). "Moon is a Harsh Mistress" in 1966 is the last good book he wrote, partly because it actually acknowledges John Galt and seems to make apologies for his overt Kantianism in "Starship Troopers" (1957).
I'm not talking of writing at the caliber of great literature, but his books are entertaining, thought-provoking, original, implicitly or explicitly rational, reality-based (within the constraints of the story premise), and often inspiring with themes that generally revolve around embracing and fighting for rational values, discovering your potential and growing as a human being. Generally, the sense of life in all his early juvenile fiction matches my own -- that the world is a place of endless potential and promise, filled with rational and interesting people you would like to know and boundless adventure. "A world as it can be and should be", as Ayn Rand said.
I'll avoid a cynical comment about what we're facing right now. Sheesh. Get out and fight for what it can be.

Robb’s Recommended Robert A. Heinlein books (and a couple others):

Door Into Summer (Heinlein’s best story, about an engineer who starts his own company building household cleaning robots, gets cheated by his partner and stuffed into suspended animation to make him go away into a future world, thirty years ahead in time – the year 2000! Lonely and depressed, he rebuilds his life working as a flunky in his old company, till he finds a drunken physics professor in Boulder, Colorado, who has a a time machine that the government doesn’t want anyone to know about, and this offers him the means to set things right. This is also, quite coincidentally, shockingly biographical for me, as others have remarked.)

Citizen of the Galaxy (Great novel with a hoaky title but a universal theme of the evils of slavery that Heinlein could have turned into first-rate literature if he had been more ambitious; I’d like to do a screenplay of this some day. About a young baby sold into slavery in another star system, after pirates attack his parent's ship, and I don’t want to tell you any more cause of the great surprise in the climax that would be revealed by any more detail.)

Star Beast (Great fun. A young beast is brought back from the first interstellar voyage and made into a pet, and three generations later has grown to the size of a tank. Surprise ending is great.)

Double Star (serious political intrigue that has relevance today and could be updated easily. A principled politician is nearly killed by the opposition to keep him from being elected to head the Solar System Federation, and a vagabond but talented actor is recruited to be his double. Many surprises, poignant in key spots, especially the ending. About growing up and learning to be concerned about fighting for serious values. Would make a great movie.)

Between Planets (One of his many stories about people fighting for their freedom. A young man from Earth gets drawn into a revolt on Venus, and learns he must fight for his freedom when the revolution suffers a setback-- the Federation on Earth decides to counterattack. Dated, but a good story. Pretend it’s another star system. )

Revolt in 2100 A short story collection including “If This Goes On”, a novelette about a secret Cabal seeking to overthrow a religious dictatorship that has had control of the United States for 75 years, in the year 2100. Told in the first person by a young Army officer who is part of the personal guard of the "Supreme Prophet" in his palace in New Jeruselum (aka, Washington D.C.) and follows his growth from devout soldier to active revolutionary up to the final battle where they overthrow the dictatorship government. What initially motivates the young officer is the discovery that the young woman he loves, a "Vestal Virgin", must soon "serve" the Prophet in the way virgins serve prophets, and with the help of his more worldly fellow officer Zebadiah, who is already a member of the Cabal, they rescue her. Etc.

The Man Who Sold the Moon (Collection of short stories, but the title novelette is classic – a wealthy industrialist finances the first trip to the moon in 1978, and how he raises the money.)

Have Space Suit Will Travel (Great story of interstellar adventure, intrigue and the role of the human race in the Galaxy, told from the perspective of a high school senior who simply wants to go to the moon, and enters a soap contest. He gets only second place and a used spacesuit, which he repairs, till the day he tests it in a field near his home and gets kidnapped by space monsters who want to rule the Earth and eat people. He and a prodigy 12 year old girl, who was also kidnapped by these aliens while on the moon, must save humanity. I know it sounds RIDICULOUS, but it’s a great story with a title that keys-off one of my favorite old TV shows, "Have Gun Will Travel". Of ALL Heinlein’s books, this is the one I most want to make into a screenplay. The space monsters are distinctly reminiscent of the movie “Predator”. But there are good aliens, too...)

The Menace from Earth (Short stories, but the title story is the best. About people who live on the moon who can strap on wings and fly for recreation in mammoth underground caverns in the low gravity... Great for the “what if” that it presents. The “menace”, by the way, is not at all what you might think!)

Tunnel in the Sky (A high school final examination for a “survival” course takes students to another planet through a “gateway” to the stars, where they get trapped and must learn to survive, live and form a civil society in a hostile environment. This “gateway” was the source of the premise of the "Stargate" movie and TV series. “Tunnel”, however, was intended as a rational alternative to the book “Lord of the Flies”, where, instead of reverting to barbarity, the kids pull together, use their minds, and survive.)

The Puppet Masters (Outstanding suspense-horror story of slug-like aliens that invade Earth and take over humans by attaching themselves like leeches to their backs. A male/female pair of secret agents working for a Top Secret organization fight desperately to defeat them before they take over the entire planet. The basic premise has been copied so many times it's not worth recounting all of them, but include "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", an episode of the original Star Trek, Stargate SG-1 (the "Goa'uld") and others.

Methuselah’s Children (Story of a selected group of long-lived people on a future Earth, taking place many years after the overthrow of a religious dictatorship of the U.S. When the existence of these people are discovered, they must flee to escape persecution for “the secret” of their long lives – which doesn’t exist, because they were the product of selective breeding encouraged by cash payments to long-lived people over many generations. They hijack the first interstellar ship in orbit around Earth, which has just completed construction, and take off to the stars, where they encounter two much more advanced civilizations and must deal with their own inferiority.)

Time for the Stars (Poignant story based around the famous “Twin Paradox” of Special Relativity, of the first interstellar voyages using twins who can read minds to instantly communicate across the reaches of space. One of the twins travels at the speed of light to different worlds over the course of decades, and doesn’t age, while his twin on Earth does... Adventure and pathos make this a good “what if” story.)

Starman Jones (Great story of a young and uneducated hillbilly who stows away on an interstellar star liner that travels via jumps through “hyperspace” to other worlds. When it’s discovered he has an unusual math ability, he rises through the ranks of the crew up to “astrogator apprentice”, until disaster strikes -- the chief astrogator dies of a heartattack and the ship gets lost in space after a bad hyperspace jump by the assistent astrogator. Our young apprentice must then save everyone. Probably the first example of “hyperspace” jumps in the Sci-Fi world. I used the “Ring” transports in the beginning of this story as a device to place my Atlas Shrugged screenplay adaptation into a future world.)

Podkayne of Mars (Entertaining story of an innocent young girl and her genius little brother who live on Mars and take a vacation to Venusberg – the only place where a “pure”, unsullied capitalism exists – and they get caught in the intrigues of evil power lusters (not the capitalists). Her genius younger brother is hilarious – and not to be trusted! The girl confronts the existence of evil in the world for the first time in her life. )

The Green Hills of Earth (Great collection of short stories about the early days of space exploration in the Solar System. Part of Heinlein’s “Future History” stories, for which he is famous, though not all his books are part of that series.)

Space Cadet (Young men join the Space Academy, learn to be men, and get out into space to guard the solar system – dated and for a more juvenile audience, but entertaining, and could very easily be updated.)

The Rolling Stones (A family on the moon buys an old spaceship to go exploring the solar system. In this story, “flat cats” -- small fuzzy creatures on Mars that are extremely cute but breed out of control -- were the basis for “Tribbles” on the original Star Trek series.)

Assignment in Eternity (4 novelletes, among his earliest, but all great. “Lost Legacy” is about three people who discover psychokinetic powers that lead them to “ancient” ones who survived the lost city of Atlantis, 50,000 years earlier. The three learn that the descendents of the ancients are combatting evil descendents of the same culture who are taking over the Earth today by keeping the secrets of the ancients secret from everyone on Earth -- how to use your mind's latent abilities. Sounds a little like Stargate SG-1, doesn’t it? Well, when I sent my synopsis to the producers of that series, this was where I got the idea.

“Gulf” is about a secret agent who discovers a race of supermen while trying to defeat an evil, wealthy, and monomaniacal woman who wants to hold Earth hostage with a "planet-buster" bomb. The “supermen” are the next stage of human beings, who possess an improved version of the one trait that sets humans apart from the animals: exceptional intelligence -- and they use it to eliminate the dangerous powerlusters who seek to conquer the world.

“Jerry was a Man” is about the morality of creating intelligent, genetically engineered apes by genetic modification, and then enslaving them. Great courtroom climax. Written in 1947!)

Starship Troopers (I always liked this when I was a kid, till I read Ayn Rand and discovered Heinlein was endorsing blatant Kantianism that directly contradicted the rationality he promoted in his other books. This book was his philosophical magnum opus to the world, advocating the worst kind of duty ethics based on an ethical hierarchy that put the individual at the bottom of a food pyramid that went: individual – family – society -- world. But the story is well written and entertaining and the main character is likeable, right up to the end where he loses his life fighting giant bugs to save Earth. The horrible message: sacrifice is the noblest ideal. Blecch. Clearly shows what happens when someone lacks philosophical guidance to understand the proper source of his highest values, cause believe me, this does NOT come through in most of his other works.)

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Excellent story of a revolution on the Moon by colonists against the tyranny of Earth. Mentions John Galt as the role model for the savior of the colonists – “Mike”, a computer that has somehow come to life with intelligence and free will. I personally am convinced that Heinlein was shocked to the core when he read Atlas Shrugged, which came out in the same year as Starship Troopers, 1957. He then wrote almost nothing till “Moon” came out -- which took an opposite philosophical point of view more in line with Ayn Rand. His mention of Galt was thus, in my opinion, something of a mea culpa for the philosophy promoted in “Starship Troopers”. “Moon” is the last book he wrote that I would recommend reading. )

Farmer in the Sky (Good story of colonization and farming on a moon of Jupiter after it has been terraformed and made habitable with a special machine that holds in the atmosphere and keeps the place warm enough with a sort of "greenhouse effect" to live without space suits -- till one day the machine breaks down. )

Entertaining, but more dated and less memorable:

Sixth Column / a.k.a The Day After Tomorrow (Unrelated to Al Gore’s idiot movie of the same name.) The first title is the original, the second the product of an idiot editor unrelated to Al Gore. An early Heinlein revolution story – after the future takeover of the United States by "Pan-Asian" forces who have conquered most of the planet. 6 remaining Army men hide within a Citadel in the Rocky Mountains and plot how to defeat the enemy using an advanced technology that was under development before it accidentally killed almost everyone in the mountain, which had been a secret research facility. Kind of sounds like the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Stargate, again, and the good guys even develop weapons that sound remarkably like the "staff" weapons of the "Goa'uld". (Brad Wright, the producer of Stargate SG-1, was a fan of Heinlein, I’m pretty sure.) Moreover, they plot to re-take the county by spreading a fake religion which is tolerated by the conquering forces. (Robert Cooper, who collaborates with Wright, created a religious enemy, in later episodes of Stargate SG-1, which sounds similar.) Dated by the WWII era it was written in, but still entertaining. Some have seen some racism in this book, but A) keep in mind, this story was written in 1941 and updated in 1947, B) there are sympathetic Asian-Americans in the story, and C) Heinlein was not a racist in any of his other writings, quite the opposite. Speaking of comparisons, the chief scientist (Dr. Calhoun) who leads development of the "ray weapons" used by the heroes in this story bears eery similarities to the arrogant Dr. Robert Stadler in Atlas Shrugged (1957), even to the point of going mad and taking over the central control panel of the main ray weapon defending the rebels headquarters, and attempting to turn the weapon on if he can't rule the country. Till stopped by the brave Frank Mitsui. The real point of this story is stated clearly in the beginning -- if a country sticks it's head in the sand and attempts to appease and "just get along" while another country is conquering others, it will get defeated itself, eventually. So true.

Rocket Ship Galileo (very dated story of first trip to moon, but still entertaining. Most juvenile of all Heinlein's books.)

Farnham’s Freehold ...About an American family that survives a massive nuclear attack and gets thrown 2000 years into the future when a 10 megaton bomb hits their bomb shelter. I DO NOT recommend this book, but I initially stuck it in this list based on my apparent lack of memory of what it was about from last reading it 30 years ago, and decided I should re-read. This book, above all, signals Heinlein's turn to the Dark Side. Written in 1963, it is wedged in between "Starship Troopers", which was at least well written if horrible philosophically, and "Moon is a Harsh Mistress", which was his last entertaining book, IMNSHO. How dark is "Farnham's Freehold"? Apart from long boring sections on the nuances of the family playing bridge in a bomb shelter, and later with a congenial cannibal in the future, the hero's wife is an alcoholic without redeeming quality, his son is a racist lawyer, and after the attack, while trying to survive in the wild, his daughter dies a horrible death in childbirth. That's the good part. In the future, they are slaves to the dominant black race, who castrate his son, turn his wife into a willing whore, and who just happen to eat white folk as the daily meal. Yes massah, that's right. The only mildly redeeming aspect of this horrible novel is that in the last few pages their black master uses the two survivors (I don't count the hero's castrated son and drunken wife, who choose to stay behind to serve as pet and concubine) as an experiment in time travel, sending them back from whence they came. Enough said, and I damn sure don't feel guilty revealing the ending for this garbage. It was Heinlein's pathetic attempt to make a statement that anybody can be a racist given the time and place, but he ignored Rand's cardinal rule of fiction that you've got to want to experience the events and characters of a story if you are going to enjoy it. His tendency towards naturalism (endless minutae unrelated to the plot, like bridge playing tactics) was also overwhelming in this meandering saga.

Time Enough for Love is good in parts, if you’ve read Methuselah’s Children, but rambles and doesn’t have a plot. About what happens when a man outlives everyone he knows or loves. Lazarus Long is the oldest of the Methuselah’s in the previous book, and after that book ends, he goes on to live an astonishing 2000 years. He tells the stories of his life, from his birth in 1912. Very poignant in spots, but not one I re-read. Too sad.

I’m leaving out other Heinlein stories that I don’t like including most of his fantasy (eg, “Glory Road”), his most famous book, “Stranger in a Strange Land”, which became the bible of hippies in the sixties (mostly an endorsement of “free love” told through a Christ-like figure), and anything he wrote after “Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, which are badly written (almost plotless), dark (especially “I Will Fear No Evil”), and not worth reading. I think he was going senile and depressed about the course of the culture for everything after 1966.

The Worlds of Robert A Heinlein (short stories)

The Past Through Tomorrow (A collection of many "future history" stories found in other volumes.)

6xH ( Six short stories with a fantasy emphasis, but entertaining, particularly “And He Built a Crooked House, about an architect who designs a house in the shape of a tesseract, but somehow it acquires doorways to the 4th dimension...)

Red Planet (A revolution on Mars. For a juvenile audience. Okay for kids, a little simple for adults.)

Recommended Zenna Henderson: “Pilgrimage: the book of the People”. She has a writing style that reminds me distinctly of Ayn Rand. The stories all have a quasi-religious undertone that grates, but the characters are thoroughly engaging and the stories are all warm, entertaining and delightful. I love them for the sense of life. Sue me.

Recommended Ian Fleming: All the Bond books. Forget the movies. They’re crap compared to the books, which are intelligent. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is also a great kid’s book, unlike the movie with Rex Harrison.

Viva la Revolution!

A letter to the New York Times commenting on the article below, which I've highlighted in red for some of the most egregious things that deserve comment which I don't have the time to say more about right now:

---------- Letter submitted but almost certainly never to be published by NYTimes ---------------

Roger Cohen's slobbering etude to his hero Fidel Castro and the miracles of the Cuban communist regime is best captured by this exchange:

"What do you think of the food?" he asked (a happy Cuban).

"Very good," I said.

"And whom do you work for?"

"The New York Times."

Cohen's long missive of clever psy-op propaganda deserves a response by Ayn Rand (though she hated swatting flies), but in her absence, let me simply say that the answer to the Times' front-page teaser ,"What can be done to help bring the island into the 21st century?", is the same that could be offered the American public in the face of surging statism promoted on both sides of the political aisle of the North American island (any student of of Rand's philosophy knows there was little difference in principle offered by either Obama and McCain in our election): Leave us the hell alone -- "laissez nous faire".

The only thing that will bring this, or any island into the 21st century is freedom -- a new-found respect for individual rights (freedom's precondition, though a non-existent concept among Democrats and Republicans today), and the meaning and consequence of that: capitalism.

Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez said it all about what we may fear with the coming administration of Comandante Barack:

"You know," Sánchez said, ""They have killed us as citizens, so they do not have to kill us physically. Our own police is in our brains, censoring us before we utter a critical idea... when a nation gets on its knees before a man, it’s all over. When a man decides how much rice I eat a month, or whether or not I can leave a country, that country is sick."

Call it rice, or health care or the financial bailout or propaganda in the Times promoting Cuban wonders for our own country, viva la revolution! Welcome to the 21st century.


December 7, 2008

ON MY FIRST DAY IN HAVANA I wandered down to the Malecón, the world’s most haunting urban seafront promenade. A norte was blustering, sending breakers crashing over the stone dike built in 1901 under short-lived American rule. Bright explosions of spray unfurled onto the sidewalk.

I was almost alone on a Sunday morning in Cuba’s capital city of 2.2 million people. A couple of cars a minute passed, often finned ’50s beauties, Studebakers and Chevrolets, extravagant and battered. Here and there, a stray mutt scrounged. Washing flapped on the ornate ironwork balconies of crumbling mansions. Looking out on the ocean, I searched in vain for a single boat.

It was not always so, 90 miles off the coast of Florida. In 1859, Richard Henry Dana Jr., an American lawyer whose “To Cuba and Back” became a classic, sailed into Havana. He later wrote: “What a world of shipping! The masts make a belt of dense forest along the edge of the city, all the ships lying head into the street, like horses at their mangers.” Over the ensuing century, Cuba became the winter playground of Americans, a place to gamble, rumba, smoke puros and sip mojitos, the land of every vice and any trade. Havana bars advertised “Hangover Breakfasts.” They were much in demand. The mafia loved the island, the largest in the Caribbean; so did the American businessmen who controlled swathes of the sugar industry and much else.

Then, a half-century ago, on Jan. 1, 1959, Fidel Castro brought down the curtain on Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship. America’s cavorting-cum-commerce ceased. Miami became Cuba’s second city as, over the years, hundreds of thousands fled communist rule.

The confining shadow of Fidel’s tropical curtain, on the 50th anniversary of the revolution, was captured in the emptiness before me — of the Malecón, but even more so of the sea. I noticed over subsequent days that Cubans perched on the seafront wall rarely looked outward. When I asked Yoani Sánchez, a dissident blogger (, about this, she told me: “We live turned away from the sea because it does not connect us, it encloses us. There is no movement on it. People are not allowed to buy boats because if they had boats, they would go to Florida. We are left, as one of our poets put it, with the unhappy circumstance of water at every turn.”

It is unnatural to perceive the sea and a distant horizon as limiting. But in Cuba a lot of things are inverted, or not as they first appear. A repressive society long under a single ruler — the ailing 82-year-old Fidel still holds Cubans in his thrall even if he formally handed the presidency to his younger brother, Raúl, in 2006 — develops a secret lexicon of survival.

Through a labyrinth of rations, regulations, two currencies and four markets (peso, hard currency, agro and black), people make their way. Stress is rare but depression rampant in an inertia-stricken economy. Truth is layered. Look up and you see the Habana Libre, the towering hotel where Fidel briefly had his headquarters after the revolution: it began life as the Hilton. The seafront Riviera hotel, now so communist-drab it seems to reek of cabbage, once housed the rakish casino of the mobster Meyer Lansky.

Turning west along the seafront that first gusty day, I encountered a strange sight that summoned the United States from its tenebrous presence: a phalanx of poles, topped with snapping flags displaying a five-pointed Cuban star against a black backdrop, bearing down on the eastern facade of a boxy concrete-and-glass structure that houses the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. The flag barricade was put up to block an electronic billboard on the side of the building. In 2006, U.S. officials put political slogans on the billboard; it now transmits news not other­wise accessible to Cubans.

This seafront tableau is laughable: the United States unreeling red-lettered strips of unread news into a sea of black flags and defiance. It captures all the fruitless paralysis of the Cuban-American confrontation, a tense stasis Barack Obama has vowed to overcome. Diplomatic relations have been severed since 1961; a U.S. trade embargo has been in place almost as long; the cold war has been over for almost two decades. To say the U.S.-Cuban relationship is anachronistic would be an understatement.

But changing it won’t be easy. As with Iran — the only country with which noncommunication is more pronounced — bad history, predatory past U.S. practices and the expediency for autocratic regimes of casting the United States as diabolical enemy all work against bridge-building. When, a little farther west down the Malecón, I met with Josefina Vidal, the director of the Foreign Ministry’s North American department, I found her anger as vivid as her elegant purple dress.

“I once saw a slogan on that U.S. billboard saying Cuban women have to prostitute themselves because they do not have the resources to survive,” she told me. “This is totally unacceptable, a violation of the Vienna Convention!” (The Vienna Convention of 1963 regulates consular relations.)

Vidal continued: “The U.S. wants to punish Cuba with its blockade. It cannot accept us the way we are. It cannot forgive us our independence. It cannot permit us to choose our own model. And now along comes Obama and says he will lift a few restrictions, but that in order to advance further Cuba must show it is making democratic changes. Well, we do not accept that Cuba has to change in order to deserve normal relations with the United States.”

But on Havana’s streets the name Obama is often uttered as if it were a shibboleth. Many people want to believe he offers a way out of the Cuban web that Fidel’s infinite adroitness and intermittent ruthlessness have woven over a half-century.

WAYNE SMITH, WHO RAN the U.S. Interests Section under the Carter administration, has observed that “Cuba seems to have the same effect on American administrations that the full moon used to have on werewolves.” There is something about this proximate island, so beautiful yet so remote, so failed yet so stubborn, that militates against the exercise of U.S. reason.

It’s not just the humiliation of the botched 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, when 1,500 C.I.A.-backed Cuban exiles tried to overthrow the nascent Castro regime. It’s not just the memory of the Soviet introduction in 1962 of missiles to the island that almost brought nuclear Armageddon. It’s not just the traded accusations of terrorism, the surrogate conflicts of the cold war from Angola to the Americas, the downed planes, the waves of immigrants, the human rights confrontations, the espionage imbroglios or the custody battles. It’s something deeper, and that something has its epicenter in Miami.

Just before the Obama victory, I lunched in the city’s Little Havana district with Alfredo Durán, a former president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association. Inevitably, we ate at the kitschy Versailles Restaurant, long a social hub of the Cuban-American community. Durán, who was imprisoned in Cuba for 18 months after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, is a man mellowed by age. Furious with Kennedy and the Democrats in the invasion’s aftermath — “there was a feeling we were sacrificed, left to eat possum in the swamps around the bay” — he decided after the cold war that anti-Fidel vitriol was a blind alley and the trade embargo counterproductive. Fellow veterans were furious; they stripped his photo from the premises of the veterans’ association.

“I say, ‘Lift the embargo unilaterally, put the onus on Cuba,’ ” Durán told me. “If we negotiate, what do we want from them? They have very little to give.”

As he spoke, a little ruckus erupted outside between Republicans and Democrats. Durán smiled: “You know, the only place Cuba still arouses passions is right outside this restaurant. Yet U.S. policy toward Cuba is stuck with old issues in Florida rather than logical strategy.”

The old Florida issues boil down to this: It’s a critical swing state with a significant Cuban-American vote, and a hard line toward Fidel has been a sure-fire political proposition. Once again this year, Miami’s three Cuban-American Congressional Republicans won re-election. And yet: their victory margins narrowed. Some 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Miami-Dade County went to Obama, a big bounce, 10 points better than John Kerry’s showing in 2004. Fifty-five percent of those under 29 voted for Obama.

Obama’s victory is particularly significant because he bucked conventional wisdom on Cuba during the campaign. He lambasted Bush’s “tough talk that never yields results.” He called for “a new strategy” centered on two immediate changes: the lifting of all travel restrictions for family visits (limited by Bush to one every three years) and the freeing up of family remittances (now no more than $300 a quarter for the receiving household). Obama also called for “direct diplomacy,” saying he would be prepared to lead it himself “at a time and place of my choosing,” provided U.S. interests and the “cause of freedom for the Cuban people” were advanced. He said his message to Fidel and Raúl would be: “If you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations.”

Three generations on from the revolution, being a Democrat is no longer equated by Cuban-Americans with being a Communist. The fixation on removing Fidel, the dreams of return and the raw anger of loss have faded. “We have gone from the politics of passion to the politics of reality,” Andy Gómez, an assistant provost at the University of Miami who left Cuba in 1961 at the age of 6, told me. “We are here for the long haul. We worry about the economy, health care. Next Christmas in Havana — that’s over.”

So could the convergence of a president who is as mestizo as countless Cubans, a new pragmatism in Miami’s Little Havana and the looming passing of Cuba’s revolutionary gerontocracy provide a framework for that elusive U.S.-Cuban reconciliation? Durán is hopeful. “I’m 71, and I know I’ll see the day,” he told me. “The day you can get in your speedboat in Coconut Grove after work and be in Havana at 9 p.m. for dinner.”

Nonsense, Jaime Suchlicki, a conservative Cuban historian who teaches in Miami, told me. Raúl is a Soviet admirer “and no Deng Xiaoping.” The Cuban situation — buoyed by Chinese, Venezuelan, Russian and Iranian support — is not desperate enough to force concessions. Every past rapprochement has turned to rancor. “Cuba is an absolute disaster, but it will not fall apart,” Suchlicki said.

Yet Cuba does stand at a fulcrum of generational shift, from those formed by Fidel to those who will hardly know him. Seizing this opportunity will require a measure of American humility. Obama has a strong sense of history and the historical moment. He would understand the deep roots of the conflict, going back to the U.S. military intervention in 1898 that left Cubans with the lingering sense that their own hard-won independence from Spain had been snatched from them. What followed were four years of direct U.S. rule and Cuba’s emergence as a nearly independent republic in 1902 — “nearly” because, under the Platt Amendment, the U.S. kept the right to intervene in the island’s affairs. It also got Cuba to cede in perpetuity a little thing called Guantánamo Bay, a 45-square-mile area in the southeast of the island.

“All this left a deep frustration in the popular imagination,” Fernando Rojas, the vice minister of culture, told me in Havana.

It is this history that has allowed Fidel to claim that his revolution was, in effect, a second war of independence. It is this history that has made the United States the enemy of choice for Cuba long after the exigencies of cold-war confrontation vanished.

This is the history that turns otherwise rational heads in both Washington and Havana, as if the full moon had got to them. My impression is that Obama has the cool temperament that can factor the charge of this past — similar to the heavy legacy of the C.I.A.-organized 1953 coup in Iran — into his diplomacy. Cuba is certainly ready for a change it can believe in.

LEALTAD (LOYALTY) STREET runs from the Malecón down through the densely populated district called Centro Habana. I first went there at night. The city is dimly lighted, but one of Fidel’s achievements, along with an impressive education system and universal health care, is security. It might be said that’s because there is very little to steal, but that would be uncharitable. The revolution, anything but puritanical, has nonetheless instilled a certain ethical rigor.

A residential street, Lealtad beckoned me with its silhouettes lurking in doorways, its clatter of dominoes being banged on tables, its glimpses through grated windows of lush interior courtyards, its old men playing cards in high-ceilinged living rooms of brocaded furniture and sagging upholstery, its melancholy. As I wandered, I stumbled on a bar called Las Alegrías — Joys. What I saw struck me with the force of a vision. Under harsh fluorescent lights, drinking shots of rum, were a white man with a bulbous red nose pickled by drink, a black man with unfocused eyes and a black woman with head bowed, all of them at a distance from one another and seemingly inhabiting an Edward Hopper painting where each lonely element etched another detail of despair. The feeling of being transported is very Cuban: Hopper’s “Nighthawks” was painted in 1942.

I resolved to return to Lealtad in an attempt to understand the despair at Joys, but also in the conviction that the secret lexicon of 50-year dictatorships can be read only in the details of daily life. Secrecy and obfuscation are the lifeblood of such regimes. They alone preserve the mysticism that absolute leadership requires, allowing an aging man with severe intestinal problems to remain Zeus on Olympus. It’s not for nothing that the whereabouts of Fidel, who has not been seen in public since he fell ill in July 2006, are an official secret.

The next day I came back and, dodging boys playing baseball with a ball made from tightly rolled paper, stopped at a chicken-egg-fish store with nothing in it. Antonio Rodríguez, 50, the affable, bald Afro-Cuban running it, explained to me the mechanics of rationing, in which he is an often-immobile cog. Every month, each Cuban is allocated 10 eggs (the first five at 0.15 pesos each, the second five at 0.90 pesos); a pound of chicken at 0.70 pesos; a pound of fish with its head at 0.35 pesos (or 11 ounces without the head); and half a pound of an ersatz mince at 0.35 pesos a pound. It’s hardly worth converting these sums; they’re trifling. Suffice to say that, at 25 pesos to the dollar, you get the whole lot for no more than 25 cents.

That may sound like a steal, but there are catches. Rodríguez, after 17 years at the store, where the broken cash register is of prerevolutionary vintage and the antique refrigerator of Soviet provenance, earns $15.40 a month. The average monthly salary is about $20. I asked him when some chicken or eggs might arrive. Beats me, he said. As many as 15 days a month, he’s idle, waiting for something to be delivered so he can announce it on the blackboard behind him and get to work crossing off “sales” in his clients’ frayed ration books. Rodríguez pointed to a man outside. “That guy standing on the corner, and me working, there’s no real difference,” he said. “We get paid almost nothing to spend the day talking.”

Luiz Jorrin, the man in question, approached. “This is all due to the U.S. blockade,” he said, pointing a finger at me and using the exaggerated term that Cubans favor for the embargo. “Look at your financial crisis! Maybe you’ll get over it with time. Well, we’ll get over this with time. I don’t believe in capitalism. Look what it did in Africa and Latin America. It’s destructive.”

This was too much for Javier Aguirre, a slim fellow who helps Rodríguez. “We’re wrecked, and after three hurricanes, we’re even more wrecked,” he said. “I just don’t believe in the system. Give me Switzerland! Of all the Cubans who have gone to the United States, how many want to come back?”

The question prompted a silence. Aguirre, it transpired, tried twice to escape, only to be caught, once by the Cubans and once by the U.S. Coast Guard. Under the current “wet foot, dry foot” policy, most Cubans who reach U.S. soil are allowed to stay, while most intercepted at sea are repatriated. Go figure.

Now 29, Aguirre, an aspiring artist, is waiting. Cubans are used to waiting. Along with baseball and quiet desperation, it’s the national sport. They talk; they joke at the Beckett play that is their lives; they tap their fingers to the beat of drums and maracas. They lament the billions of dollars of damage caused in recent months by Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma; an offer of U.S. assistance was rebuffed. At least, they laugh, there’s no traffic problem.

The little storefront exchange was typical, I found, in its surprising openness, in its mention of the U.S. embargo as the source of misery and in its vindicating reference to the global economy’s collapse. Cuba, it has to be said, is one of the very few places the Dow’s meltdown has scarcely touched. But tumbling oil prices may affect Venezuelan and Russian largess over time, and slumping European economies may hit tourism. Meanwhile, Cubans go on trying to make sense of the senseless.

“Obama should ask Congress to lift the blockade for 90 days after the hurricanes,” Rodríguez suggested.

“We’re always asking for the kindness of strangers,” Aguirre retorted. “This is not communism or capitalism, it’s a Cuban mess.”

The more I learned of the centralized Cuban economy, the more that seemed a fair summary. Cuba has two currencies, one for communism and one for a limited, state-dominated capitalism. The pesos that people get their salaries in are essentially good for nothing but rationed or undesirable items. By contrast, the convertible dollar-pegged pesos known as “CUCs” (pronounced “kooks”) are good for international products. Pass a dimly lighted peso store and you might see a bicycle tire, a yellowing brassiere and a set of plastic spoons. Pass a convertible-peso store and you will see cellphones, Jameson whiskey and Heineken in a bright, air-conditioned environment.

As a result, many Cubans spend their lives scrambling to get in on the convertible-peso economy, which largely depends on getting access to foreign visitors. A highly qualified electrical engineer opts to work in a cigar factory so he can hawk Havana cigars to tourists. Others offer to be their guides. Whatever goods can be sneaked out of state-run businesses are good for black-market sale. Cellphones — recently permitted in what was portrayed as a liberalizing measure by Raúl — cost about $110. That is half a year’s salary for most Cubans. A gallon of gas goes for about $6, or nearly a third of an average monthly salary. No wonder Cubans see access to the CUC universe of tourists as salvation.

A kind of economic apartheid exists. People are stuck in a regulation-ridden halfway house. They want to escape the socialist world of Rodríguez’s store for the capitalist world of the mini-Cancún on the Varadero peninsula east of Havana, a hotel-littered ghetto of white sand and whiter Scandinavians snapping up Che Guevara T-shirts without worrying too much about what Che wrought on Lealtad Street.

THE CUBAN GOVERNMENT gave me a courteous welcome. I was escorted to a few official meetings, but otherwise left without a minder (as far as I could see) to do what I wished. One official stop was with Elena Álvarez, who was 15 when Fidel’s revolution came and now, at 65, works as a top official at the Ministry of Economics. She tried to make sense for me of the voodoo economics I’d seen.

Here’s what she wanted me to grasp. Cuba, at the time of the revolution, was “one of the most unjust, unequal and exploited societies on earth.” Illiteracy was running up to 40 percent, a quarter of the best land was in U.S. hands, a corrupt bourgeoisie lorded it over everyone else. Fidel’s initial objective was a more-just society, but U.S. pressure radicalized his revolution and pushed it toward all-out socialism within the Soviet camp.

Álvarez reeled off some numbers. There were 6,000 doctors in Cuba at the time of the revolution; there are now close to 80,000 for a population of 11.3 million, one of the highest per-capita rates in the world. The U.S. embargo has cost Cuba about $200 billion in real terms. When the Berlin Wall crumbled, 80 percent of Cuba’s international trade was with Soviet-bloc countries. About 98 percent of oil came from them. Back to the Communist bloc states, at inflated prices, went Cuba’s sugar and rum.

“We’ve had to reinsert ourselves in the global economy twice in 30 years, once in 1960 and again in 1990,” Álvarez said.

O.K., I said, that shows some resilience, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, why didn’t Cuba do what Moscow’s other satellites did: take down totalitarianism, become a market economy and set people free? The real totalitarianism, she countered, was Batista’s. Cuba now has different values. Despite scarcities, attributable in large part to the embargo, it’s a society that wants to protect everyone. The rationing system guarantees that all citizens have a minimum. Everyone gets low-cost food at work. Free health care and education mean a $20 monthly salary is the wrong way to view the quality of Cuban life. Going to a market economy in 1990 would have meant wholesale factory closures, as in East Germany, and 35 percent unemployment. “We decided we had to protect our workers,” Álvarez said. “We have another philosophy.”

That “philosophy” has produced results. According to the World Health Organization, life expectancy for men and women in Cuba is 76 and 80 years, respectively, on par with the U.S. The comparative figures in Haiti are 59 and 63, and in the Dominican Republic they are 66 and 74. The probability of dying before the age of 5 is 7 per 1,000 live births in Cuba — nearly as good as the U.S. figure — compared with 80 per 1,000 live births in Haiti and 29 in the Dominican Republic. Illiteracy has been eliminated. United Nations statistics show 93.7 percent of Cuban children complete high school, far more than in the United States or elsewhere in the Caribbean.

That raises the question: Why educate people so well and then deny them access to the Internet, travel and the opportunity to apply their skills? Why give them a great education and no life? Why not at least offer a Chinese or Vietnamese model, with a market economy under one-party rule?

Álvarez said there was some “space for the market.” She insisted, “We are not fundamentalist.” But the bottom line, of course, is that the authorities are scared: opening the door to capitalism on an island 90 miles from Florida is very different from doing that in Asia.

In the so-called Special Period, initiated in the 1990s, Cuba did open to foreign investment in sectors like nickel and tourism, allowed tourists in, introduced the convertible peso and began putting more farmland in private hands. But it stopped there. Just how much land is now private is disputed, although one thing is clear: not enough to prevent Cuba from having to import more than $1.6 billion worth of food a year. Those imports, in a development remarkable even by upside-down Cuban standards, have included sugar. Domestic production has collapsed.

So I put it to Álvarez: At the half-century mark, with Fidel fading, was it worth persevering with a revolution that has left Cuba with dilapidated buildings, deserted highways and a need to import sugar?

“The revolution has been a success,” Álvarez said. “It overthrew a tyrannical regime. We got our national sovereignty. We got our pride. We survived aggression by the most powerful country in the world for 50 years. We preserved the essence of what Fidel fought for.”

But did he really wage guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra mountains so that countless talented Cubans might sit idle, plotting means to get out?

The challenges were great, Álvarez said, but Cuba would again prove Miami wrong. She pointed to joint-venture oil exploration off the northern coast and a growing “knowledge economy” that has produced patented vaccines and medicines sold throughout the world. Cuba would now export services, like that of the 30,000 medical personnel it sent to Venezuela in an innovative barter deal bringing in 90,000 barrels of oil daily.

“We are an example to others,” she said, “an example to all those looking for an alternative to capitalism.”

I did sense something hard to quantify, a kind of socialist conscience, particularly among doctors. When I met Dr. Verena Muzio, the head of the vaccine division at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology — another official stop — she said her commitment to the revolution’s achievements outweighed the knowledge “that I could go to Chicago and earn $300,000 a year.” Her salary is $40 a month.

At the Latin American School of Medicine, founded a decade ago to educate doctors unable to afford school in other countries in the Americas, Dr. Juan Carrizo, the rector, spoke of the universal right to health as the new humanist banner of the Cuban revolution: out with Angolan guerrillas, in with the medical brigade. Among the students are more than 100 U.S. citizens. Pasha Jackson, 26, an African-American from South Central Los Angeles, told me: “I came here because I could get an education for free for just being me. I feel more valued here than where I grew up. And when I finish, I’m going to go back to my community and bring that same philosophy.”

These young U.S. medical students have joined a growing number of foreigners, tourists and businesspeople. Sherritt International, a Canadian natural-resources company, has made major investments in nickel mining and oil. Sol Meliá, the Spanish hotel operator, has opened a number of properties. Tour buses are a frequent sight, ferrying groups that take in Hemingway’s Havana bars (La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio) and the Che memorial in Santa Clara before heading back to the beach. Although this invasion has brought Cubans more contact with foreigners, its impact has been limited by the fact that the Cuban government does rigorous background checks on any job seekers in the international sector. Over all, most tourists seem happy with sun, sand, rum and cigars — and to heck with totalitarian politics.

At a time when Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela has replied to Fidel’s “Patria o Muerte” with its own “Socialismo o Muerte”; and Evo Morales is pushing Bolivia toward socialism; and Steven Soderbergh’s epic-length “Che” is about to hit American theaters, it’s hard to argue the revolution has lost all its glow — especially with Wall Street bloodied. A moderate Latin left that is friendly with the Castros, most conspicuously President Lula da Silva in Brazil, has also emerged. But Fidel claimed he wanted to free Cubans from oppression. Instead, his revolution has oppressed them.

I FOUND HÉCTOR PALACIOS at his cluttered apartment in the leafy Vedado district of Havana. He was thrown in prison in 2003 along with 75 other dissidents charged with subversion and collaboration with the United States. Sentenced to 25 years, he was released in late 2006 for health reasons. But 55 of those arrested are still in captivity, among the more than 220 political prisoners in Cuba.

“My crime was simple: thinking that the government has to change from totalitarianism,” Palacios told me.

He’s a big man, and when he talked about his cramped cell and isolation, his eyes darted here and there, and he began to sweat. The memory of what was his third spell in prison was still harrowing. Palacios, the leader of the banned All United opposition group, was an organizer of the Varela Project, a petition calling for a referendum on democratic change. Orchestrated by another prominent dissident, Oswaldo Payá, the movement brought ripples of a Cuban spring before the 2003 clampdown.

Palacios, 65, has traveled since his release to the United States, where, last May, he met with Obama in Miami. He asked Obama to show flexibility. He urged him to allow wealthy Cuban-Americans to send money to dissidents. “Obama is the new element,” Palacios told me. “He’s ready to talk to anyone. As with our aging government, the hard-line generation of Cuban-Americans is dying out. Significant change is possible within two years.”

“Why do you stay here?” I asked.

“I stay because I am a patriot.”

That’s not the official view. Dissidents are routinely called “traitors to the homeland.” Palacios showed me a copy of a congratulatory letter he sent to Obama on Nov. 4. It ends, “With the hope that I will be heard and confidence that your mandate will bring the renewal that eliminates the obstacles preventing us from putting an end to the tyranny suffered by our people.” A restoration of the battered moral authority of the United States could have a significant impact in Cuba, Palacios said.

Cuba’s dissidents are marginalized. The press is muzzled. The print organ of the regime, Granma, named after the cabin cruiser that bore Fidel, Raúl, Che and their followers from Mexican exile to Cuba in 1956, is a study in Orwellian officialese. State television is a turgid propaganda machine. Cuba can show “The Lives of Others” at its annual Havana Film Festival, where a few thousand people see it, but that remarkable study of the all-hearing Stasi in totalitarian East Germany would never be shown on national television. Too many Cubans might want the movie renamed “The Lives of Us.”

But of course Cuba is not totalitarian East Germany. Fidel has been nothing if not a brilliant puppet master. He once said that some revolutionary fighters “let their enthusiasm for the cause overwhelm their tactical decision-making.” Not Fidel, whose training as a lawyer has been evident in his mastery of maneuver and brinkmanship, not least in his dealings with the United States. There have been hundreds of executions, especially in the early years, but he has never been a bloodthirsty dictator, a Caribbean Ceausescu. Nor has he tried, in the style of some despots, to sweep the past away; he has merely let it wither.

“There’s a very intelligent repression here, a scientific repression,” Yoani Sánchez, the dissident whose blog is now translated into 12 languages, told me. “They have killed us as citizens, so they do not have to kill us physically. Our own police is in our brains, censoring us before we utter a critical idea.”

At 33, Sánchez is half Palacios’ age. She represents something new: digital dissent. The authorities seem unsure how to deal with it. Sánchez, a slight and vivacious woman, started her blog in 2006. It was, she told me, “an exorcism, a virtual catharsis.”

“Who is last in line for a toaster?” she asked in one blog entry this year, noting that a ban on sales of computers and DVD players had been lifted but toasters would not be freely sold until 2010. Now her biting dissections of the woes of Cuban life have a wide international following — to the point that “the intelligence services know if they touch me there will be an explosion online.”

Still, they harass her. When she won Spain’s prestigious Ortega y Gasset prize for digital journalism in April, she was prevented from going to collect the award. She would like to take up an invitation from New York University, but permission has been denied without explanation.

I asked if she was optimistic about change. She said she was pessimistic in the short term because “apathy has entered our bloodstream, and a lot of people are just waiting for a bunch of leaders over 70 to die.” Democracy, national reconciliation and change demand a new civic involvement, not apathy. But she was optimistic in the long term because we “are a creative, capable people, with no religious, ethnic or other conflict, who have developed an allergy to what we have: a totalitarian system.”

Sánchez looked at me — an intense, intelligent, brown-eyed gaze with humor twinkling near its surface. We were seated in the gardens of the Hotel Nacional, looking out over the Malecón to that empty sea. Here, I thought, is Cuba’s future, a Blogostroika, if only the repressive gerontocracy would let it bloom; a Blogostroika that will fill that sea with bright vessels.

“You know,” Sánchez said, “when a nation gets on its knees before a man, it’s all over. When a man decides how much rice I eat a month, or whether or not I can leave a country, that country is sick. This man is human. He commits errors. How can he have such power? Like a lot of people of my generation, I have willed myself to stop thinking about him, as a therapy. I think there will be relief when Fidel dies. We will breathe out. The mystical and symbolic weight of his presence is very heavy, for his opponents and even for his supporters. It’s hard to right his errors while he’s still there.”

I think Sánchez is right. Only after Mao’s death could China unshackle itself by officially determining that he was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong.” Perhaps Cuba will come down somewhere like that on Fidel — say 75-25 — and move on.

While I was in Cuba, everyone I spoke to referred to Fidel as “Comandante,” even though Raúl formally became commander in chief when he assumed the presidency. Rambling, almost daily “Reflexiones del Compañero Fidel” — signed commentaries on everything from capitalism to the U.S. election — appear in Granma, pored over like Kremlin utterances of old.

Fidel published a book last month called “Peace in Colombia.” Its presentation, the occasion for a collective genuflection by hundreds of guests in a large hall, merited hour after hour of coverage on national TV. At the gathering, I ran into Randy Alonso, host of a TV news show and the director of the information office of the Council of State, the main governing body. I asked him where Fidel is. “He’s lucid, but in a secret place,” Alonso said. “If he wants to reveal it, he will.”

It’s hard in any circumstances for a 77-year-old to be an innovator. But for Raúl, with his far-more charismatic brother looking over his shoulder, it must be near impossible. No wonder Raúl, the former defense minister who hates the limelight, has appeared faltering. He has freed up cellphones (at a price), allowed Cubans into international hotels and intimated that some salaries might be paid in convertible pesos or even be tied to performance. But in essence all he has done in two and a half years is tinker. Perhaps that’s not surprising. He has a vested interest in the existing system: the military runs conglomerates, like Gaviota, that control most of the tourism industry.

“We are at the fading of an era, and it is fading into the unknown,” Juan Carlos Espinosa, a political scientist at Florida International University, said.

In Miami, I caught up with Giselle Palacios, Héctor Palacios’ 23-year-old daughter, who managed to get out of Cuba a few months ago, having been thrown out of the University of Havana because of her father’s activities. She told me she is still in shock. She has realized that the place she was living in is not the real world. There are things happening in Cuba, she said, that don’t happen anywhere else. You carry that knowledge inside you, and you feel lonely.

“Revolution was supposed to mean equal opportunity for all, but it has become a word the Castro brothers own,” she said. “Young Cubans don’t believe in the Castros’ version of revolution. They don’t believe in a world where the Internet is forbidden and your whole world is Cuba with the rest blocked out.”

“Will you stay in Miami?” I asked.

“No, I want to go back one day when other jobs are possible. I think I will always be lonely here. I want to help democracy emerge.”

WHEN I RETURNED to Lealtad Street, I found a flurry of activity: the chicken had arrived! Rodríguez, in his green overalls, had the news up on his blackboard. He was unpacking frozen chicken legs and thighs. Chicken breast is available only on the convertible-peso market. He held up the box with a big smile. It said, “Made in U.S.A.”

Since 2000, when Congress bowed to the farm lobby, it has been legal to sell food and agricultural products to Cuba. That means everything from chicken legs to telephone poles. At the Miami airport I had run into Randal Wilson, who was just back from Havana, where he was trying to sell Alabaman wine. “They seem to prefer my blueberry wine, just loved that,” he told me. “You know, Alabama is very big on trade with Cuba.”

In fact, the United States is now the largest exporter of food to Cuba, earning upward of $600 million this year. It’s among Cuba’s five biggest trading partners. (The others are Venezuela, China, Spain and Canada.) So much for the embargo; it’s as arbitrary as the wet-foot, dry-foot policy toward Cubans trying to escape. While America took in hundreds of millions of dollars from Cuba, it sent back 2,086 sea-borne refugees in fiscal 2008. Principle has nothing to do with current Cuban policy. It’s just an incoherent mess.

I asked Aguirre, the young would-be escapee working with Rodríguez, if he understood U.S. policy. “It’s like the situation here, you have to understand it because it is what it is,” he said. “I try not to think too much, I just talk about girls, baseball, whatever.”

I looked down the street, at the kids playing, a guy selling lighter fluid, the carved doors, the extraordinary baroque flourishes on the three- and four-story buildings. A gentleness inhabits Cuba, the island that Columbus, landing in 1492, called “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.” It is the gentleness of time passing very slowly.

The absence of visual clutter — no ads, no brands, no neon signs — leaves the mind at peace. Fidel’s colossal stubbornness has delivered a singular aesthetic, striking in the age of globalized malls. I found myself thinking of a phrase of Pico Iyer’s in the excellent “Reader’s Companion to Cuba,” edited by Alan Ryan: “Cuba catches my heart and then makes me count the cost of that enchantment.”

That cost is high. Fifty yards down the street, I talked to Felix Morales, 43, who runs another chicken-egg-fish store. I asked if there was any rivalry with Rodríguez. Morales laughed. “How can there be rivalry if we both receive and hand out the same thing?” he said. “The only difference is he’s black and I’m white!”

Morales told me everyone was aching for some improvement. He said he would like to work and see the fruit of his labors. He was wearing a T-shirt saying “Canada.” Did he want to go there? Two women in the store burst out laughing. Of course Morales wanted to, of course they wanted to, who wouldn’t?

Not Jorge Martinez, who runs the community health center near Morales’s store, a place where doctors treat everything from alcoholism to depression. “Fidel is the man of the century,” he told me.

I walked into a little restaurant called Asahi, one of the so-called paladares, independent, family-run enterprises, usually with three or four tables. José Marticorena, its owner, told me he acquired his state license a dozen years ago, but now it’s difficult to obtain such a license. His father, Miguel, fought alongside Fidel and was rewarded after 1959 with this house. Later he worked in the merchant marine. A freezer he brought back from Japan had “Asahi” inscribed on it, after the Japanese beer: hence the name.

Marticorena can charge what he wants for food, but his capacity is set at 12 people, and he pays various taxes. “We have a lot of dysfunctional things,” he told me, “but nobody’s dying of hunger or wanting for basic medical help. I was able to do something, and I feel fulfilled by it. My wife is a dentist, she loves to cook. We have two kids. We place a lot of hope in Obama, we believe he will free things up.”

With that, he took out a little digital camera, set it to video and started filming.

“What do you think of the food?” he asked.

“Very good,” I said.

“And whom do you work for?”

“The New York Times.”

Even on Lealtad, a half-century after the revolution, capitalist public-relations instincts are not far below the surface.

TOWARD THE END of my stay, I traveled down to Santiago de Cuba in the southeast of the island. This is mythical territory: the land of the 1860s uprising against the Spanish; the site of the decisive U.S. intervention in 1898 that stole the fruits of that uprising; the city where Fidel and a band of followers attacked the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953 (61 dead among more than 100 insurgents); the home of the Sierra Maestra, where Fidel and Che waged guerrilla war between 1956 and 1958. It is here that the 50th anniversary will be formally celebrated on Jan. 1, although the precise location in Santiago is still secret. Whether Fidel will appear is also unknown. Most people say no.

A historian, Octavio Ambruster, showed me around the Moncada museum. The mustard yellow barracks were converted into a school after the revolution. The museum occupies a few rooms. Gruesome photographs abound of the slain in the July 26 attack. Most were tortured before execution. A front-page headline the following day in the Batista-era paper, Ataya, got it wrong: “Fidel Castro is dead.”

In fact he slipped away, only to be captured a few days later in the mountains. He was brought to trial and imprisoned, but not before he made a now legendary declaration: “Condemn me, it has no importance. History will absolve me.”

Will it? I don’t think so, but it may be gentler on him than the ruinous state of Cuba would suggest. Fidel is a brilliant, romantic and towering figure; as such, like his country, he tends to enchant even as the cost of that enchantment mounts. Ambruster told me that Fidel always called José Martí, the hero of the independence struggle against Spain, “the intellectual author of the Moncada assault.” Framing his revolution as being about independence — patria more than socialismo — and casting that independence as being above all from the United States, has been one of Fidel’s most ingenious ideas.

And how will history judge U.S. policy toward Fidel’s Cuba? Badly, I think, especially since the end of the cold war. If the embargo had come down then, back in 1989, I doubt the regime would have survived. But the grudges were too deep, and a mistake was made. Today the policy makes little sense. The United States dislikes Chávez but maintains diplomatic relations with Venezuela. I think Obama should add to the measures he has already announced by offering to open full diplomatic relations with Cuba immediately.

That would put pressure on Cuba and, if the offer were accepted, allow face-to-face negotiations to begin at a senior level. At these talks, Obama should not belabor democratic principles, at least not immediately, but should insist on the freeing of all political prisoners as a first step toward beginning to lift the embargo. The United States is not the European Union, which just normalized relations with Havana, although hundreds are still held in Cuban prisons for what they think.

Progress will not be easy. Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart, one of the re-elected Miami Republicans, told me, “We are very united, we will win the fights in Congress, and we will stop any moves to open commercial relations, trade financing or tourism with Cuba.” But Tony Lake, a senior foreign-policy adviser to Obama during the campaign, said, “With the new Democratic majority in Congress, and some clear Cuban gestures on human rights, you could get changes to Helms-Burton,” the legislation that has determined the shape of Cuban policy since 1996. Then the ball would be rolling with a momentum that the passing of generations should sustain.

Cuba is some way down Obama’s priority list. But early in his presidency, another Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, did something that changed views of him in the hemisphere: he negotiated, against all the odds, the transfer of sovereignty over the Panama Canal to Panama. It seems clear enough that a breakthrough of similar proportions with Cuba would bring a major reconciliation with Latin America.

FROM SANTIAGO, I drove out to the town of Guantánamo. There were no road signs and no road markings. Cubans say they are waiting for Obama to send paint. I passed tractor-trailers crammed with people: Chinese buses imported by Raúl have not yet met needs. At Guantánamo slogans abounded: “Our duty is to be victorious” and “This is the first trench in the anti-imperialist war.” From a hill, I could see the control tower of the U.S. naval base glimmering in the distance.

The land before me, and this farther stretch of empty sea, had been carved from Cuba at its independence. And now Guantánamo had become synonymous with some of the most egregious acts of Bush’s war on terror, acts that have tarnished America’s name. There have been other moments of American dishonor over the years in Latin America, from Chile to Argentina, where the U.S. told generals it would look the other way.

Yes, Fidel’s communist revolution, at 50, has carried a terrible price for his people, dividing the Cuban nation, imprisoning part of it and bringing economic catastrophe. But as I gazed from Cuban hills at Guantánamo, and considered Obama’s incoming administration, I thought the wages of guilt might just have found a fine enough balance for good sense at last to prevail.

Roger Cohen, a columnist for The International Herald Tribune and The Times, is the author of “Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo.”