Tag Archives: Cuban history

You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Part III

Las Terrazas, where today's story begins.

When is a nature reserve not a nature reserve?

This was the question as we spent the day a few hours to the west of Cuba, in the province of Pinar del Rio.  We were heading to Las Terrazas, a famed ecological preserve located close to the Sierra del Rosario mountains.  I was prepared for beautiful vistas, exotic plants, animals that were too pretty to be tasty.

What I found was a tropical showpiece, a Theresienstadt in the Antilles.

Located in today’s Czech Republic, Theresienstadt was a Jewish ghetto created by the Nazis to house prominent Jews from Germany, Austria and then-Czechoslovakia.  It developed a rich educational and cultural life among those deported there, yet many saw it as a façade for the horrors that occurred, similar to the atrocities in other ghettoes across Europe.

Theresienstadt’s most infamous period was when it was used as a propaganda tool by the Germans to prove that Jews were treated humanely in the Third Reich.  Red Cross officials saw clean, orderly streets, well-fed, happy children and adults developing music, the arts and theatre.  It was all a ruse.   All the shops and cafes were fiction.  The overcrowded Jews were conveniently shipped to Auschwitz.  There was even a film made of the hoax in 1944; all those responsible for filmmaking were also deported to death camps in Poland.

On the surface, this seems like an incredibly harsh comparison.  After all, Theresienstadt was the scene of brutal slaughter in a system of mass genocide.  No such naked aggression was going on here.   I had yet to really feel the iron fist of Cuban repression (the midget cop from the night before notwithstanding), and the whole area of Las Terrazas was just gorgeous, even under the torrential rain. 

Yet this place just didn’t look like the other Cuban settlements we’d see on the countryside.  It certainly didn’t look like Havana.

Its story is straight out of the Theresienstadt playbook.  The area had been the province of an old coffee plantation and a patchwork of local growers until the government decided to come in and build “ecologically friendly” housing for the farmers.  The locals were given a choice: move into these houses or “stay on their land.”  I sure saw a lot of the folks who chose the new housing, yet those who refused seemed noticeably absent.

The place was colorful, clean (at least, compared to most rural areas in Latin America), rather neatly organized.  Even the barnyard animals seemed placed in just the right areas: chickens roaming where they should, guinea fowl prowling ever so carefully on the rails, dogs and cats keeping a respectful distance from the tourists.

This had to be an obligatory stop on any foreign tour of Cuba.  There were at least three, maybe four tour buses in the area, all of which were stopping in almost the exact same places.  Few locals were walking about, but there were plenty of Europeans gawking and poking their pudgy faces in every direction. 

After an introductory drink (or two, in my case) we proceeded towards the clinic for this area, where we’d get our first taste of Cuba’s vaunted health care system.  This, along with education, was one of the pillars of the revolution.  Most of the Cuban government’s reputation worldwide is based on its health care.  So it’s best we look at it in more detail.

 “Everyone has the right to health protection and care. The state guarantees this right;
– by providing free medical and hospital care by means of the installations of the rural medical service network, polyclinics, hospitals, preventative and specialized treatment centers;
– by providing free dental care;
– by promoting the health publicity campaigns, health education, regular medical examinations, general vaccinations and other measures to prevent the outbreak of disease. All the population cooperates in these activities and plans through the social and mass organizations.” – Article 50, Cuban Constitution, 1976

No one can really argue with the spirit of the goal of universal health care as described in Cuba’s constitution.  Nor can there be argument in the dedication of Cuban doctors to their work in treating their compatriots, often with pitiful pay, poor resources and less-than-perfect conditions. 

Inside the doctor's office at Las Terrazas

Yet when I met one of the doctors at Las Terrazas, I got the distinct feeling that he was hiding something—or that he was forced to hide something. 

He rattled on the standard answers about vaccinations, neonatal care, procedures for diagnosis, etc.  There were some questions, though, which made him squirm somewhat before he could formulate the “correct” answer.  Medicines, HIV/AIDS, operations, nutrition—in each instance, I could see the doctor want to say what’s on his mind, but instead give a stock answer. 

Who was pulling the strings?   The tour guides?  The nurse?  Someone nearby we didn’t see?  Again, the veil is, albeit slowly, lifting on Las Terrazas (cue Theresienstadt again).

I am not an expert on Cuban health care, so I won’t go into a huge critique of the system.  I will state this, however: there is calculable evidence that former Communist regimes such as the Soviet Union, as well as current ones like China, have had a dubious history of corrupting, fabricating or distorting their own statistics in order to look better than their Western rivals.  Cuba could very well be in the same boat.

Furthermore, the statistics reported to the UN and the World Health Organization was not compiled independently.  They report what the Cuban government gives them as statistics, to be accepted in good faith.  Any tours of facilities are done with the guidance of government officials or functionaries, thereby opening the possibility for distortion.  Heck, I rarely believe what my own government tells me, let alone a government that guards its information as tightly as Cuba’s.

The showpiece that was Las Terrazas revealed itself again in two locations.  The first was the home of a local artist named Lester Campa.  His studio abutted his one-story house, the typical Las Terrazas construction of off-white stucco and brightly colored shutters.  Campa, of course, was a must-see stop on the tour, as bus after bus of foreigners tramped through his studio to ogle and occasionally purchase his work; which revolved around juxtapositions and natural/manmade congruencies (my term—I guess I can bullshit enough to be an art critic, too.)

Campa explained to us the difficulties in producing art students in Cuba.   There are few art schools for training, as well as the usual complaint of lack of facilities.  Looking at his well-fortified stash of oils and acrylics from Europe, however, proved otherwise.  So, too, did a sneak peek at his house: flat-screen TV, new kitchen appliances, nice furniture. 

The revolution’s been very, very good to Lester Campa.  I guess he was following the Cuban Constitution, which states:

“ there is freedom of artistic creation as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution…”  — Section D, Article 39, Cuban Constitution, 1976

The last stop was Maria’s house.  Maria was an old woman with a face worn from a hard life, yet quick with a smile and welcoming of us foreigners and our hard cash.  She had a small coffee shop overlooking the valley, and we all partook of some local brew (which made everyone much more vigorous, believe me.) 

Inside Maria's house.

Her house, like Lester Campa’s, seemed very atypical.  She had a nice TV set (not a flat-screen, but a better-quality tube set), decent furniture, and a china cabinet full of tchotchkes that would put a Jewish grandmother to shame. 

Plus, just nearby, was both a gift shop and a green-clad officer of the Ministry of the Interior, or MININT.  Was this sad-looking man in fatigues the real man in charge in Las Terrazas?  Maybe I was paranoid, but in hindsight, it seems more and more plausible.

I left the “biosphere reserve” in a daze: what exactly did I just see?  This could not be a typical countryside town.  Especially since the roadside between Las Terrazas and Vinales, where we’d be staying, was dotted with half-built, dilapidated shacks and one-room stucco blocks that no tour guide would want to point out.

Fortunately, there was enough later to make me forget my cynicism, at least for one night.

View of the valley from Los Jazmines

The Los Jazmines hotel overlooked a gorgeous valley, with giant monoliths rising like tropical bon-bons on the horizon, sheltering a patchwork of fields, houses and overgrown brush.  It was out my balcony, taking pictures of this place that I started to really love Cuba, to really enjoy this place, regardless of my own skepticism about certain “contrived” aspects of the day.   Nevermind all the bullshit about tours, the “canned” answers from political functionaries or the cattle-call of tourist traps; this was a great country.

The booze, as usual, certainly helped.  Dinner was punctuated by rum, a gift from our group leader to all of us.  My mates and I quickly dispatched our bottle in short order (although I think I took in the lions’ share—if anyone at my table can verify that.).  Apparently there was a party going on in the town down in the valley, so a fair amount of us proceeded down to enjoy the evening.

Through the night, we danced, drank, shot the shit and really started to bond.  I met an Englishman who looked at us in awe; again, we Yanks have quite a difficult road to get to this island.  My salsa moves were still intact—thanks to Latin breeding on my mothers’ part—and I danced like I hadn’t in years.

The most interesting, and unnerving, part of the night was when I met an apparent “local.” We chatted and drank and got to know each other.  Then the following exchange was made:

“Anything you want, man.  Anything you want, let me know.  You know, girls?  You like girls?”

“No, no sorry, man.  Thanks, but I have a girlfriend, so…no thanks…”

“Oh…you like boys?  You like little boys?”

There must be someone out there who can figure out this quantum leap in logic.

The night concluded with a walk up the valley back to the hotel, in moonlight.  I hadn’t been in real rural areas in a while, so the quiet took some getting used to.  The walking was also difficult, as a bottle of rum, numerous beers and an oncoming blister had slowed my gait somewhat. 

Yet the night was indescribably beautiful—just us, walking up the hill, talking about all sorts of subjects.  I mainly stayed quiet, trying to digest all that had happened that day, and the day previous. 

It brought me back to my previous question.  Las Terrazas, I figured, was a showpiece, a Theresienstadt-type of community meant to show the world what Cubans can do when presented with a problem.  Yet I wasn’t convinced that this was really Cuba.

From that night, I would need to look beyond the group, and break the first cardinal rule of the tour.  It would be the only way to keep an open mind.

Part IV will feature some inspiring artists, thoughts on tobacco, an elementary school, and soul-searching in a Havana night.

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You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Part II

The Hotel Riviera, where our story begins.

The first day in Cuba had paranoia, confusion, restlessness, anxiety, repulsion, excitement, inebriation and absolute bliss. 

This is de rigueur for any jaunt in Latin America—that plus a raging case of the shits, which I did not get. 

It’s simply rare that it all happened on the same night.

Jose Marti International Airport is designed to assuage paranoia.  The stern looks, the military uniforms, the photographing of every entrant—all there to make sure the state is secure.   Yet there were glimmers of Latinate inefficiency here and there.  As always, some people slid ahead of us in line, making me wonder which member of the Politburo I had to fellate to get anywhere in this country.  I’ll pass on Fidel, thank you.

To an extent, the government has a point: it has been estimated that roughly 80-90% of the general population has little, if any, confidence in the regime or the revolution.  That’s like Walter Mondale running things all through the rest of the 1980s; bands of middle-American white folks speaking in hushed voices about runaway taxes, pulling out of foreign adventures in Nicaragua, and…never mind.

The most bizarre feature of the process were the nurses (yes, nurses, gown and all).  Along with a customs declaration, each entrant into Cuba needed a health form that stipulated any diseases or medical conditions we were bringing to the island.  It even included space for “nasal secretions”, creating a hysterical scene of cold-ridden travelers hastily sucking up their snot in order to not get thrown out.  The nurses made me want to bend over and cough, but I handed my form, smiled politely and went on my way.

Again, this paranoia has some basis in fact.  Nobody checked Columbus and his crew for smallpox and typhoid when they landed in 1492; ask the Taino, the Ciboney and the Arawak how well that went.  Remember that Cuba is an island—whatever is brought to Cuba inevitably stays here, like smallpox, typhus, malaria and ravenous European tourists.

And tourists we were, in essence.  Never mind our “research delegation” status or our “general license” for academic research.  Our motley coterie, great as they were, were at that point little better than the black-socked, chain-smoking, loudmouthed Teutonic throngs that seemed to infest the island like Visigoths of yore.  I’m talking about Canadians, of course (just kidding, but they’re just as bad).

Even with the airport, my sixth sense of bullshit did not really ping itself until our tour guides began their spiel on the bus.  To be honest, they were really incredible guides throughout the trip, knowledgeable, giving in their expertise and even funny.  Their English language included a mixture of teenage vernacular (“Check this.”) with the effects of numerous American crime dramas (“Approach the bench.”) Both of these expressions became the running joke of the trip, proving that even leftists can have a sense of humor sometimes.

NOTE: The Big Apple and Hemingways’ death?  Both wrong.  I checked.  Don’t mess with a Jeopardy! Champion without expecting to lose.

Anyway, what really struck me were two words of warning from the tour guide: “Keep with the group at all times,” and “Keep an open mind.”  The former already had me thinking of other groups kept together: the Cherokees in the 1830s, perhaps.  Being miserable together is rarely fun.  Besides, most of the real thrill is going to the places you’re not supposed to go.  Well, it’s still the first day…

That second thing, though, the whole open mind business was what really got me.  Whenever someone tells you to “keep an open mind,” it’s usually a signal that whatever comes next is not to your liking.  My mother said it while she shoved lentil soup down my throat, my father with boiled tripe, and my girlfriend with sushi (I have since surrendered to sushi.  It’s a nasty vice.)  In our country, whenever someone insists on impartiality, on being of an “open mind,” or, dare I say, “fair and balanced”, it rarely ends up that way. 

And being the odd duck, I was probably the one to have to eat the tripe this week. 

Yet little revolutionary rhetoric was bandied about that night.  Our first dinner was at El Ajibe, a nice faux-cabana looking joint with big tables, a stocked bar and friendly staff.  Oh yeah, not a single Cuban was in attendance at this place.  We were clearly at a tourist stop, as packs of teenage South American snobs pissed away their copper reserves and Miami slush funds on bad mojitos and rice-and-beans.  This was our toe into Cuba…I guess the pool’s still too cold. 

Good thing this meal was included, since one thought was still nagging me—where the fuck do I change my money.  I had a pile of Canadian dollars sitting on me, since you can’t use US credit cards here, and some US greenbacks.  It did me no good, as we were now in the land of the CUC (pronounced, fittingly, “kook”)

A 3-CUC bill. The objective of our quest.

In 1994, during the Special Period when Cuba was suffering from withdrawal after the Soviet spigot ran dry, the Cuban government introduced the Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC.  The CUC replaced the US dollar as the only hard currency on the island in 2004, and the only currency in use by tourists.  Most areas of Havana and other tourist locations operate in CUCs, often solely in CUCs.  This doesn’t bode well for the average Cuban, who gets paid a combination of CUCs and national pesos (Moneda Nacional, or MNs), worth about 1/25 of a CUC.  We’ll leave the problems of the CUC system for a later date.

My "charming" abode at the Riviera.

Right now, the problem was finding these multi-colored buggers in the middle of the night.  We arrived at our first hotel, the once-grand, now woefully faded Habana Riviera.  It was the dreamchild of American gangster Meyer Lansky, and opened just in time to see Castro take it away in 1959.  Unfortunately, time has not been kind to the Riviera, which looks like an abandoned Acapulco resort.  After placing my bags in the mildewy suite with collapsing curtains (shown here), we proceeded to our adventure of CUC acquisition.

Who knew it would be such a torture.

At first, we heard that the hotel’s money exchange office was open.  Then, it was closed.  But the Melia Cohiba would have money for sure…that is until we learned that the Cohiba ran out of money.  Yes, it actually ran out.  The only place to conceivably get CUCs was at the Hotel Nacional, an old 19th Century warhorse of a hotel that held the likes of Winston Churchill and Naomi Campbell.  It was way on the other side of the Vedado neighborhood, and we needed a cab.

Cabs needed CUCs.

No one had CUCs.

Except me.  For the first of multiple times, the capitalist will (seemingly) save the day.

Luckily, I made a long distance phone call, calming my parents and telling them I have not, in point of fact, stolen into the jungle with an AK-47 and a box of Cohibas.  The call was a whopping 13 CUCs or so, but since I only had American, they would take it (real arm twisting, there).  I got 5 CUCs in return, just enough for one cab ride. 

Contrary to popular myth, not all cabs in Cuba are of the 1950s’ Chevy Bel Air quality.  We packed four Americans into a 1970s era Soviet-made Lada cab with cramped interiors and doors that required sheer will just to keep them closed.  Never mind that the cabbie was careening at top speed down the Malecon, a multi-lane road abutting the sea wall.  One false move and we’d all be pieces of fatty chum floating into Key West.

The Nacional beckoned, with its 19th century lobby and uniformed doormen.  The 24-hour money exchange bureau was closed.  Later in the week, I returned to the Nacional, only to be told that the booth was indeed open for 24 hours yet it wouldn’t open until 7:30 PM.  In a place as regulated as Cuba, you’d think they’d enforce truth in advertising a little more.

So now we’re stranded far off from the Riviera with no CUCs.  It took some doing, but we found a cab willing to take American dollars.  Another Lada whizzing us back to the Riviera, and it looked like a very short night.

Upon our return, we happened upon a gas station across from the hotel, and it was here that I got my first encounter with Cuban friendliness.  For a skeptical, on-their-toes American, this can take some getting used to.  A group of amateur musicians was outside the gas station, greeting us and chatting us up in conversation for no reason other than we’re strangers in Havana.  I immediately thought they wanted a handout, and that’s the problem.  They didn’t.  Between the paltry state-run media and the overpriced tourist bars and clubs, Cubans have few outlets when it comes to cutting loose.  Personal communication—any communication, for that matter—becomes a social activity in Cuba. 

Furthermore, we managed to score some boxes of Planchao, which is Cuban rum in a juice box.  Instead of Hi-C, out came cold white lightning that stung the mouth like gasoline, scarred like turpentine and had the distinct taste of third-rate tequila.  Thus the second rule of Cuban communication: rum makes everything better. 

We passed the rum with our new musical buddies, played some local tunes and danced a little party outside the gas station.  It was a real gasser, especially when an unusually friendly young woman came and insisted on dancing with me. 

As a gentleman, I obliged, only knowing too well what the next step would be. 

Since the Special Period, prostitution has become a rising problem in Cuba.  Though technically illegal, the practice has become one of the few tried-and-true methods to obtain hard cash on the island.  Working girls prowl the nightspots, the Malecon, the clubs where sweaty foreigners ogle and grope, and a certain gas station where a certain sweaty foreigner was about to be groped.  I declined politely, repeatedly, until offered a sexual act somewhere behind the station.  That was it—enough.  Thank God my compatriots intervened.  It would be the first of many advances I’d get that week.

So hookers notwithstanding, we continued drinking, graduating from Planchao to beer, and thus interchanging about a phenomenon we know well—snow.  Our new Cuban friends were fascinated by the stuff, which made us appreciate how different we are.  Only in Cuba can such connections happen at two in the morning at a gas station.  We’d be arrested in the states for such loitering.

Cuban police seemed to be just as uptight.

A marked police car turned and parked in front of the station.  Out came a short officer with a beret, uniform and sidearm.  “Now we’re talking”, I thought.  “Here comes the beady-eyed secret police agent, rubber truncheons, electrodes up the kazoo.  Come on, you pinko bastard, do your worst!  I’ll go Rambo on your punk-ass…”

The little bastard asked for IDs all around.  We gave him our hotel cards, he asked for nationalities.  He gave us back our cards, questioned the other members of the band, and then proceeded to chat up the group next to us.  It seems that cops the world over love to bust balls for its own sake, even in Cuba.  Well, so much for the torture chamber.

The night was winding down, and I headed to my casa de mildew.  I was only in Cuba for a few hours, and there were cops, hookers, musical locals, strong hooch, fast, dangerous cars, and late-night carousing.

I was loving this fucking country already.

Next stop, the hinterlands in Part III.

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You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Part I

The "Golden Ticket" of US Travel: the Cuba Tourist Visa

Like any good socialist utopia, entry into Cuba involves lines—several of them.

To board a 3:30 charter flight from JFK to Havana required us to be there at 11:00, a full four and a half hours before departure.  Once you arrive, there are several lines to negotiate.  One for your ticket.  Another for your bags.  Another to pay for any overweight costs of your bags.  Another through the security checkpoint. 

And yet another to get on a bus to get to the plane itself, since our flight doesn’t get a terminal.  No flight to any other country requires such rigmarole.  Then again, Cuba is not like any other country.

For Americans, Cuba is a forbidden fruit in international travel.  Since January 3, 1961, the United States has had no formal diplomatic relations with Cuba.  An economic embargo has been in place for almost 50 years.   Most Americans cannot travel nor spend money in Cuba.  The very few who are eligible for travel—Cuban nationals, humanitarian groups, educators, etc.—need to hop several hurdles. 

To obtain a license from the US Treasury department, a person must submit paperwork attesting to their occupation, purpose and itinerary while in Cuba.  My trip was through the Center for Cuban Studies, a cultural advocacy group committed to normalizing relations between the two countries.  As a “research delegation”, I needed to submit my resume (my political affiliation was noticeably absent) and the paperwork was thus filed to get the necessary licenses and visas for my visit.   One condition of that license is that I disseminate my information to others in the United States. 

These posts provide evidence of that obligation.

Yet this was the farthest from my mind as I stood on my multiple lines at JFK.  Needless to say, I knew in the back of my mind that I was not your typical visitor to Cuba.  Many, but not all, of the visitors who come to Cuba have at least some sympathy for the Castro regime.  Some groups, like the Venceremos Brigade, march openly over the Canadian border flaunting their defiance of the embargo.

This was not me.  I don’t think they were expecting a right-wing, conservative Republican to be in their company.  For the first time, I felt like an outcast, a deviant, a rebel…and it was fun.

In a sense, the upcoming chronicles about Cuba center mostly about this dichotomy: a conservative in a world created, engineered and celebrated by the left.   How would I react?  What can I say?  What can’t I say?  Is there a polite way to disagree in this country?  How will this group react to my political views?  How will Cuba react to my political views?

I hadn’t even stepped on the plane yet and I was already confused.

Yet that didn’t dampen my excitement.  Like Dad’s Playboys stashed under the mattress, there is a naughty feeling when visiting a country closed to most Americans.  My white-collar friends can go to Tahiti, Bangkok or Phuket.  They can’t come to Cuba, and it’s a thrilling feeling to be envied by folks that make much more money than me.

So as I flew into Havana, the anxiety was replaced by excitement, romance, a bit of danger…

…and women in lab coats?

More on the first days in Cuba in Part II.

NOTE: Any pictures about my Cuba trip can be seen on my Facebook page.  The files are WAY too big for the blog.

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Videos for the Classroom: Fidel Castro: A Life of Revolution

My upcoming trip to Cuba is only a week away. In my mind, I’m already there…and probably on line for some sort of shortage.

Many of my friends are still in a huff about this embargo, and wished they could come along. Well, here’s a video detailing one of the people impeding our stampede into Cuba.To get myself in the mood for a socialist paradise, I revisited a Hulu film entitiled Fidel Castro: A Life of Revolution. It slants ever so slightly in favor of the regime–yet does at least give lip service to the human rights abuses so many leftists choose to ignore.

Please enjoy the life of a tough old bastard. Not me, you idiots.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

 

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How’s it Hangin’, Fidel! The Neighborhood visits Cuba this Spring!

The deposit is in. My paperwork is in order. Shots are scheduled. My cynicism is getting honed to a fine edge.

It must mean a trip to a Communist country—with decent beaches, no less.

You read it correctly. Mr. D will be spending his spring recess as part of a delegation of teachers visiting Cuba. And I’m giddy with excitement. Yes, school-girl giddy…I’m man enough to admit it.

Cuba has fascinated me ever since Desi Arnaz’ last “babalu” on “I Love Lucy.”  It’s a place I’ve seen countless times in film, from The Godfather, Part II to Robert Redford’s Havana.  How bad could the place be if they managed to throw out lowlife Tony Montana? 

 Maybe the cinematic images are getting ahead of me.  Birthplace of mambo, mother country of the mojito and the daiquiri, and pariah of the capitalist world, Cuba is only open to certain Americans on research or business purposes—and teachers fall into this category. Pretty sweet.

Obviously, this being a dictatorship, Cuba will not be all fun and games. We’ll be paraded around to the standard “revolutionary” sites and probably getting the standard rhetoric. As regular readers can deduce, I will pretend I am somewhere else during that time—in the Goldman Sachs boardroom, perhaps.

Yet I’ll keep an open mind, for the most part. Since we’re doing research on education, I’ll be meeting teachers and students, which is always interesting. Obnoxious brats and pain-in-the-ass administrators are the educator’s universal language, after all. It’s important that I get to know the place better, understand the people better, and enjoy the “Pearl of the Antilles” for all its beauty.

At the very least, I look forward to hearing a decent rendition of “Guantanamera” that wasn’t raped by Julio Iglesias.

Anyone in the Neighborhood who has experience in Cuba, please write in with any tips/places to see/recommendations, etc. I’ve got until the end of March, so all your input is welcome.

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Pol Pot is “History’s Greatest A**hole!”

Pol_Pot2

Congratulations to Yonatan Lupu for his entry of Cambodian crazyman Pol Pot as “History’s Greatest Asshole.” Even in a crowded field of philandering autocrats, plundering kleptocrats, a “people’s” plutocrat, and an anger-obsessed Democrat, the freaky guerrilla leader who hated everybody beats out all. 

Thanks to everyone who voted, and here’s hoping for a new contest sometime soon.

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