SCOTT SIMON, host:
I went to high school in Chicago with a guy named Carlos who was from Cuba. He was funny, bright and gentlemanly - a trait that stands out in high school. But we often kidded Carlos about his disdain for Fidel Castro. We were that generation of activists who believed that whatever Fidel's distaste for democracy, he'd led a righteous revolution against privileged elite who then fled to plush enclaves in the United States. Of course, Carlos and his family lived in a small basement apartment. He washed dishes after school. You'd think the privileged elite could manage something more palatial.
We would tell Carlos what we'd heard, that Fidel had given his country almost a 100-percent literacy rate. Carlos would point out that Cuba had the highest literacy rate in Latin America before the revolution too.
When I first went to Cuba on a reporting trip, I retained some of the rosy assumptions of my youth, but hard reporting challenges assumptions. I came to revere the ingenuity, enterprise and wit of the Cuban people, but each trip made me angrier that such talented people were kept perpetually poor, able to use their universal literacy only to read what Fidel said and what he wanted them to know, and angry at the regime's apologists in the U.S. and Europe who let themselves be charmed by a dictator and long as he, quotes, "Gabriel Garcia Marquez" and mocks the Bush family.
Almost a million Cubans, 10 to 15 percent of the country, has fled Castro's Cuba, often risking their lives to do so. It would be as if 30 million or more people had fled the United States. It's hard to dismiss so many as a privileged elite, baseball pitchers or criminals.
This week, Fidel Castro said he's stepping down from power. He could have added: After 50 years, I'm freeing all dissidents, legalizing opposition parties, a free press and scheduling free elections. Instead, he made his brother president.
My boyhood friend is Carlos Eire, now a professor of history at Yale. In 2003, Carlos wrote an extraordinary memoir of his life in Cuba and Chicago called "Waiting for Snow in Havana." It won the National Book Award, and this week I remembered what Carlos said when he won.
(Reading) Had I written this book in my native land, I would be in prison. As we sit here enjoying this dinner, in Cuba there is no freedom to write, there is no freedom to read. Everything that the National Book Award stands for is negated there. There are Cubans in prisons for the crime of writing. It is these brave men and women that I would like to dedicate this award to, the people who cannot speak their minds, and may it not only snow in Havana sometime soon, may they be able to speak freely once and for all.
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