Dispatch

Statue of Limitations

Seventy years after the Holocaust ravaged Hungary, Budapest's right-wing government is whitewashing the country's wartime sins by building a garish monument to a past that never existed.

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Since late March, an almost daily drama pitting a large contingent of stern-faced policemen against a gathering of mostly gray-haired protesters has been playing out in downtown Budapest's leafy Szabadsag, or "Freedom," Square. On most afternoons, at the square's southern end, where on warmer days small children splash around in a series of fountains, blue uniformed police form a protective cordon around the construction site of a small, partially finished monument. And every afternoon, these officers are joined by a group of protesters -- on a recent sunny day, they numbered close to 100 -- who join hands to form a perimeter of their own, circling the site as they sing along to communist-era protest songs played from a nearby sound system.

The monument in question is still mostly hidden behind a fence covered with white cloth, but designs shown to the public have revealed it to be an artistically challenged creation: Heavy-handed in its symbolism, kitschy in its execution, it depicts a wrathful eagle -- intended to represent Germany -- swooping down on the Archangel Gabriel, representing Hungary. Designed by sculptor Parkanyi Raab Peter, the monument is being built, the country's right-wing government says, to honor the victims of Nazi Germany's occupation of the country in March of 1944. But the protesters who spend their afternoons surrounding the statue say the monument is a historical outrage: that it whitewashes the deep and troubling role Hungary's Nazi-sympathetic government played in the deportation of a massive number of Jews to Auschwitz in 1944, and depicts Hungary as an innocent victim of the Third Reich -- not as the collaborator it was.

The monument, however, is just the tip of the iceberg, they say -- a small part of a large-scale attempt to rewrite Hungary's history, with a nationalist twist. Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his populist government, under pressure on their right flank from Jobbik, a popular, anti-Semitic far-right party, have embarked on an effort, critics say, to reconstruct the historical narrative through institutions from museums to theaters to concerts.

"The government is redoing history, redoing the cultural markers," says Amy Brouillette, a researcher at the media studies center at Budapest's Central European University. "That's the sign of a real regime change."

Over the last few years, Orban's Fidesz party has been behind the sacking of theater and museum directors who were apparently too closely affiliated with previous liberal governments. In 2012, for example, Budapest's Fidesz mayor orchestrated the dismissal of Istvan Marta, the longtime director of the city's respected New Theater, replacing him with György Dörner, an actor and voice-over artist who had campaigned for Jobbik in the past. Since Dörner's appointment, the theater has shifted towards staging almost exclusively plays by Hungarians with Christian and nationalist themes ("classical and boring," as one Budapest journalist described them). The theater's current season, for example, features a play set in the year 994, telling the story of how the early Hungarian kings brought their people to Christianity. More distressingly, the theater has also staged a drama by the late Jozsef Nyrio, a figure reviled by many for his anti-Semitic writings and for his role as chief propagandist for Hungary's World War II fascist party.

Fidesz has also overseen, via the erection of statues and other memorials, the rehabilitation of the divisive Admiral Miklos Horthy, who led Hungary from 1920 to 1944. The rehabilitation of Horthy, a nationalist hero for his efforts to regain Hungarian territories lost after World War I -- a mission that led him into Hungary's doomed alliance with the Nazis -- was, until recent years, considered too politically loaded an undertaking. Now, streets are renamed in his honor, and busts of the admiral are unveiled regularly in towns across Hungary. Orban's government has also passed legislation playing up certain nationalist touchstones in Hungary's history: In 2010, for instance, Fidesz passed a law creating a day of national commemoration for the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, a peace agreement notorious in Hungary for costing the country some two-thirds of its territory.

The effort to reconstruct history fits within a pattern of encouraging nationalism in Hungarian culture more generally. Last year, for instance, the Orban government left many speechless when it awarded its highest state journalism prize to a television host, Ferenc Szaniszlo, known for spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and anti-Roma diatribes; the same year, a top cultural award, known as the Golden Cross of Merit, was bestowed on the lead singer of a nationalist rock band, Karpatia. A favorite of Jobbik voters, the band sings about threats to Hungary's honor and penned a song that became the anthem of a now-banned extreme-right paramilitary militia known as the Hungarian Guard.

Some of the government's actions seem to be fueled by its rivalry with Jobbik. The xenophobic party is currently the second-largest group in parliament, having received 20 percent of the vote in last April's election, up from 17 percent in 2010. "In Hungary, politics are now a competition between the populist right and the extreme right. This means that Fidesz has to present itself as the defender of the nation, including against Jobbik," Peter Kreko, one of Hungary's leading political analysts, told me. "But it also means they need to incorporate parts of Jobbik's platform to attract right-wing voters. As a result, there is a mainstreaming of the positions of the extreme right."

But this amping up of nationalism in Hungary also takes place against the backdrop of efforts by the Orban government to pass a raft of laws that further entrench it and Fidesz in power, weakening, in the process, the democratic gains Hungary has made in the post-Communist era. The party has passed tax legislation, for instance, that effectively targets business groups unfriendly to Fidesz and has made constitutional changes that have allowed it to appoint loyalists to key positions in the judiciary. In Freedom House's recently issued "Nations in Transit" report, which tracks democratic development in a region stretching from Central Europe to Central Asia, Hungary -- a European Union member since 2004 -- was in fact one of the worst backsliders. "Hungary's multiyear governance decline … remains the most poignant reminder that democratization in post-communist Europe is neither complete nor irreversible," the report said.

Hungary in 2014 is still recovering from a traumatic, humiliating 20th century that left its citizens primed for strongman politicians who make nationalist appeals. A former pillar of the dual Austro-Hungarian empire, Hungary found its territory severely diminished after WWI, with large Hungarian communities left as residents of bordering countries. In the following half-century, Hungary was eventually occupied by both the Nazis and then, at the end of World War II, by Soviet troops. Hungary's communist period lasted until 1989, when the country played an important role in ushering in the fall of the Berlin Wall by opening up its border with the West. When Hungary joined the EU in 2004, it seemed to mark a moment of important political recovery for the country.

But all this turbulence and trauma has made history -- and, in particular, the subject of World War II and its aftermath -- a ready target for political tugs of war. On the one hand, Fidesz has been credited with taking some positive steps: for example, setting aside 2014 as a year to commemorate the Holocaust and providing government funds for memorial projects and events. On the other hand, as with the monument in Freedom Square, Fidesz has been accused of offering up a narrative in which Hungarian responsibility for what happened in 1944 is diminished by portraying all Hungarians as victims, despite Horthy's alliance with Hitler, and even though over the course of the war, as City University of New York historian Randolph Braham has written, "approximately 200,000 Hungarian policemen, gendarmes, civil servants, and 'patriotic' volunteers had collaborated in the anti-Jewish drive with a routine and efficiency that impressed even the relatively few SS who had served as 'advisors.'"

The government line minimizes the horror of the Holocaust period by linking it with the 45-year Soviet occupation as one long continuum of Hungarian suffering. The House of Terror, for example -- a museum opened in Budapest in 2002 with Fidesz support -- tells the terrible story of the violence inflicted upon Hungarians during World War II and the communist era (the building where the institution is housed served as the headquarters of both the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party and the communist secret police). But historians and other critics say the government's approach to history, as embodied in the House of Terror, conflates two distinct periods, presenting both Nazism and communism as foreign imports foisted upon Hungarians while subtly suggesting that the communist period -- which Hungary's far-right attributes to Jewish influence -- was as horrendous as the Holocaust.

"The government's line is, 'We are sorry for what happened. Yes, the Nazi occupation was horrible, the Soviet occupation was horrible, but we had nothing to do with it.' It's quite clearly an abdication of dealing with the country's past honestly, of dealing with issues of responsibility," says Gwen Jones, a historian affiliated with Central European University who is organizing a project to commemorate the Budapest buildings where the city's Jews were forced to relocate ahead of being deported to Auschwitz.

Fed up with the government's approach and with the construction of the monument in Freedom Square, the main organization representing Hungary's estimated 100,000 Jews, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, announced earlier this year it would not participate in any of Fidesz's projects commemorating the 70th anniversary on the Holocaust in Hungary this year. Meanwhile, some 50 organizations that received close to $1 million in government money for the commemoration have returned it, forming their own alliance that is now trying to independently raise funds for projects.

Ferenc Kumin, a government spokesman whom I met in his office in Budapest's ornate 19th-century Parliament building, denied Fidesz was engaging in revisionism. "No one wants to whitewash the responsibility of the Hungarian authorities. No one questions that. We are ashamed of that," he said, regarding the debate about the disputed monument. But, he added: "We believe the story is only complete if there is the German invasion part in it.... That's why the monument has to be dedicated to that event."

Not far from the Parliament, in a Jewish community center building on a side street near Budapest's opera house -- another one of the city's opulent 19th-century buildings -- I went to meet with Gabor Szanto, a novelist and poet who also edits a Jewish cultural and political monthly magazine called Szombat. The community center was one of the "yellow star houses" during the war -- a place of impending doom for the Jews who were forced to move into it under regulations passed by the Hungarian government. Today it houses a café, theater, and a number of local Jewish organizations, serving as potent symbol for a community that has managed to slowly rebuild itself after the devastation of the Holocaust.

Szanto said he doesn't doubt that the Orban government believes in its own narrative of the Nazi period. Not enough credence is given to what is called "Trianon trauma," he said -- the sense of victimhood many Hungarians feel as a result of the losses suffered by their country after World War I, which colors how they view the rest of the country's traumatic 20th-century history.

Still, Szanto said, the building of the monument can't be divorced from Hungary's current politics. "The government needs a tool to steal voters from the far right, and that tool is in the field of historical narratives," he told me. "This coming to terms with the past is a process. The debate about the past is still open but the statue is something final. The debate is something that is still hot, but the statue is a cold stone."

This project was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Cuba Wants You To Think It’s a Gay Paradise. It’s Not.

Cuba has come a long way on LGBT rights since putting gays in labor camps. But don't believe the Castro family's gay-friendly PR.

TRINIDAD, Cuba I'm surprised to see a rainbow flag outside a tiny bar called Gats Loco in Trinidad, an old sugar town on Cuba's Caribbean coast. With a population of just under 75,000 and a reputation for well-preserved colonial architecture, not cruising, a gay bar seems an improbable niche-filler.

As of 1979, being gay is no longer a crime in Cuba, although under Article 303a of the country's Penal Code, "publicly manifested" homosexuality remains illegal, as does "persistently bothering others with homosexual amorous advances." While I wonder whether or not Gats Loco's conspicuous signage qualifies as a violation of Cuban law, I watch a stray dog's legs collapse underneath it in the withering midday heat. Gats Loco is the only bar in the area and they claim to have cold beer. I head inside.

I sit down at the small counter, getting the impression that I am the first customer they've had in a while. I ask the bartender for a Bucanero Fuerte, the watery lager that is Cuba's go-to brew. He hands me a cold one and sits down beside me. He says his name is Osmel, but everyone calls him SiSi.

SiSi is an English professor who moonlights at the bar for extra cash. He sharpens his grasp of American idioms by listening to heavy metal and writing out the lyrics every night when he gets home. I figure he'll love the copy of the Atlantic that I'm carrying in my backpack, which features a headline across the cover reading, "What Straights Can Learn From Same-Sex Couples." But when I hand it to him with a conspiratorial wink, he looks perplexed. Then he breaks into a wide grin.

"Are you gay?" SiSi asks.

I tell him I am not. Neither is he. Nor is the owner. Nor are any of the employees. Though incongruity is practically an art form in Cuba -- a place where cabdrivers outearn cardiologists and Fidel Castro's son is a golf champion -- I'm too curious not to ask how Gats Loco came to be.

"You know our president, yes?" SiSi asks, seeming to make a point of not saying "Raúl Castro" out loud. "In 2010, he changed the rules and we were allowed to open our own businesses. So, a friend of mine, he opened this place."

He can see that he hasn't answered my question.

"Okay, so, this rainbow flag outside -- we are the only place in Cuba with this flag in front," SiSi says. "I think it is European, and means 'inclusiveness.' Some people, I guess, know it as the gay flag, too. I think the owner figured it might be good for business."

The gambit has already started to pay dividends. Not because Gats Loco offers something unique to Cuba's gay community. Rather, it's because Mariela Castro, daughter of Raúl, niece to Fidel, and the director of the state-run National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), has emerged as Cuba's leading voice for the LGBT community in recent years. As the story goes, when the straight, married mother of three heard about Gats Loco and its rainbow flag, a representative sent word that Mariela would be making an official visit to "sponsor" the bar. SiSi isn't sure what the sponsorship entails beyond something about uniforms and logoed aprons for the staff. There are other gay bars on the island, but a gay bar willing to work with the regime rather than against it is unusual. For Mariela, it's a ready-made propaganda opportunity. And Gats Loco's owner wasn't going to pass up a chance to ingratiate himself with a Castro.

The island is undoubtedly evolving, experiencing its first glimmers of free enterprise in 55 years, but one thing has remained very much the same: In Cuba, the regime is your ultimate customer. LGBT rights have undeniably improved in Cuba over the past 50-odd years. But while there have been some gains, many problems remain. The social stigma attached to being gay in predominantly Catholic Cuba is present in the same ways it is everywhere else in the world. Though the Castro family is no longer sending LGBT people to labor camps as they did in the 1960s and 1970s, the only permitted LGBT movement in Cuba is the official, state-run one that Mariela Castro has created. To that end, while the rest of the world was celebrating Pride Week over the past several days, Cubans weren't. The government in Havana refuses to recognize the international week of LGBT rights celebrations, allowing only an officially sanctioned gathering on May 17 -- under Mariela's patronage -- to mark the World Health Organization's "International Day Against Homophobia."

With Cuba essentially having been run as a family business since the Castros took over in 1959, it's only natural that 52-year-old Mariela ended up working for her dad. Daughter of President Raúl and niece to "Maximum Leader" Fidel, Mariela, known pretty much exclusively by her first name, occupies an interesting place in the Cuban zeitgeist, a sign of a liberalizing society -- but only so far. "Brokeback Mountain" may have aired on Cuban state television in 2008, but the control Mariela and CENESEX wield over the LGBT agenda doesn't give many Cubans a sense of ownership in their own cause.

On paper, Mariela is perfectly qualified to run CENESEX, where she has been since 1990. She has degrees in psychology and human sexuality from two of Cuba's premier universities. However, the LGBT Cubans I spoke to almost universally described Mariela as a creation of the state propaganda machine, a benevolent face the world can see calling for tolerance while the regime's usual brand of everyday totalitarianism continues. After all, Cuba's biggest industry is tourism, with more than 2 million visitors last year. Western tourists prefer a "friendly Cuba" to a notorious human rights violator.

The state announced in 2008 that, per Mariela's direction, the national health-care system would begin providing free gender-reassignment surgeries to those who qualified. In May 2013, Mariela traveled to Philadelphia to receive the Equality Forum's International Ally for LGBT Equality Award, followed by a trip in October to Montreal, where she was honored by the Conseil Québécois LGBT. This past December, the Cuban parliament passed a new labor code that included a clause outlawing employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. (It can't hurt Cuban Communist Party legislators to keep the boss's daughter happy.) On its face, it would seem that Mariela has tried -- and continues to try -- valiantly to move the LGBT agenda forward.

But not everyone's buying it.

"The reality for the LGBT community in Cuba is very different from that described by the international media," Ignacio Estrada, a 33-year-old gay man from Santa Clara, tells me. "We live under constant government surveillance and harassment, while at the same time being manipulated for their political purposes."

Ignacio is married to Wendy Iriepa, 40, a transgender Havana native who once worked very closely with Mariela Castro at CENESEX. Under a 2007 pilot project, after pledging loyalty to the Revolution, she became the first Cuban to receive government-sponsored sex-reassignment surgery and underwent a full male-to-female transition.

Wendy may have been in Mariela's good graces, but as the founder of the independent, and thus illegal, Cuban League Against AIDS, Ignacio was considered a dissident. When Wendy marched with Ignacio and about 20 others in a small, unauthorized Pride Day parade in Havana in June 2011, Mariela confronted Wendy, asking how she "could live, in bed and in a home, with an enemy of the revolution." Wendy resigned from her position at CENESEX immediately. Two months later, she and Ignacio were married in Havana. The nuptials took place on August 13, 2011 -- Fidel Castro's 85th birthday. The guest list also sent a powerful message. Opposition bloggers Yoani Sánchez and her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, were there. Mariela wasn't invited.

"Mariela is a chameleon; she can change her character very easily," says Ignacio. "She is very sociable with the people who work for her, but never does anything for anyone without expecting something back in return."

Mario Jose Delgado is a gay activist and independent journalist in Havana who also believes the outside world is being duped by Mariela. He and other LGBT Cubans are "very unhappy about the awards and recognition" she has received abroad, insisting, "It does not reflect the feelings of the gay community on the island." Delgado says the realities of LGBT life in Cuba are much uglier.

Last November, Delgado was headed home to the Alamar section of Havana when three men in civilian clothes threw him into the backseat of a car. They drove him to the outskirts of town, where he was beaten in the face with a rock.

Delgado says the men, who have never been identified, were interested only in the information he was carrying, which included names of members of a Christian LGBT group Delgado belonged to called Divine Hope. The attackers took his cellphone and USB drive, as well as his notes and calendar, where the details of a demonstration Divine Hope was planning to hold the next month were stored. They also took his baseball cap for good measure.

Delgado is certain his attackers were state security agents, though it is impossible to know for sure what exactly prompted the beating. He's gay, he's Christian, and he's a blogger who is outspokenly anti-regime. It's a volatile combination in Cuba, where activists of all stripes who dare to organize independently are regularly targeted by the security services.

Delgado doesn't have much to lose by speaking to reporters. But there are plenty of LGBT Cubans who have settled into relatively comfortable lives by not calling too much attention to themselves.

In Havana, I rent a room in a private home (the Cuban government legalized this in 1997). Two men live here and it is obvious they are a couple, though they never say it. One of them has carved out a successful career working for the state theater, something that doesn't happen by making waves on social issues. The dial-up connection in their duplex apartment is a luxury in Cuba, but looks like an antique to me. What also seems oddly outdated is the way they refer to one another as "friends," something I haven't heard since the 1970s.

They obviously feel awkward about their situation. But living in relative peace like this is a quantum advance from the era when same-sex couples lived in fear of being rounded up and sent to a labor camp.

Even Fidel has come a long way. In a 2010 interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, he placed the blame for Cuba's historical persecution of gays squarely on his own shoulders, calling it "a great injustice."

"If anyone is responsible, it's me," he said. "We had so many and such terrible problems, problems of life or death. In those moments, I was not able to deal with the matter of homosexuals."

Mariela, on the other hand, tends to adopt an oddly casual, even defensive, tone when discussing Cuba's history of homophobia. She seems to view the people sent away by her father and uncle as some sort of accidental by-catch, human turtles mistakenly caught in tuna nets. In May 2012, Mariela was questioned by a Cuban-American audience member about her uncle Fidel's "concentration camps for gay men" during an appearance at the New York Public Library. Mariela quickly corrected her interlocutor, taking exception to the term and insisting they were segregated "training camps."

The exchange between Mariela and her audience brings to mind a Cuban saying: Cada cual habla de la feria según le va en ella. "Everybody experiences reality in a different way." The reality Mariela packages and sells may not be anyone else's but her own. Similarly, the reality of Cuba's LGBT population is unknowable to the rest of the island.

"As a country, we are so isolated and lost that we don't even know what is going on in the neighboring town," says Mabel Cuesta, a lesbian who left Cuba in 2006 and is now a professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston.

Cubans are prevented from fully communicating with one another. Internet access is scarce, expensive, and slow. Mobile phone penetration is the lowest in Latin America, at 11 percent. Vehicle ownership has been described by analysts as "exceptionally low," and the public transportation system is a disaster, hampering intercity travel.

This explains a lot about life on the island, Cuesta says -- including some misperceptions about Gats Loco. "The first bar in Cuba with a rainbow flag was actually El Mejunje, an LGBT center in Santa Clara that opened in the early '90s," she says.

Like Gats Loco, Cuesta says, El Mejunje also began as an independent operation. And, like Gats Loco, they also quickly found themselves being offered "assistance" by the government. "Following the usual practice that the Cuban regime has always had toward anything powerful and out of their control, they made it official very soon."

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