By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Power does not interest me. After victory, I want to go back to my village and just be a lawyer again. --Fidel Castro, 1957
What the hell, maybe he thought he meant it. Of course, by the time Jimmy Carter visited Havana last week, Castro -- or Fidel, as his admirers invariably call him -- was into his fifth decade as a political icon. Although ruling an island that’s now best known in some circles for the Buena Vista Social Club, he has managed to keep himself on history‘s center stage by being the obligatory whipping boy of 10 straight American presidents -- he’s the Cold War enemy who never cried “Uncle” -- and the symbol of a revolutionary politics that many on the left still cherish.
Carter‘s trip to Cuba was an attempt to push beyond policies that you hoped would have ended when the ominous-sounding initials USSR became the impossible-to-remember CIS. Playing his favorite role as a transnational Yoda (which may be one reason he was such a duff president), Carter met with dissidents, debunked Bush administration scare talk about Cuban biological weapons and delivered, in Spanish, a superb speech. He called for democracy and human rights in Cuba -- probably the first time anyone had said such things publicly there in 40 years -- and suggested that the U.S. lift its trade embargo, a move that would likely hasten Castro’s fall and certainly make ordinary Cubans‘ daily lives easier. For his trouble, the L.A. Times’ witless cartoonist Michael Ramirez turned Carter‘s toothy smile into a prison confining a shackled figure named “Cuba.” Old Jimmy may be a sucker, but he’s not a jail keeper.
Such an overture was far wiser than anything ventured by other recent American presidents, Republican or Democrat, whose approach to Cuba and its leader seems to have been dreamed up by CIA field officer Wile E. Coyote. Over the years, Castro has been faced with Mafia contracts, the Bay of Pigs invasion, schemes for exploding sea shells, and weird powders intended to make his beard fall out -- not to mention a plan to set off fireworks over the island to convince Cubans that the Second Coming had arrived, thereby provoking anti-Communist insurrection. And after all this, he‘s still there with his beard and those damned fatigues. Bee-beep.
If the Castro obsession has debased our foreign policy, it has also warped our domestic politics. For decades, politicians have pandered to the powerful emigre Cuban community in the crucial swing state of Florida. When President Bush flew down to Miami this week to reaffirm his hard-line stance on the embargo, he was motivated less by any great commitment to democracy than by a desire for votes -- brother Jeb is in a tight governor’s race. As George W. glad-handed his hosts, I wondered just how many of those rabid, rich Miami Cubans will actually move back to Havana once communism falls (not many, I‘d wager), and how many will simply buy up their old country on the cheap and then send Fredo over to run the family business. One shudders to think what they’ll do to the new Cuba Libre.
Then again, one shudders to think what Castro has already done. Early on, his regime clearly improved health care, raised literacy rates, diminished racial discrimination and supported popular rebellions in oppressed countries -- a great utopian dream the citizenry willingly sacrificed to realize. But by the late 1960s, the Cuban Revolution hadn‘t so much jumped the shark as landed in its jaws, and the country became an economic basket case, especially once Moscow stopped propping it up in the early ’90s. While American policy has always had a lot to do with Cuba‘s economic woes, so has Castro’s desire for absolute control -- he didn‘t have to nationalize everything, including street vendors. These days, he uses the state as a labor broker and sells off his people to foreign capital: A Spanish-owned hotel will pay the Cuban government, say, $350 a month for a waiter’s wages, then the government pays the waiter 350 pesos (worth maybe $15) and keeps the difference. No unions, no fuss. When Castro first took power, he made a show of rooting out the capitalist vice of prostitution; these days, the streets are filled with spandexed jiniteras seeking the hard currency that is the national lifeline. So much for socialism.
If there‘s anything more depressing than watching thuggish Cuban-American millionaires bray as the president calls Castro a “tyrant,” it’s talking to friends on the left who insist that he isn‘t one, and cling to Fidel as the last flickering flame of some enduring torch of freedom. Get over it, folks. He’s a dictator, a despot, a caudillo who uses police-state tactics to keep himself in power. If a right-wing general did what Castro has done -- crushing free speech, purging revolutionary allies, imprisoning political prisoners by the thousands, summarily executing “counterrevolutionaries” -- publications like The Nation would pillory him in every issue. Castro is our Pinochet and, one hopes, our final illusion.
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