Oliver Stone calls him “one of the earth’s wisest people.” Jack Nicholson has dubbed him a “genius.” “An experience of a lifetime” is how Kevin Costner described his own meeting.
I recently spent an evening with the same man, Fidel Castro. I came away convinced it must be more than Cuban cigars that these Hollywood types are smoking on their visits to Havana.
Two months ago I accompanied my husband, Rep. Jeff Flake, and seven other members of Congress on a visit to the island. The program consisted of meetings with U.S. government officials, Cuban government officials, nongovernmental organizations, and Cuban dissidents. Of course, Fidel Castro is always willing to hold court with visiting dignitaries, so an evening meeting was arranged. My husband declined, as he had on a previous visit, to meet with Castro, but encouraged me to do so hoping that my presence without him might be viewed as even more of a slight.
It was the experience of a lifetime all right — the longest
experience of mine. For over four hours, without a break, Fidel Castro offered nothing but contradictions. He was popularly elected, he said while dressed in fatigues. Every Cuban is taught English, he insisted through his translator. The evening went on and on with little input from his guests. We were there to listen.
Is Castro a genius? The Wall Street Journal reported nearly a year ago about Castro’s efforts to clone Cuba’s world-record-holding milk cow, Ubre Blanca. According to Boris Luis Garcia, formerly a molecular biologist with Cuba’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Castro wanted to shrink cows to the size of dogs. Castro’s idea was to get around the scarcity of milk in the cities by providing Cuban families with miniature milk cows they could keep in their apartments. According to his plan, the miniature cows would graze on grass to be grown in drawers under fluorescent lights.
Now, our Hollywood friends might argue that Castro’s cow-in-every-apartment version of the old “chicken in every pot” is simply evidence of Castro’s environmental sensitivity. But my guess is that most Cubans had higher aspirations for the revolution. Most would probably have preferred a refrigerator.
Of course, what Castro lacks in good sense he more than makes up for in ruthlessness. This despite Oliver Stone’s insistence that Castro is “very concerned about his country.” Just days after my evening with Fidel, we learned that he had undertaken a massive roundup of nearly 80 dissidents. These peaceful, pro-democracy activists have now been sentenced to terms of up to 28 years. Three of the dissidents we had met with days before were among those given long prison terms. And just days later, three hapless hijackers of a Cuban ferryboat were summarily executed by Castro’s government. The only surprise in Castro’s recent behavior is that anyone has been surprised by it at all. It is a pattern that goes back 40 years.
Back on the streets, one can’t help but wonder what will finally break that pattern. It takes no effort at all to find Cubans who openly oppose their government’s policies and express a desire for greater freedom. But for all the courage and stamina the Cuban people display every day, it’s very hard to get a sense that they’re about to change their government, or even that they expect to do so in the foreseeable future.
Cubans welcome Americans enthusiastically, even though for the past 40 years, our peoples have been isolated from each other as never before in our history. Maybe they are just being neighborly, or maybe they like the idea of freedom that America represents — but either way, they do not blame Americans for the effects of our trade embargo. Under that embargo, there are travel restrictions that make it very hard to get to Cuba unless you’re a Hollywood type or have other contacts or credentials. Somehow I doubt that Oliver Stone or Kevin Costner spend much time walking the streets, meeting Cubans, exchanging ideas. And it’s hard to see how America can influence Cuba’s future if we continue to keep Americans and Cubans isolated from each other.
Maybe it’s time to try something different. Castro won’t break his 40-year pattern, but we can break ours — by granting all Americans, not just Hollywood stars in Armani and rose-colored glasses, the right to travel to Cuba. Democracy starts with ideas. And there are no better representatives of the American idea than the American people themselves.
— Cheryl Flake is married to Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.).