Politics & Policy

Castro’s No Cutie

The long, hard fight for Cuban freedom.

He could be your grampy.

That’s the image many Westerners have of Fidel Castro. Oliver Stone has called the dictator “one of the Earth’s wisest people.” Other media moguls, actors and intellectuals have traveled to Havana to pay homage and make small talk about cigars.

Hollywood’s affection for Fidel makes him as chic as a Che Guevara T-shirt (a hot item with the U.S. college set). Che, by the way, despite his current Motorcycle Diaries stud-icon status, was Castro’s executioner in the younger days of the Castro regime–a thug who would do the despot’s dirty work.

But don’t try to sell that harmless-old-revolutionary spin to a Cuban. Fidel Castro is no cuddly papa to those who know his brutality all too well. A recent Freedom House tally declared Cuba’s government as one of the most repressive on the planet.

As Florida Republican congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart once said, “For the life of me, I just don’t know how Castro can seem cute after 40 years of torturing people.” Castro not only tortures and executes, he also holds a special disdain for blacks and gays, which is why much of Cuba’s dissident movement is black.

Diaz-Balart’s father, Rafael, who died earlier this month at age 79, knew well the repressive reality of Castro’s Cuba. He went from being a close friend of Castro in their younger days to becoming one of the tyrant’s political headaches. Rafael’s legacy includes not one, but two sons in U.S. Congress.

The late Rafael was, for a time, Fidel Castro’s brother-in-law, when his sister Mirta Diaz-Balart married the dictator in the days before he seized power. Once Castro’s best friend–Rafael introduced the couple (talk about regrets)–the marriage lasted only two years, during which Rafael’s sister Mirta bore Castro his first son. But the Diaz-Balarts would all fall out of favor, and by the time Castro was in charge, the Diaz-Balart family was as good as dead on Cuban soil.

Rafael, as majority leader of the Cuban house of representatives in 1955, opposed amnesty for a jailed Castro, predicting “mourning, pain, bloodshed and misery” for the Cuban people if Castro was released.

The Diaz-Balarts were out of the country when Castro took over and after Castro burned their house to the ground they never returned, getting that message loud and clear. Living in Florida, Rafael was a leader of the Castro opposition, and taught his sons to love freedom through word and deed.

The commitment runs so deep in the Diaz-Balart blood that speaking of their Cuba and other tyrannies, like China, Lincoln said in a 2003 interview with NR’s Jay Nordlinger (one of the few American journalists with an eye constantly on Cuba’s tyranny): “I feel almost embarrassed for the human race that we just sit here and accept regimes like that.”

As members of Congress (Lincoln was elected in 1992, Mario in 2002), the sons have helped form a new bipartisan, bicameral Cuba Democracy Caucus in Congress, “to promote discussion and proactive policymaking in order to hasten Cuba’s transition, Cuba’s change to a free and democratic society.”

So far, eight senators and 17 congressmen from 10 states have signed up. On the top of their to-do list is reaching out to Cuba’s pro-democracy movement, strengthening its independent media, and opposing U.S. legislation that would ease trade and tourism embargos on the authoritarian regime.

As the United States has stepped up efforts to penetrate beyond our station at Guantanamo Bay, pamphlets including translations of President Bush’s second inaugural address have been making the rounds in Cuba. In January, Bush said, “Democratic reformers facing repression, prison or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country.”

It’s a tough fight, but not without its hopes. In recent years, even old allies have called Castro, his stubborn stranglehold on power and bloodthirsty crackdowns on dissenters “pathetic.” A former Spanish prime minister, once an ally, said in 2003, “He is now like Franco when he was dying.”

There have been many reports of the wives, mothers, daughters and sisters of Cuban political prisoners in Cuba standing in public to protest the second-year anniversary of the imprisonment of 71 prisoners of conscience–mostly journalists who were thrown in jail for not toeing the government line and delivering the canned Castro message.

Illeana Rodriguez Saludes, the wife of a photographer sentenced to 27 years in prison, told reporters: “I will not be silenced. If I were I might as well be dead.” Castro acolytes try to shout them down whenever they gather to protest, but the women will not pipe down, mercifully. There are believed to be some 300 prisoners of conscience in prison in Cuba, locked up on vague charges like “dangerousness” and “disseminating enemy propaganda.”

Lincoln recently said of his father, “His death constitutes another reason to continue the fight for Cuba’s freedom, which was the ideal of his life, and of so many Cubans who have died longing for free Cuba.”

The Rafael Lincoln Diaz-Balart legacy, both in the United States and in his homeland, will see to it that that message of freedom spreads in Castro’s twilight.

(c) 2005, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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