Politics & Policy

Restless in Havana

A rough year for Fidel Castro. A rougher one, of course, for his prisoners.

A quick review of what you already know: Castro seized power in 1959; the U.S. tried — disastrously — to do him in; Castro consolidated his rule; he is now in the 45th year of one of the cruelest tyrannies on earth. In 1991, the Soviet Union imploded, and many wondered whether Castro would survive — the loss of his principal patron, that is. He did, in large part because the Europeans took over where the Soviets left off: They showered him with aid, investment, and tourism. Under-age prostitution is not the least of the delights of Castro’s island. It pulls ‘em in by the planeload.

#ad#From time to time, the plight of Cubans is heard above the world’s din: during the Mariel boatlift (1980); when Armando Valladares published his shattering prison memoir, Against All Hope (1984); when Castro shot down the Brothers to the Rescue planes (1996); when six-year-old Elian Gonzalez was tussled over (2000); when the movie Before Night Falls appeared (also in 2000). (The movie depicts the persecution of a homosexual poet.) But mainly Castro is left in peace to torture, imprison, kill, etc., while a steady stream of Hollywood stars and other travelers sit at his feet in bobby-soxer awe.

Lately, however, Castro has found himself unusually harassed. He has embarrassed his friends. He is fighting off criticism from unaccustomed quarters. He finds in Washington an administration baldly hostile to him. The ouster of Saddam Hussein seems to have rattled him. He sits on the State Department’s list of only six states that support terror — and the world is less tolerant of that sort of thing.

People have died waiting for Castro to die, but he may, in fact, have entered his end-game. Consider the unexpected words of Felipe Gonzalez. He is the ex-prime minister of Spain, a Socialist, and a one-time ally of Castro. Said Gonzalez recently, “Fidel is pathetic. He is now like Franco when he was dying.”

Have a look at Cuba since January. The regime cracked down on “independent operators,” meaning people who try to sell something outside the Communist system. Castro then purged some of his officials, nervous about what they were up to. Then, a day before the U.S. went to war in Iraq, he undertook one of the most ferocious roundups in his history. In all, he arrested and imprisoned 75 dissenters, including independent journalists, independent librarians, and democracy activists. Some of these were among the most important freedom figures in the country: the coordinators of the Varela Project (a democratic-reform movement); Raul Rivero, the dean of independent journalists; and Marta Beatriz Roque, the fearless economist. All were given harsh sentences.

Some believe that Castro acted when he did because the world’s attention was elsewhere: Iraq. Others maintain that he simply had to act then, war or no war, because the regime was under threat. The Varela Project was gaining steam and attracting wide notice. Dissidents were getting bolder. The Bush administration has in Havana — at the U.S. Interests Section — an especially gutsy Foreign Service officer, James Cason, who has spooked Castro and his supporters. He attended a gathering of about 40 dissidents at the home of Marta Beatriz Roque (other diplomats were invited too). He also allowed dissidents to meet at the U.S. Interests Section. Afterward, he explained that, for one thing, he was only doing what his Castroite counterpart in Washington does regularly: interact with members of society.

Once Castro cracked down, the Bush administration reacted fiercely. A National Security Council spokesman said that the arrests had been “repugnant reminders that the Castro regime remains a totalitarian blight in an otherwise peaceful and democratic hemisphere.” Many others — the usual suspects — blamed Cason for being “provocative.” William LeoGrande of American University was typical of them. He said, “[Cason] walks onshore and starts insulting [the regime]. The very public and in-your-face approach to meeting with the dissidents is different [from previous practice — although Cason’s predecessor, Vickie Huddleston, was plenty bold in working with, and encouraging, the democrats]. Castro takes offense, and when he takes offense he does these kinds of dramatic things.”

The crackdown also put a damper on efforts to end the U.S. trade embargo on Castro, and a variety of other restrictions as well. A spokesman for the Lexington Foundation — an anti-embargo group — called Castro’s arrests a “slap in the face.” (The spokesman had just returned from Havana, where he escorted a legislative delegation.) A spokesman for another anti-embargo group — the Cuba Policy Foundation — said, “Painting Castro as the bad guy could very well lead to the triumph of the hard-liners in the Cuba debate.” But no one, really, had done any painting except Castro himself. Soon, the entire board of the Cuba Policy Foundation resigned, dissolving their organization. They reasoned that they could now get nowhere, and were dismayed at “the regime’s sudden wholesale repression of human rights.” (It had not, in truth, been so sudden.)

The Bush administration has offered several carrots to Castro: reform for normalization. The dictator has stiffly refused to nibble. Anti-Castroites, both Cuban and American, have different opinions about normalization, although most are against it, certainly unilaterally granted. This debate will continue, even if Castro has forced its suspension.

Crackdown or no, the dictator was not bereft of friends. A letter in support of him was signed by 160 “artists and intellectuals,” including Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Nadine Gordimer, Nobel laureates both. These people will be with the dictator “till the last dog dies,” as Bill Clinton used to say. Among the arguments of the Castro apologists was that he had to be defended against an incipient U.S. invasion. American officials — including Donald Rumsfeld — were forced to deny that Washington had any intention of pulling an Operation Iraqi Freedom on Cuba. Castro himself warned that any attempt “might turn out to be the last of this administration’s fascist attacks.”

But, as one Cuba-watcher puts it, “a lot of Fidel’s enablers defected.” Jose Saramago — himself a Nobel laureate, and an ex-friend of Castro — was one of these “defectors.” He said, “This is my limit. . . . Cuba has lost my trust; it has damaged my hopes; it has defrauded my illusions.” The television network HBO was set to air Comandante, Oliver Stone’s loving documentary about Castro. But it drew back, giving off blushes. The network also asked New York’s Tribeca Film Festival to drop the documentary from its schedule. The festival — not known for its opposition to Communist dictatorship — complied.

Then came the executions. Castro has executed many thousands of people in his time, but the three deaths by firing squad that occurred on April 11 were somehow heard ‘round the world. The condemned were men who had hijacked a passenger ferry, trying to escape to the United States. This was one of a spate of hijackings and attempted hijackings — four within about three weeks. Many believe that Castro made a huge mistake in executing the three men (black, as it happened): It riled much of Europe, and a bit of the American Left. These people tend not to mind if you torture and imprison dissidents for decades on end; executing them, however, is a different matter. The Rev. Lucius Walker — head of Pastors for Peace and one of Castro’s most ardent American fans — said, “Cuba, you are a world leader in human rights and respect for life, and the death penalty demeans you. You’re better than that.”

Other analysts, however, believe that Castro did the smart thing in ordering the executions, and quickly: As he himself has said, he had to send a message before such behavior got out of hand.

Castro won a few victories at the United Nations and the Organization of American States. Efforts to help his political prisoners failed in those bewildering forums. But he encountered trouble with Europe — reliable, benign, faithful Europe. Begin with the Vatican, which, by its own (recent) admission, had been quiet about Cuba, hoping that Castro would liberalize. A spokesman lamented that the dictator was “filling the gulag with bodies.” The Italian government reduced its aid and credit to him, and the Spanish parliament denounced him. The EU decided to reject his application to join an economic pact. It even levied a few sanctions against him, including a limit on governmental visits to Havana. The EU also said that it would invite Cuban dissidents — those still “free” — to European embassies to celebrate various national days. This may not seem like much: but Castro hates any recognition of dissidents, and he took the Euros’ gesture hard.

He is especially piqued at Jose Maria Aznar, the Spanish prime minister. The dictator calls him “a minor ally of the Yankee imperialist government” and blames him for Europe’s “treacherous escalation of aggression.” In Washington, Aznar had breakfast at Blair House with Cuban-American congressmen. A photo was snapped. This further inflamed Castro. He organized a demonstration in Havana against both the Spanish and Italian embassies. He had children, and others, chant “Down with fascism!” and “Long live the Revolution!” while denouncing Aznar as “the little Fuhrer” and denouncing Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, as “Benito Berlusconi.” (The fascist references come fast and furious.) A few days later, he kicked Spain out of its cultural center.

So, the Cuba pot is boiling somewhat. The cause of Cuban human rights is picking up — in part aided by the Internet, where a galaxy of websites exists, including ones that name and support political prisoners. Exhibitions in Washington call attention to these prisoners. President Bush is meeting brazenly with their families. On the floor of the House recently, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida spoke of a celebrated dissident known as “Antunez.” Said Diaz-Balart, “Those who visit Cuba to have a good time, to take advantage of the regime-encouraged child prostitution, or simply to dine with the tyrant, may avoid seeing Antunez these days, but sooner or later Antunez will be free, Cuba will be free, and those who collaborated with his jailers and torturers will have to face him, and many others like him.” The founder of the independent-library movement in Cuba — now in exile here — held a press conference at the United Nations. Castro and his friends tried to block it, but unavailingly.

It is starting to register that Castro is especially vicious toward blacks and homosexuals. (Much of the dissident movement is, in fact, black.) The activists are getting the word out that Cuba maintains an apartheid system: separate spheres for light skins and dark skins; very separate spheres for tourists and natives. Books are proliferating. The Cuban-American community is aroused and fairly confident — if only it could avoid a ruinous factionalism.

But no one should write Castro’s obituary yet. Though he has suffered a rocky period, Barbara Walters still flies to him to conduct her smoochy interviews. Farm-state delegations sit down to ice cream and cookies with him (really). Leftists and dupes recite his propaganda about health care and literacy. But recent events have got him and his “revolutionaries” sleeping more lightly. Their prisoners, of course, sleep more lightly yet.

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