In the current issue of National Review, I have a piece called “Thorns and Daggers: The Castros and their allies.” “Thorns and Daggers”? Where did that come from? Way back in 1961, Senator J. William Fulbright made a famous comment: “The Castro regime is a thorn in the flesh, but it is not a dagger in the heart.” That was before the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In any event, some of the news has been very familiar lately. Let me quote the first paragraph of my NR piece, please:
The Cold War seems as distant as the War of the Roses, what with something called the “Islamic State” gripping the world’s attention (and cutting off heads). But everything old seems new again, where the Castro dictatorship in Cuba is concerned. After Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin visited the Castros in July, Newsweek ran a headline both amusing and apt: “Why Russia and Cuba Are Partying Like It’s 1962.” The Castros’ relations with North Korea and China, too, are newly warm.
I would like to expand on my piece in a three-part series this week. The first will be devoted to the Castros and North Korea; the second will be devoted to the Castros and Russia; and the third will be devoted to the Castros and China.
‐A year before Putin traveled to Cuba — i.e., in July 2013 — a North Korean cargo ship called the “Chong Chon Gang” tried to mosey through the Panama Canal. The Panamanian authorities suspected that the ship was hauling drugs. When they went to inspect, the crew put up violent resistance, and the captain attempted suicide.
The Panamanians found 10,000 tons of sugar, in 250,000 sacks. What was to commit suicide over? The Chong Chon Gang was coming from Cuba, heading back to North Korea. The ship had been loaded at the famous port of Mariel. Apparently, the Castros wanted to supply the starving North Koreans with something sweet. Very thoughtful.
On further inspection, there was more than sugar: There was war matériel, masses of it. This was hidden under the mounds of sugar. The matériel included two MiG-21 aircraft, components for missile systems, and a variety of weapons.
The then-president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, came to see this cargo for himself. He looked bemused. With abandon, he tweeted photos of the massive stash to one and all.
North Korea is under an arms embargo by the U.N. Security Council. This makes sense, given Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear provocations. The Cubans were in flagrant violation of the embargo, as the U.N. confirmed in March 2014. The U.N. was exceptionally clear and firm.
The Cubans claimed that they were not giving or selling the matériel to North Korea. No, they were merely sending it over there to be repaired and then returned to the Caribbean. That was pretty funny: The Cubans had taken the trouble to paint over their national insignia on the MiGs. Those MiGs were intended to become North Korean planes.
Also, why do you think the Cubans were hiding this stuff under all that sugar?
Experts are confident that North Korean ships have traveled to Cuba and back in recent years, bearing prohibited cargo. It so happens that the Chong Chon Gang, that one day, got caught.
‐Cuba and North Korea have been brothers-in-arms since Fidel Castro and his crew seized power in 1959. They have not always been close-close. But they have always been fundamentally fraternal.
In 1960, Castro’s celebrity sidekick, Che Guevara, traveled to Pyongyang. Footage shows him bantering amiably with Kim Il-sung. Guevara gave a speech in front of huge portraits of Kim and Castro (see a photo here). How young they all were!
‐In a gesture of solidarity, Kim sent youth brigades to Cuba to help with the sugar harvest. Alongside their Cuban brethren, the North Koreans were going to cut cane. There was a problem, however: Some of the Koreans expressed “the love that dare not speak its name,” as it was once known, poetically.
Castro had no tolerance for homosexuality (as Cuban gays could tell you): Those Koreans were packed back to Kim.
‐Many years later, in 1986, Castro himself visited Pyongyang. Footage of his arrival is somewhat amusing. Castro strides from his plane wearing what some of us used to call a “Brezhnev-style hat” — a warm winter number associated with the Soviet boss Leonid Brezhnev. Castro and Kim extend their right hands, preparing for a handshake. Then they change their minds and fling their arms open, hugging.
Junior — a.k.a. Kim Jong-il — is standing nearby. Later, he will succeed his father as dictator. He extends his hand for Castro, who, now in a hugging mood, embraces him. Castro is very tall; Kim is very not. It is an awkward hug.
Consider this: If Castro were to meet Kim No. 3 — i.e., Jong-il’s son Jong-un — he might well be the only foreign leader to hug all three Kim dictators.
Something to shoot for! (Although be careful when you say “shoot” to Castro.)
‐Cuba and North Korea are two of the remaining handful of Communist states in the world, and they do what they can to keep going. Sharing a similar predicament, they buck each other up. Cuba has a “Committee for Supporting Korea’s Reunification” (meaning the reunification of the peninsula on Communist terms). North Korea has a Committee for Solidarity with Cuba.
‐In 2010, a top North Korean military official, Ri Yong-ho, visited Havana. He said that his country and Cuba were “comrades-in-arms” on a “common anti-Yankee front.” North Korea and Cuba would keep fighting “in the same trenches,” he said. In 2013, another Nork military big, Kim Kyok-sik, visited the island. He, too, referred to the two countries’ fight “in the same trenches.”
‐After the Chong Chon Gang was seized, Fidel Castro was miffed. He is not used to being embarrassed on the international stage. He is used to applause, sympathy, and admiration. He said that prying Panamanians and others were trying to “slander our revolution.” He also revealed a historical tidbit . . .
Yuri Andropov, Brezhnev’s successor as Soviet boss, told Castro that the Soviets would not fight alongside him in the event of a U.S. invasion. (In other words, the Cuban Communists and the Red Army would not be in the same trenches.) This would have been between late 1982 and early 1984, for Andropov died after just 15 months in power.
Upon receiving the unwelcome message from Andropov, Castro appealed to Kim Il-sung, that “veteran and unimpeachable combatant.” (This is Castro talking last year.) Kim came through with arms: sending Castro 100,000 AK-47s, plus the ammo to put in them. And he did all this “without charging us a cent,” said Castro.
‐A month into the embarrassment of the Chong Chon Gang, Pyongyang held a ceremony in honor of Cuban–North Korean friendship. Speaking for the Norks was an official named So Ho-won: “The Cuban people have won victory by following the road of socialism despite the U.S. political and military pressure and moves for stifling Cuba economically and its subversive activities and sabotage.”
North Korean mouthpieces are not known for mellifluous speech, at least in translation.
Speaking for the Cubans, or at least the Castroites, was the dictatorship’s ambassador, Señor Ferras: “The friendly relations between our two countries have grown strong in the protracted and rigorous struggle against the U.S. imperialists, the common enemy, and become a model for the world people.”
Sure. Had enough for one day? I’ll see you tomorrow for our second installment: Castro (and his brother) and Russia (specifically, Putin).