William Ratliff | San Francisco Chronicle
Havana—Fidel Castro is under heavy fire for imprisoning scores of peaceful dissidents, most of them for more than 20 years, and for summarily executing three hijackers trying to flee to the United States.
Anti-Castro forces in Miami and Washington, and international human rights organizations, have blasted Castro, but so have many Latin Americans and Europeans who previously admired him.
HBO even postponed Oliver Stone’s starry eyed new documentary entitled “Comandante.” After Stone remarked, “We should look to (Castro) as one of the Earth’s wisest people,” HBO officials suggested the director return to Havana to ask why such a wise man would be so repressive. Why indeed?
Is Castro senile and incapable of coping with the challenges of a U.S.- dominated world that scorns socialism? Has he unintentionally undermined better bilateral relations?
The current hard line was chosen deliberately for two main purposes: First, to immobilize those who do not share his vision and might someday challenge his leadership. Second, precisely to undercut the growing U.S. moderation toward Cuba. Castro urges lifting the embargo, knowing the U.S. is far too inflexible to do so. In fact he wants it as a scapegoat for his repression and poverty in Cuba. Democratic dissident Hector Palacios told me two years ago that almost all dissidents believe this and support lifting the embargo. They would now, too, from their jail cells.
For 44 years, Castro has been consistent, giving ground only when forced to,
then bouncing back. Anyone who is surprised by recent events ignores history.
Three things to know about Castro:
First, he hates the United States. Even before he took power, he wrote his closest aide (the letter is posted in Havana’s Museum of the Revolution) that his “true destiny” would be to wage a prolonged war against the United States. Why? Because the United States has intervened in Cuba since the 19th century and represents all the inequality, materialism and imperialism he detests.
Second, Castro is trying to create his vision of heaven on Earth. Like Che Guevara, whose face stares out from every flat surface in this land, he seeks an egalitarian world with selfless people who value moral over material rewards in life.
(“We will be like Che,” kids chant in school.) To be sure, like George Orwell’s animals, a few are more equal than others, and Cubans are no more morally virtuous than others. More patient, yes.
Third, Castro believes that he alone can accomplish this miracle, and that requires his maintaining absolute power at whatever cost.
When economic conditions become too depressing due to failed policies or, as in the early 1990s, to the collapse of enormous Soviet bloc support, Castro allows a little freedom to get peasants or private entrepreneurs to produce more. But as soon as the crisis abates, he tightens the egalitarian screws again and represses private initiative. So peasant markets, restaurants in private homes—you name it—come and go.
Castro writes off “friends” who criticize him. Many leftists were appalled in 1968 when he supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1971, his arrest of Heberto Padilla and the confession extracted from the young poet led Jean-Paul Sartre and many other leftists worldwide to charge that the affair recalled “the most sordid moments of Stalinism.” Hardly blinking, Castro branded them all CIA agents and went about his business of creating the “new man.”
In 1989, in an unabashedly Stalinist trial, Castro convicted Cuba’s top, popular military leader, Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, of drug dealing. He and several others were summarily executed. (Lesson: don’t be popular in Cuba, unless you are dead, like Che.)
The current repression is just the same. Castro considers summary trials and executions essential for defending Cuba’s independence in a period of increasing U.S. activism around the world and in retaliation for the harsh punishments meted out to the nationally heralded “five heroes” (Washington calls them spies) in and by the United States.
Cuba says the current crackdown is in response to direct U.S. courting of and support for Cuban democratic dissidents. The government asserts that since Washington seeks to overthrow them, which is true, all dissidents, especially if they receive any encouragement from U.S. diplomats, are mercenaries. That is nonsense. In fact, the actions of U.S. diplomats in Cuba are more a convenient pretext than a cause of Castro’s recent repression.
Castro has taken special aim at all who support the “Varela Project,” a moderate but high-profile movement since Jimmy Carter plugged it on his trip to Cuba last year. It urges peacefully expanding popular participation in governing the island.
Palacios and many others will serve decades in prison for such revolutionary ideas.
Washington has just tightened restrictions on Americans wanting to travel to Cuba and threatens to terminate the $1 billion remittances Cuban Americans send to the island each year.
Havana pooh-poohs the potential impact of the latter action, but the ban would be a very serious blow to the millions of Cubans who depend on U.S. dollars for their living and on the Cuban government which depends on those dollars as its main source of hard currency.
Today, while Castro’s defiance of Washington is widely if often quietly admired, his revolutionary model and repression are generally scorned. Now most foreigners feel like the Brazilian lady in Cuban novelist Pedro Juan Gutierrez’s “Dirty Havana Trilogy” (which had to be published abroad), who was “pained to witness so much poverty and so much political posturing to disguise it.”
In the end, Castro is what he has always been, an idealistic but basically rational, now slightly panicked, anti-American, anti-capitalist nationalist. He sees a critical link between Cuba’s success and that of like-minded regimes around the world. There aren’t many such regimes left these days, but Castro is convinced that if he can keep the pure flame burning in Cuba, the world will eventually come back to join him in making a socialist heaven on Earth.
William Ratliff is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has interviewed Castro and other top Cuban leaders and written on U.S.-Cuba policy for 35 years.