I bet I know what you're thinking when you read "Al Sharpton" and "Fidel Castro" in the same sentence. Me too.
On Tuesday, Sharpton stood in front of the Cuban Mission to the United Nations in New York and asked the Cuban government to allow him into the country to learn more about the situation of political prisoners.
Sharpton spoke about Oscar Elias Biscet and Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, known as "Antunez," both considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. Biscet was one of the 75 dissidents arrested in the infamous crackdown of 2003 and is serving 25 years for criticizing the Castro regime. Antunez was released a month ago, after serving 17 years. He spoke with Sharpton on the telephone Monday, apparently, and told him that government goons continue to harass him daily.
The two Cubans are black men, as were a half-dozen other former Cuban political prisoners who stood with Sharpton at the press conference. This explains Sharpton's interest. But is he also concerned about imprisoned Cuban dissidents who are not black?
Sharpton is an activist in black causes. The proper question is, "What took you so long?"
Sharpton visited Cuba in 2000, and two years later wrote in his book, Al On America: "If the reason for continuing the embargo is because Cuba is still a Communist regime, then how does America explain its relationship with North Korea, and China? We talk about human rights violations -- of which I personally saw none. Yet we can dialogue with China and all of her blatant human rights violations. We have continued to demonize Castro at the expense of good, sound foreign policy."
He also called Castro "one of the three most impressive people I have ever met" and, according to the New York Daily News, once tried to organize "a hip-hop concert in Havana, beam it around the world and bring down the embargo."
That kind of talk put him in the company of a certain kind of figure unique to the left -- people who say they are politically progressive and passionate about defending human rights, even as they defend a regime that is among the world's worst violators of human rights.
You criticize the Castro regime to people like that, and they come back at you with complaints about American support for right-wing dictators or, alas, nowadays, the U.S. abuses at Guantanamo, conveniently for their rhetorical purposes located right on the island of Cuba. They change the subject, and never mind Cubans under the Castros' boots.
Havana has had no better friends than these Americans, Europeans and Latin Americans who fancy themselves liberal yet created the romantic aura that, for nearly 50 years, has surrounded the Cuban tyranny -- a false mystique that serves as a cover for economic failure and political despotism.
Opening the eyes of people like Sharpton, Oliver Stone, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and so many others who made the Havana pilgrimage to worship at the feet of Fidel would help expose the charade of Little Brother. During the past few months, Raul Castro has loosened the stupidest of Fidel's economic absurdities, letting Cubans have cell phones and allowing them to visit resorts previously reserved for tourists; the government hopes that a more bearable day-to-day existence will distract Cubans from the continued prohibitions on free expression.
Ernesto Diaz Rodriguez, an African-Cuban who spent 28 years in a Cuban prison and joined the Miami-based, paramilitary and anti-Castro Alpha 66 after he got out, appeared with Sharpton and caught the moment exactly: "The importance of this petition is that it is not being made by a Jesse Helms on the extreme right, but by a personality of the radical left," he said.
Sharpton seems more noncommittal than is his normal in-your-face style. Said a National Action Network press release, "He has not taken a side and he is still for the ending of the embargo and will look into the allegations."
Not taken sides? Is this the same Al Sharpton who always shows up on the side of the victim, or at least those he perceives with nary a doubt to be victims?
Every human rights group in the world has charged that Havana institutionalizes the violation of basic human rights, and now individuals who happen to be of African ancestry have personally told Sharpton they suffered it themselves.
Isn't that enough to take sides? For Sharpton, asking out loud if, just possibly, there might actually be something to all that talk of human rights violations is at least a start.