End Of An Era

This time, reports of Fidel Castro's death are real. And, as I'd predicted in my memoir Confessions of a Secret Latina: "[I]f anything [after Fidel's death], expressions of loss and praise of his accomplishments will be greater outside than within Cuba itself." (p.40) Yes, only hours after his death, media commentators and foreign leaders were extolling Fidel's superior achievements in health and education, even praising him for making sure everyone had enough to eat. Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French Environment Minister Segolene Royal were especially effusive. So was Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, son of a former Mexican president, who described Fidel Castro's death as "a loss" for both the Cuban people and the world. While acknowledging the regime's stranglehold on free assembly and expression, some outsiders bought into the fiction that such controls were necessary for, or at least off-set by, health and educational benefits. Fidel's propaganda lives on!

As I argue in my book, social benefits don't require the jettisoning of democracy and civil rights--the two are compatible, not antithetical. Nor should my position brand me as a right-wing extremist or even as a Republican. I've been a Democrat my whole life and there is room in the Democratic Party for recognition of the Cuban regime's faults. Certainly President Obama has not shied away from acknowledging them.

Furthermore, Cuba's actual provision of superior educational and health benefits has been greatly overblown, persisting to this day, thanks to successful regime propaganda. Agreed that Cubans, on the whole, are better educated than citizens of some other Latin American nations, but gaps remain, especially in rural areas and in eastern Cuba. The health system is two-tiered, abysmal for ordinary people, great for the political elite and foreign medical tourists paying in hard currency. Try as an ordinary Cuba to even get an aspirin! And while outsiders rightly extol the skills of Cuban doctors, they wrongly believe that foreign medical missions express Cuban generosity, when, in fact, excessive medical personnel are trained precisely to be sent abroad to earn money for the regime with only a small fraction of payment actually going to doctors themselves. I've often worked with Cuban medical practitioners in Honduras, some of whom have remained there.

As for food, both tourists and the elite do dine in luxury, but the food ration allotment for most Cubans runs out mid-month and tourism has apparently cut into even their meager supply. Food rationing has been in place since 1962 and, despite the availability of fertile land, most food is imported, including sugar from neighboring Dominican Republic. Cubans often go hungry. They are not allowed to fish, as in other Caribbean countries, for fear boats might make a beeline for the U.S. Afro-Cubans suffer the greatest deprivations. I've suggested that Cuba might revive agriculture with the help of Peace Corps volunteers. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barbara-e-joe/peace-corps-in-cuba-you-h_b_6581182.html

Back when Cuba was under the Soviet umbrella, medical care was better, but even when Venezuelan oil replaced Soviet largess, medical care and benefits for ordinary Cubans did not improve. Independence from the U.S. did not foster economic independence, rather, dependence on the USSR and Venezuela. Castro dared not complain too loudly when Soviet missiles were removed from Cuban soil. And the U.S. embargo, exempting food and medicine and not preventing Cuba from trading around the world, is hardly the "world's worst genocide," as Cuban billboards prominently allege. Why did I bring young Armando Hernández to this country via Mexico, as per my Confessions book? Because he couldn't get his necessary lifesaving medications in Cuba, though not due to the embargo. Cuba produces too little besides the rum and cigars that President Obama has allowed Americans to bring back. Rum and cigars, and even massive U.S. tourism and remittances, are insufficient to sustain a nation.

The most alluring part of Fidel Castro's narrative is the image of brave little David standing up against the American Goliath. People in many countries identified vicariously with Cuba's apparently successful resistance against that big bad bully, the United States. A nation purported to be the world's most powerful can be expected to arouse exaggerated suspicion and envy. President Obama has attempted to break that narrative by extending the hand of friendship to the Cuban leadership and flooding the country with American visitors. Shattering that image was probably the biggest gain for the United States achieved by Obama's outreach.

My position is that support of human rights in Cuba, or anywhere else, should be a non-partisan, non-political issue and that a particular government's avowed political ideology should not matter, only facts on the ground. (That applies here in the U.S. as well.) How is it helpful to Cuba to have arrested graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado once again, this time for writing Se fué (He's gone) on a wall and now to have arrested his American lawyer, Kimberley Motley? The authorities should have just ignored him.

Castro's Cuba has been described as a kind of Macondo in real time. The vehicle carrying Fidel Castro's ashes broke down entering its final destination, Santiago de Cuba, requiring it to be pushed. Another observation from my book: A former political prisoner wearily admitted, "Some older folks think Fidel actually is a saint."(p. 26) Yes, some Cubans, especially older ones, have shed genuine tears over Fidel's death (as happened too after Stalin, Mao, and Kim Jung Il died), while others have reportedly been obligated to pay homage. Some also seem to have been moved to tears by contagion by seeing others cry along the route of Fidel's ashes. After all, Cubans have been socialized in the Castro mystique for generations.

No tears from a former political prisoner living in the D.C. area, who served 22 years of an original 20-year sentence and was released with Jesse Jackson in 1984. He said of Fidel's demise: "Too bad he died of old age in his bed rather than from a gunshot to the head or, better yet, from a slow, tortured death like he inflicted on so many others."

How would Americans feel now if they had to look forward to more than 50 years of President Donald Trump? That's how many Cubans have felt after more than a half century of Fidel.

It's amazing how just one single-minded guy, Fidel Castro, could have held control over millions for successive generations. Let's hope his death will finally break that hold.

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