August 13, 2001

Castro: What a concept

Bob Armstrong. Sunday, August 12, 2001. San Francisco Chronicle.

On Aug. 1, 1953, in the mountains of Cuba, a Rural Guard squad led by Lt. Pedro Sarria found Fidel Castro sleeping in a hut. The soldiers wanted to shoot him, but Sarria thought it better to deliver the guerrilla leader to Gen. Fulgencio Batista.

Castro was sentenced to 15 years in prison on Cuba's Isle of Pines.

Public pressure in support of Castro and the guerrillas captured with him grew so intense they were released after 20 months. Less than four years later, in 1959, Batista fled Cuba and the man who continues to drive American administrations up the wall took power.

The alpha guerrilla, his beard turning silver, is 75 tomorrow. Among the zillion words Castro's spewed in seven-hour speeches before the masses, a single line delivered in 1961 captures his essence:

"The revolution is all; everything else is nothing." he day Sarria spared Castro's life, he gave his men this dose of truth: "You can't kill ideas."

Only 90 miles separate Key West and Havana, but in the realm of ideas, that distance stretches to the stars.

I've always had a soft spot for Castro because he brought the clash of ideas so close to home. For those of us with liberal parents who joked about "reds under the bed" in the late '50s, it was a to watch the communist conspiracy finally knock on America's back door.

On black-and-white TV, Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev looked like a slob.

Castro looked utterly cool, decked out in snappy fatigues, a beard, a big smile and best of all, the cigar. Freud once shrugged his shoulders and said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Not Castro's. He knew where to jam that Cohiba.

When Castro visited New York City in 1960 with the United Nations delegation, President Dwight Eisenhower did not invite him to a luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue. Castro played the snub beautifully. He checked into the Hotel Theresa on 125th Street, saying he would be "honored to lunch with the poor and humble people of Harlem."

"History will absolve me," Castro announced when he was sentenced to 15 years in prison at Batista's show trial. Years later, an unnamed, exiled Cuban writer was quoted in the book, "Havana Journal": "History won't, but geography might."

Billions of dollars in subsidies from the Communist bloc kept the battered island afloat for years. Equally helpful was -- and is -- "Yanqui Imperialism" -- from the Bay of Pigs invasion on down to the U.S. trade embargo, foolishly still in place; the 1996 Helms-Burton legislation imposing sanctions on foreign enterprises trading with Cuba, and the circus atmosphere surrounding Elian Gonzalez, the cute poster boy torn between his father and relatives in the Cuban exile community in Miami.

The people "vote with their feet," revolutionaries like to say every time Castro runs his mouth off about the enemy in D.C.

Out of a population of 11 million, about 2 million Cubans live in exile, most in the United States. They like to say they "voted with their oars," this made most explicit during the 1980 Mariel boat lift, when Cuban refugees arrived in this country by the thousands.

Castro doesn't usually kill those with political ideas not listed in the Leninist playbook, but dissidents do time on the Isle of Pines, sometimes in solitary confinement in spaces called ratoneras -- ratholes.

Armando Valladeres spent 22 years in prison for criticizing the regime. He recounts the story in "Against All Hope," first published in 1986 and updated in paperback last year by Encounter Books, a San Francisco publisher specializing in books with a conservative perspective. In 1971, the poet Padilla was arrested for his stanzas -- including a line about singing "Guantanamera" "through clenched teeth."

Ideas smacking of "social deviance" can also send Cubans off to prison. French journalist Pascale Fontaine reported on Fidel's fixation in the mid- '60s on four "social deviant" types: renegade Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, gays and pimps.

In 1968, Castro nationalized 57,000 small businesses, noting they were "bloodsuckers conducting their commerce in the shadows."

When the Soviet Union vaporized in 1991, the Cuban economy went into free fall, but it began a marginal recovery in 1995 when the bloodsucking Cuban capitalist piglets like snack vendors, bicycle repair shop operators and shadowy fruit and veggie dealers were allowed back in business. Castro also invited huge swine from European, Canadian and Latin American corporations to invest in agriculture and industry.

Before the revolution, Havana's casinos and brothels attracted American businessmen in droves. Castro has been promoting tourism big time of late. No casinos, but putas -- no need for translation -- are raking in dough. A strategic redefinition of the capitalist model, as a Marxist political economist would say.

Happy birthday, Fidel. Why don't you pack it in, move to Vegas and open a casino? Yanqui imperialists would love it.

Bob Armstrong is a freelance journalist in San Francisco.

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page C - 1 Chronicle


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