May 16, 2002

The autumn of the Cuban dictator

Jorge Ramos. Posted on Thu, May. 16, 2002 in The Miami Herald

"About the tyrant, say everything; say more.'' -- José Martí

I have just reread Gabriel García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch and find it difficult to believe that he based it on Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet rather than on his friend Fidel Castro.

By the time García Márquez completed the book in 1975, Castro had been in power 16 years but still could dazzle and dupe writers and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic.

The razzle-dazzle continued during the First Ibero-American Summit in 1991, when Castro was welcomed as a pseudo-hero in Guadalajara, arm in arm with then-Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. But the Cuban dictator's showtime has run out.

Take a look at these excerpts from The Autumn of the Patriarch:

''He governed as if he felt predestined to never die.'' (Pg. 7). '' . . . all right, pal, all right, the game is up. From now on, I'm going to give the orders myself, without any dogs barking at me.'' (Pg. 28)

Nobody who considers himself a democrat would trust a regime that hasn't had multiparty elections in more than 43 years and that kills, imprisons or sends into exile its opponents, political dissidents, independent journalists and even relatives who make Castro uneasy.

In the novel, the general orders the execution of his wife and son. Sixty dogs tear them apart and eat them alive. In reality, those who have known Castro-regime prison cells and tortures also tell horror stories.

That's why we're surprised by the reactionary and stale statements made by members of Mexico's PRI political party -- including former President Miguel de la Madrid -- who pine for the old days when Mexico gave unconditional support to Cuba's dictatorship.

The recent vote cast against Cuba by Mexican President Vicent Fox's government at the United Nations Human Rights Commission places Mexico -- at last -- on the right side of history, the side of democracy and the defense of human rights. It makes no sense to fight for democracy for Mexico but not for Cuba.

'' . . . there was always another truth behind the truth.'' (Pg. 37)

Castro's disclosure of a private telephone conversation with Fox damaged the Mexican president's credibility. ''What does it feel like to work for a deceitful administration?'' a student asked Interior Secretary Santiago Creel. This adds to the perception held by many Mexicans that Fox has not fulfilled his promises.

But Castro also hides his true intentions. His tantrum at Fox and Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda is a way to distract others' attention: Let people talk about his tiff with Mexico, not about the repressive nature of his dictatorship.

That's how Castro operates to stay in power. In any case, to divulge a private chat was a senile, treacherous and counterproductive decision. What president now will dare to talk about important subjects with Castro?

'' . . . more lonely than ever, under the ferocious vigilance of an entourage whose mission seemed to be not to protect him but to watch him . . . '' (Pg. 184)

Castro is more lonely than ever. The spat over a secondary issue -- his participation at the Monterrey Summit -- cost him a rift with an ally of 100 years. Mexico now has no incentive to discuss with the United States the U.S. embargo on Cuba or exert pressure for lifting the embargo against the island.

Uruguay breaks diplomatic relations with Cuba, and the president of the Peruvian Congress states that ''the basic issue is that Cuba has no free press, no elections, no political parties, no competence and therefore no democracy.'' Three strikes against Castro. Democratic politicians in the hemisphere shun him like a leper. He is the biggest loser.

"Here comes my beloved general, they sang, issuing poop out of his mouth and laws out of his poop.''(Pg. 65)

Cubans constantly make fun of Castro, something I discovered during my first and only trip to the island in 1998. But they also fear him. They almost never speak his name in public. Mischievously, they bring thumb and index to the chin to refer to their bearded leader.

The fear of being caught poking fun at Castro by ''los segurosos'' (State Security agents) is reflected in Cubans' nervous and watchful eyes.

How do Castro's main collaborators behave? Like stone statues. Just watch how none of them dares interrupt him during his interminable appearances on television. Nobody dares tell Castro the truth.

"The regime was not sustained by hope or conformism, not even by terror, but by the sheer inertia of an old and irreparable disappointment. Go out on the street and look the truth in the face, Your Excellency, we're rounding the final curve.''(Pg. 200)

In the past decade here in Miami, I have heard many times that Castro is dead . . . only to hear later that he has resuscitated. Just like the general in the novel. And every time I hear that Castro is very sick, he reappears on TV, pink-cheeked and loud-mouthed. He comes, I fear, from a family with longevous genes.

Regardless of how many more years he'll live -- he's already 75 -- his dictatorship is rounding the final curve. Whatever respect his revolution once enjoyed has been stained by blood, cadavers and abuses.

Castro overstayed his welcome and doesn't realize that the caudillos' party is over. It would be sad if Castro never faced a tribunal for his crimes against humanity -- like Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic -- or died outside prison -- like Spain's Francisco Franco.

''A hundred years ago, damn, a hundred years ago, how time goes by.'' (Pg. 176)

Somewhere I heard that García Márquez prefers his Autumn of the Patriarch to his One Hundred Years of Solitude. So do I. His long paragraphs, like Joycean torrents, describe the rottenness and solitude of a demented and perverse old man who governs in his own mind. And while so doing, the man tramples an entire nation.

Entire pages could pass for a wonderful journalistic chronicle of the autumn of Castro. How strange that García Márquez did not write that book with Castro in mind. How strange.

'' . . . the fireworks of joy and the bells of glory . . . announced to the world the good news that the uncountable time of eternity had finally ended.'' (Pg. 220)

Jorge Ramos is news anchor for Univision and a columnist for El Nuevo Herald.


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