The Real Fidel A Discussion With Humberto Fontova

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Humberto Fontova is the author, most recently, of Fidel: Hollywood’s Favorite Tyrant. Thomas Woods, author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History and How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, recently spoke to him about it.

Woods: I think what surprised me most about your book was your discussion of the social and economic status of Cuba before Castro took power. You are critical of Batista, so you cannot be accused of being an apologist for him — though I’m sure you have been anyway — but the statistics you marshal seem rather at odds with what we hear from, say, Ed Asner and Chevy Chase.

Fontova: These stats always blow people away. Prior to Castro, more Americans lived in Cuba than Cubans in the U.S. In the 20th century before Castro, Cuba took in more immigrants (per capita) than any country in the Western hemisphere — more than the U.S including the Ellis Island years. In 1958 the Cuban embassy in Rome had a backlog of 12,000 applications for immigrant visas from Italians clamoring to immigrate to Cuba. From 1903—1957 Cuba took in over one million Spanish immigrants, and 65,000 from the U.S. Notice: pre-Castro Cuba’s wetbacks came from the first world.

People used to jump on rafts — primarily from Jamaica and Haiti — in order to get into Cuba. Now, not only do people risk their lives to flee (2 million as of 1992), but half-starved Haitians a mere 60 miles away turn up their noses at the place.

We always hear and read about those Asian economic "tigers" right? Well, in 1958 Cuba had double Taiwan’s per capita income. Cuba had one much higher than Japan’s too, higher than Austria’s, than Italy’s — hell, higher than half of Europe’s, not to mention the rest of Latin America. Boy did we — with a little help from our friends in the U.S. State Dept. and CIA — screw up!

I refer to Batista’s replacement when I say "screwed up." Batista was — as I call him in the book — a political hoodlum. Most middle-class Cubans found him distasteful, but regarding everyday life and commerce, he was an irrelevancy. Indeed Cuba had its two top years economically in 1957—58, when according to the New York Times and pinks in general, not only was Cuba "horribly impoverished," but "wracked by a ferocious civil war"!

Tell it to the immigrants clamoring to get into Cuba and to the tourists, New York Times. Cuba had its top year tourist-wise in 1958. Which is not to say Cuba was the "playground" pinks always claim it was for U.S. tourist debauchery. In fact, in 1957 more Cubans vacationed in the U.S. than Americans in Cuba! Biloxi, Mississippi today has three times as many gambling casinos as all of Cuba in 1958.

Now to poor, and especially, to black Cubans, Batista was a hero and benefactor, because he was black himself and had always been a champion of social legislation. In the 1950s Cuba’s workers were more unionized as a percentage of population than U.S. workers. Cuban labor got a higher percentage of the national GDP than Switzerland’s and France’s at the time. Cuban labor was very powerful and was totally beholden to Batista. Naturally Cuba would have been even wealthier without these impediments to business. I point them out only to show that Batista was no "right-wing lackey of Yankee business interests," as the mythology holds — speaking of which, in 1958 only 7 per cent of Cuba’s invested capital was American and less than one-third of Cuba’s sugar production was by U.S. companies. Yet pinks tell us United Fruit owned and ran Cuba!

"It’s easier to get rid of a wife than an employee!" was a lament often heard in Havana’s Yacht Club in those years (where Batista — Cuba’s president! — was denied entry). That’s why many of Cuba’s plutocrats, Julio Lobo (sugar magnate and Cuba’s richest man) and Jose "Pepin" Bosch (who owned Bacardi), for instance, always loathed Fulgencio Batista (the mulatto cane cutter and grandson of slaves), and funded Castro’s (the lawyer and Spanish millionaire’s lily-white son) Julio 26 Movement out the wazoo. Talk about blowback!

Cubans roared with mirth over the movie Havana, staring Castro fan Robert Redford, and produced by Castro fan Sydney Pollock. Reviewers hailed it as "historically accurate." One scene shows Batista in a meeting with American gangsters. Batista has blonde hair and blue eyes just like Redford…. Hey, he was a Yankee capitalist lackey, right? So he must have looked like a Yankee capitalist.

"Batista was black?!" gasped a badly freaked Pollock at a Hollywood party shortly after the movie came out. He’d run into Andy Garcia who informed him, between guffaws.

In fact, a high proportion of Batista’s army was black and mulatto, especially the officer corps. Castro and Che murdered 600 of them without trial in the first three months of 1959. Even the New York Times admits it. Had these massacres taken place anyplace else, they’d be called lynchings and the United Nations, NAACP, etc., would raise holy hell. Imagine, in any other setting, a lily white regime (like Castro’s) lynching several hundred blacks, dumping them in mass graves, then getting a standing ovation by the Congressional Black Caucus, Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters, Charlie Rangel and Hollywood! Tom, compared to what Cuban-Americans see in the news every day, what Alice found on the other side of the looking glass seems perfectly logical.

I love the reaction when I throw this stuff (fully documented in my book) at some pinko professor who learned all about Cuba from the New York Times, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Oliver Stone and from visits to Cuba, which is to say, from Castro’s propaganda ministry. Gotta hand it to him, though. I used to be in Sales and Marketing for Fortune 500 companies. Sure wish I coulda gotten away with snowing as many people as Castro has. Frankly, I’m envious.

Aren’t we always being told about the miracles in health care and education that have taken place under Castro? Any truth to that?

Here we go again! Castro shovels out the BS. Pinks open wide, gulp it down, rub their tummies and ask for seconds. In fact, Cuba’s heath care has worsened relative to the rest of the world since 1958. To wit: Cuba’s infant mortality rate in 1957 was the lowest in Latin America and the 13th lowest in the world. This according to U.N statistics. Cuba ranked ahead of France, Belgium, West Germany, Israel, Japan, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Portugal in this department. Now (and if you believe Castro’s own inflated figures) Cuba is 24th in the world. And this with 60.4 per cent of Cuba’s pregnancies ending in abortion (which skews infant mortality rates downward). In 1957 Cuba had twice as many physicians and teachers in relation to population as the U.S. It ranked first in Latin America in national income invested in education and its literacy rate was 84 per cent. In 1958 Cuba had more female college graduates (to scale) than the U.S.

Very little surprises me any longer, but I’m frankly aghast at this Che Guevara T-shirt phenomenon among young Americans. What on earth accounts for this? What do these poor kids think they’re saying by wearing such a shirt? You might think supposedly idealistic young people would be put off by someone who carries out summary executions and considers evidence and proof to be dispensable bourgeois conventions.

In the Cuban Revolution, Che combined the roles Beria played earlier for Stalin and Himmler for Hitler. But he’s a rock star. I’ve asked dozens of his t-shirt wearers, and that’s what they tell me. Others think he was some kind of social worker, a Peace Corps type, at worst, a somewhat misguided idealist. It’s unreal. Of course, in their day, pinks and imbeciles said the same about Stalin and Mao. How can you get mad at people like that? You finally give up. Che’s lessons and history are fascinating and valuable, but only in light of Sigmund Freud or P.T. Barnum. One born every minute, Mr. Barnum? If only you’d lived to see the Che phenomenon. Actually, 10 are born every second.

Here’s a "guerrilla hero" who in real life never fought in a guerrilla war. When he finally brushed up against one, he was routed.

Here’s a cold-blooded murderer who executed thousands without trial, who claimed that judicial evidence was an "unnecessary bourgeois detail," who stressed that "revolutionaries must become cold-killing machines motivated by pure hate," who stayed up till dawn for months at a time signing death warrants for innocent and honorable men, whose office in La Cabana had a window where he could watch the executions — and today his T-shirts proudly adorn people who oppose capital punishment!

Here’s communist Cuba’s first "Minister of Industries," whose main slogan in 1960 was "Accelerated Industrialization!" Whose dream was converting Cuba (the hemisphere, actually) into a huge state-run bureaucratic-industrial ant farm — and he’s the poster boy for greens and anarchists who scream and rant against industrialization!

Here’s a plodding paper-pusher, a notorious killjoy, an all-around fuddy-duddy — "I have no friends and no woman," declared this dolt and sourpuss, "my friends are friends only so long as they think as I do politically." Here’s a humorless teetotaler who imposed a no-booze, no-gambling regime under penalty of his very severe enforcement in towns like Santa Clara which his "column" overran from Batista’s forces — and you see his T-shirt on MTV’s Spring Break revelers!

Che excelled in one thing: mass murder of defenseless men. He was a Stalinist to the core, a plodding bureaucrat and a calm, cold-blooded — but again, never in actual battle — killer. The estimates of those he murdered without trial run from 600 to 2500. And Che often applied the coup de grace with his own pistol.

"Don’t shoot," Che whimpered when the wheels of justice finally turned and they cornered him in Bolivia. "I’m Che! I’m worth more to you alive than dead!" His own victims’ bravery was completely lost on Che.

Call Castro every epithet in the book, as I have. But don’t call him stupid. As I said, Tom, business schools could quintuple their students’ productivity if they studied, then taught, the Cuban Revolution and its defenders, which is to say: how so much BS was sold to so many by so few. I’m a historian (of sorts) and in studying modern history, I’ve never known of a snow-job like the one Castro pulled — first on Cubans, then on most of the world. Hence my book, an attempt at least to try to set the record straight.

How has the Catholic Church functioned under Castro? What kinds of restrictions on its freedom of action, if any, has the Castro regime put into effect?

Ironically, Castro owes his life to a Catholic archbishop, Santiago’s archbishop, Monsignor Pérez Serantes. After Castro’s rebels (wastrels, winos, petty crooks) attacked the Moncada army barracks on July 26, 1953 (hence their name) Castro went into hiding from Batista’s police — actually he went into hiding during the attack and let his men face the hot lead. At any rate, Monsignor Serantes interceded with Batista’s people for clemency and so Castro agreed to come out of hiding and surrender to the authorities who otherwise would probably have "shot him while trying to escape."

In 1961 Monsignor Serantes fled into exile just ahead of a firing squad. That was the year Castro booted out most of Cuba’s Catholic clergy and took over the schools, including the one I attended that was run by the Marists. Those who practiced the faith in Cuba weren’t massacred as in Red Spain, but they were harassed and often imprisoned. Emilio Izquierdo is president of a former political prisoners association in Miami today. He was a major source for my book. When they rounded him up and put him in a forced labor camp in 1967 his charge read, "Active in Catholic associations." These camps also held the clergy who hadn’t fled Cuba in time.

During the twentieth century the Christian faith was a rallying point for so many peoples living under totalitarian regimes. Is the same true for Cuba?

"The yells of u2018Viva Cristo Rey!’ would make the walls of that prison fortress tremble," recalls former political prisoner Armando Valladares, who heard them nightly — then the blast from the firing squad. That was the cry from hundreds of Cuban Catholic youths who were crumpling in front of Che’s firing squads in the early years of the Revolution. A college youth group named Catholic Action was among the first and most active in opposing the communization of Cuba. The Spanish Civil War was only 22 years distant at the time. Most Cubans had relatives in Spain and many were Spanish immigrants themselves at the time. Memories of that bloodbath and the massacres of priests and nuns were vivid. So Catholic groups sprang to action, and died by the hundreds. Finally Che demanded that the martyrs’ mouths be taped shut. Their defiant yells were badly spooking the firing squads.

Cuba was officially declared an "atheist state" in 1962, the same year Castro banned the celebration of Christmas and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. The "atheist state" designation ended in 1992. The Soviet sugar-daddy had crumbled shortly before. Cuba’s economy was in even more desperate straits than usual. People were more desperate than usual. So he made some cosmetic changes.

The Pope’s visit to Cuba in 1998 was a wonderful thing for Cuban Catholics. The Pope was certainly doing his job and tending to this very desperate and deprived section of his flock with the visit. But naturally the press and liberals read more into it. They started warbling and gushing about how this might be the "beginning of the end for Castro," as the Church had played such a vital role in Communism’s demise in Eastern Europe.

"Bullfeathers," snorted Cuban-Americans. "Castro is no Jaruzelski or Gorbachev. He’ll use the Pope’s visit for a propaganda ploy and nothing will change."

Well, as usual, us Cuban-American "crackpots" and "hard-liners" were proven precisely right. Castro will never allow the Church or the Pope to become a rallying point for any opposition to his rule. Havana’s archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who was among those nominated to replace Pope Paul II, is widely regarded as something close to a Castro collaborator. Ortega was in fact a fellow prisoner of Emilio Izquierdo in the forced labor camps I mentioned earlier. He’s no Cardinal Mindszenty, believe me. Sensibly perhaps, he knows better than to rock the boat.

Catholics can practice their religion in Cuba today with only minor harassment and baptisms are on the rise. This is a good sign. But an active Catholic knows he’s under careful scrutiny by the government’s Comites De Defensa De La Revolucion. These Comites are neighborhood spy and snitch groups, active on every city block in the country. They were introduced to Cuba by the East German STASI in 1961. They had worked quite well in East Germany. These Comites are responsible for handing out (or denying) the infamous government food ration cards, so they can be quite intimidating. "Food is a weapon," said Stalin as the emaciated corpses piled up in the Ukraine.

Has the see-no-evil crowd attacked you or your book? If so, on what grounds?

I’d love to play the martyr role here, but not really, Tom. I can’t complain. Everything in my book is meticulously documented. As one reviewer wrote, "Fontova doesn’t recycle nasty rumors about Castro; he documents deeds. He doesn’t smear; he illustrates."

In fact, some astounding things have happened. The New Orleans Times Picayune has a notoriously liberal editorialist who’s also a friend of mine. He’d just written an editorial hailing Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco for visiting Cuba in March and dining with Castro, Cuban-Americans were "irrational hot-heads" for protesting — the whole bit. Then he got hold of my book

"If we’d only known!" was the gist of his new editorial. The words "shocking" and "jaw-dropping," I’m very gratified and humbled to say, have appeared in many reviews, even by liberals.

Thanks, Humberto.

Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [send him mail] holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Columbia. His books include the New York Times (and LRC) bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy, and How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.

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