The Last Latin Dinosaur

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MIAMI — Here in the world’s second largest Cuban city after Havana, the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban exile community is eagerly anticipating the death of their bte noire, Cuba’s u201CMaximum Leader,u201D Fidel Castro. He just turned 80, but was too ill to attend his gala birthday bash.

The death last week of Chile’s former dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, leaves the gravely ailing Castro as Latin America’s last surviving Cold War dinosaur. The widely demonized Pinochet was the bte noire of leftists everywhere, the dictator they loved to hate. However, Pinochet left Chile with a democratic government and Latin America’s most vibrant economy. By contrast, Fidel Castro will leave behind a dreary, threadbare totalitarian state that has become a land that time forgot.

Gen. Pinochet was condemned as a brutal tyrant for killing some 2,300 leftists and jailing thousands more. His brutal tactics occurred during a time of virtual civil war when Latin Marxists were waging a campaign of assassinations, murders and kidnappings.

Now compare Pinochet’s crimes to today’s US-backed military dictators like Egypt’s Mubarak and Pakistan’s Musharraf. Their regimes have killed and tortured considerably more opponents than did Pinochet, yet they are hailed as valuable and honored US allies.

Castro, who is hospitalized, handed over power to his 75-year-old brother, Raul. But as I reported on my last trip to Havana, there will probably be no major political changes in Cuba until Fidel leaves the scene. He is Cuba’s national father figure, who, in spite of many mistakes and severe repression, is still regarded with deep respect, affection, and pride by many of his people.

But as much as many may admire Fidel as a macho leader who stood up to the Yankee u201Cgringosu201D after a century of bullying and exploitation, and who brought them high standards of medicine and education, we should also recall that Castro had a darker side. Recently opened KGB files and statements by former high Soviet officials have revealed that during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Castro begged Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to launch nuclear-armed missiles against the United States. The Kremlin wisely refused Castro’s crazy request.

KGB archives also document extensive Soviet intelligence links with and support for Chile’s late Marxist president, the by-now-sainted Salvador Allende, who was overthrown by Gen. Pinochet. The Soviets planned to turn Marxist Chile into a second Cuba and major base for subversion in Latin and Central America.

Cuba may be a rusty Marxist relic, but it’s important to recall that it has always been the most advanced, sophisticated, and cultured nation in the West Indies. Havana is older than New York City. I still vividly recall glittering pre-Castro Havana, and sitting at its famed u201CFloridita Baru201D with my parents and Ernest Hemingway, who inscribed a book to me, u201CTo Eric, the painter, Havana, 1952.u201D I liked drawing in those days.

In recent weeks, Raul Castro has offered to open talks with Washington, which has kept Cuba under a punishing embargo since the 1950’s. Washington should seize this opportunity to end its utterly daft sanctions regime that has bankrupted Cuba, and move to normalize relations. If Raul really wants to begin serious talks with Washington, he should immediately begin releasing all of Cuba’s political prisoners and cease arresting citizens who call for democracy and free speech. Washington could reciprocate by closing down its Guantanamo gulag and immediately easing sanctions.

Engagement with Cuba is urgent. Fidel’s death may set off internal power struggles in Cuba’s security forces and military or ignite social turmoil. A small army of Miami Cubans is ready to descend on their former homeland, among them numerous wealthy businessmen who see themselves as Cuba’s next leader — not necessarily democratic ones.

Cuba’s long-suffering people deserve to escape poverty and totalitarian rule. But they also need to retain the dignity and social advances they achieved under Castro’s regime — his sole accomplishment in half a century. It would be a serious mistake for Washington to treat post-Castro Cuba like just another banana republic. Or for the US to try to brusquely impose its dictates on prickly Cubans. Diplomatic finesse and tact are called for.

Unfortunately, the Bush-Cheney administration has so far rebuffed Raul Castro’s overtures. Miami’s large, noisy Cuban community votes Republican and is dead set against political engagement with Cuba until the Castros are gone. There even seems to be a US law on the books to this effect.

Just as Ronald Reagan famously called for the hated Berlin Wall to be torn down, it’s now time for another ugly Cold War relic, the US embargo of Cuba, to be scrapped.

Eric Margolis [send him mail], contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada, is the author of War at the Top of the World. See his website.

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