Unlike the Chevy Chase-ism about Franco, I refer only to Fidel Castro’s political reign. Alas, Maximum Brother, Raul, will run a good facsimile of his incapacitated brother’s regime. Many say Raul has been running Cuba — the nuts and bolts of the thing — for several years now, with Fidel (as always) in the more exalted (and fun) role of figurehead loudmouth and chief charmer and bamboozler of foreign celebrities, dignitaries, historians — and especially — reporters.
As I wrote last week, this succession didn’t start with Fidel’s surgery two weeks ago. It had started weeks earlier with the Cuban press playing up Raul and his crony generals as combination Poppa Smurfs and Bill Gates’s. Naturally, much of the international press picked up on the campaign, no questions asked. Traditionally Raul lived in the shadows, the Cuban press pointedly ignoring him and his henchmen. A staple of Communist regimes is rendering persons as “un-persons” with the rise and fall of political fortunes. This happened to Trotsky after Stalin’s rise, to Stalin after Khrushchev’s rise, to Khrushchev after Brezhnev’s rise.
The Cuban case involved the identical thing — but in reverse order. Raul went from un-person to first person. No need to read Cuba’s propaganda ministry press. Simply run from the New York Times to the Washington Post, from the London Times to Le Monde, from El Pais to Der Spiegel and gape at Raul Castro’s manifold talents and virtues. For many Cuba-watchers, Raul’s play-up in the press was the tip-off. The surgery simply sped things up a bit. They knew Fidel was on his way out. He might be exiting a little sooner than thought, that’s all.
The international media has a long history of eating from Castro’s hand like trained pigeons. I’ll even skip the Herbert Matthews—New York Times case as too well known to merit more commentary. Let’s fast forward a few months to a CBS interview of Castro by Ed Murrow. For the record, The Museum of Broadcast Communications regards Murrow as “the most distinguished and renowned figure in the history of American broadcast journalism.” Murrow’s canonization was capped with the movie “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which depicts his piling on the already multi-smeared and vilified Joe McCarthy as an act of immense integrity and valor. David Strathairn’s portrayal of Murrow’s grave frown, complete with his stentorian jabs at the already cornered McCarthy, drove the Mainstream Media and critics gaga. The movie earned six Oscar nominations and loud accolades everywhere from the New York Times to Variety to Rolling Stone.
For the record: By the time Murrow interviewed Castro on February 6, 1959, Castro had abolished habeas corpus, filled Cuba’s jails with ten times the number of political prisoners as under Batista, and murdered hundreds of Cubans by firing squad without due process.
“That’s a very cute puppy, Fidelito!” Murrow tells Fidel’s son, who skips merrily on camera at their “home” in the Havana Hilton and plops on the lap of his loving and pajama-clad Papa. For the record, Castro had no “home” to speak of at the time. He slept in a different place almost every night, wore army fatigues instead of pajamas, and had never provided for his son.
“When will you visit us again?” An (uncharacteristically) smiling Murrow asks a (very uncharacteristically) smiling Fidel. “And will that be with the beard or without the beard?”
Every night during the week that Murrow interviewed him, Fidel, Raul and Che repaired to their respective stolen mansions and met with Soviet GRU agents to button down the complete communization of Cuba. When Ed Murrow “interviewed” Castro, Joe Mc Carthy’s gallant nemesis was fresh from a harangue to the Radio and Television News Directors Association of America, where he blasted television for “being used to delude and insulate us.”
And it’s far from over. Last week the London Times paid its respects to Mr Castro’s legacy. The Times is considered one of the world’s wisest and most respected newspapers, so it gives the “mainstream,” or even the respectably conservative, view on Fidel Castro. “Castro has some real accomplishments to point to,” claims the Rupert Murdoch owned London Times. “Under his rule, the impoverished Caribbean island has created health and education systems that would be the envy of far wealthier nations … and there is near full literacy on the island.” From London to Tokyo, from Paris to Bangkok, from New York to Madrid — this claim echoes through every media mention of Castro.
For the record: In 1958, that “impoverished Caribbean island” had a higher standard of living than Ireland and Austria, almost double Spain and Japan’s per capita income, more doctors and dentists per capita than Britain, and lower infant mortality than France and Germany — the 13th-lowest in the world, in fact. Today, Cuba’s infant-mortality rate — despite the hemisphere’s highest abortion rate, which skews this figure downward — is 24th from the top.
So, relative to the rest of the world, Cuba’s health care has worsened under Castro, and a nation with a formerly massive influx of European immigrants needs machine guns, water cannons and tiger sharks to keep its people from fleeing, while half-starved Haitians a short 60 miles away turn up their noses at any thought of emigrating to Cuba.
In 1958, 80 percent of Cubans were literate. During its war of independence near the turn of the 20th century, Cuba was utterly devastated, losing a quarter of its population. So Cuba’s achievements in national prosperity, health, and education came practically from scratch and in only slightly more time than Castro’s stint in power. Can any sane person claim that, given that record, literacy would not have been eradicated in a few short years?
Better still, Cubans today would be not just literate but also educated, allowed to read George Orwell and Thomas Jefferson along with the arresting wisdom and sparkling prose of Che Guevara. A specimen:
“To the extent that we achieve concrete successes on a theoretical plane — or, vice versa, to the extent that we draw theoretical conclusions of a broad character on the basis of our concrete research — we will have made a valuable contribution to Marxism-Leninism, and to the cause of humanity.”
I quote “this intellectual, this most complete human being of our time” (Jean-Paul Sartre’s description of Che Guevara) exactly. Cuba’s prisons aren’t its only torture chambers. With such reading assignments, Cuba’s classrooms amply qualify for an inspection by Amnesty International.
Without Castro, Cuba’s full literacy would have come about probably as quickly — and without firing squads, mass graves, and a political incarceration rate higher than Stalin’s. Most countries in Latin America with lower literacy rates than Cuba had in 1958 have done just that.