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The Wall Street Journal  

April 23, 2003

EYE ON EUROPE
By MIKE GONZALEZ



 

Coddling Castro No Longer?

The European left is having one of its sudden flashes of the obvious. Every time you pick up a paper these days in Europe you find out that some intellectual, journalist or union leader is coming around to the view that Fidel Castro is not such a good egg after all and that he may be depriving Cubans of their basic freedoms, when not their lives. Some socialist politicians are even insisting that, actually, they were the first to denounce Castro.

It's almost enough to make one at least admire the consistency of those dyed-in-the-wool communists sticking with Fidel to the bitter end, despite media attention to his latest crackdown. Castro isn't doing anything now that should be changing minds: He's been the same dictator for the 44 years he's been in power.

But the reality is that, if last-minute conversions truly are too little, too late, they may hold out some hope that the lot of Cubans might improve. The support that European (and North and South American) leftists have given Castro has provided him with an invaluable prop. Many Cubans were killed, others went to prison, and millions had their dignity trampled daily, because of the left's love affair with a tyrant many considered picaresque. So if those who supported him for so many years can't be readily forgiven, we can at least rejoice about what might happen after their adulation is withdrawn.

The immediate reason for the sudden change of heart among those denouncing Castro is that earlier this month he threw 77 dissidents in he clink for openly opposing his dictatorial rule, an act he labeled treason. These poets, journalists, librarians and so forth were given summary trials and then quick sentences of up to 28 years.

For good measure, Castro then executed by firing squad three Cubans who were unlucky enough to get caught trying to leave the island on a boat they had hijacked. Nobody was harmed in the incident, but they were also given summary trials and shot the next morning.

That was enough for many. In the most famous case, Jose Saramago, a Portuguese communist who had defended Castro for years, suddenly last week bid adios to his favorite uniformed tinpot dictator. In the briefest of notes to the Madrid daily El Pais, Mr. Saramago, a novelist, wrote words that have now become famous, because they have been quoted so often: "This is as far as I go. From now on Cuba will go its way, but I'll stay."

"To dissent is a right that is found and will be found written in invisible ink in every declaration of human rights past, present and future," the Nobel laureate wrote. "Cuba has won no heroic battle by executing those three men but it has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, cheated my dreams."

As many Continental leftists often do, Mr. Saramago may have gotten his cue from French unions, which a few days earlier had denounced Castro. (The communist CGT said it was "indignant at the wave of repression" and ridiculously addressed a note to Cuba's state trade union. The CFDT with a straight face condemned the next day "this repression without precedent." My italics.) But whether he thought of it first or not, Mr. Saramago's self-indulgent, sentimental pap -- offensive to those millions who have had their dreams of nothing more than a normal life destroyed by Castro -- was given prominence by newspapers on both sides of the ocean.

Mr. Saramago's last-straw was followed in quick succession by others. "The news coming from Cuba does not permit silence," wrote one of the Italian left's grand old men, Pietro Ingrao, saying he had the "courage of the truth." Not to be outdone, Piero Fassino, leader of the Democratic Left party, said "we were among the first to denounce the repression, when the newspapers were still not talking about it," he said. No, he did not mean back when Castro took power in 1959.

From Mexico, novelist Carlos Fuentes, like Mr. Saramago a supporter of Castro until yesterday, said this too was as far as he would go. But for lovers of Latin American magical realism, Mr. Fuentes put his criticism of Castro in its proper context. "I congratulate Saramago for drawing his line in the sand. Here's mine: against Bush, against Castro." Thanks, Carlos. It's all clear now.

And a letter denouncing the Castro dictatorship was signed by an eclectic collection of writers, including Gunter Grass, Mario Vargas Llosa, Fernando Sabater, Jorge Castaneda and dozens of leftist personalities from Europe and Latin America.

Evidence that these criticisms are hitting home came quickly. First, Cuba's ambassador to Spain, Isabel Allende, held a hysterical press conference in Madrid saying that Cuba's actions needed to be understood in the context of the U.S. embargo. When that backfired, and Madrid's editorial writers had a field day with Mrs. Allende, 27 Cuban "artists and intellectuals" signed an appeal to those they called their "intimate" friends overseas. Disgusting does not begin to describe it.

"Lamentably," wrote the artists in a letter published by the Cuban government mouthpiece, Granma, "even though it was not the intention of these friends, these texts are being used in the great campaign that attempts to isolate us and to pave the way for a U.S. military aggression against Cuba." The imprisonment of dissidents and the execution of the three were "energetic measures" that "to defend itself, Cuba was forced to take."

The appeal had at least the merit of making it clear that Castro considers criticisms from certain quarters very dangerous. He senses the importance of being an icon of the international left. Along with his apparatus of repression, this support from the outside helps him win the indispensable assistance of those who transmit and execute his orders.

Yesterday I asked Cuba's greatest living author, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who's made London his home since the 1960s, what he made of it all. He was both more welcoming and more pessimistic than I.

"I don't know why they took so long, really. They should have been saying this much earlier," Mr. Cabrera Infante said. "It's always good. But I don't think it will expedite Castro's fall. This is a dictatorship that holds on too tightly. It is too much of a police state to make any difference. At most Castro will lose some prestige."

Hopefully, this new wave of self-reflection on Cuba will hit the U.S., at any rate. European and Latin American leftists have not been the only ones to give Castro abject support. In the U.S., such media personalities as Robert Redford and Ted Turner have also bought the old killer's regime some needed respectability abroad. But nobody has been as unstinting in this regard than the director Oliver Stone.

After showing his documentary about Castro, "Comandante" at the Berlin Film Festival in February, Mr. Stone said of the dictator he had been privileged enough to spend three days with: "We should look to him as one of the Earth's wisest people, one of the people we should consult." Mr. Stone described Castro as "a very driven man, a very moral man. He's very concerned about his country. He's selfless in that way."

The U.S. cable network Home Box Office, which had planned to air the Stone paean to Castro next month, has now put it on ice. "In light of the recent alarming events in the country, the film seems somewhat dated or incomplete," said HBO.

Again, those of us who've for years argued for the world to do something about Castro will have to take the good with the bad. It's good that a respectable station won't show Mr. Stone's unabashed propaganda. But why "in light of the recent alarming events"?

Write to Michael Gonzalez at mike.gonzalez@wsj.com1

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Updated April 23, 2003

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