Semper Fidel Print
By George Marlin   
Friday, 22 May 2009

In April, seven members of the Congressional Black Caucus returned from a Cuban junket giddy over the private audience they had with ailing Communist dictator, Fidel Castro. A mesmerized Congressman Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) said “I think what really surprised me, but also endeared me to [Castro] was his keen sense of humor, his sense of history, his basic human qualities.” Picture it – Castro cracking humane jokes and charming the visitors – the same Castro who over fifty years sent many Catholics, Protestants, and non-believers who did not agree with him to political prisons, quite a few of whom never returned, something almost everyone has now forgotten. (For just one example of what this meant, click over at Notable on this page.)

No one should be surprised by Congressman Rush’s comment. He’s a member of the latest generation of “useful idiots” who embrace charismatic tyrants. When Castro descended from the Cuban mountains in January 1959 and overthrew the Batista regime, he was portrayed by U.S. sympathizers as a revolutionary freedom fighter who extolled democratic virtues. Even after he abolished human rights, civil liberties, free elections, political parties, independent unions, religious and cultural organizations, and instituted political prisons and forced labor – intellectuals and progressives continued to gush over him.

During Castro’s 1959 visit to the United States, 10,000 (!) members of the Harvard community greeted him on campus with a standing ovation. Novelist Norman Mailer, founder of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, issued this proclamation: “I announce to the City of New York that you [Castro] gave all of us who are alone in this country…some sense there were heroes in the world…. It was as if the ghost of Cortez had appeared in our century riding Zapata’s white horse…. You are the answer to the argument of commissars and statesmen that revolutions cannot last, that they turn corrupt or total or eat their own.”

Mailer wasn’t the only prominent cheerleader: Senator George McGovern found Castro “in private conversation at least, soft spoken, shy, sensitive.” Julian Bond said that Castro’s explanation of his ideological positions made him think of the “connection between socialism and Christianity.” Dan Rather called him “Cuba’s own Elvis”; filmmaker Oliver Stone, “very selfless and moral.” Then there was singer Harry Belafonte who said: “If you believe in freedom, if you believe in justice, if you believe in democracy, you have no choice but to support Fidel Castro.” It’s always worth remembering these sorts of romantic delusions, because they have a way of happening over and over, with disastrous effect.

Here’s the real story of the Castro era: Shortly after seizing power, Castro ordered his henchmen to infiltrate and destroy Catholic parishes. He closed Catholic universities – including his alma mater Bethlehem Jesuit College – and confiscated the property. Hundreds of priests were expelled; Catholic institutions were abolished or marginalized. Those who openly professed their faith were denied higher education and jobs and many were tossed into prison.

In his harrowing memoir of twenty-two years in a Castro prison (1960-1982), Against All Hope, Armando Valladares, a staunch Catholic, vividly describes how he and others endured the terror, brutality, and violence of Castro’s political police as well as decades of solitary confinement, squalid living conditions, and putrid food.

Every time he waivered, Valladares thought “about the integrity of those [prison] martyrs who had died shouting ‘Viva Cuba Libre! Viva Christ the King! Down with Communism!’” “I was,” he wrote, “ashamed to feel so frightened. I realized that the only way to honor the memory of those heroes was to behave with their firmness and integrity. My heart rose up to God, and I fervently prayed for Him to help me stand up to his brutality, and do what I had to do. I felt that God heard my prayer.” That’s the audacity of hope!

Since 1959 over 500,000 people have spent time in a Cuban gulag. The authoritative Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression – written by a team of French intellectuals – reports that there have been 15-20,000 prisoners of conscience; 12-15,000 political prisoners; and 15-17,000 prisoners shot. Over 2 million Cubans, out of a population of 11 million, “voted with oars” and settled in other countries. In 1994 alone, over 7,000 attempting to escape died at sea. When confronted with these facts, the Castro replied: “From our point of view, we have no human-rights problem – there have been no ‘disappeareds’ here, there have been no tortures here, there have been no murderers here…torture has never been committed, a crime has never been committed.”

As is happening with much else of vital historical value, the real story seems to be disappearing down the memory hole. The Organization of American States is dedicated to promoting democratic principles in Latin America and holds “that adherence by any members…to Marxism-Leninism is incompatible with the inter-American systems…and breaks the unity and solidarity of the hemisphere.” Yet it is ready to accept Cuba as a member.

And rejecting what he calls “stale Cold War arguments,” President Obama has called for a new friendly relationship with Cuba that will include the lifting of the embargo, if some political prisoners are released and Cuban taxes on remittances from the United States are reduced.

The reaction to this kinder, gentler approach towards Cuba? Fidel Castro, the last Cold War thug, poked Obama in the eye. In a recent article, Castro accused the president of showing signs of “superficiality” and made it clear that Obama had “no right to suggest that Cuba make even small concessions.”

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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George Marlin is the author of The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact.

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