On December 31, 1958, Fulgencio Batista remained at the presidential palace in Havana as tanks sliced through the lines of Fidel Castro's insurgent forces at Santa Clara, smashing them and killing 3,000. At least, that was the lead international story on the front page of the Chicago Tribune the following day. In reality, no such thing had happened. Batista had fled, leaving behind an empty treasury.
When Fidel Castro's obituary is finally published, it will have to tell how, in the 1990s, Cuba withstood the violent economic contraction occasioned by the disappearance of the Comecon alliance, pursuant to which not only the Soviet Union but also the German Democratic Republic, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and others had figured as its trading partners. While in 1992 Miami Herald writer Andrés Oppenheimer was publishing his book Castro's Final Hour, Cuba was sharing out broadly among its people what economists like to call "austerity," without mortgaging itself to the infamous World Bank/IMF structural adjustment programs. The country came out of it staggering but on its feet, with its system intact, although at the terrible cost of a populace traumatized by long-term scarcity of food and other basic goods, and dispiriting waves of emigration. Since then Cuba's economy has continued to improve, though it does not yet seem to have reached its peak level of postrevolutionary prosperity in the late 1980s.
For many in Miami, New Jersey and elsewhere, Fidel Castro's name evokes the executions of the first days of 1959, the political prisoners, the confiscated small businesses and big plantations, the family home left behind. To them, he is the tyrant who enslaved the Cuban people and condemned Cuba to perpetual poverty and dilapidation. Given that Cuban Miami is overwhelmingly white, and Havana today is perhaps 60-70 percent people of color, he is, for some, the man who gave Cuba to the negros. Miami's intensely focused political and financial clout has dictated US policy toward Cuba, which is, as the old saw goes, not a foreign policy but a domestic one, aimed at currying favor with Florida--a balancing act of tough talk and impotence.
Now is the time to strengthen the embargo, the Cuban-American right has insisted for decades, with the power of popular hatred at their backs and sacks of money to drive the point home. Squeeze Castro harder, and the regime will crumble. The rightful owners will return. Anyone who wants to do business in Cuba will have to talk to us. Our experts in Florida stand ready to show the Cubans how Freedom™ and Democracy™ work. We will support our preferred electoral candidate with money, media and message. Our liberators will be welcomed with flowers by a grateful people.
The Miami right, which counts Jeb Bush as a core member and eagerly claimed credit for the 2000 electoral victory in Florida, has long been frustrated by what it perceives as Washington's inaction. Its players were gung-ho for war in Iraq, where the scenario was the one that had long been urged for Cuba: Take out the dictator, unplug the institutions, discharge those who made the country function, move in US institutions and companies, privatize the assets, supervise elections. From that point of view, Iraq was a rehearsal, and, incredibly, it still looms as a prototype, albeit one that needs tweaking. Jon Lee Anderson's "Castro's Last Battle" in the July 24 New Yorker--another in the long string of Fidel Castro obits--included this remarkable statement by Florida Republican Senator Mel Martinez: "I looked for lessons from Iraq, for things the Cubans will need. For instance, a governmental structure should remain in place."
In the days after July 31, more than 150 journalists from various countries were turned back at the airport after trying to enter Cuba without the required journalist's visa. The exclusion of reporters from Cuba was not, it should be noted, total. Those already in Havana continued to report. Nor was the refusal to allow a sudden invasion by a wave of journalists an improvisation. Well-defined security procedures were in effect.
Instead of giving a speech, Raúl Castro mobilized tens of thousands of troops to be at the ready after July 31. "We could not rule out the risk of somebody going crazy, or even crazier [loco, o más loco todavía], within the US government,'' he said. In response, State Department spokesman Tom Casey nyaa-nyaahed Raúl, who has held positions of the highest responsibility in the Cuban government for forty-seven years, as "Fidel's baby brother" and "Fidel Lite."