Shark Jumping in America

Power does not interest me. After victory, I want to go back to my village and just be a lawyer again.
--Fidel Castro, 1957

What the hell, maybe he thought he meant it. Of course, by the time Jimmy Carter visited Havana last week, Castro -- or Fidel, as his admirers invariably call him -- was into his fifth decade as a political icon. Although ruling an island that's now best known in some circles for the Buena Vista Social Club, he has managed to keep himself on history's center stage by being the obligatory whipping boy of 10 straight American presidents -- he's the Cold War enemy who never cried "Uncle" -- and the symbol of a revolutionary politics that many on the left still cherish.

Carter's trip to Cuba was an attempt to push beyond policies that you hoped would have ended when the ominous-sounding initials USSR became the impossible-to-remember CIS. Playing his favorite role as a transnational Yoda (which may be one reason he was such a duff president), Carter met with dissidents, debunked Bush administration scare talk about Cuban biological weapons and delivered, in Spanish, a superb speech. He called for democracy and human rights in Cuba -- probably the first time anyone had said such things publicly there in 40 years -- and suggested that the U.S. lift its trade embargo, a move that would likely hasten Castro's fall and certainly make ordinary Cubans' daily lives easier.

For his trouble, the L.A. Times' witless cartoonist Michael Ramirez turned Carter's toothy smile into a prison confining a shackled figure named "Cuba." Old Jimmy may be a sucker, but he's not a jail keeper.

Such an overture was far wiser than anything ventured by other recent American presidents, Republican or Democrat, whose approach to Cuba and its leader seems to have been dreamed up by CIA field officer Wile E. Coyote. Over the years, Castro has been faced with Mafia contracts, the Bay of Pigs invasion, schemes for exploding sea shells, and weird powders intended to make his beard fall out -- not to mention a plan to set off fireworks over the island to convince Cubans that the Second Coming had arrived, thereby provoking anti-Communist insurrection. And after all this, he's still there with his beard and those damned fatigues. Bee-beep.

If the Castro obsession has debased our foreign policy, it has also warped our domestic politics. For decades, politicians have pandered to the powerful émigré Cuban community in the crucial swing state of Florida. When President Bush flew down to Miami this week to reaffirm his hard-line stance on the embargo, he was motivated less by any great commitment to democracy than by a desire for votes -- brother Jeb is in a tight governor's race. As George W. glad-handed his hosts, I wondered just how many of those rabid, rich Miami Cubans will actually move back to Havana once communism falls (not many, I'd wager), and how many will simply buy up their old country on the cheap and then send Fredo over to run the family business. One shudders to think what they'll do to the new Cuba Libre.

Then again, one shudders to think what Castro has already done. Early on, his regime clearly improved health care, raised literacy rates, diminished racial discrimination and supported popular rebellions in oppressed countries -- a great utopian dream the citizenry willingly sacrificed to realize. But by the late 1960s, the Cuban Revolution hadn't so much jumped the shark as landed in its jaws, and the country became an economic basket case, especially once Moscow stopped propping it up in the early '90s. While American policy has always had a lot to do with Cuba's economic woes, so has Castro's desire for absolute control -- he didn't have to nationalize everything, including street vendors.

These days, he uses the state as a labor broker and sells off his people to foreign capital: A Spanish-owned hotel will pay the Cuban government, say, $350 a month for a waiter's wages, then the government pays the waiter 350 pesos (worth maybe $15) and keeps the difference. No unions, no fuss. When Castro first took power, he made a show of rooting out the capitalist vice of prostitution; these days, the streets are filled with spandexed jiniteras seeking the hard currency that is the national lifeline. So much for socialism.

If there's anything more depressing than watching thuggish Cuban-American millionaires bray as the president calls Castro a "tyrant," it's talking to friends on the left who insist that he isn't one, and cling to Fidel as the last flickering flame of some enduring torch of freedom. Get over it, folks. He's a dictator, a despot, a caudillo who uses police-state tactics to keep himself in power. If a right-wing general did what Castro has done -- crushing free speech, purging revolutionary allies, imprisoning political prisoners by the thousands, summarily executing "counterrevolutionaries" -- publications like The Nation would pillory him in every issue. Castro is our Pinochet and, one hopes, our final illusion.

To be fair, most leftists don't think of Castro as a great leader nor do they buy into primitivist guff about how Cubans are ennobled by not having the freedoms and material possessions that we enjoy -- you try pedaling to work on one of those clunky iron bicycles. Yet I still have far too many conversations like the one I recently had at a cocktail party honoring Gore Vidal. I was telling an old friend that, if I were being honest, I'd have to say that authoritarian, hypercapitalist Singapore is an incomparably freer and better-run nation than Cuba. He winced.

"Oh, don't you start piling on Fidel," he said. "It's too easy. Anyway, things would be different if the United States hadn't destroyed Cuba's economy."

I was just starting to mention political prisoners and the exploitation of labor when he raised his hand to stop me. "I know what you're doing. You're attacking me with . . . the facts." Then he giggled, knowing he didn't want to hear them.

And Then There's 'TerrorGate'

Last fall, when asked whether there'd been any warning about September 11, the Bush administration said no. Last week, when it leaked out that this wasn't exactly, er, true -- there was in fact a Cassandra-trail of memos and high-level meetings -- all the president's men (and woman) did exactly what you'd expect. They weaseled, blamed underlings and tried to scare us. That famed champion of democracy Anakin Cheney declared that our "irresponsible" Congress shouldn't be allowed to examine the evidence (God, he must envy Castro). Bush denied foreknowledge of the attacks with the how-dare-you frown of a husband whose wife had the temerity to ask about the lipstick on his boxers. And with a subject-changing promptitude that feels not a little fishy, government officials suddenly couldn't stop talking about "inevitable" future attacks.

I took no small pleasure in watching the Bush people squirm. And after months of giving the administration a soft ride as it shamelessly exploited 9/11, the media are enjoying it, too. There's nothing like the whiff of a cover-up to bring on that old Watergate rush -- Democrats even introduced the nostalgic phrase "What did the president know and when did he know it?" -- and by the time CBS's affable Bob Schieffer began firing hardball questions, Ari Fleischer must've felt he'd blundered into some weird episode of That '70s Show. Incredibly, reporters are still suckers for the romantic dream of becoming Woodward and Bernstein (although W&B themselves seem more turned on by the idea of doing well-paid hackwork), and there've already been a few sightings of "TerrorGate."

While not a single leading Democrat believes that Bush actually knew al Qaeda's plans and decided to do nothing ("Hey, an attack will help my dad and the Carlisle Group!"), the party leaped at the chance to practice what is sometimes disdained as "gotcha politics" but is actually just politics as it's now played in America. The Democrats' questions prompted Bush to lash out at Washington culture, where "second-guessing has become second nature," but it was hard to spare him much sympathy. After watching the right spend eight years employing every nickel-and-dime excuse to go after Bill Clinton, everyone knows the Dems are merely following the conservative playbook.

Of course, the Republicans already know it by heart. On ABC's Sunday Morning, Senator Joseph Lieberman, whose white-noise drone could cure Al Pacino's sleeplessness in Insomnia, said that some White House staffers were justifying their refusal to hand over documents by claiming that the Clinton administration had been too free with information. Naturally, this is just the opposite of what the Republicans were saying back when they were subpoenaing every shred of paper about such earth-shattering scandals as TravelGate and the "murder" of Vincent Foster.

But you expect such things from our relentless conservatives, who continue to find Clinton even more galling than Castro. Why, just last week, right-wing party girl Shannen Doherty talked to the New York Observer about her visit to the Bush White House. "I would have never stepped foot in the Clinton White House!" she declared. "They were sleazy."

Shannen Doherty calling someone else sleazy! I hadn't laughed that hard since James Woods went on Fresh Air and attacked Clinton for having an unsavory sex life.

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