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Fidel Castro, the verdict ... How the west reacted to his resignation: it was amazing watching Western media reaction to the news of Fidel Castro's resignation. They were as fascinating on the big TV networks as they were in the British newspapers. Baffour Ankomah has been going over some of them.

Fidel Castro (born Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz on 13 August 1926) says his enemies think of him as "the great devil". And that was exactly what happened on 19 February when the news broke that he was stepping down as president of Cuba after 49 years at the helm. "Adios, cruel dictator" was the common denominator in much of the Western media.

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"Departure of a dictator who had outlived his times", crowed The Independent [of London] in the headline of its leader comment. "Castro is a relic of a vanished age and fossilised revolution, "said another headline in The Independent which prides itself as being a middle-of-the-road newspaper (ideologically). But its take on Castro may have surprised even the rightwing papers! "Some cling to power to the last; some are overthrown, and some have the good sense to know their time," The Independent wrote. "Fidel Castro is an autocrat who, at 81 and in poor health, has just squeaked into the group of graceful farewells ... Put more bluntly, Mr Castro has resigned after almost half a century as the Communist dictator of Cuba. Not only for that country, but, for the rest of us, a distinctive era has closed."

The Times [of London] took up the chant, littering its five-page splash on Castro with "dictator" every few paragraphs. It crowned it all, in a leader comment, which said: "The obstacle-in-chief is leaving the stage at last ... Mr Castro's departure, albeit to a peaceful retirement he scarcely deserves, is half the solution. US engagement is the other half. Its time has come."

In Britain, it was only The Guardian whose left-leaning ideological stance prevented it from joining the "dictator-fest". Even then, "dictator" crept in once, in a piece written from Little Havana, Miami--the anti-Castro capital of the world--by Richard Luscombe, who kindly reminded his readers that two summers ago when "Castro was reported to be at death's door, tens of thousands of Miami's one million or so Cuban-Americans flooded the area to toast the supposed demise of [the] dictator".

This "fact", however, had been neatly rubbished the night before on BBC News 24 television by a young lady analyst who told a disappointed BBC anchorman that despite the TV networks having played over and over again the images of "the tens of thousands" of Castro's opponents jubilating in Miami two summers ago, in reality "the tens of thousands" were made up of only 5,000 members of the two-million-strong Cuban-American population of Florida.

In his memoirs, Castro himself says: "I don't understand why I'm called a dictator. What is a dictator? It's someone who makes arbitrary, unilateral decisions, who acts over and above institutions, over and above the laws, who is under no restraint but his own desires and whims.

"And in that case, Pope Paul II, who always opposed war, could be accused of being a dictator, and President Bush considered a defender of peace, a friend of the poor and the most democratic of rulers.

"That's the way the industralised countries in Europe treat him [Bush], without realising that Bush can make terrible decisions without consulting the Senate or the House of Representatives, or even his cabinet. Not even the Roman emperors had the power of the president of the United States! Any American president has more possibility of giving orders, and decisive, dramatic orders than I have.

"Look, I don't make unilateral decisions. This isn't even a presidential government. We have a Council of State. My functions as leader exist within a collective. In our country, the important decisions, the fundamental decisions are always studied, discussed and made collectively.

"I can't appoint ministers or ambassadors. I don't appoint the lowest public official in this country. I have authority of course, I have influence, for historical reasons, but I don't give orders or rule by decree."

Castro is supported by the French journalist, Salim Lamrani. Writing in The Times the day after Castro's resignation, Lamrani said: "Fidel Castro has left an indelible mark on Cuban history. In half a century, he has transformed his country, which was under the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship and the US yoke, into an independent nation respected for its courage and its altruism.

"Despite the economic sanctions, to which it is subjected, Cuba has freed itself from underdevelopment. International organisations--from the UN to the World Bank--recognise that Cuba is alone in the [developing] world in obtaining a level of human development comparable to that of most advanced countries ...

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"Castro's only crime of lese-majeste is to have refused to bow to the powerful, to have stayed true to his principles and belief: that another, less cruel world is possible."

But Ramon Saul Sanchez, writing for The Times on the same day. does not agree. Born in Cuba and sent to America at the age of 10, Sanchez later took part in anti-Castro sabotage missions. He is now the head of the implacable anti-Castro Movimiento Democracia (Democracy Movement) based in Miami.

Sanchez describes Castro as "one man, self-appointed, deciding the fate of 11 million people in five decades. Twenty per cent of Cuba's population resides in exile today because of his policies, and 250,000 people have been sent to prison for their political views. Cuba is the country with the largest number of journalists incarcerated for independent reporting. It has carried out at least 40,000 political executions in 50 years."

Castro appeared to answer Sanchez in his memoirs when he talked about executions during the Spanish civi' war: "I don't remember a single revolution in which, with respect to the religious sphere, one side didn't employ firing squads against the other. We are the exception to that," he told Ignacio Ramonet, his co-author. He continued: "As for cruelty, I really think that a man who has devoted his entire life to fighting injustice, oppression of every kind, to serving others, to fighting for others, to preaching and practising solidarity, I think all of that is totally incompatible with cruelty.

"Here, [in Cuba] no one has ever been imprisoned for being a dissident or because they see things differently from the way the Revolution does. Our courts sentence people to prison on the basis of laws, and they judge counter-revolutionary acts.

"Down through history, in all times, actions by people who put themselves at the service of a foreign power against their own nation, have always been seen as extremely serious crimes."

But his defence apparently does not impress even sympathetic British newspapers such as The Guardian: "President Castro's resilience in itself secures him a place in history," The Guardian wrote in a leader comment the day after Castro's resignation. "But it cannot disguise the fact chat his Cuba was undemocratic, sometimes cruel, and by its own terms a failure on most measures other than longevity."

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But The Guardian was reprimanded by one of its readers a day later. A Mary M. Scott from Aberdeen (Scotland) wrote to the paper, telling it: "In your leader [comment], you describe Cuba as 'undemocratic', but this is simply not true. It does not have a multiparty democracy like we do, but there are other kinds of democracy outside that narrow definition.

"Ninety-five per cent of Cubans vote at elections--and it is not because anyone is forcing them to. It is because people feel very involved in the democratic process and are involved with the selection of candidates.

"Because there is no multiparty system, point-scoring within politics doesn't exist. If there are problems with a policy, it is often put out to public consultation. The people of Cuba are consulted on a range of issues fairly regularly."

Castro, again, got some support on the issue of human rights and democracy from Mark Steel, writing in The Independent: "Whatever you think of his regime, it's hard not to chuckle at how he has survived 49 years of official American hatred. Even yesterday, George Bush announced: 'The international community should work with the Cuban people.' This would be the same Cuban people he 'works with' by blockading them from importing or exporting anything to or from America ... "The blockade, according to the US, is against the lack of freedom and democracy on the island. Which is why they wouldn't dream of trading and selling billions of dollars' worth of arms to [undemocratic] countries.

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"The question that supporters of the blockade should have to answer is, what they would have done about the regime that Castro helped to overthrow [in 1959]. Because pre-Castro Cuba thrived on one major industry, which was corruption.

"It was run by Fulgencio Batista, who took one million dollars a month from casinos. There were 10,000 pimps, the owner of the largest newspaper had been a member of Mussolini's General Council, and black Cubans weren't allowed on beaches.

"So the Americans weren't concerned by Castro until he started nationalising industries. And then, in response to being cut off from the US, he became an ally of Russia, suddenly declaring the country communist."

In 2005, when Ramonet interviewed Castro for the memoirs, he asked him about human rights in Cuba. The president's answer was illuminating:

"At the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, where the world is aware of the show that takes place year after year, the lies and calumnies that are spread about us--the world has not been told that 80% of the measures in defence of human rights passed by the Commission has been proposed by Cuba. The US is constantly condemning Cuba for 'violations of human rights'. And every year there is a fierce diplomatic battle over that. "Another battle," Castro went on, "takes place in the UN General Assembly where Cuba is gaining more votes against the [American] blockade every year; in 2005 there were over 108. Only four countries voted against the resolution condemning the blockade; the US of course; Israel its unconditional ally; and two tiny islands in the Pacific--Marshall Islands and Palau--whose very livelihood depends entirely on the US. That is, over 90% of the members of the UN condemn the blockade."

Ramonet supplements Castro's answer by writing in the "Introduction" to the book:

"Since 1960, the US has been waging economic warfare against Cuba, and has kept the country unilaterally, and despite ever-increasing opposition by the United Nations, under a devastating trade embargo.

"This embargo has obstructed Cuba's normal development and helped aggravate its precarious financial and economic situation with tragic consequences for its inhabitants.

"The US has also pursued a permanent and ongoing ideological and media war against Cuba, with powerful broadcasting stations--Radio Marti and TV Marti--installed in Florida and flooding the island with propaganda, as in the worst days of the Cold War.

"The US authorities, sometimes through fronts such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an NGO created by Ronald Reagan in 1983, finance groups abroad that spread propaganda hostile to Cuba. For example, according to the Associated Press, in 2005, the NED distributed $2.4m to organisations that militate in Europe for regime change in Cuba.

"And then there is USAID which since 1996 has delivered over $65m to anti-Castro groups, based mainly in Florida. In May 2004, the Bush administration created a supplementary fund of $80m earmarked to strengthen aid to those same groups. "Dozens of journalists around the world are also paid to spread disinformation about Cuba. Some of this money is used to underwrite terrorist organisations hostile to the Cuban government--Alpha 66 and Omega 7 among them.

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"These organisations have their headquarters in Florida where they run training camps and from where they regularly send armed commandos into Cuba to carry out bombings and acts of sabotage, all this with the tacit complicity of the US authorities.

"In the past 40 years, there have been over 3,500 deaths in Cuba from terrorist attacks, with almost 2,000 other people injured for life.

"On 10 July 2006, a report to the US president by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which is co-chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, demanded that everything possible be done so that 'the Castro regime's succession strategy may not succeed'.

"This document states that the amount the US has sent to aid its allies in Cuba--those people whom writer Ernest Heming-way, in a very different context, called the 'fifth column'--total some $68.2m, and notes that that sum is sent directly to 'dissidents' who will be trained and receive equipment and materials.

"This is an undeniable attempt by a great power to destabilise a small country. But despite the persistent attacks by the US and the 600 assassination attempts against Castro, Cuba has never responded with violence. For 48 years, not a single act of violence encouraged or sponsored by Cuba has occurred in the US.

"As a reaction to the constant aggressions against Cuba directed from abroad, within the country the government has preached unity-to-the-death. It has maintained the principle of a single political party, and has often severely sanctioned any difference of opinion or disagreement, applying in its own way St Ignatius Loyola's old motto: 'In a besieged fortress, all dissidence is treason'."

Ramonet is supported by Andrew Hurley, translator of Castro's memoirs. He writes: "I saw, and see, Fidel Castro as one of the most 'censored' world figures in English-language publishing, English language society. Spanish language readers can access his thoughts online and in print, but in English Castro is 'represented' almost invariably by his enemies."

Which must be why Thomas Catan, writing for The Times the day after Castro's resignation, could state, despite the facts, that: "A renowned micromanager who rarely delegated any task, no matter how small, Mr Castro personified the Cuban regime and gave little thought to his succession."

But in his memoirs, Castro reveals: "Contrary to what many people think ... nobody sees me as a figure standing up on Mount Olympus. Many people treat me like a neighbour, they talk to me. By nature, I am against anything that might appear to be a personality cult, and there is not a single school in Cuba or factory, hospital or building named after me.

"Here we don't even produce official portraits. It's possible that somebody may have put up a photo of me in some office, but that's by personal initiative--in no way is that photo an official portrait. Here, no state agency spends its money and wastes its time taking and passing out official photographs of me, or any leader. That practice does not exist in this country ..."

He continued: "Those who know me and are familiar with my speeches and ideas know that I'm very critical, very self-critical about that, and that I have fought adamantly against any manifestation of a personality cult or idol-worship."

About the succession, Castro had said in 2005 in reply to Ramonet's question: "Well, I will tell you. At first, with all those assassination plots, I had a decisive role that I don't have today. Today I may have more authority and more trust from the population than ever.

"Back in those days, of course I realised what an assassination could mean, so I brought up the question of my replacement ... Raul [Castro, his junior brother] was perceived as being more radical than I was. Since he had been in the Young Communists, people saw Raul as more radical. I knew they were afraid, that it worried them. In my opinion, the person who had the most authority, most experience, and most ability to fill the role of replacement was Raul ... [He has] really done an excellent job as a military organiser and politician ... He is the person who has the most authority today, and people have great trust in him."

At the time of the Revolution in 1959, Raul was 28, and he has remained a revolutionary serving in various portfolios up to his current age of 76!

According to Castro: "There were assassination plans for Raul too, although I was a more attractive target because of the command chain and my responsibilities. He is the second secretary of the party and first vice president of the Council of State--that gives him moral and political authority."

Ramonet then asked Castro: "So, if for some reason you should die, Raul, then would be your undisputed successor?"

Castro replied: "If something happens to me tomorrow, I will tell you with absolute certainty that the National Assembly would meet and elect him--there is not the slightest doubt. The Political Committee would meet and elect him. But he is catching up to me in years, so it is a generational problem. Raul, for example, is barely four years and something younger than I am."

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And Thomas Catan wrote in The Times that Castro had "given little thought to the succession"!

In the end, when "the great devil" stepped down on 18 February, it was Ramonet who got it right, in an article for The Guardian: "Fidel's exit means continuity. For change, look to Obama", was the his headline.

He wrote: "No one can quite replace Castro, but Cuba's course is clear for now. Its future will depend on who takes the White House ... Everything in Cuba is related to the US; that is the one overarching aspect of political life which outsiders need to understand. The retirement of Castro, long anticipated, means continuity. But in the evolution of this small nation's history, the election of Obama could be seismic."

And then Ramonet felt obliged to educate the world about the man some call "the great devil".

"The most surprising thing that I found out about the man, in the hours we spent together compiling his memoirs was how modest, human, discreet and respectful he was. He has a tremendous moral and ethical sense. He is a man of rigorous principles and sober existence," Ramonet wrote.

"He is also, I discovered, passionate about the environment. He is neither the man the Western media depict, nor the superman the Cuban media sometimes present. He is a normal man, albeit one who is incredibly hard working. He is also an exemplary strategist, one who has led a life of enduring resistance.

"He contains a curious mixture of idealism and pragmatism: he dreams of a perfect society but knows that material conditions are very difficult to transform.

"He leaves office confident that Cuba's political system is stable. His current preoccupation isn't so much socialism in his own country as the quality of life around the world, where too many children are illiterate, starving and suffering from diseases that could be cured ...

"So now he is handing over to a team he has tested and trusts. This will not lead to spectacular changes. Most Cubans themselves--even those who criticise aspects of the regime--do not envisage or desire change: they don't want to lose the advantages it has brought them, the free education right through university, the free universal healthcare, or the very fact of a safe, peaceful existence in a country where life is calm ...

"The new regime will initiate changes at the economic level, but there will be no Cuban perestroika--no opening up of politics, no multiparty elections. Its authorities are convinced that socialism is the right choice, but that it must be forever improved. And their preoccupation now, more than ever with the retirement of Castro, will be unity."

And so it happened! On 24 February, Raul Castro Ruz was elected as replacement for Fidel Castro Ruz. And "unity" is the new catchphrase in Havana.

RELATED ARTICLE: Castro--the man with nine lives?

In 49 years at the helm, Fidel Castro had to deal with over 600 attempts on his life, which he believes were directly organised by the American CIA; or the CIA indirectly creating supposedly "independent groups" and giving them all the necessary resources to act without direct intervention from the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia; or by incitement, which, according to Castro "can be very strong, it can create a hunger psychology in potential assassins, plant the idea that there's someone who should be hunted down--a licence to hunt somebody down."

Some of the attempts came pretty close to succeeding, but chances sometimes intervened against them. In his memoirs, Castro talks about one such attempt: "An agent who had a cyanide pill and was about to put it into a chocolate milkshake in this place I often went to, a coffee shop in the Hotel Havana Libre. Fortunately, the ampoule froze, and just as he was about to throw it in, he realised that it was stuck to the ice in the freezer he had put it in."

In 1975, a report by a US Senate committee chaired by Senator Frank Church (the Church Report) confirmed that between 1960 and 1965, there were eight "official" US attempts to assassinate Castro, all with the direct participation and resources of the CIA.

"In another attempt, they planned to use a chemical agent that produced effects similar to LSD to contaminate the air in a TV studio where I went to make speeches on the radio," Castro recalls.

"Another time, they sprayed lethal poison on a package of cigarettes that I was supposed to smoke. At one point, when I visited Chile in 1971, they had me in the sights of a television camera with a gun inside it, just yards away. Of course, the ones who pulled the trigger would have died right there, and when their lives were at stake, they didn't shoot."

In yet another attempt, the CIA tried to use an American lawyer who negotiated with Castro for the release of the US-sponsored mercenaries captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961, to give Castro a present of a diving suit that had been impregnated with enough mould spores and bacteria to kill him.
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Author:Ankomah, Baffour
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Apr 1, 2008
Words:3641
Previous Article:'This is not my farewell to you'.
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