Castro’s Cuba

This weekend, Fidel Castro will step down as president of Cuba, defying expectations that only death would part him from the role. The Times has been on the death watch, and before that, on the re-revolution watch, since way back in 1960. Below, excerpts from editorials and Op-Eds on the bearded leader.

Castro began menacing his hulking northern neighbor even before he came to power by kidnapping Americans around July 1958. The editorial board didn't think the U.S. should sit on its hands:

The Cuban rebels are not sovereign; and we wage no cold war with the Cuban government. Still, we have many precedents, the last less than 30 years old, for sending the marines. Our fathers before us would have moved before this…. We wonder whether…the quieting of the Dominican Republic on the eastern end of Hispaniola…is much in the mind of the Cuban rebel chief, Fidel Castro. For that pacification gave Rafael Trujillo his bloody chance to rise to dictatorship and fortune.

Despite that hawkish sentiment the board displayed some restraint on Jan. 2, 1959, shortly before Castro took power:

…Batista's strength has been slowly sapped by the remarkable revolution of Fidel Castro and his followers….Castro has said repeatedly he has no desire to be President….whatever unofficial or official role he assumes, Castro will surely be the new Cuban "strong man." Meanwhile the world waits to see how his strength will be used.

And months later, on May 25, 1959, then-publisher Norman Chandler, returning from a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, opined quite generously of the man the board would come to hate:

He impressed most of us as a man of sincerity but whose program for Cuba, as far as I could tell, seemed to consist of good intentions without any definite plans…. It is early in Castro's revolution and maybe his plans will come later. I hope they will….

That hate started to bloom in 1960. In February the board was pleased that U.S. capital was leaving the communist-tilting island:

Any sympathy other Latin Americans may have had for Cuba's captor, Fidel Castro, must now be tempered by the realization that his statist policies have disturbed the flow of capital that can come adequately from no other source but the United States.

On April 24, 1960, the board railed against Castro's press restrictions and began its long tradition of futilely wishing for his ouster:

Nothing hurt Peron more than the exile of Alberto Gainza Paz. Fidel Castro too might find one of his exiled editors looming larger symbolically and lasting longer than himself.

By July 2, 1960, the board dropped a Hitler reference, and never looked back — sympathy for the "Little Seizer of the Caribbean", as the board called Castro, wouldn't be found on the pages even as they grew to support a liberalized Cuba policy:

More than six years ago Castro — like Hitler in "Mein Kampf" before him — proclaimed his program.... Unless we and our Latin-American friends take the initiative and start to act in concert, communism may gain its greatest victory, right in our own back yard.

And on Sep. 21, 1960 the board launched another proud tradition in Castro commentary — outright mockery — as the leader came to New York for a United Nations conference:

Fidel didn't like the rates the Hotel Shelburne was charging ($400 a day for 30 rooms) so he and his entourage of food tasters, beard-combers and chicken pluckers moved out, lock, stock and confiscated bank assets. After threatening to camp in Central Park (where, as some wag remarked, all the squirrels are) they settled in a hotel in Harlem ($845 a day, payable in advance, please). What they left behind.... Telephones torn from connections, piles of steaks ripening in refrigerators, chicken feathers on the sofas, cigar butts ground out in the rugs, and here and there small piles of bones, ashes, pills and empty milk cartons. The wire service reports, perhaps mercifully, omitted mentioning the condition of the plumbing.

It took a more serious tone after the conclusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, praising the president but acknowledging that Cuba would remain a challenge:

…dismantling the bases does not remove Cuba as a base for potential subversion and non-military penetration of the hemisphere. Indeed, Mr. Kennedy's undertaking to guarantee non-invasion of Cuba if the missile bases are destroyed gives Cuba an almost protected status as a base for Red agitation and propaganda.

The death watch began on June 8, 1972, around the time the board began to push for an eased Cuba policy:

Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro, declaring that his heart is strong as steel, is doing his best to discount reports from Polish sources that he shows signs of coming down with a heart attack….There is a strong case for more flexibility in the American posture.

To say this is not to imply approval of the Castro regime…. It is simple recognition of the fact that Communist power in Cuba is not likely to be overthrown at this late date — whatever the state of Castro's health.

One month later, after U.S. scientists attended a U.N. conference in Havana, the board came out more strongly in favor of liberalization:

…the time has come to relax the effort to isolate the Communist-run island from the rest of the hemisphere.

The reason, of course, is not that Fidel Castro has become a nice fellow and a good neighbor. He hasn't. The case for a change…rests, rather, on the fact that the existing policy is not producing results that are in the American national interest.

The board and Op-Ed writers would ask President Nixon to do for Cuba what he did for China and would praise President Carter for his overtures to the island throughout the decade, often focusing on the plight of Cubans. William F. Buckley Jr. tried his own hand at helping one Cuban, as he recalled on Jan. 12, 1978 in a column about his cook, whom he called a "hardy Cuban black":

Her sister. Dying of cancer in Havana. Miserable pain. No morphine, because Fidel Castro's supply was available only to the army.... I scratched out the hieroglyphics on a doctor's pad, approached the pharmacist, who whistled at the size of the order but got the stuff, which I drove to Pan American at Kennedy and put into the hands of a pilot…. Twenty-four hours later the dying woman had her short lifetime's supply of morphine…the irregularity of the transaction never attracted official attention….

On Sep. 7, 1982, the board came out against President Reagan's Radio Marti because of Castro's predicted rascally response:

The problem with Radio Marti is not its concept…. The problem is the plain fact that Fidel Castro has the capacity to retaliate against Radio Marti in ways that could seriously disrupt the normal operations of regular commercial radio stations in this country. And he has already made plain that he will.

One year later, the board praised Carter's efforts and wished Reagan would do the same, but still put the blame for poor relations on Castro:

President Jimmy Carter provided "an open heart and open arms" to the oppressed people of Cuba in the spring of 1980 as more than 100,000 political prisoners and dissidents accepted Castro's permission to leave. Mixed with the legitimate refugees, apparently by deliberate Cuban government design, were a crime-hardened, violence-prone few…. Castro may need the United States as an enemy more than he needs it as a good neighbor. He should be left with no doubts, however, that he has that choice.

On the 30th anniversary of his assumption of power, the board wrote a measured review of the man:
Thirty years later the Cuban dictator is an anachronism not just in Latin America but in the socialist world as well. The Cuban revolution changed some things for the better…. But Cubans also lost most of their freedom to the rigid political and economic system that Castro imposed on them…. Most Latin Americans no longer regard Castro as a real threat…. They realize that time has passed Castro by. So there is good reason for the State Department to continue its efforts to improve relations with Cuba.
By March 1990, Cuba's patron Soviet patron was breathing its last, and the editorial board drew the obvious inferences for the lush socialist paradise:

Cuba's jefe maximo always fancied himself a special character on the world stage — a key actor not just in Latin America, where he was a symbol of revolutionary change, but also in the Soviet Bloc, for which he was an outpost near the U.S. mainland. But even Fidel's friends have been wondering lately whether time has passed him by. The answer is yes. And events of the last few weeks only emphasize just how much of an anachronism Castro has become.

In October 1991, the Cuban dictator held his fourth Communist Party Congress, and the editorial board noted a few signs of progress for the island nation before grimly returning to actuarial probabilities (which, again, proved to be too optimistic):

Castro stays on top for as long as he wants, apparently. And as long as he stays, he said in a speech to the congress, Cuba will remain a socialist island "surrounded by an ocean of capitalism."

That's sad for Cuban people, but at least the rest of us can take some reassurance from the fact that the aging dictator's bombast doesn't carry the same impact it did when he had an even bigger bully to back him up.

Eventually — probably soon — Castro's time will come too.

History had other plans for Castro. By July 1993 he was facing his ninth U.S. leader, briefly referring to President Bill Clinton as a "man of peace." The editorial board vainly urged the U.S. government to take the opportunity to improve relations:

Now is the time to help negotiate a peaceful transition of power in Cuba — and to ensure reconciliation within the Cuban communities here in the States and in Cuba. Forget the snail-paced policies that the so-called experts recommend and introduce a bold initiative to spur real dialogue between Washington and Havana. The goal of that dialogue: to return Cuba to democracy without bloodshed. Earlier this month, 23 Latin American heads of state assembled in Brazil and called for an end to the Cuban embargo. In a commendable spirit of openness, they even invited representatives of a moderate group of Cuban exiles to participate unofficially in the talks. That is leadership. Washington should now join them and help start a meaningful discussion whose goal is to end an anachronism begun 40 years ago today.

Prolonging Castro's dictatorship only inflicts more suffering on the Cubans. It is inhumane to punish them more. It makes no sense to do nothing when the adversary has now, in so many ways, cried uncle.

The Clinton administration took up that offer. By September 1994, Secretary of State Warren Christopher was arranging a series of talks and Castro was again using refugees to pressure the United States. Castro biographer Tad Szulc took that moment to compare Castro to Cuban chess champ Jose Raul Capablanca:

Today, Fidel Castro Ruz is the Capablanca of diplomacy. And for him, the trophy in his heretofore successful match with President Bill Clinton is nothing less than continued survival 35 years after his revolution seemed to have reached its end game. It would not be the first time that conventional wisdom misunderstood his calculation as foolishness.

It was a five-year-old refugee who provided the inevitably surreal end to the first forty years of U.S.-Castro. After the rescue of Elian Gonzalez from a wreck in the Florida straits that had killed his mother, the editorial board in December 1999 urged the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service to decide on his fate promptly:

While justice creeps forward, the boy has been taken in by the Miami relatives and displayed in countless toy-filled photo ops. His father in Cuba is being used by the Castro regime as a symbol of American brutality. The INS should move with deliberate speed to its decision, the sooner the better for a confused little boy.

In April 2000, the federal government acted, but not in a manner that did much to help that confused little boy. Heavily armed agents of the Border Patrol raided the house of the Miami relatives in a shockingly forceful though fortunately bloodless operation. On the Op-Ed page, Arianna Huffington pointed out that such violent attacks by law enforcement authorities were in fact commonplace throughout the United States under the open-ended War On Drugs:

These "dynamic entries," as they are known, regularly involve tear gas, residents thrown to the floor and handcuffed and percussion grenades — explosive devices intended to disorient everyone present while the police move in. And the raids usually take a lot longer than a surgical three minutes. But the elected officials who were "sickened" by what Elian was forced to witness do not seem remotely concerned by the fact that children are routinely exposed to such un-American — or, in the words of Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), "intolerable, unnecessary, outrageous" — behavior.

Even the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 could not chase Castro entirely out of the Times' frame of reference. That autumn, Columnist Robert Scheer blew the dust off his Bay of Pigs history books to argue against using criminals to fight the newly visible terrorist threat:

Our intelligence agencies messed up big-time, but that's no reason to abandon them for reliance on the world's freelance thugs and criminals to do our dirty work for us. As documented by the CIA's own published review, the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations tried that when they attempted to unleash the Las Vegas mafia, upset with the loss of its Havana gambling operations, to assassinate Fidel Castro, but it was just one of many such fiascoes.

By the mid-aughts, you may no longer have been interested in Castro, but Castro was still interested in you. Even September 2004's deadly Hurricane Ivan, which left Cuba casualty-free while killing scores in the United States, provided the long-lived jefe with an opportunity for apocalyptic gloating. The editorial board was unimpressed:

It's a bit pathetic, really, that the aging comandante is trying to score propaganda points by taking on a storm, but that's where he is. For days, the indefatigable dictator became the island nation's meteorologist in chief, commandeering the airwaves to track the storm's progress and to orchestrate preparations and evacuations. His omniscient Communist Party turned itself into a formidable Federal Emergency Management Agency. By the time Ivan touched land, nearly 2 million people had been taken to shelters. It isn't as if they had much choice, but perhaps escaping Fidel Castro's televised harangues proved a sweet inducement.

By August 2005, a newer-model Caribbean caudillo was strenuously trying to rekindle Castro's romance with the international left. The editorial board gave a catty "hated it!" to the debut of Hugo Chavez' Telesur satellite channel:

Most Latin American viewers will switch channels about 30 minutes into the usual eight-hour soliloquy on hemispheric freedom from Cuban leader Fidel Castro or Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Telesur's best hope for success, in fact, may be for some official opposition from the United States. It is a hope the U.S. appears ready to fulfill.

In 2006, the Times marked another milestone with a "Castro at 80" roundup. Among other contributions, author Eduardo Santiago channeled his inner Robert Osborne while recalling an anticlimactic encounter with The Beard in the offices of CBS News:

I walked to Rather's studio. Guards were posted outside — but from where I stood I could see Castro, sitting under studio lights, through the doors' circular windows. As always, he looked intense. His head bobbed with his every word. I did not need to hear his words to grasp their emphasis. When the interview ended, Castro and Rather bantered like two comrades over an afternoon cafecito.

The studio lights dimmed. Rather warmly shook Castro's hand. The doors opened and out walked Cuba's maximum leader.

My mind, Cuban-born and raised on American movies, quickly flashed to the Julie Christie character in "Doctor Zhivago" — the mad look in her eyes; her gun, concealed in a fur muffle, aimed at the monster who had raped and corrupted her; the ringing explosion of the pistol. The scandal.

I flashed to Robert DeNiro's Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" — the mohawk, the handguns, same mad look.

And then Castro walked up to me, our eyes meeting. Two men. One old and powerful, the other much younger and, clearly, temporarily insane.

"Que tal?" I asked.

Those two words contained worlds of meaning — I just couldn't bring them to my mouth.

"Hello," Castro responded in English.

In August 2007, the editorial board looked with favor on Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Illinois) proposal to lift the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba:

The astonishing thing here is that after the U.S. has tried for nearly 50 years to force a regime change in Cuba by way of economic embargo with no success whatsoever, Obama is one of the few presidential contenders who dares to suggest that it's time to try something different. Some might consider Obama's move courageous given the political power of Florida's Cuban American community, which helped put George W. Bush in the White House in 2000 and has cheered his efforts to tighten sanctions on Cuba. But the minority of Cuban immigrants who vote Democratic is deeply divided on the travel ban and would like to be able to send more money to relatives at home, so Obama may not be staking out such a bold position after all.

Last October, President George W. Bush dismissed the accession of Raul Castro as "exchanging one dictator for another" and conditioned scholarships, technology and other aid to the "tropical gulag" on the departure of "the Cuban regime, the ruling class." Rollins College visiting assistant professor Paolo Spadoni took to the Op-Ed page to denounce the American president:

Leaving aside Bush's archaic rhetoric and his dangerous message for the Cuban people to "rise up to demand their liberty," one cannot avoid wondering how he can realistically seek financial contributions from other countries to support U.S. pro-democracy efforts in Cuba. These are the same countries that have repeatedly condemned Washington's hostile policy toward Havana and told the U.S. to change its unilateral approach.

That same month, the editorial board was already treating post-Fidel Cuba as an established reality — though, perhaps enlightened by the long and fruitless history of Castro death watches, the board was already pinning its hopes for a new Cuba-U.S. relationship on the next president, who will likely be the 11th U.S. leader to tangle with the Castro brothers' Cuba:

Bush may be too unimaginative to try a new policy toward Cuba, but the next president shouldn't be. For starters, the U.S. should allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba, as the only reliable way to circumvent Castro's information blockade. And there may be a good case for "smart" U.S. Treasury sanctions that would specifically target Fidel and Raoul Castro and their cronies, as the only way to hold Cuba's leaders accountable for their human rights travesties. The indiscriminate U.S. embargo, however, only hurts the Cuban poor. Worse, it gives the Castro brothers a convenient Yanqui scapegoat for the economic mismanagement and misery they have inflicted on their people.