Published Monday, August 12, 1996, in the Miami Herald.


Pitiful Castro turns 70

Carlos Alberto Montaner is a journalist based in Spain and regular columnist for El Nuevo Herald, from which this edited column is reprinted.

APRIL IS NOT the cruelest month. Only a lovesick poet would say a thing like that. August is. Particularly if your name is Fidel Castro and you reach the age of 70.

At dawn tomorrow, el comandante will closet himself in his office to meditate. It will be a time to take stock. That's what everyone does when entering what may be one's final decade. With his eyes closed, purposely alone, Castro will remember the young lawyer who entered Havana at the head of a victorious army of guerrillas. He was 33 then and something more than just the leader of rebels who rose against Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship. He was a revolutionary, a ``social engineer,'' someone who, without a doubt, understood afflictions besetting Cubans and how they should be cured.

* What were the ills that tormented Cuban society? Simple: poverty, ignorance, prostitution, venal politicians, and technical and scientific backwardness.

* What caused them? Elementary: the innate injustice of the capitalist system and the wicked exploitation of Yankee imperialism.

* What should be done to expunge them? Easy: place the entire country under the leadership of his privileged intellect, forever guided by rigid ethics and an iron will.

``In 10 years,'' prophesied Che Guevara in Punta del Este in 1961, ``we will surpass the Americans' per capita income and will be a highly industrialized nation.''

Castro had everything: a precise diagnosis, an appropriate therapy, a prophetic vision, and a heroic task. He saw himself as a modern mixture of Simon Bolivar and Jose Marti, with a bit of Napoleon Bonaparte and a lot of Vladimir Lenin. That self-perception dictated to him the exploits that he should perform: to achieve, lightning-like, Cuba's economic development, and to slay forever the American dragon.

What remains of all that babble, the adolescent simplifications, and the delirious dreams? An infinite row of cadavers along the walls and in the Straits of Florida. Thousands of lives that withered away in dark prison cells. Two million exiles adrift on foreign rafts of asphalt. A trail of blood that reaches the mountains of Latin America and the forests of Africa. Paralyzed industries, cities brought to a standstill by socialist mismanagement, an ideological cyclone that devastates everything in its path, and gaunt people pedaling their bicycles wearily -- who knows where to, who knows what for.

Also remaining is an obscene newspeak that describes impoverished prostitutes -- mostly children -- as ``girl jockeys,'' jineteras, as if that pious semantic deceit enabled them to ride away from the squalor of paid sex.

Castro's magical shortcuts for instant prosperity stand like statues beheaded by time: the miraculous caturra coffee that was supposed to grow to the skies; White Udder, the cow with the thousand prodigal teats; the predigested sugar-cane paste; ``microjet'' irrigation; rationed cattle grazing, French-style; the amazing vaccines; the rabbit farms; the fat and succulent geese; the Cuban Camembert cheese, clearly superior to the French variety. Every month a different project, an earthshaking yet simple conclusion: This will pluck us out of misery and bring the world to its knees.

Will Castro become depressed after making an inventory of the catastrophes that he has unleashed, or will he -- like Adolf Hitler -- blame others, the poor people for not being worthy of the leader bestowed upon them? It's hard to know, but a person so inflexible, egocentric, and stubborn, unable to differentiate between principle and obduracy, will always tend to look for scapegoats.

What can Castro hope for as he surveys the landscape that he has created? If he were any other kind of person, he would begin by making amends, but there's not the slightest indication that that is his intent. Twice in recent times he has spoken clearly: Let those who succeed him after his death set a new course.

Castro knows that he has failed. Now all that he hopes for is to die at the wheel, so that he won't have to make any public admissions. He is no longer a young, hopeful revolutionary. He is no longer a vigorous social engineer. He is just a pitiful, bitter, and pigheaded old man.

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1996 The Miami Herald.