WASHINGTON -- Fidel Castro is finally on his way out. After nearly 50 years of bloody, iron-fisted rule, the world's longest-reigning dictator -- and one of the last communist tyrants on the planet -- has announced that he is stepping down. That's good news, but it's not likely to change much for the 11 million captive people in Cuba.
On Feb. 19, Granma, the Cuban Communist Party's organ, carried a letter purportedly written by the 81-year-old ailing autocrat announcing that ill health prevents him from continuing to "discharge the duties" of president and commander in chief of Cuba's armed forces. He will, the paper reverently notes, no longer be referred to as "El Comandante." Instead, he simply will be addressed as "Comrade Fidel" -- just like that other wonderful old and venerated leader, "Comrade Mao."
In the same missive that announced his "retirement," Castro said, "I am not saying goodbye to you." That part is apparently true. He's hanging on as first secretary of the ruling Communist Party and promises to continue penning diatribes on domestic and world affairs. Think of him as the elder statesman of despotism.
"It would be a betrayal to my conscience," he wrote, "to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer."
Conscience? Where was this anguished sense of right and wrong in 1962, when he urged Nikita Khrushchev to "launch a pre-emptive (nuclear) strike against the United States"? Where was it in 1980, when he set more than 100,000 of his countrymen adrift in the Gulf Stream on homemade rafts and leaky boats from Mariel, Cuba? Where was this Castro conscience in the 1980s, when he dispatched tens of thousands of young Cuban soldiers to Guinea Bissau, Mozambique and Angola as Soviet mercenaries? Where were Fidel's now vaunted scruples in 1996, when he ordered his air force to shoot down two unarmed light planes, killing four civilians from Brothers to the Rescue while they searched for endangered refugees adrift in international waters? Where was Castro's now tortured conscience in 2000, when he demanded that little Elian Gonzalez be returned to his "island paradise"?
On the evening of Castro's nostalgic resignation, ABC News' "Nightline" offered a "retrospective," describing the brutal despot as "a patriarch" and reflected wistfully on how Castro had retained office while 10 U.S. presidents had come and gone. The following morning, New York Times correspondent Anthony DePalma, "reporting" from Havana, successfully avoided mentioning the 286 political prisoners rotting in Cuban jails, while gushing that Castro's hand-picked heir apparent -- the dictator's 76-year-old brother, Raul -- "has a pragmatic streak."
Pandering to the new potentate in Havana didn't stop there. The same New York Times that smears Sen. John McCain with innuendo and unsubstantiated allegations of infidelity and influence-peddling, praises Raul Castro -- the world's longest-serving minister of defense -- because "as acting president, he has encouraged more debate about Cuba's economic woes." According to the newspaper of record, Raul "has also brought up issues his brother never addressed. He has lambasted farmers for being inefficient. He has criticized the high cost of milk. The younger Castro also has a reputation as a manager who demands results from his Cabinet members." Of course, Joe Stalin did all those things, too.
The staunchly anti-communist Cuban exiles with whom I spoke have a somewhat different perspective: "Raul is utterly corrupt," one of the refugees with family members still in captivity told me. Another observed: "Fidel's little brother gives shorter speeches, but he knows how to line his pockets. He decides which foreign hotel chains get to build, and he tells them where. It all depends on who pays him the most." The Gray Lady's DePalma credits Raul with "facilitating huge foreign investment by Canadian and European resort developers" in Cuba.
So has anything really changed in Cuba? Apparently, the Cuban people don't think so. Despite the country's disastrous economy, no official in Havana has embraced the idea of free, fair multiparty elections as the means of opening the doors to American investment. In the days since Fidel tendered his "resignation," there have been few celebrations in Miami, and the number of Cubans trying to flee 90 miles to freedom is undiminished. Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, who hopes to inherit the mantle of Latin America's commie caudillo, has pledged to continue daily deliveries of roughly 100,000 barrels of heavily subsidized oil to keep Cuba's lights on -- and that the 20,000 Cuban "medical volunteers" in his country are still "welcome to assist in the Bolivarian Revolution."
To reassure anxious readers, loyal party members and apprehensive Ameriphobes -- and to ensure that no one has any doubt about who really is pulling the strings in Havana -- Granma has promised, "We will continue waiting for the 'Reflections of Comrade Fidel,' which will be a powerful arsenal of ideas and guidance." That's sure to do a lot for circulation. Let's hope The New York Times publishes every word.