Secrets to making your dictatorship last

Kathleen Parker
Posted: Dec 09, 2002 12:00 AM
I often ask myself: How did we get so stupid? And then I turn on Connie Chung and answer myself. "Oh, yeah." Wednesday night I tuned in just in time to hear Connie and her guest Jane Franklin, author of "Cuba and the United States," discussing the longevity of some of the world's most successful tyrants -Saddam Hussein and that perennial favorite, Fidel Castro. Given the way Connie posed questions, you'd have thought we were discussing Mahatma Gandhi. Here's how she set up the segment: "Saddam is hardly the first dictator to outlast a U.S. president. The champion in that regard is Cuba's Fidel Castro, which is why we've chosen him as part of our weeklong series, `The Iron Fist,' looking at other rulers who have clashed with the U.S. How has Castro outlasted 10 presidents?" Gosh, right off hand, I'd have to guess that Castro has outlasted 10 U.S. presidents by killing, imprisoning or deporting anyone who disagreed with him. Also, not to be a show-off or anything, but Cuba's "elections" are Potemkin farces, much as Iraq's are. Like Saddam, Castro keeps winning overwhelmingly with a 99 percent voter turnout because people would rather cast a ballot for a brutal dictator -or a poached shrimp for that matter -than spend the rest of their lives rotting in an airless dungeon. A vote for socialism as Castro claims? Or a command performance for those with an instinct for breathing? Yet. If you were new to tyranny and didn't know much about Fidel's Cuba, you might think from watching CNN that Castro was, to use Connie's word, a "champion." Not a tyrant at all. Or a thug. Or a boring windbag who outlives presidents by intimidation and rather serious consequences for those who dissent. Indeed, the only mention of the word "tyrant" was when CNN correspondent Garrick Utley pointed out that Castro came to power in 1959 by overthrowing "a corrupt tyrant (Batista) who had been supported by the United States." Few would disagree that Batista was a bad guy. And yes, the United States supported him for selfish purposes, but that's usually the way foreign policy works. While we're being frank, I may as well mention that Rudolph doesn't really have a shiny red nose. Sorry. In Connie's defense, she did mention at some point that Castro had a nasty tendency "to execute his opposition in those early years." But that's where reality ended. Otherwise, the remainder of the segment provided a convenient soapbox for Franklin, vis a vis Connie's strategically weak questions, to praise Castro. As pollsters and professional interviewers know, it's all in the way one poses the question. Here's how Connie posed hers: "How is it possible that this man (Castro) has been able to sustain his leadership there?" Dictators, last time I checked, aren't "leaders." They're rulers who generally rule by oppression. And that firing squad thing. But Franklin gave Castro a pass on the icky part of tyranny, recommending instead that Castro's popularity is based on his marvelous programs of free medical care, free education and jobs for everybody. While it's true that Castro's guerrilla war against Batista and subsequent revolution had popular support, it's ludicrous to suggest that Cubans unanimously support today's government. Is it really necessary to ask, what choice do they have? And while it's true that many Cubans are proud of their country's health and education systems, having no basis for comparison, it's certainly not true that they're grateful for government-indentured employment that pays a starving wage. How else to explain the scramble by Cuba's best-educated workers to hold doors and carry luggage for dollar-tipping tourists once their government debt has been satisfied? Moreover, though Castro abolished racial segregation and succeeded in taking health care to poor rural areas, his economic policies have damaged rather than helped a once-prosperous Cuba. As foreign correspondent and columnist Georgie Anne Geyer wrote in her book, "Guerrilla Prince," Castro turned his country "toward an ancient, totalitarian, fettered country and ideology that in many ways carried Cuba back to Spanish medievalism rather than forward into the modern world." Cubans are lovely, delightful, generous people and their island home a jewel in the Caribbean. After visiting there not long ago, I wrote in favor of lifting the U.S. embargo because it seems pointless and ineffective. But at no time should we ever forget what Castro and Saddam are, were and always will be: brutal dictators who kill as necessary to stay in power. That in a nutshell is how Castro has managed to outlast 10 presidents, not to mention scores of Cubans who breathe no more.