Castro's U.N. ride

Posted: Sep 12, 2000 12:00 AM
Well, did you hear what Castro, that old joker, did when he went on stage to speak to the General Assembly at the United Nations? There is a light on the podium that begins to blink five minutes after the head of state begins talking. That is a signal: It says, Sir, end your speech and get your arse off the stage; there is another head of state waiting to speak. What Castro did was theatrically to place a handkerchief over the light, an acknowledgment of his renowned verbosity (What comes after a Saturday night speech by Castro? Sunday).

He did, in fact, observe the time limit. He then removed the handkerchief, and continued his theatrics when two U.N. personnel materialized to take him to where his next meeting was scheduled. He feigned surprise and fear, turning to a fellow dignitary and saying in mock concern, "Where are they taking me?" He should be able to do that routine rather authentically, since there are thousands of Cubans who, when thus accosted, have been led, under Castro's direction, to prison or execution.

But the day had only begun for President Castro. He managed in his five-minute talk to deplore the influence of the United States throughout the world and to rail against the oppressions of the wealthy countries at the expense of the poorer countries. Castro is an authority on oppression, presiding as he does over a country that gasps for breath under the load of his socialist strictures.

Mr. Castro is here in New York addressing 150 world leaders and blaming the wealthy nations for, in effect, becoming wealthy -- by encouraging freedom of economic and other human activity. Mr. Castro added that Cuba is "more free" than other states because inasmuch as Cuba doesn't belong to any of the international economic organizations (World Bank, etc.), Cuba need not fear retaliation from the United States when it goes its own way; and that's true.

By nice coincidence, the same day Castro spoke, the Kennedy Library released the recording of conversations in the White House during the Cuban missile crisis, a record of President Kennedy's discussions of the pledge he would make to Khrushchev not to invade Cuba, in exchange for the removal of the Soviet missiles. That was 38 years ago, and Castro is now absolutely senior in rank among the world's tyrants, a living example of the failure of U.S. policy, economic and homicidal.

But the best was yet to be, and all of the U.N. was tittering about it. It was a diplomatic lunch. In the crush, President Castro extended his hand and President Clinton took it -- the first body contact between Castro and any of the nine American presidents who have served since he came down from the Cuban mountains.

The U.S. side of the political theater was nicely sustained: Press secretary Joe Lockhart, asked if it was true that Clinton and Castro had shaken hands, replied, no. Somebody somewhere got through to the White House to say, Look, this isn't going to work -- maybe 20 world leaders saw the handshake. So the White House said well, yes, there was just that, a little exchange. Then Secretary of State Albright hove in to promise that the two-minute exchange (a very long handshake, come to think of it) had contained "nothing of substance."

We do not know whether a blinking light signaled an appropriate end to this conversation, but we do know that nothing much is going on that would affect the current freeze on economic activity by Americans in Cuba, which is a bad idea, now that the Cold War is over.

But an end to the U.S. boycott would not alone relieve Cuba of its misery. And would have no bearing on the larger agenda Castro came to New York to consider. "Many in the present generation are losing confidence in the ability of the United Nations to make a difference between war and peace," Secretary-General Kofi Annan had said that morning, opening the session. Cuba does not have such problems as stopped the concerned world dead in Bosnia, East Timor and Rwanda in recent years.

It was Mr. Clinton's final appearance at the U.N. as president, and he did not let pass the opportunity to loose one of those cliches on which he thrives, and the world suffers through. "Until we confront the iron link between deprivation, disease and war," he said, "we will never be able to create the peace that the founders of the United Nations dreamed of."

That is U.N.-speak, at best silly, at worst contemptible. There is no such iron link. There are desperately poor nations that don't go in for genocide, and very rich nations that do. But Castro surely nodded his head in agreement, since impersonal causes of human misery are the mint of ideological dreamworlds.