Tuesday, February 26, 2008

El Hefe Hangs It Up

I saw a cartoon from an editorial page last week that got me thinking. On the left side was a huge heap of football players, all with numbers in the 30's and 40's. On the right side was a frail-looking bearded man about to gently place a football over the goal line. I looked again, and noticed that the old man was, in fact, Fidel Castro, and the players were the US presidents of his time, from Eisenhower to George W. Bush, each wearing his presidential number.
How did he get by all those tacklers? How indeed. That's what we are left to wonder. Considering all the national leaders our military and assisting CIA spooks have put on the skids since the late 50's, it is nothing short of astonishing that Castro survives to hand over the government to brother Raul and...retire, I guess, though it's hard to imagine him taking up woodworking or becoming an aging golfer.
We can't kid ourselves that Fidel was some kind of closet good guy. He knew that making omlets takes lots of broken eggs, and the early years of his rule featured plenty of executions at the end of very short trials. He let a few people leave Cuba over the years, but it was always on his terms. The country is today hopelessly stuck in a Cold War time warp of crumbling Stalinist inefficiency, long surpassed by its neighbors in terms of livability.
Then again, Castro really wasn't much like Stalin. Cuban children get to go to school, and there is medical care available, though far more accessible (in Communist tradition) to party members. El Hefe (which I think is Spanish for "fuhrer") went around in fatigues and liked to keep up revolutionary appearances, but he also loved baseball and seemed interested in everything happening in the US, too. I recall his offer to the mother of a Cuban expatriot player to come watch the World Series at his house - the only home in Cuba where it could be seen. It's details like that that they don't teach you in Dictator School.
We dearly wanted him out, at first because of his connections to the old Soviet Union, then later just out of habit or because of our undying love for all things Cuban which we could not buy with him still in office. Our plots to grease his pathway into the ocean all failed, some by luck, others by poor design. Love him or hate him, the Cubans themselves haven't thought much about coup plots since the 60's, even though Miami still seems to be full of aging hotheads who can't have a good day if Castro has had one. Hating Castro there isn't just a cottage industry. It's a way of life that even pops up in the middle of presidential campaigns, like the Elian Gonzales flap in 2000. On the island, they just try to keep their old 1950's Buicks and Cadillacs going down the road.
Our oldest son did missionary work in what had been East Germany just a few years before. The people there retained a cynical, untrusting view of life based on the workover that Communism had dealt them. I really don't know if the Cubans will one day feel that way, too. After all, they aren't Germans. But they aren't Americans, either, and they could choose to retain the simple life they have had longer than we expect. I wish them a sweet and peaceful transition out of Communism some day, perhaps after the manner of the Czechs. But it will happen sooner or later, and without El Hefe around to watch, and comment.


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