(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on December 26, 1993)
We didn't know it then, but for my family and for millions of other Cubans, the Christmas holidays never would be quite the same. It was December 1958, just days before the Cuban Revolution reached its explosive climax, and there was a sense of optimism that soon Cuba would enter a period of freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights.
I was only 8 years old, but I remember those days as clearly as most Americans – at least those old enough – can recall the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. How does one forget a revolution?
Almost 35 years ago, on New Year's Day 1959, our lives were transformed forever. Dictator Fulgencio Batista had fled the country on New Year's Eve, marking the triumph of the revolution and ending the bloody guerrilla war that claimed thousands of lives in my homeland. For a brief period, watching the bearded rebels descending from the mountains into the cities, most Cubans thought their dream had come true.
But within a few months, our dream of freedom had became another nightmare of repression. Our optimism was crushed by a new dictator – who went on to outlast Batista. On Saturday, when Fidel Castro marks the 35th anniversary of his illegitimate regime, he will tie the infamous record of Latin America's longest dictatorships.
Only Paraguay's Alfredo Stroessner, 1954-89, and Mexico's Porfirio Diaz, 1876-1911, ruled as long as Castro. Even Batista, who ruled Cuba twice (1933-44 and 1952-58) – held power a total of 18 years. Even if most communist regimes had not disintegrated, Castro's image as a romantic liberator still would seem tarnished when he turned up in the same hall of shame as Diaz and Stroessner.
But now, thanks to the fall of most of his repressive allies and the bankruptcy of the communist system, everyone can see why Castro was so devoted to communism: It kept him in power. For a man who took power by deposing a dictator and riding high on a Robin Hood image, Castro's rejection of Russia's and Eastern Europe's democratic revolution clearly shows the world that he is one of the last defenders of one-party totalitarianism – simply to save his own skin.
He has outlasted many other durable Latin American dictators, such as the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo, who was in power for 31 years, (1930-61); Juan Vicente Gomez, who ruled Venezuela for 27 years, (1908-35); Manuel Estrada, who ran Guatemala for 22 years (1898-1920); and Anastasio Somoza, who controlled Nicaragua for 19 years, followed by his son, Luis, who ruled for seven years, and then his grandson, Anastasio, who ruled for another 12 years – a 38-year Somoza dynasty.
Now that freedom is taking root throughout Latin America and the former communist bloc, Castro still practices Stalinism. In the whole world, he is second in longevity only to North Korea's 81-year-old leader, Kim Il Sung, who has been in power since 1947 and holds the title as the everything he does.
But he is down there in South America, a part of the world the American media tries very hard to ignore. Most American still don’t even know who he is, or better yet, the threat he represents to our wallets.
All of that is about to change, however. We are about to get a major media blitz on Chavez. That’s because all his previous anti-American antics pale in comparison to what Chavez did Thursday. He went to Baghdad and embraced Saddam Hussein. He became the first foreign head of state to have their picture taken with their friend, Fidel.
But many of those people have had no choice but to admit that Castro represents a scar on the face of the Earth. After 35 years without free elections – in which we have seen even the Soviet Union switch leaders several times and then disintegrate, and in which even 15-year dictators such as Chile's Augusto Pinochet have given their people the freedom of choice – Castro's former admirers have had to recognize that he was never a socialista but a Fidelista.
Seeing him blinded by his stubbornness and vanity, a rebel with a lost cause pretending to be a better Marxist than the Soviets, resisting every political reform effort, even those who believed in him – from the world's leftist intellectuals to his own daughter – are now saying he has to go. No longer are they fooled by his rhetoric.
In December 1988, many of the world's foremost writers, actors, filmmakers, and artists – Italy's Federico Fellini, Mexico's Octavio Paz, Puerto Rico's Salvador Tio, Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa, Argentina's Manuel Puig, and America's Saul Bellow and Jack Nicholson – signed a letter calling on Castro to hold a plebiscite. The letter was published in a full-page ad in 18 newspapers throughout the world.
When a Cuban government spokesman called the letter "absurd and inconceivable," Castro disillusioned many other Fidelistas. Five years later, when many of his former trading partners are dead or deposed, when his multi-billion dollar Soviet subsidies have vanished, when former Fidelistas have left him dangling in the wind and even his own daughter manages to escape from Cuba and seeks U.S. political asylum, there is a new sense of optimism that Cuba will enter a period of freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights.
Now that the failure of communism has caused Castro to lose any historic justification for his revolution and his regime – I feel like I did in December 1958, when I was 8 years old and my life was transformed forever.