Fidel Castro was calling by cell phone during Hugo Chavez’s final remarks at the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, after King Juan Carlos of Spain had told Chavez, Venezuela’s president, to shut up.
The convalescing Cuban dictator wanted to tell Chavez he was thinking about the Chilean volunteers who had gone off to fight against Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in the 1960s.
Is Castro’s reminiscence of consequence? You decide.
The Somoza regime was in trouble after Sandinista guerrillas, funded by the Cuban regime and the Soviet Union, were engaging the government. But support for the Sandinistas didn’t mushroom until after the devastating 1972 earthquake that struck Managua (and the Somozas stole much of the international aid sent). President Jimmy Carter withdrew U.S. support to the Nicaragua regime, and Somoza resigned in 1979.
Daniel Ortega, a member of the multiparty junta, was later elected president. He served from 1985 to 1990, backed by Castro. The well-armed, U.S.-backed Contras moved against Ortega as he tried out socialist approaches. Encountering considerable internal dissent, he directed his hostility toward the United States.
More than 30,000 Nicaraguans died in the conflict between the Sandinista government and the Contras. It brought on in the United States the Iran-Contra scandal, where Oliver North and other members of the Reagan administration defied Congress’ Boland Amendment, sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to supply the Contras.
Since those times, the Soviet empire has collapsed. With it went the Soviets’ direct and indirect trade subsidies to Cuba. Ever since, the Cuban regime has been less able to provide basic goods to its people. It has moved into tourism and even some alleged narco-trading to get hard currency.
In light of the resulting consumer scarcities, black marketing and rising human-rights abuses, preparations for the 1991 Fourth Congress of Cuba’s Communist Party brought some expectations of change. According to journalist Andres Oppenheimer’s book, “Castro’s Final Hour: The Secret Story Behind the Coming Downfall of Communist Cuba,” 1.1 million opinions were collected by the party and compacted into 76 reports filling 9,063 pages. Reformers even thought about a structural change with a reform-minded prime minister directing the government.
A classified report went to the Central Committee that counted 3,300 people who wanted free farmers markets. Nearly 100 said they wanted a multiparty system and 50 proposed a market economy. These numbers were barely a whisper but they were considered a roar to a system that barely tolerates dissent and certainly not opposition. Popular demand for reforms could not be altogether ignored.
Raul Castro even was reported in support of some of the reforms. But he was conspicuously absent at the convening of the Congress. He did not appear until toward the end. Fidel Castro put a stop to that reform movement.
That’s why the secret poll, reported this month by the International Republican Institute, should not have come as much of a surprise. Younger and more educated Cubans drive up the numbers to show overwhelming support for a more democratic system (76 percent) and a market-driven economy (84 percent).
Once affiliated with the Republican Party but now reputedly nonpartisan, the IRI conducted 600 man-on-the street interviews on the island. The methodology used, where respondents didn’t know they were being interviewed, remains a controversial technique among pollsters.
What is not controversial is that the Old Man, in his fantasy ideological heroics and scarcity economics, did not take people’s simple needs into account. Instead, he created Depressionlike queues for mealtime commodities. The 1991 poll and the more recent one also suggest people don’t want to let go of the gains their country has made, as in health care and education.
Among the Old Man’s last gasps over the cell phone to Chavez was not braggadocio concerning how many he helped live but about squandering lives and the country’s treasury to resist, to fight, to die — for God knows what.
(Jose de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power” (Archer Books, 2003), writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)