Fabiola Santiago

If engagement gives Fidel Castro a heart attack, it’s good enough for me

In this Feb. 13, 2016, file photo, Fidel Castro meets Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, left, in Havana. In a commentary published on Monday, Castro said that :We do not need for the empire to give us anything,” in reference to the recent visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Cuba.
In this Feb. 13, 2016, file photo, Fidel Castro meets Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, left, in Havana. In a commentary published on Monday, Castro said that :We do not need for the empire to give us anything,” in reference to the recent visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Cuba. AP

Neither Fidel Castro nor the hard-liners in Cuban Miami liked President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba and his extraordinary speech.

No surprise there.

The foes also didn’t care for the Rolling Stones’ blast of rock at the historic concert. La Habana as venue for a Caribbean-styled Woodstock with throngs parading wild-haired and covered in body art and piercings wasn’t exactly the counter-revolution early exiles dreamed of. Who could have ever thought it would be Mick Jagger that would holler from a stage in Havana to fanatical applause: “Times are changing!”

But now comes the after-party, and no, we didn’t have to wait long to hear from the two entrenched sides adept at operating only under the old policy of isolation.

After saturating the media with anti-Obama discourse, Cuba unearthed its ancient retired dictator, a well-worn bait for exiles: Obama’s pro-democracy speech almost gave him a heart attack, Castro said, allegedly moving the 89-year-old to pen one of his infamous “reflections,” this one titled with a sardonic racist tinge, “Brother Obama.”

President Barack Obama encouraged Cubans to embrace democracy and its leaders to tolerate dissent and criticism, during a much-anticipated and nationally televised speech Tuesday that highlighted how much the longtime foes have in common.

Some exiles quickly responded, as if anybody expected different from a dictatorship: See, I told you so!

Castro didn’t disappoint them.

Rousing the old false pride of the comandante-in-chief, Castro boasted that Cubans don’t need the “empire” to give them anything.

He sure doesn’t. Forbes Magazine estimated Castro’s wealth years ago at a mere $900 million. He doesn’t pay for his medical care, so no chance he’s blown through all the dough. His family’s wealth is also well-documented. Remember the recent tell-all photos of Castro’s playboy son partying it up in luxury in the Turkish Riviera? The photos circled the globe.

Cubans, on the other hand, earn an average salary of $20 a month, not enough to properly feed their families. They sure do need all that the new relationship with the United States offers, and more.

Clearly the Castro clan underestimated the powerful charm and eloquence of Obama, whose speech at Havana’s Gran Teatro was broadcast to the Cuban people. Now they’re horrified by the sense of empowerment and possibility his words have unleashed in Cuba.

Evidence is in videos coming out of the island. In one, a group of neighbors come to the rescue of a woman arrested for yelling “Down with the Castros’ dictatorship! Respect for human rights!” Men and women rush to pluck her out of the police car and place her safely behind them. The police are left empty-handed. In another, as a man is being arrested also shouting anti-Castro slogans, the wife filming the scene invokes Obama’s name to intimidate police.

Hours before President Barack Obama landed in Cuba, Cuban officials arrested some 50 protesters of a key dissidents group, the Ladies in White.

As expected, the dictatorship is responding by clamping down and resurrecting old controls in the new relationship with the United States. Some American tour operators, for instance, woke up Monday to unexpected changes to itineraries. Cuban tourism authorities notified them that they will restrict with whom they can engage to the government’s approved list — a clear sign that Cuban hardliners are pushing back, post-Obama.

Likewise in exile circles wedded to partisan alliances, Obama’s eloquent case for democracy — leaving the future where it belongs, in the hands of the Cuban people — wasn’t the kind of American intervention envisioned for decades.

And so, some find themselves awkwardly on the same side as their foes — the wrong side of history.

If engagement gives Fidel Castro a heart attack, it’s good enough for me.

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