While the world's attention is focused on the aftermath of the war in Iraq, whose vicious totalitarian dictatorship has met its demise, relatively little notice has been spared for the brutality of another regime on the other side of the globe: Fidel Castro's dictatorship in Cuba. After much talk about burgeoning economic and political liberalization on the island, hopes of a Cuban-style glasnost were dashed earlier this month when about 80 dissidents—journalists, librarians, economists, and other such subversives—were speedily tried behind closed doors and given prison sentences of up to 28 years for conspiring against the government. Their crime was to have organized a petition drive calling for basic political and civil rights for the people of Cuba. While this crackdown is deplorable, it is hardly shocking: Castro's thuggish tactics should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his record. What's truly shocking is the absence of outrage from his American friends.
Where are all the Fidelistas in Hollywood, whose lengthy love affair with Castro is impressively—and depressingly—documented by Damien Cave in the April issue of The Washington Monthly? Oliver Stone has recently completed a documentary, Commandante, which HBO was supposed to air in May but canceled last week because of the news events. In Stone's oeuvre, Castro is given a chance to assert, unchallenged, that the Cuban regime has never practiced torture—and also to show his "human" side by discussing, among other things, his love for the movie Titanic. Maybe the metaphor of a huge sinking ship strikes a chord: After all, Castro presides over a country whose economy has hit bottom and whose inhabitants are willing to brave shark-infested waters in rickety boats to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Stone is well known for his far-left political views, but he is hardly alone in his Fidel worship. Actors Kevin Costner and Jack Nicholson and director Steven Spielberg have made fawning comments about the Cuban dictator; after a trip to Cuba last year, Spielberg described his meeting with Castro as "the most important eight hours in my life."
And it's not just Hollywood types, either. Media stars and executives, from CNN founder Ted Turner to ABC News veteran Barbara Walters and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, have joined in the lovefest—apparently setting aside for the occasion their passion about freedom of speech.
In The Washington Monthly, Cave speculates that the reasons for this strange romance are both personal and political: They range from resentment of US foreign policy and the perception of Castro as a fearless David standing up to an American Goliath to the dictator's personal charisma and his skill at massaging the egos of his celebrity guests. All that may be so. But one would think that the recent crackdown in Cuba would serve as a shattering wake-up call even for the most oblivious.
Thankfully, few people have picked up the despicable line of some Castro apologists who have blamed US diplomat James Cason for "provoking" the Castro regime by meeting with the dissidents and (horror of horrors!) letting independent journalists hold an ethics seminar at his residence. Yet the silence from high-profile Americans who have rubbed elbows with Castro has been deafening. And, perhaps most sadly, one of the missing voices has been that of former US President Jimmy Carter.
Carter, who sought to make a commitment to human rights the cornerstone of US foreign policy during his presidency, visited Cuba nearly a year ago. Laudably, he met not only with Castro but with the dissidents as well; he publicly expressed support for their goals and used the opportunity to call for democratic change in Cuba in his speech on Cuban television. However, Carter's overall stance was far from unfriendly to the Castro regime. He complimented its achievements in education and health care and urged the United States to ease its hard-line stance on relations with Cuba, including the trade embargo. Where is Carter now, when the activists whose efforts he warmly praised on his trip to Cuba have been rewarded with Draconian punishments? If he truly believes that political actions should be based on moral principles, he should have held a press conference to denounce the crackdown the day the dissidents were arrested without even waiting for the sentences—and without waiting to be asked for his comments.
Perhaps Carter feels that antagonizing dictators is counterproductive. But there are times when silence equals consent—and this is one of them.
Correction: I wrote that filmmaker Steven Spielberg describes his meeting with Fidel Castro on his trip to Cuba last November as "the most important eight hours of my life." I have been informed that the quote, which appeared in Damien Cave's article in The Washington Monthly, is a fake that originated in the Cuban press.