When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there

September 9, 2010

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic reports from Cuba.

Like a pulp mystery novel, Goldberg’s pilgrimage to the Island Paradise™ begins with a strange yet serendipitous phone call:

A couple of weeks ago, while I was on vacation, my cell phone rang; it was Jorge Bolanos, the head of the Cuban Interest Section (we of course don’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba) in Washington. “I have a message for you from Fidel,” he said. This made me sit up straight. “He has read your Atlantic article about Iran and Israel. He invites you to Havana on Sunday to discuss the article.” I am always eager, of course, to interact with readers of The Atlantic, so I called a friend at the Council on Foreign Relations, Julia Sweig, who is a preeminent expert on Cuba and Latin America: “Road trip,” I said.

Where to begin? Not being a JournoList, I’d find it disconcerting to learn that the head of the Cuban Interest Section in Washington had my cell phone number on speed dial. Mr. Goldberg not only isn’t phased by such a call, he seems pleased to get fan mail from a Communist dictator/media idol. Personally I’d find the invitation insulting and suspicious, but then again, I don’t have the words “Useful Idiot” tatooed on my forehead.

I quickly departed the People’s Republic of Martha’s Vineyard for Fidel’s more tropical socialist island paradise. Despite the self-defeating American ban on travel to Cuba, both Julia and I, as journalists and researchers, qualified for a State Department exemption. The charter flight from Miami was bursting with Cuban-Americans carrying flat-screen televisions and computers for their technologically-bereft families. Fifty minutes after take-off, we arrived at the mostly-empty Jose Marti International Airport. Fidel’s people met us on the tarmac (despite giving up his formal role as commandante en jefe after falling ill several years ago, Fidel still has many people). We were soon deposited at a “protocol house” in a government compound whose architecture reminded me of the gated communities of Boca Raton. The only other guest in this vast enclosure was the president of Guinea-Bissau.

I had to reread the above a few times to make sure the whole piece wasn’t intended as a lampoon of clueless journalism worthy of Malcolm Muggeridge or P. J. O’Rourke. How does someone set off on a pilgrimage from Martha’s Vinyard of all places, touch down at an empty International airport, to be whisked off by nameless bureaucrats to a spacious yet virtually empty gated compound without noticing the devastated countryside in between and asking oneself “What’s wrong with this picture?”

I was aware that Castro had become preoccupied with the threat of a military confrontation in the Middle East between Iran and the U.S. (and Israel, the country he calls its Middle East “gendarme”). Since emerging from his medically induced, four-year purdah early this summer (various gastrointestinal maladies had combined to nearly kill him), the 84-year-old Castro has spoken mainly about the catastrophic threat of what he sees as an inevitable war.

I was curious to know why he saw conflict as unavoidable, and I wondered, of course, if personal experience – the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 that nearly caused the annihilation of most of humanity – informed his belief that a conflict between America and Iran would escalate into nuclear war. I was even more curious, however, to get a glimpse of the great man. Few people had seen him since he fell ill in 2006, and the state of his health has been a subject of much speculation. There were questions, too, about the role he plays now in governing Cuba; he formally handed off power to his younger brother, Raul, two years ago, but it was not clear how many strings Fidel still pulled (emphasis added).

What I find curious is that Jeffrey Goldberg is curious about Castro’s thoughts on the Middle East (who knew he was an expert on the subject), yet not at all curious that the gastro-intestinal complications he discusses ad nauseum nearly killed “the great man” despite having received the best possible treatment the vaunted Cuban healthcare system could prove. Or why—if the free Cuban healthcare system is so great—did gastrointerologists and other specialists have to be flown in from Europe and Latin America to handle the complications.

The rest of Goldberg’s hagiography is devoted to Castro’s deep thoughts on the growing threat of nuclear war in the Middle East. (Yeah that surprised me too. I mean who would imagine that Iran’s nuclear arms program could pose a threat to that peaceful part of the world? Certainly not anyone at the UN or the Obama Administration.) The takeaways from the five hour harangue are Castro’s yes Virginia insight that there really is such a thing as anti-Semitism, his wish that Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tone down the Holocaust denials and the Jew-baiting rhetoric, and upon reflection that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to ask the Soviets to nuke the United States.

Not exactly the caliber of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address (or even Carl Spackler’s soliloquy from Caddyshack), but if you grade him on the failed Socialist dictator curve, surely “the great man” deserves a B- or at least “a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.”