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When Jeffrey Met Fidel

On the odd meeting between The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg and Fidel Castro.

12:07 PM, Sep 10, 2010 • By LEE SMITH
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Jeffrey Goldberg is back from Cuba, where he was summoned by Fidel Castro after the former Cuban president read Goldberg’s recent article on the likelihood of an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear program. Goldberg promises that his Havana adventure will be the subject of a forthcoming story, but in the meantime, he’s blogging about it, the highlight of which appears to be a dolphin show he watched alongside Fidel himself and the daughter of Che Guevara, whom we are told loved animals. And then there’s the dog-and-pony show, which was conducted solely for the benefit of The Atlantic’s national correspondent.

When Jeffrey Met Fidel

I have known Jeffrey Goldberg for several years and greatly admire his work. His lively and insightful reporting from and on the Middle East is distinguished, among other reasons, for a moral lucidity that is very rare in journalistic and academic Middle East circles: Unlike many other regional experts, Jeff never equivocates on fundamental issues – e.g., regimes that torture, rape and massacre their own people are bad, and murdering Israelis is not resistance but murder. It is disconcerting then to see him struggling for that same clarity when it comes to an authoritarian government outside of the Middle East, like that of the Castro brothers.


His choice of travel companion/Cuban affairs expert – Julia Sweig from the Council on Foreign Relations – didn’t help matters. Castro, writes Goldberg, “greeted Julia warmly; they have known each other for more than twenty years.”

You might well wonder what kind of researcher is on friendly terms with the head of the authoritarian regime that she writes about. I am pretty certain that if Jeff were to visit, say, Damascus, with a CFR scholar air-kissing Syrian president Bashar al-Asad, he’d get the picture. After all, it is Goldberg’s probity, as well as the pointed barbs he has directed at useful idiots, that have earned him the enmity of the creep parade – journalists like Roger Cohen and Middle East experts like Juan Cole, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett who double as apologists for the region’s most murderous states and so-called non-state actors. So what is he doing on a “road trip” with Sweig? As the CFR website witlessly boasts, she is the “only scholar inside or outside of Cuba allowed access to the complete collection in the Cuban Council of State’s Office of Historic Affairs.” One needs only to understand that authoritarian regimes are the same across the world – Sweig has access to Havana’s classified records because Castro knows that she would not dream of challenging the revolution’s fundamental account of itself lest she forfeit her access. In other words, she’s Fidel’s Flynt Leverett.

Goldberg asks her to interpret Fidel’s "stunning statement" that "The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore." Fidel, Sweig explains, is trying "to create space for his brother, Raul, who is now president, to enact the necessary reforms in the face of what will surely be push-back from orthodox communists within the Party and the bureaucracy."

This "old-guard" narrative that Sweig lays out is one of the oldest fairytales in the authoritarian regime handbook, a fiction popular with apologists around the world looking to portray their despot as an aspiring reformer caught in a tragic, inexorable bind – the real bad guy isn’t the supreme leader with the power to imprison, torture and execute on a whim; no, the source of the problem is actually the corrupt inner circle that is restraining the reform-minded Castro boys from unleashing the energies of the potentially dynamic Cuban economy.

After all, as Goldberg explains (presumably channeling Sweig), Raul

is already loosening the state's hold on the economy. He recently announced, in fact, that small businesses can now operate and that foreign investors could now buy Cuban real estate. (The joke of this new announcement, of course, is that Americans are not allowed to invest in Cuba, not because of Cuban policy, but because of American policy. In other words, Cuba is beginning to adopt the sort of economic ideas that America has long-demanded it adopt, but Americans are not allowed to participate in this free-market experiment because of our government's hypocritical and stupidly self-defeating embargo policy. We'll regret this, of course, when Cubans partner with Europeans and Brazilians to buy up all the best hotels).

Of course the goal of U.S. policy was not to make Cuba adopt free-market principles. The embargo has been meant to highlight the fact that Fidel had expropriated that same land that Raul now wants to sell off to keep the regime afloat. Indeed, it is meant to protect the rights of American citizens, as well as U.S. corporate interests, whose private property was stolen by the Castros. Of course, most of what they took once belonged to Cuban citizens. To “liberate” that real estate from the clutches of the bourgeoisie, the Castros jailed, executed and assassinated many thousands of Cubans even as others made their way to these shores where the concerns of Cuban émigrés dovetailed with U.S. national interests. This is still the case, which is why the Cuban lobby is almost as efficient, albeit on a much smaller scale, as the Israel lobby.

After the fall of the USSR, this former Soviet satellite 90 miles from the continental United States no longer constituted a strategic threat in its own right, but even now the Castros’ Cuba represents a danger to U.S. national security. Among many other incidents, the recent story about the elderly Cleveland Park couple who spied for the Cubans reveals that Havana is extremely energetic in its efforts to collect against the American government. Today, Cuban intelligence may have little use themselves for the intelligence they gather here, but this resourceful clandestine service has many well-paying customers, none of whom are friends of the United States – including that same Islamic Republic of Iran that Fidel was so eager to discuss with an author whose thorough reporting on a possible Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program included conversations with Arab, Israeli as well as U.S. officials and policymakers.

I don’t know why Goldberg believes that our longstanding Cuba policy is stupid, hypocritical and self-defeating, but it raises the question: What does he think about the U.S. policy designed to pressure another regime that tortures, jails and murders its own citizens while threatening and destabilizing other actors in its own region of interest? Right, Iran. If he thinks these sanctions, too, are hypocritical and self-defeating, he should again ask Sweig what Fidel meant with his “stunning statement.” It is clear that the Cuban model was disastrous or else Raul would not be trying to pawn off parcels of Cuba to any European with an interest in sex tourism and a bagful of cash. Raul’s fire sale, contrary to Sweig’s spin, is not evidence of a nascent free-market spirit, but proof that the U.S. embargo has bled this vicious and bloodthirsty regime dry. We can only hope that with enough time the Obama administration’s efforts regarding Iran will prove equally successful. We also hope that the magazine article Goldberg is writing on his trip to Cuba will bear the customary hallmarks that have made his work a standard of journalistic excellence and integrity.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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