The last few years have seen the foundations of a passable US foreign policy weaken and in many cases disappear; this time something will have to be done. There are too many areas of controversy, danger and conflict in the rest to the world and it may not be wise to ignore a little island under a tyrant that might add to current conflicts. Fidel Castro’s delicate condition, and the future of Cuba, are now on the agenda.
President Bush is relying on his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to provide the necessary attention to this important Caribbean nation. She has shown special ability in dealing with the more abstract features of international conflicts even if the pedestrian sides are diplomatically ignored. She can always be counted upon to deliver fluid analysis, romantic projections into the future and learned references to the socio-political development of the Western mind in the face of novel labor orientations, revived humanism and revolutionary principles of live and let live. It is the kind of political philosophy that appeals to Fidel Castro.
It was agreed that a special mission be dispatched to Havana to begin a round of conversations with Fidel Castro and brother Raul, now in charge. Condoleezza wisely insisted that this is the time to ‘Plan or perish. Talk is cheaper than funerals!’
“Comandante, the special envoys from Washington have arrived. Do I ask them to wait the usual four hours or will you see them now?”
“Chico, no te pases. Tell them to come right in. And bring some coffee, Daiquiris and galletas Marias. These gringos eat at all times of day and night.”
Fidel gazed at the Havana skyline that seemed to emerge from the palm tree tops and for a few moments his expression softened. His unkempt beard and the continuous veil of cigar smoke half covered his features and the slowness and effort of his gestures. He said:
“I remember my last trip to New York. At any hour of day or night, the bars and the fast food shops were full of gringos feeding their faces. One pound, half pound hamburgers, Bacon cheeseburgers, barbecue burgers, chili burgers, strato burgers, all consumed with great speed and always accompanied by loads of fried potatoes”
“But I understand that New York has some of the finest restaurants in the Hemisphere…” observed Colonel Roldan.
“Hah! forget the restaurants. They keep doctors hours. Their business hours – when they are open – are as strict and uncompromising as those observed by the underground vaults of Fort Knox. If you arrive five minutes before they open or 11 seconds after they close they won`t let you past the doormat. And you can`t do a decent “sobremesa” in any of them..”.
“They sound more Swiss than American.”
Sensing that the Comandante was about to embark on one of his long reminiscences that could consume the better part of at least a couple of hours, the Aide de Camp, Colonel Roldan quickly interrupted the Comandante , excused himself and rushed out of the room. He had already heard the story a number of times. It was always almost the same. McDonalds one time; Wendy`s the next. Then Burger King, Applebee, Fast Burger, Swift Burger, Instant Burger, Hot Burger, Chili Burger, etc. etc.
In a moment the Aide was back accompanied by three Americans each carrying his own, inevitable attaché case.
“Coño, they all look like Warren Christopher the old Secretary of State in the nineties” — thought Fidel.
They were of medium height, anemic complexion, poor muscular tone and a sad look in the eye that brought to mind Leonard Cohen`s wailing songs. The older one spoke:
“Comandante, as you know we are now prepared to discuss your future. The President has empowered us to provide you with the best alternatives possible. The US Government is ready to help you make the transition in the best terms possible for you and the future of your country. You may choose from several retirement modes. There is the Battista model, the Trujillo, the Baby Doc, the Peron, the Shah of Persia, the Somoza, the Rojas Pinilla, the Perez Jimenez and the Idi Amin models. They all have performed to the clients satisfaction over the years..”
“I know all about those models. Most of those guys ended up in Spain when Franco was alive. But the old man is gone and Spain is no longer the haven it was.”
“Well, Comandante, Spain would not be a bad choice for you. As I understand it, your parents were from Galicia and you still have family there. Besides, Spain has been one of the few countries that has maintained close relations with Cuba, sort of the Iberian member of the socialist brotherhood. We are also aware that you were especially friendly with Felipe Gonzalez, the Prime Minister in the first Socialist government in Spain..”
Castro smiled at him and in a mellow tone said:
“Lissen, for a State Department voodoo man, you are not well informed. Haven’t you heard that Socialism and socialists are just about gone in Europe? Those guys forgot about the people; forgot about the glorious revolution; forgot about the historical mandate they had accepted and allowed all sorts of corrupt practices and unethical dealings to cast a shadow on our great doctrine. Some of them seemed to have learned their dirty tricks from Batista. And let me tell you…”
At this point, his Aide, Coronel Roldan, anticipating another one of Fidel`s lengthy tirades, interrupted the Comandante by passing to him a sheet of paper.
Fidel read it slowly, silently moving his lips and clenching and unclenching his fists.
“They cancelled my Gold Visa card, the pigs!”
The Americans were taken aback. They realized that another untimely slip had been made; the links between the State Department and the Banking Community had traditionally been weak and rusty and, often, no amount of begging or cajoling could get the Banks to deviate from their set procedures. The appeals to patriotism and cooperation were invariably received with the polite refusals reserved for retired postal workers applying for a loan.
They just stood there and silently awaited Fidel’s next words.
“Well, that is one thing you can do for me. Get me the darned card back in action. I can do without almost anything except my Cohibas and without a credit card, I couldn`t even get a used cigar.”
One of the envoys used his cell phone to call his office with instructions to reinstate Castro’s card. Then, all three of them took turns reciting a long list of places and other details as potential retirement havens for the Comandante. There were places like La Paz, Bolivia, Helsingfors, Vancouver, Auckland, New Zealand, and Helen, the Bavarian Village north of Atlanta, Georgia..
The Comandante did not seem impressed.
“Stop now, por favor. I don`t want to be treated like a leper and stuck away like an embarrassment. I would like to make something of myself. For instance, there is a rich Banquet and Speech circuit in the US. I understand that Bush Sr., Schwarzkopf, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Kissinger, Canseco and others get more than 100 thousand pesos for each appearance. Jesus! I have so many speeches in me that I could deliver up to 4 a day — without repeating myself.”
“Comandante” Interrupted the senior envoy, who up to the moment seemed to have been asleep “Please understand that you can not receive famous guest treatment in the US and that some avenues are unfortunately not available to you..”
“I hate to admit it, but I guess you are partially right. But I would just love to appear in David Letterman`s show. I could improvise 10 comments about anything he`d want. Also, don`t tell me that the Kiwanis Club, the Rotarians, the million civic clubs you have in places like Kickapoo Junction, Yuma, Laguna Nigel, Kissing Falls, Dunwoody, Perkins Corner, would not love to have me tell them about our glorious revolution and how we defeated Batista and his corrupt army. And don`t worry, I can easily adapt my speeches to what the American public wants to hear. Besides, I am finished attacking American imperialism, the trade embargo and the letters I get from the credit card people every time I am two hours late with my payments. You can also be sure that I shan’t mention the cigars I’ve been sending through Mexico and Canada to the chosen few in Washington, Wall Street and Yankee Stadium….”
“Comandante, I am sorry but the US is out. There are now too many Cuban Americans who would object strenuously to your presence in our country. Don`t forget that you were responsible for their having to leave Cuba and settle in Florida.”
Fidel let go with a reverberating and resounding laugh. He choked on it and turned red purple. All the time banging his hand on the top of the desk. As the cough subsided, he continued to laugh but in a more moderate fashion.
“Santo Dios! You have missed the point all these years. If I show up in the States, half a million Cubans would want to build me a statue. Not only that but they would get organized and before long I would be running for Congress. Cubans in the States are, and will be forever grateful to me that I forced them to move their asses from our sandy, tropical and indolent beaches and invade Florida. They found a state in its last throes, in spite of its wonderful and scenic beaches, lagoons, islands, weather, mangoes and friendly crocs. They worked their tails off – their own not the crocs – and turned Florida into a haven for old Americans, tired Canadians and an adventurous multitude of young Americans on vacation. The Cubans have all become rich and prosperous and made a million others make so much money that at one time the Swiss bankers wanted to buy Florida, thanks to whom? Can`t you see that since Ponce de Leon`s days we Cubans have felt that La Florida was ours? We have just made it back after all these years. But it was Castro who helped them make up their minds.”
“That is certainly a very original slant on history, Comandante”
“Comandante” added one of the other envoys, whose ears stuck a bit towards opposite cardinal points, “Our concern is not the rest of Cuba but yourself at this point. And we are here to help you resolve the matter. As you know, deadlines have been set and the UN, the OAS, NAFTA, LAFTA and the Baseball League Commissioners are anxious that you leave Cuba as soon as possible.”
Castro took another long pull on the Cohiba and smiled.
“Si, si ya lo sé. I thank you and your President for the concern you are showing. I am sincere when I say that I will leave Cuba soon; I am aware more than a thousand percent (a favorite Castro expression) that there are pressures. But please don`t send me Jimmy Carter again. He`s been driving me crazy over the phone even if I personally like him Also the last time he was here he spent a whole morning telling me about his church organization in Plains, Georgia and selling me some gringo Gospel. The old guy doesn’t realize that his actions in foreign affairs are creating a pattern easy to imitate. Carter has managed to reactivate your prize collection of retired imperialists who up until now were mothballed in luxury surroundings. Let me tell you. I have received calls from Kissinger, McNamara, Jackie Robinson, Eartha Kitt, President Ford, Billy Graham, Cronkite, Dan Rather, Jack Welch, Yogi Berra and Julio Iglesias. They all want to help me “make the transition”, as they say. They all want to mediate, spend a few days in Havana, then go back and write their accounts on how they saved the day and tamed Castro”
“But what is it that you really want, Comandante ?”
“Well, to start, I want you to put me in touch with Simon and Schuster, Random House, Doubleday, and some other top publishers. I would like to have a modest advance of five or ten million dollars for my memoirs. Also I would need an agent, someone like Tony DeVito, and also a life pass to the World Series Games. By the way, don`t forget to get me a good Health Insurance policy, like the one your Congressmen have. I want to live in the States. But not in Florida, too many Cubans there.
“As I said, Comandante, the US is out. There is little you could contribute to our democracy..”
“Well, I don’t know.. I could help Bush and his colleagues straighten out their Iraq headache. Also, Medicare, Medicaid and all those other suspicious plans developed by your doctors, pharmaceutical companies, morticians, toilet paper engineers and who knows who else. They have made the system so complicated that senior citizens prefer to die or emigrate to Mexico or Canada. Hell of a way to run a country. “
“Comandante, Health Care is a complex issue in the US, and involves practically all sectors of our social and economic levels.”
“No joda, hombre! You just make it complex, or rather, allow different groups to make it complex. I bet you that if Washington proposed legislation that would abolish taxes, make all transportation, health care and education 100 percent free, would reduce the retirement age to 30 years and build a railroad to all the island resorts that could be ridden free of charge, there would be a full half in the country that would be violently opposed…”
“Comandante, opposition, leading to the discussion of issues is a fundamental ingredient of our democracy. We always expect different points of view, but we also expect that majority decisions be respected….”
“Yes I heard that before, but I wonder if your president has. We in Cuba have one of the most advanced Health Care systems in the entire planet. I did it in less than two years; I had to get rid of all the administrators and the layers of lawyers that cluttered the system under Batista. To tell you the truth, I enjoyed getting rid of all those who said it could not be done. That is where Florida came in handy…”
The senior envoy realized that he had to humor Fidel a while longer. The direct approach did not seem to have any effect on the Comandante. Castro continued:
“Señor, sometimes you gotta be firm, or the hormigas will eat you. In my case, it was really simple. No more private clinics, private doctors, private deals. Our good Russian friends helped some with new concepts in Hospital care, management and usage, and production of low cost pharmaceuticals.. My philosophy was also very simple. A doctor is trained to provide a service, but so is a barber. I recognized the difference in the type of service and drew up a corresponding scale of retribution and compensation but not like in the US, Europe and the industrialized nations, where a doctor earns two to three million dollars while a barber barely takes home 12 to 16,000 dollars a year. Everyone here has access to medical assistance, just like any other public service such as driving on highways, turning on the lights, or sitting on a clean beach. We nationalized the doctors along with disease and illness. We control them.”
He paused to allow his visitors to taste the cool Cuba Libres served by Colonel Roldan. Shaking his head, he continued:
“The big problem you have is that too many people get sick out there. Stop lousing up your food and everything with artificial chemical ingredients, preservatives, oxidizers, additives, colorants, anti-this and anti-that. And above all protect your young from junk food. It is probably the most harmful way to affect their normal development. You must stop eating slice upon slice of junk foods prepared in greasy ovens in lighted garages and prepared by uncoordinated high school dropouts”
Again, Coronel Roldan saved the day. This was a subject that could keep Fidel “on the air” for a solid week. He coughed discreetly and approached the Comandante. He whispered in Castro`s ear and politely retreated to the back of the room.
“Gentlemen, please forgive me, Coronel Roldan just told me that lunch hour is almost past. I hope you`ll do me the honor of having a repast with me…”
“Of course, we will be delighted”
“Great, Colonel Roldan just told me that the pizzas he ordered are here!”