Joan Smith: Brutal, paranoid and at death's door ... Happy birthday, Castro!

His enemies are massing, longing for him to die so they can flood in
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The Independent Online

What do George Galloway, Diego Maradona, Hugo Chavez, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and an obscure former minister called Brian Wilson have in common - apart from sounding like guests at one of those dinner parties where no one else can get a word in edgeways? The answer is their adulation of one of the 20th century's last surviving dictators, currently on his deathbed or - officially - recovering his strength a bit too slowly for the opening of his delayed eightieth birthday celebrations last week.

And if there were anything wrong with the socialist paradise the great man has created - of course there isn't, I'm just raising the hypothetical possibility - it's all someone else's fault. Foreign enemies are to blame for the mobs of government supporters who surround the homes of political opponents, abusing them through loudspeakers (provided, along with transport, by the regime). It's their fault that the state-controlled media broadcasts special editions of a current affairs programme, Mesa Redonda, showing images of dissidents' families. Nor is it surprising that an enraged populace responds - I heard this from a Scandinavian diplomat last week - by subjecting foreign missions to a campaign of harassment, puncturing their car tyres.

I don't suppose the regime could do anything about the 69 prisoners of conscience recognised by Amnesty International, or indeed the thousands of young people in prison not for committing a crime but on a charge of peligrosidad predelectiva - being likely to commit one in future, like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. Perhaps Cruise could make a sequel in the dictator's insanitary prisons, where diseases such as hepatitis are rife and brutal guards encourage convicts to assault political detainees.

Not a word of this appears in the state media, although letters are smuggled out of the country by the relatives of prisoners. One of the dictator's longest-serving detainees, Francisco Chaviano, was denied family visits for three years and forced to spend five years without access to sunlight; his offence was to collect information on fellow citizens who had died trying to leave the country illegally - exit visas are obligatory and prohibitively expensive - in order to pass details to the international press.

Sadly, there is now trouble in paradise. Fidel Castro's only public appearances in recent months have been on TV, minus his trademark fatigues and looking frail, and the country is being run by his unpopular younger brother.

His enemies are massing, longing for him to expire so they can flood back into the country. Some are decent people, who want free elections and respect for human rights, but many more are right-wing fruitcakes and shady characters with links to organised crime. This is the dictator's shameful legacy, his failure to build a genuinely popular mass movement which will ensure that his undoubted social achievements will outlast him.

For once, his supporters are correct to blame this state of affairs on foreigners, namely the Americans, whose blockade has done more than anything to keep him in power for so long. So let's wish a belated happy birthday to Fidel Castro - and heave a sigh for Cuba, still labouring under the double misfortune of a paranoid leader and the paranoid policies of successive US presidents.

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