Mark Steel: So, farewell, Fidel – but please don't give a speech

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The Independent Online

I wonder if Fidel Castro will have a works leaving do. It would be only polite to have sandwiches and a presentation of a silver pen in the shape of a Russian missile, and a speech from his brother that included an amusing anecdote about the time Fidel got locked in the toilet during the bombardment at the Bay of Pigs and had to be rescued by Che Guevara shooting the bolt off.

It's no wonder he's exhausted. Che's account of his first meeting with Castro tells us Che's girlfriend asked him a question about economics, and Fidel replied with an answer that went on for four hours. And ever since he's made speeches that have lasted that long, or even longer, usually on television, until presumably Cuban viewers got used to sitting patiently while a caption rolled across the bottom of the screen saying, "We apologise for the late running of the Antiques Roadshow. This will follow immediately after the President's address on reform of the Post Office".

So on the day of his retirement maybe Fidel said to his wife, "Anyway – that's enough about me – now let's hear about YOU."

Whatever you think of his regime, it's hard not to chuckle at how he's survived 49 years of official American hatred. Even yesterday George Bush announced, "The international community should work with the Cuban people". This would be the same Cuban people he "works with" by blockading them from importing or exporting anything to or from America. You can imagine Bush trying to clarify this by saying, "Blockades are a two-way process – one side does the blockading, and the other side does the starving, and I'd like to thank the Cuban people for co-operating in their side of this project."

The blockade, according to the US, is against the lack of freedom and democracy on the island. Which is why they wouldn't dream of trading and selling billions of dollars' worth of arms to any countries except free democratic ones, such as Saudi Arabia and Uzbekhistan where hardly a day goes by without frolicking families dancing merrily to the polling booth for yet another vote.

The question that supporters of the blockade should have to answer is, what they would have done about the regime that Castro helped to overthrow. Because pre-Castro Cuba thrived on one major industry, which was corruption. It was run by Fulgencia Batista, who took one million dollars a month from casinos. There were 10,000 pimps, the owner of the largest newspaper had been a member of Mussolini's General Council, and black Cubans weren't allowed on beaches.

So the Americans weren't concerned by Castro until he started nationalising industries, and without even offering them to Branson first. And then, in response to being cut off from the US, he became an ally of Russia, suddenly declaring the country communist.

So the US bombed the Bay of Pigs, and when that failed the comedy assassination attempts started, including the CIA plot to give Castro a present of a poisoned skin diving suit. But unfortunately, when they explained the plan to their agent, he said the previous week had been Castro's birthday, and he'd given him a diving suit. And Castro might be suspicious if Donovan said, "Fidel, I know it was your birthday last week but I've decided to buy you an extra present – another diving suit".

There was a plan to make his beard fall out, and a scheme to place an explosives-rigged sea shell in a place that would catch his eye so he'd pick it up by the beach. Which suggests that American foreign policy was being determined by the Wily Koyote. There was probably another plot that involved poking an ACME shotgun into a tree that bent up round a hole and fired back in the face of the bloke from the CIA.

For these reasons and many more, Castro's become a hero to many people, but like most things it probably isn't that simple. Because it's true that there's no legal opposition permitted in the country, that independent trade unions are illegal, and the poor are kept away from areas where they might put off tourists.

Castro's successor may decide to allow outside businesses to move in, but the discussions about which direction the country takes will be between an unelected clique, just as the decision to become "communist" was in the first place. But maybe that's the plan behind Castro's resignation. He's going into business, setting up a chain of restaurants called "For Gastro go Castro", with adverts that start with him saying, "Hmm, these rum daiquiri cocktails are simply Fidel-icious, and you have my personal guarantee – our cocktails will not explode, ha ha ha." But then they lose their impact because they go on for another seven hours.

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