castros little empire offers hope not freedom for many

It was like a horror movie. The mob was crushed against the glass, pounding to be let in, while police and guards stood beside me and my wife,…

It was like a horror movie. The mob was crushed against the glass, pounding to be let in, while police and guards stood beside me and my wife, protecting us.

Only these weren’t good citizens fleeing King Kong, or a pack of zombies, ravening to eat our flesh.

These were the local owners of bed-and-breakfast operations, desperate for a customer, holding their business cards to the quivering window.

This was Santiago, Cuba, a month ago — a nation where B&B operators can be taxed for income they fail to earn, which explained the panicked mob outside: good, honest Cubans forced by a dictatorship to seek wealth by desperately latching onto the few tourists who didn’t travel in shaded tour buses and recline in fancy hotels drinking their mojitos behind fences keeping out the rabble beyond the walls of their luxurious beach hotels.

Once the bus-station guards were sure we’d received our luggage, they opened the doors and the horde swamped us with promises of food and fine housing.

Some critics call this ‘tourist apartheid.’ It’s thriving in Mexico as well, though not as obviously.

For 500 years, people were tortured, enslaved, raped, and murdered in fantastic numbers on this paradisiacal island.

Then, amazingly, in the late ‘50s, a band of 80 intellectual, middle-class revolutionaries arrived on a Mexican yacht named Granma. Only 12 bedraggled individuals survived to meet at their rendezvous in the bug-infested jungle.

Yet such were the brutal conditions in the monstrous Cuba of Batista, backed by crooks and American Mafia money-launderers, that within two years these 12 men raised an army, which conquered the nation.

The peasants and the ex-slaves rushed to their side with their ancient rifles and machetes.

Their leaders became two of the most famous men of the 20th centur: the revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

Their crowning victory came when Che led a rabble of 300 into Santa Clara, defeated 3,000 soldiers and blew up the railway tracks, sealing up the Cuban army in Havana.

Batista, his Swiss bank accounts saturated, fled to a wealthy retirement, leaving behind his crooked friends as Castro marched into Havana.

For the only time during the 20th century, the Mafia was sent packing, evicted, all its property seized. Castro also confiscated the various other mini-empires and dispersed them among the people.

There began a brief period of counter-insurgencies and executions — the latter performed under the direction of Che Guevara — in which anywhere from 500 to 2,000 so-called ‘terrorists and counter-revolutionaries’ were summarily tried and shot.

Che was judge and appeal court and executioner on several occasions. It wasn’t pretty.

Since then Cuba has settled down into being the worst nightmare of the Americans. Despite being a tyranny, its criminal system has probably executed fewer criminals than George Bush did in Texas.

Yet you also have to remember you are walking on the soil of a dictatorship. The police are everywhere. Justice is quick and harsh, and not always fair, unlike ours, which is slow and extended and not always fair.

Modern Cuba always makes you think about politics. Even the wildly anti-Castro Cubans were flabbergasted when I told them of the many homeless people in our cities. They assumed Canada was a good country.

They are mostly poor and desperate, but every family receives a minimum ration of food, electricity, water, the home itself, a rice cooker, a refrigerator, excellent health care, and a television.

Then it can better itself if it is clever enough to wind its way through the often-bizarre bureaucracy.

In North America we can say what we want, and other people will even hear it if we parrot the opinions of our corporate overlords who control the media — think of them as Castro Incorporated.

Castro, in his devilish wisdom, allows the Cubans to watch CNN. Obviously, he knows only the Americans can show how awful they are. Watching CNN most Cubans are totally convinced America is a country of violence and abductions.

Castro runs a small, cheesy, naive, self-promoting empire that provides, by far, the best physical conditions for the greatest percentage of citizens in the Western Hemisphere.

Hell, the poorest Cuban is miles better off than the poorest American or Canadian. And the nation would probably be doing fabulous if not for the outrageous American embargo.

It’s a crazy revolution, wonderful and depressing simultaneously. Perhaps this is because both Fidel and Che were intellectuals, not politicians.

Che died with a copy of Pablo Neruda’s poems in his packsack, and Fidel likes to swap fish recipes with the greatest novelist of the 20th century, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Due to the embargo the narrow streets of Cuban cities are choked with the fumes of dying cars and trucks, yet the pesticide-free fields are glowing with the organic produce every North American environmentalist dreams of.

The rich red earth of Cuba is vibrant and healthy and producing more than enough local food for its people. It’s a boring diet by our standards, but it’s healthy.

Instead of the corporate dragger fishing fleets that are destroying the ocean floor and coral reefs of the world, Cuba’s fishers are a bunch of guys in rowboats off Havana, spear fishers touring the great, nearly untouched reefs off its coast, or maybe a man in an inner tube with a fishing line bobbing beneath the fortifications of Santiago.

The waters of Cuba should be designated a world heritage site. They are so beautiful and intact, like its fields.

It’s all a confusion: their repression versus our wealth for the few; their poverty with dignity; our vague promise of opportunity. Now China and Venezuela, both stirring the pot, have arrived in Cuba with massive support.

Cuba is a crazy world that makes you reconsider politics and society and human evolution, especially when you stand on a street corner where a magnificent new Yutong Chinese bus faces a collapsing 1956 Mercedes, both vehicles being surveyed by a vibrant young man on a sled yoked to two healthy oxen