Hotel Nacional in Havana
Sue De Lapa

Cuba Libre: No, just because Fidel Castro has stepped down as President doesn’t mean that the island prison he’s created is anywhere near being libre, or free.

Nor is George Bush, a man every bit as stubborn as Fidel, about to lift the travel embargo – especially during an election year, with all those Cuban expats in South Florida ready to pounce on any candidate urging softening of the embargo.

Upshot: The more things change…

Experts I talked to expect that Fidel will try to hold on to his power from behind the scenes, but that the new figureheads will open up the economy somewhat.

While 11 million Cubans keep suffering in poverty and without basic rights, Americans are banned from traveling 90 miles to see for themselves. But it’s OK for hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens to freely visit China, another communist country with a human rights track record that is as bad – if not worse – than Cuba’s.

So what are you missing out on because our government threatens heavy fines if you visit Havana, one of the world’s most colorful, interesting cities?

A stroll down Calle Obispo in Old Havana would tell you, listening to the strum of Cuban music, eating the food, meeting the people, sipping a rum mojito, and following the Hemingway Trail.

Why do Americans, who beat their chests every Fourth of July about “the land of the brave and the home of the free,” supinely put up with such a heavy-handed government restriction on our right to travel? Why do we allow a vociferous right-wing group in Miami run the nation’s foreign policy?

On the Beat

Meanwhile, quite a few Santa Barbarans I know have visited Cuba, some of them journalists, like me, with an exemption from the embargo, and others who simply thumb their noses at Bush & Co. To be fair, the economic embargo is the product of many U.S. administrations, both Republican and Democrat. Of course, if I tried writing a column in Havana, I’d be in prison, with other journalists who tried to write the truth about the conditions there.

I’m always surprised that when I call Cuba an “island prison,” some people are shocked. They don’t realize that the average Cuban can’t pick up his or her passport and climb on a plane. Why do they think Cubans are risking their lives in rafts and leaky boats to get out?

So what will become of Cuba with Castro out of power, or dead? South Coast journalist and Cuba expert Ann Louise Bardach’s study, Without Fidel, will be published by Scribner at the end of 2008.

What does Fidel think of himself at his now ripe old age? Will history absolve him or, more likely, condemn him? “La historia me absolver¡” (“History will absolve me”) is the concluding sentence and subsequent title of a four-hour-long speech Castro delivered in 1953 in his own defense after leading an attack on the Moncada Barracks. Eventually freed in an amnesty, he fled to Mexico, then returned to lead a successful revolution in 1959. He’s written his memoirs, aided by fidelista journalist Ignacio Ramonet, entitled My Life.

In her review, published last fall by the Financial Times and available on her Bardach Reports website, Bardach says:

“If vengeance were the fuel of immortality, Fidel Castro would live forever. ‘Immortal until proven otherwise,’ is the bitter lament of hard-line Cuban exiles who refuse even to say his name. Hence, it was inevitable that Castro would seek to have the last word. Make that roughly 200,000 final words – as is the case with My Life, Castro’s voluminous but irresistible ‘autobiography,’ based on some 100 hours of conversation with the Spanish journalist, Ignacio Ramonet.”

“Needless to say, Fidel Castro does not spill the beans with just anyone,” Bardach points out. “Ramonet is an unabashed fidelista. ‘Few men have known the glory of entering the pages of history and legend while they are still alive,’ he writes in his introduction. ‘Fidel is one of them.’ So far high praise, but true. Then the mojitos kick in. ‘He is the last sacred giant of international politics.'”

“But,” Bardach observes, “his refusal to hold an election in 48 years speaks to his unslakable thirst for power. Cuba, after all, is his island fiefdom. Few men have been endowed with so many gifts, opportunity, and the good will of so many. Which makes Castro’s legacy all the more tragic.”

My Life, published in Spain in 2006 and edited by Castro in his sickbed, will be published in the U.S. this month.

Bardach interviewed Castro for Vanity Fair in 1994, and is the author of Cuba Confidential, the forthcoming Without Fidel, and is the editor of The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro.

Union, Cappello Swap Charges: Was it just a coincidence that in 2006 – the year News-Press newsroom workers voted to form a union that – owner Wendy McCaw broke tradition and awarded no raises? The Teamsters call this “punitive, retaliatory” and filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the feds this week. Every year since McCaw bought the paper in 2000, “a large number of newsroom employees did receive annual raises,” the Teamsters learned. But in 2006, nada. The Teamsters want the NLRB to order the paper to consider the issue and grant raises to everyone who worked there in 2006. But Thursday Barry Cappello, the News-Press‘s attorney, fired back with his own charge of an unfair labor practice. In the past six months, the Teamsters, “including, but not limited to Dawn Hobbs and Tom Schultz, have threatened and/or coerced employees attempting to prepare newspapers for delivery to vendors, carriers, and subscribers of the Santa Barbara News-Press.” Hobbs and Schultz are former reporters fired for their union activities.

Ira Gottlieb, the Teamsters’ attorney, replied: “This is nothing more than a diversion from the serious charges the union has filed against the News-Press. Unlike the union’s charges, most of which have triggered a prosecution and all of which were supported by testimonial and documentary evidence, this charge is about Santa Barbara management’s unhappiness with its public image (for which it is responsible). As you will recall, the NP filed a series of charges when Mrs. McCaw was unhappy because of lawful, protected activity the union engaged in November, 2006 outside the Biltmore: Those charges were all dismissed, and the union barely had to respond because the charges were frivolous. We expect a similar outcome in this case.”

American Greed: On Wednesday night, CNBC aired the story of how Santa Barbaran Reed Slatkin conned people into investing $600 million into his Ponzi “investment” scheme. He sent out fake reports to his clients claiming 25 percent returns. Slatkin was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2002 and reportedly is spending time at Lompoc federal lockup. But his victims still lost millions.

Truman Correction: In my print column this week, I wrongly linked former President Harry Truman with St. Louis politics. It was actually his connection with the Kansas City political machine that critics found distasteful.

Barney Brantingham can be reached at or (805) 965-5205. He writes online columns on Tuesdays and Fridays and a print column on Thursdays.


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