NORTH MIAMI BEACH -- The old Jewish joke goes like this: a man wakes up to find his wife has died alongside him in their bed. He calls the undertaker, who loads her on a stretcher to carry her out the door. In the narrow foyer between the bedroom and the back door, the stretcher keeps bumping the wall until suddenly...she sits up! She nags steadily for the next fifteen years, then one morning he gets up and, once again, she's not breathing. "Take her out the front door," he advises the men from the mortuary. "You'll have more room to maneuver in that big hallway."
My sources in Miami-Dade County government tell me they believe Fidel Castro is dead. All the reports about his recovery and get-well cards from Kim Jong-il are just noise, smoke, a diversion, disinformation, name your poison. A bit of time is needed to arrange the succession, and all of that is being hammered out behind the scenes as we speak.
Well, perhaps. I tend to the skeptical in such matters. Castro has had at least nine lives already, so I'll suspend judgment until I can poke the corpse with a cattle prod. As I joked in a 2003 column: "President-for-life Fidel Castro is meeting with reincarnation expert Deepak Chopra to discuss the possibility of a second term."
Here in Miami, street celebrations have begun already, in anticipation of Fidel's passage to the great political prison in the sky. Wait, did I say in the sky? More than likely he gets on the "Down" elevator. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez, a former chief of police with a great bedside manner, has soothingly assured his fellow Cuban emigres that they can party hearty as long as they don't tie up traffic in the main intersections. And Juanita Castro, Fidel's sister who defected from his island paradise four decades ago and owns a pharmacy here, has commented that the revelry is "unseemly." (No comment from his two daughters and two granddaughters who live here as well.)
Still, my feeling is that, dead or alive, there is nothing much to celebrate unless Cuba can somehow burst out into the sunlight of liberty. Just changing the first name, or even the last name, of the dictator du jour, hardly alters the oppressive reality of the regime. There must be a strategy in place, both in our government and in the Cuban population, to make a move.
President Bush's people say they have "a secret plan," but at the same time the State Department warns that if a mass exodus ensues upon Fidel's death, the Coast Guard will send them back. That does not sound like a really great idea. If you really intend to pressure the weak successor junta, you open your borders to the refugees, if only on a provisional basis; this allows the governing body to lose its center and implode upon itself. Sending people back to be butchered as object lessons to a restive citizenry would be a brutal and ruthless act, not to mention stupid.
As for the moral poetry involved in the death of an evil person, that is attenuated somewhat by the fact that he has lived 79 years and ruled for 47 of them, and he will die in bed, neither deposed nor dispatched. I relish more the pre-death shrinkage of the grand swashbuckling revolutionary into the doddering fuddy-duddy whose banana republic cannot even produce a decent banana, the tinpot dictator who needs to use plastic instead of tin.
Long gone are the chic Che days. The sparkling Havana backdrop to his ascendancy has been cut down to size, today resembling nothing more than a low-rent red-light district. There is an illusory power in destructiveness that attracted the kings of yore, but they were usually smart enough to conquer territories where they could indulge their wrecking impulses rather than break their own toys at home.
The missiles have long since left the silo. Today Cuba is a lesser power than some creepy Lebanese militia. No more fomenting the great Communist international revolution by sending stone-faced advisors to the tyrants of Angola. The party is over. Like the American leftists whose causes have become outdated and self-caricaturizing (I'm not making this up: I recently attended an event that was co-sponsored by a host of left-wing organizations including, get this, the Committee to End Corporal Punishment in Schools), an alive Castro is actually a more laughable spectacle than a dead one.
But hey, we can chuckle in either case. You know the one about the priest and the rabbi who were asked what words they would most prefer to hear in their eulogy. The priest offered a list of virtues, perhaps a tad foreshortened by humility. The rabbi, on the other hand, hoped to hear these words from the eulogist: "Look, he's moving..."
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