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Was Jeffrey Goldberg Fidel Castro's 'Useful Idiot'?

Ronald Radosh

Now that some time has passed since Jeffrey Goldberg posted his now famous report of his interview with Fidel Castro, the critics are beginning to weigh in, and slam him as a useful idiot of Castro, who shrewdly used Goldberg to become the vehicle for a new propaganda offensive.

Yesterday, USA Today used Goldberg as a starting-off point in an editorial calling for a new foreign policy towards Cuba. Castro, they argued, has mellowed in his old age: “Were this 50 years ago,” the editorial stated, “we’d be seeing the uniformed, bearded firebrand at the opening of the United Nations railing about Yankee imperialism. Now he’s quietly questioning the viability of the system he created, and taking time to smell the flowers.” The editorial writer added: “He avidly defends Israel’s right to exist — an affront to one of his revolutionary acolytes, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And with his newfound free time, Castro pauses to appreciate some of life’s smaller pleasures, such as dolphins.”

They conceded that Castro is still a dictator, that his regime still holds political prisoners, and that the country suffers under a “repressive political system.” But they argue that the times have changed, the U.S. embargo has failed, and that Cuba’s “realist” leaders know that real adjustments have to be made. Our leaders, they conclude, should make their own — and change U.S. policy towards Castro and Cuba.

As is their policy, the paper prints beneath the main editorial a contrasting point of view. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida member of Congress and a Democrat, argues that the paper is wrong, and that “after 50 years of oppressive rule by Fidel and Raul Castro, Cuba maintains one of the most deplorable human rights records in the modern world.” She therefore says: “Declaring the embargo a failure and using it as justification to reopen trade and relations ignores the fact that the Cuban economy is on its knees. The paltry changes we’ve seen (allowing Cubans to buy and sell some goods) have been necessitated by their economic crisis. Ending the embargo now not only ignores the atrocities perpetrated by the Castro regime, it also hands the Cuban government a huge financial boost at the exact moment they need and want it most.”

But the most significant challenge to Goldberg came in the Wall Street Journal from their Latin American expert, Mary Anastasia O’Grady. Viewing Goldberg’s invitation from Castro as stemming from his urgent need to put “a smiley face on his dictatorship,” and a desire to “counteract rumors that he is a dictator,” he picked Goldberg as a “perfect candidate” to do the necessary job. His first piece of the new campaign was to tell the Jewish American journalist that he is not an anti-Semite and that he is a defender of Israel and an opponent of Holocaust denial. She writes:

“We are supposed to conclude that Cuba is no longer a threat to global stability and that Fidel is a reformed tyrant. But how believable is a guy whose revolution all but wiped out Cuba’s tiny Jewish community of 15,000, and who spent the past 50 years supporting the terrorism of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Syria, Libya and Iran? And how does Castro explain Venezuela, where Cuban intelligence agents run things, Iran is an ally and anti-Semitism has been state policy in recent years? Mr. Goldberg doesn’t go there with Fidel.

Her most damning part of her indictment is when she calls attention to Goldberg’s failure to raise the issue of Alan Gross with Castro. In my estimate, she scores a major point here. Gross traveled to Cuba with some of the American Jewish groups who regularly go to the island to assist the small remaining Jewish community. Gross gave computers to Cuban Jews who sought to have the means to regularly communicate with others of the diaspora. Gross was arrested for espionage by the Cuban government and has been held in a prison since December. O’Grady concludes: “It is hardly surprising, then, that what we get from this interview is warmed-over Barbara Walters, another whose heart went pitter patter when she got close to the Cuban despot.”

Joining O’Grady in condemnation of Goldberg is Jamie Daremblum, director of Latin American Studies at Hudson Institute, and a former Costa Rican Ambassador to the United States. Like O’Grady, Daremblum considers Castro’s overture to Goldberg as part of a “charm offensive” carried out while his regime is in dire internal distress. Castro, he writes, was “deliberately attempting to curry favor with America’s Jewish community” first, and then with American policy-makers. Why, he asks, “pick this moment to attack the Iranian theocracy, condemn anti-Semitism, and strongly endorse Israel’s right to exist? After all, as recently as 2001, Castro traveled to Tehran and thundered, ‘Iran and Cuba, in cooperation with each other, can bring America to its knees.’ For decades, his government aided the PLO and other Middle Eastern terrorist groups seeking to kill Israelis and Americans. In 1966, Havana hosted the infamous Tricontinental Conference, a gathering of bloodstained radicals that arguably launched the modern era of international terrorism. So it’s a bit rich for Castro to now posture as a scourge of anti-Semitism and a selfless defender of the Jews.”

All the above is true, but certainly many of Daremblum’s examples are from the past. Citing the Tricontinental Conference of 1966 is particularly absurd, since shortly after that, Cuba already began to move away from the policy espoused in that era of fomenting revolution throughout the hemisphere. His most recent example is Castro’s 2001 speech in Tehran, and one could respond that his new words may be seen as a concrete repudiation of the policy he espoused nine years ago.

But Daremblum’s next point is certainly accurate. “Fidel is desperate,” he writes, “desperate to bolster his historical legacy, and desperate to secure much-needed financial aid for his cash-strapped government. Now 84 years old and in poor health, Castro knows the Cuban economy is in dire condition, and he knows that Washington could throw his Communist regime a lifeline if it were to eliminate the U.S. travel ban.” What he is doing is seeking only to “improve his global image” so that he can gain concessions for Cuba without making any real moves towards genuine reform.

The prisoner reforms are only limited, and are nothing but a PR stunt, meant to impress gullible Westerners who take the bite and unintentionally do Fidel’s bidding. Daremblum quotes one recently exiled political prisoner, Julio Cesar Galvez, who said: “Our departure [from Cuba] should not be seen as a gesture of goodwill but rather as a desperate measure by a regime urgently seeking to gain any kind of credit.”

Daremblum too raises the issue of the imprisoned Alan Gross, who was a USAID contractor who worked with Cuban civil society activists. The fact that he has not been released shows, Darenblum points out, that “Cuba wants to use him as diplomatic leverage.” But most U.S. lawmakers who call for a new policy ignore his plight, and call for lifting the embargo without even demanding Gross’ freedom first.

Finally, Daremblum argues that rather than condemning anti-Semitism, Castro’s remarks only appear “to be a harsh critique of anti-Semitism.” The problem is that they do appear to be just that. Castro said:

I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews. I would say much more than the Muslims. They have been slandered much more than the Muslims because they are blamed and slandered for everything. No one blames the Muslims for anything. [The Jews] were expelled from their land, persecuted and mistreated all over the world, as the ones who killed God. … Over 2,000 years they were subjected to terrible persecution and then to the pogroms. One might have assumed that they would have disappeared; I think their culture and religion kept them together as a nation. … The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust.

But Daremblum sees his remarks as “anti-Semitism in disguise.” I am tempted to say that as a Jew, I for one can live with such anti-Semitism. I only wish more anti-Semites saw things this way. But Daremblum thinks that Castro only said the above because he “was motivated to make those remarks by a conspiratorial belief that Jews are an all-powerful lobby in the United States.” His purpose was to warm up to the Jews he thinks control the U.S. government, and then the government will do his bidding to make the concessions he greatly desires, such as lifting the embargo without any conditions on Cuba’s part. Daremblum concludes: “Don’t be misled by his comments to Goldberg. In his clumsy attempt to ingratiate himself with American Jews, Fidel revealed the deeply ingrained anti-Semitism that continues to shape his worldview.”

Unless I’m missing something — and I don’t think I am — Daremblum is saying that Castro’s new attack on anti-Semitism and his erstwhile would-be ally Ahmadinejad is itself proof of his anti-Semitism. And this, candidly, makes no sense at all.

Finally, Jeffrey Goldberg responds forcefully to O’Grady. Calling her column “almost pathological in its disregard for reality,” Goldberg writes that not only is Cuba’s small Jewish population free to worship, they “often travel to Israel (young Cuban Jews even attend Birthright events).” I must say the latter is news to me, and I wonder if Goldberg can document how many Cuban Jews actually were allowed to go to Birthright Israel trips, and how often they are given the freedom to travel to Israel. How, in fact, could they even afford such a trip on their own? Somehow, the freedom to travel does not ring true.

But Goldberg is undoubtedly correct that since he and everyone else know that Cuba was for years a proclaimed enemy of Israel, Castro’s recent comments are “so newsworthy, in fact, that the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu (not a man known to be soft on Communism) took approving note of them.” Netanyahu, in fact, said: “The remarks attributed to Castro demonstrate his deep understanding of the history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.” Clearly, Israel’s prime minister has quite a different response to Castro’s remarks than does Jamie Daremblum.

So I conclude that Goldberg did his job as a journalist. Aside from going on about their wonderful dolphin show — really a sidebar that means very little — Goldberg was hardly a useful idiot. His only failure, I think, was that of not bringing up publicly and aggressively the case of Alan Gross. In fact, he might have thought of pulling a Jesse Jackson– and using Castro’s friendship towards him by asking him to release Gross to him, and bring him back home on the same plane to Florida that Goldberg returned on. Now that would really have been a newsmaker.

Update: Sept.30, 2 pm, EST: To my readers who think I am an apologist for Castro, and like Goldberg, a useful idiot of the Cuban dictator. Those who know my writings are fully aware that for years, I have been an unrelenting critic of the Castro regime. I hold no illusions about it.

But the point here is that for whatever reason — and certainly political impact is in Castro’s mind — he has made new statements that repudiate his own past positions and that of his erstwhile allies, throwing them into a tizzy. He has not only condemned anti-Semitism and showed sympathy for Israel’s plight, he has acknowledged that his own Cuban model has failed. In other words, he has admitted that history will not absolve him!

Bibi realized this fully, when he welcomed Castro’s new remarks. Is he also a useful idiot? Again, Castro condemned for the record — and let Goldberg quote him directly — Iranian anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, and endorsed Israel’s right to exist. The hard Left is going crazy, and Castro’s statements are now used by Israel and its allies against its major enemies. This is of importance, which is why Goldberg’s article is so essential. The Iranians have been put down by Castro, Hugo Chavez is confused and his hero’s statements will hurt him too in Venezuela, and this is therefore good for Israel, the Jewish people, and all enemies of tyranny.

So let us welcome and use Castro’s remarks for our purposes, and not try to portray them as false, or as Jamie Daremblum did, as proof of real anti-Semitism (which is, as I said, ridiculous).

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