I first met Eumelio Caballero Rodriguez in the spring of 1998, at the foreign ministry in Havana. Caballero, an amicable, kindly disposed man, was serving at the time as Cuba's vice foreign minister. In fluent, albeit slightly rusty Hebrew, he told me of his longings for Israel, where he served before Cuba severed diplomatic ties, shortly before the Yom Kippur War.
Our meeting took place shortly after the pope's historic visit to the island. This visit left the communist state with an air of political and religious openness, which also worked to the benefit of the Jewish community there. Foreign journalists spoke of a sense of "history in the making." The Clinton administration eased the regime of sanctions imposed on the island and gave a green light to charter flights from the United States "for humanitarian purposes." In such a manner, dozens of Jews traveled from the United States to express solidarity with the Jews of Cuba and participated, for the first time, in a seder night in Havana. The emotional leader of the Jewish community, Jose Miller, praised the Cuban regime for "doing good by us."
The harsh oppression suffered recently by the opposition movement in Cuba - some define it as the harshest in the island's history - has shocked political commentators and diplomats in Havana and worldwide. Some 75 opposition activists have been sentenced to prison terms of up to 28 years; three Cubans who plotted to hijack a passenger liner and sail to the United States were executed.
The oppression has brought a wave of denunciations and protests in its wake. One, which took place some two weeks ago outside the Cuban embassy in Paris and was organized by Reporters without Borders, ended in harsh violence. According to a report in Le Monde, members of the embassy staff beat demonstrators with clubs and iron chains. The action was orchestrated by the ambassador; his name - Eumelio Caballero Rodriguez.
In a telephone call, Caballero agreed to confront the claims presented in the international media. He terms Le Monde's description of the demonstration as "false propaganda," noting: "Well-known counter-revolutionaries were behind the demonstration. Some of them attacked us... We were forced to respond to the provocation."
The charge that Castro exploited the war in Iraq for the purpose of taking oppressive action that had been planned for a long time, Caballero describes as "a manipulation of the facts," adding, "Bush's plan is transparent: His hawkish administration has close ties with the radical Cuban community in Miami, which plays a decisive role in his electoral considerations. They are meddling together in the island, so as to create an artificial crisis that has a single purpose - to provide a cause for an assault on Cuba, the next objective of the American `preemptive war' policy."
Sworn friends of Cuba, intellectuals such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jose Saramago, are testifying to a sobering up from the romanticization of Castro.
"Some of our friends were led astray by the manipulative campaign of the United States; but the moment they were exposed to its motives, they admitted they had been tricked."
Cuba's reinclusion in the UN Commission on Human Rights is one of the low points and heights of hypocrisy of the organization.
"If hypocrisy exists, then it's American hypocrisy: They denounce us for executing three ship hijackers? Last year alone, 91 people were executed in the United States."
One of the motives behind Castro's oppression is his concern for a strengthening of the demands for the establishment of a democracy.
"The entire Cuban nation is a partner to our 100-year struggle for our national survival and social justice. The state is more stable today than ever before. To think that Fidel fears an internal revolution is pure naivety."
There will be those who will say that, in light of the messianic passion and arrogance that forms the foundation of his foreign policy, Bush will not be able to bypass his Cuban backyard. The campaign for settling historic accounts must also include the humiliation of the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Others will see Caballero's statements as proof that Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf (the former Iraqi information minister) is not one of a kind.
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