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Fidel Castro's Christmas Present
by Isabel Lyman
23 December 1998

Isabel Lyman Fidel Castro is one shrewd despot. This month the Cuban Communist Party Politburo, which Castro heads, announced to the 11 million islanders that Christmas once again will become a permanent national holiday. Christmas has been AWOL in Cuba for 29 years, since it was abolished by the government in 1969.

Between increased U.S. trade sanctions and the collapse of Cuba's Soviet sugar daddy, it makes economic sense for El Dictator to drop his Grinch act and appear mainstream enough to attract foreign investors. But Castro has light years to go before the international community views him as anything but a Spanish-speaking Stalin. The current president of Cuba is as famous for wearing military fatigues as he is for locking up and torturing political prisoners at the penal institution in Pinar del Rio and for sending attack helicopters to hunt down dissidents who attempt to flee the island on homemade rafts.

But one's expectations can't be too grand for a government whose slogan is “Socialism or Death” and that only recently amended its Constitution to make Cuba a secular state instead of an atheist one.

Meanwhile, many Cubans are reportedly very happy about the opportunity to celebrate the birth of Christ. Writing for Cuba Free Press, independent journalist Tania Quintero of Havana describes spending $6.50 on a 24-inch tree with ornaments. While the purchase drew criticism from those who thought that the money should have gone to purchase a chicken and a package of Canadian sausages, she was heartened by her 4-year-old granddaughter's excitement over the family's first-ever Christmas tree.

She writes: “We placed it in the only spot possible, on top of the old Russian TV box, with its black-and-white pictures, which you can no longer see.” Adds Tania: “What occurred in our house will be happening in an infinity of homes throughout the country. Naturally the trees will be found only among those families that have, somehow, managed to scrounge up some dollars.”

How bittersweet. The new-found freedom to celebrate Christmas requires a financial sacrifice and a cheerful attitude. But Cubans frequently have exercised those virtues, given the paucity of amenities with which they cope every day.

This year the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs released a report entitled “Zenith and Eclipse: A Comparative Look at Socio-Economic Conditions in Pre-Castro and Present Day Cuba.” The Bureau concluded about the aftermath of Castro's revolution: The largest island in the Caribbean has become a very pobre (poor) place.

The report notes that food is always rationed. The per-capita consumption of cereals, tubers, and meat in Cuba is below 1950 levels, as is the production of rice, one of the island's main agricultural products. The number of automobiles, televisions, and telephone lines also has fallen since the 1950s, and the country's electrical-power development rate ranks behind every other country in the region except Haiti.

On the plus side, the report didn't mention that the weather in Cuba is always balmy and that the number of prisons is significantly up. In 1959 there were 11 prisons; today there are more than 300.

But I digress. Back to Christmas present.

It is remarkable that only 90 miles south of the United States there are folks who won't be distracted by the rampant commercialism of the season, folks who find joy in purchasing the cheap ornaments that are available at any of our drugstores. And yet, who in his right mind would want to be sentenced to life in a totalitarian regime merely to experience the inner joys of such simplicity?

Indeed the fruits of democratic capitalism create an embarrassment of riches and choices for people such as Gisela de Varona. Gisela is a friend of mine and a Cuban exile who has lived in Miami-Dade County for many years, where she works as a hospital administrator. Instead of debating whether to buy a tree or a chicken this Christmas, she can do both. Or she can forgo gift-giving and contribute the money to Brothers to the Rescue, or she can sponsor the work of an independent Cuban journalist. She is blessed to have so many choices.

It will be a glorious day when Cubans such as Tania Quintero can celebrate a real Christmas with real pine trees and real civil liberties. May it happen in her granddaughter's lifetime.

This column appeared in The Miami Herald on December 23, 1998.

Isabel Lyman lives in Edmond, Oklahoma. A former editorial columnist for the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, Massachusetts, her views have appeared in various national publications, including the Wall Street Journal and Investors Business Daily. She may be contacted via e-mail by clicking here.
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