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

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 the 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.