Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

19th August 2001

The Qaddafis and Castros of the world

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NEW YORK— A former US ambassador to the United Nations once made a dubious distinction between left-wing dictatorships and right-wing authoritative regimes.

The left-wingers (the likes of Fidel Castro of Cuba, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Muammar el Qaddafi of Libya) were the anti-American bad guys in black hats— Hollywood-style— who at onetime depended on the former Soviet Union for economic or military aid.

The right wingers (the late Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Anatasio Somoza of Nicaragua) were the pro-American good guys in white hats nurtured and protected by successive ImageUS governments to do their bidding.

But a former US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, however, demolished this theory with the simple argument: if you are on a rack, and being tortured, it matters little whether the torturer is right-handed or left-handed.

Last week, Fidel Castro, one of America's longtime nemesis— a brutal left-wing dictator by American standards— celebrated his 75th birthday in military fatigues and sneakers.

The sneakers, instead of the traditional boots, were apparently for medical reasons.

The birthday wishes for Castro were mostly backhanded compliments from the US, a country which he continues to defy, and loves to hate.

The State Department, which is not known for its sense of humour, couldn't resist the temptation of taking a dig at the aging— and some say ageless— military strongman.

"You know," said deputy spokesman Philip Reeker, "usually, we don't comment or offer messages on the occasion of birthdays."

"But we do wish to note that in as much as Mr. Castro has reached the mandatory retirement age for dictators... we hope he'll be moving on soon into retirement."

One often talks about a certain amount of wisdom coming with age and experience, Reeker said with tongue-in-cheek, "And we would certainly hope, for the sake of the people of Cuba, that Mr. Castro would develop enough wisdom to think about taking steps to let his people celebrate their own freedom and their own human rights under international standards for human rights and allow people the freedom they deserve."

But Castro seems like a dictator who is determined to die with his sneakers on.

Notwithstanding the absence of democracy in Cuba, the World Bank and the United Nations have ranked the Caribbean island nation high on a list of developing nations making tremendous progress in human development— literacy, health, education and social welfare.

Despite several unsuccessful US attempts to oust him from power, Castro still remains in complete command of Cuba, and has outlasted less than half a dozen American presidents who tried to dislodge him.

Perhaps the most notorious attempt was the abortive 1961 invasion of Cuba by the US supported by anti-Castro refugees.

Described as "the Bay of Pigs fiasco", it has entered the American lexicon to mean "a monumental flop."

William Safire, columnist and lexicographer, points out that when Broadway showman David Merrick closed his 1966 show "Breakfast at Tiffany's" long before opening night, at a loss of $450,000, he remarked: "It's my Bay of Pigs."

Unlike Castro, Saddam Hussein has survived military onslaughts not only by the US but also by allied forces during, and after, the 1991 Gulf War.

The attacks, mostly by British and American warplanes, still continue although they are not authorised by the UN Security Council.

The 63-year-old Iraqi leader, who took power in July 1979, has survived two wars, including the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, several abortive coups and a 11-year UN embargo.

Under legislation titled "Iraq Liberation Act", the US Congress has authorised about $97 million in funds to arm and assist London-based Iraqi rebel groups to oust Saddam Hussein. But so far these efforts have proved fruitless.

General Anthony Zinni, former commander of American forces in the Persian Gulf, has said the insurgent groups are too divided and far removed from Iraq to be able to oust the Iraqi leader.

"I don't think the military adventures that they're seeking for us to fund are reasonable," he added, "They are pie in the sky. They're going to lead us to a Bay of Goats."

Qaddafi, who has been in power since September 1969, has also incurred the wrath of the Americans from the very day he ousted the pro-American King Idris in the aftermath of a military coup.

Under former US President Ronald Reagan, the Americans launched an air attack on Tripoli and Benghazi in April 1986.

But despite American efforts to isolate him internationally, Qaddafi has continued to survive, Castro-style.

The era of military dictators is not over — at least not yet

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