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Mona Charen / Dec. 3, 2016

Fidel Castro: 60 Years of Fake News

A ruthless dictator benefited for decades from journalistic malpractice.

A panic is sweeping the land — or at least something like it has unnerved CNN, Vox and other precincts of progressive sensibility. They are alarmed that millions of Americans are being misled by “fake news.”

As someone whose inbox has lately bulged with items about Hillary Clinton’s impending demise due to a concealed, terminal illness; who has shaken her head at “breaking news” that Turkish coup plotters had gotten their hands on NATO nuclear weapons at Incirlik air base; and who has sighed at the endless iterations of stories like “47 Clinton friends who mysteriously turned up dead,” I don’t deny that misinformation, disinformation, rumors and malicious gossip appear to have achieved new salience in the national conversation. I shun right-leaning publications and sites that traffic in this sort of drivel.

You know there’s a “but” coming, and here it is: The death of Fidel Castro reminds us that the respectable press, the “two-sources” press, the press that enforces standards and performs reality checks and practices “shoe leather” journalism and all that, has been peddling “fake news” about Cuba and Castro for 60 years.

The mainstream press has been soft on Fidel Castro since he first grabbed a pistol and started granting interviews to credulous reporters in the Sierra Maestra. The joke that made the rounds in 1980s was that Castro could have been featured in one of those ads boasting “I got my job through The New York Times!” Starting in 1957, Times reporter Herbert Matthews visited with the rebel leader and published accounts of his selfless commitment to “his” people. “Power does not interest me,” Castro told Matthews. “After victory I want to go back to my village and just be a lawyer again.”

The evidence of Castro’s monstrousness was available more or less immediately after his victory. Fulgencio Batista’s supporters were shot en masse — some in a carnival atmosphere in front of stadiums of people making the “thumbs down” gesture. Former revolutionary allies were next to mount the scaffold for the modern equivalent of the guillotine. Independent newspapers were closed. Unions were forbidden to strike. Religious colleges were closed, and priests were forced into exile (they had plenty of company). Those who resisted the regime were arrested, denied medical care and sometimes tortured. Their families were harassed. Castro promised free elections within 18 months. That was 708 months ago. Cubans are still waiting.

The New York Times and other liberal outlets entered a profound senescence where Cuba was concerned. Stories about neighborhood spies, beatings and jailings of the Ladies in White, shortages of all basic commodities (yes, even sugar and cigars), forced labor and the rest of the miseries that a despotic government can inflict were hard to find. You discovered them mostly in right-leaning journals, or in human-rights watchdog publications, or in memoirs such as Armando Valladares’ wrenching account of 22 years in Castro’s prisons, “Against All Hope” (one of the most harrowing prison memoirs of the 20th century).

A sin of omission, you may say. Yes, but there was the other piece — the diligent myth-tending. As Jay Nordlinger, National Review’s indefatigable voice for the oppressed, has pointed out again and again, the myth of Cuba’s wonderful, free, universal health care system will not die. President Obama lauded it. Michael Moore beatified it. Bernie Sanders cited it to shame the United States by comparison!

What can you say to people with such a profound need to believe? Their faith is religious in nature and accordingly very resistant to logic or argument. Again, to cite Jay Nordlinger: There are actually three health services in Cuba. There is one for tourists, featuring state-of-the-art equipment. There is a second for high-ranking communists, the military, approved artists and so forth. This, too, is a good system. And then there is the squalid, dirty, understaffed, massively under-equipped medical system that ordinary Cubans (the vast majority) must endure. In the third system, overworked doctors reuse latex gloves, antibiotics are scarce, and patients must “bring their own bed sheets, soap, towels, food, light bulbs — even toilet paper.”

A 2014 report from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting found that in Cuban hospitals “the floors are stained and surgeries and wards are not disinfected. Doors do not have locks and their frames are coming off. Some bathrooms have no toilets or sinks, and the water supply is erratic. Bat droppings, cockroaches, mosquitoes and mice are all in evidence.”

And yet, even such an august publication as The Atlantic (I say that sincerely) published a piece after Castro’s death titled “How Cubans Live as Long as Americans at a Tenth of the Cost.” You can call it invincible ignorance. You can call it journalistic malpractice. You can even call it “fake news.”

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