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© 1986-2004

of human you can find lurking at "Cuba solidarity" conferences at Berkeley, or all over Los Angeles protests this week: they are middle-aged American women, almost always either born or educated in California, and they spout the most fantastical bullshit and apologia about Cuba. They frequently work as "journalists," and their eyes get all a-flutter when they describe their personal audiences with Castro.

Some, like Karen Wald (who I met during my month-long visit to the island), can say with a straight face that Cuban media is as free as the U.S. press (uh, it isn't), or that the 1960s banning of the Beatles from Cuban radio was "understandable" (uh, it wasn't).

"Cuba also needs solidarity," yesterday's Castroite urged the crowd, which featured Cuban flags and signs denouncing the American "blockade." "It's a Revolutionary Socialist country – don't let anyone else tell you otherwise."

It's also a dictatorship – yes, a dictatorship that started with a popular revolt and created laudable education and health systems in the face of a hostile U.S., but a dictatorship nonetheless. Its leader (who just turned 74 today ... happy birthday, asshole!) imprisons dissidents, profits directly from prostitution (via the state-owned dollar stores in hotels selling women's shoes, perfume and other items lusted after by teenage girls), and clings to power by any means necessary, including murder. The economy, like Havana's beautiful buildings, is more ruined than any embargo can adequately explain.

This is all obvious enough to 90 percent of functional humans who have set foot in Cuba, including (increasingly) Cubans themselves. But for certain fiftysomething liberals who came of age wrestling with a nastier, more racist and interventionist America, the subject of Castro renders them just as goofy-headed as the psychotic wing of the Miami exile community.

Meanwhile, my pet causes – the evil death penalty, the futile drug war, the New Democrat-led erosion of civil liberties – get lost somewhat in the rhetorical fog of "overthrowing capitalism," "building a socialist alternative," and launching a "permanent revolution."

This is understandable (more understandable than banning the Beatles), given Abu-Jamal's history of radical politics and forceful eloquence (and maybe, just maybe, because he might have shot himself a cop). But I wish the poster child of the anti-capital punishment movement was someone who had broader potential appeal than a man who may be thought of as a marxist, cop-killing Black Panther.

And it would be interesting to see how much larger these criminal justice protests might be if the organizers weren't so, well, Maoist. Today's march, ironically, shut down the busiest capitalist street in all of Los Angeles – Broadway. Most Saturdays this remarkable thoroughfare of shuttered 1920s movie palaces and ad hoc swap meets is clogged silly with mostly Latino shoppers buying cheap electronics, pregnancy dresses and Mexican pop music, which blares louder than you might think possible. It is a Blade Runner landscape of stunning but abandoned skylines anchored by bustling immigrant street commerce, and it is ground zero of the unglamorous engine of L.A.'s economic recovery – light manufacturing in and near downtown.

Most of the shop workers yesterday stood outside their shuttered stores, staring impassively at the procession while occasionally being handed newspapers published by the Maoist International Movement (which, in case you were wondering, "is for the death penalty in theory until advanced stages of communism when people do not commit murder.") The shop owners among them certainly appreciate a strong police presence, with skid row around the corner and a flourishing heroin market after nightfall, but the Rampart scandal is fresh and most of the usual Saturday crowd certainly knows what it's like to be Driving While Brown.

It's a large potential pool of protesters, and drawing them out will be a key challenge this week. Already the demonstrators have rendered foolish L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan's pre-Convention assertion that the coming "so-called anarchists" were mostly white. Let's hope their ethnic diversity will be mirrored by a little more rational (and attractive) ideological mix.

© 1986-2004; All rights reserved.