Monday 23 April 2018

Higgins' folly a slap in the face to those who risked life and limb to escape Castro's prison

Orlando Hernandez went on to win four World Series titles with the New York Yankees after fleeing Cuba. Photo: Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images
Orlando Hernandez went on to win four World Series titles with the New York Yankees after fleeing Cuba. Photo: Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

Eamonn Sweeney

The fourth time Jose Fernandez tried to leave Cuba he heard someone falling off the boat and into the sea. He jumped into the water to rescue them and found it was his mother. Fernandez was 15 at the time. The first time he tried to escape he was put in prison alongside hardened criminals and feared for his life. When he finally did make it to the United States, he became a star pitcher with the Miami Marlins before dying in a tragic accident a few months ago.

Yunel Escobar left Cuba on a makeshift raft in the middle of the night with 35 other people. Five of his team-mates from the Industriales baseball team were aboard. They spent two-and-a-half days at sea before reaching Florida. Escobar didn't speak a word during the journey because, "Someone might just throw you off the boat if they didn't like you". He joined the Atlanta Braves and now plays with the Los Angeles Angels.

Six times without success Juan Miranda tried to get away. Once they gave him seven days in jail. On his seventh attempt, the boat spent five days getting to the Dominican Republic. "It's an experience that I won't recommend to anybody else," he said. "You don't know what could happen. Thank God everything came out right." Two years later he signed with the New York Yankees.

At first, Orlando Hernandez (below) didn't want to leave Cuba. But when his half brother Livan defected the authorities banned Orlando from baseball for life as an act of spite. The player they called El Duque went on to win four World Series titles with the New York Yankees. Kendrys Morales of the Kansas City Royals had 12 unsuccessful attempts and several spells in jail before finally escaping on a raft.

Major League Baseball is full of Latin American players. There are players from Mexico and Venezuela, Colombia and Panama, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. And from Cuba. It is only the Cuban players who have to risk their lives, face imprisonment and are unable to return to see their families. That tells us all we need to know about the nature of the regime created by Fidel Castro. It's not hard to see that there's something gravely wrong about a dictatorship which effectively imprisons its people within the country.

At least it shouldn't be hard to see it. But the death of Castro last week unleashed a pretty sickening flood of hypocrisy. People who profess themselves worried about Donald Trump's perceived anti-democratic tendencies paid tribute to a dictator. People who decry Mike Pence's apparent homophobia mourned a man whose government locked gay men up in labour camps with the slogan, "Work will make men of you". People who spend their time bemoaning poverty in Ireland painted a rosy picture of a country which lies an enormous distance below us in terms of development. People who think Ireland is a police state because the guards called to Paul Murphy when he was still in his pyjamas praised a dictator who jailed his political opponents in large numbers. People who fret over the plight of refugees in the Mediterranean seemed intensely relaxed about the Cubans given no alternative by the Castro regime but to take to the Caribbean.

Chief among the hypocrites was Michael D Higgins. Our President. He's entitled to laud Castro if he wants, I suppose. This is a free country. If we're unhappy with a politician, we always have the option, unlike the Cubans, of voting him out. Given that the Irish Presidency is a largely meaningless consolation prize for political failures, perhaps it's not surprising to find an incumbent who doesn't mind bringing the office into disrepute.

But I think of Higgins earning €250,000 a year for doing bugger all and banging on about the great life enjoyed by people in a country where the average wage is $25 a month. And then I think of Jose and Yunel and Juan and Orlando and all those others, out there in the dark, the waves rising around them, the sharks below them, the police behind them and uncertainty ahead of them, young men forced into that desperate situation by the simple wish to make the best out of themselves, something we take for granted here.

Imagine how difficult it was to make the choice. Whereas the most difficult choice our President ever makes is whether to end a poem with an 'oy' rhyme or an 'ay' one. His Castro panegyric wasn't just ill-judged, it was obscene.

You silly old fool, Michael D. You silly, silly old fool.

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