The news was supposed to have been a shocker. Forbes magazine reported in its May 4 issue that behind a revolutionary and socialist veneer, Cuban President Fidel Castro is now the seventh richest ruler in the world, with $900 million at his disposal. The magazine put his worth last October at $500 million.

In 1998, Forbes magazine claimed that Castro had $1.4 billion, hinting that he skims off 1 percent of Cuba’s GDP. At the time the government denied the charge but did not mount a media counterattack because of the demands of economic recovery.

Forbes last year had a different explanation for Castro’s supposed wealth. “Cuba’s socialist dictator-for-life derives his fortune from a web of state-owned businesses. Among his profit-generating operations: a convention center near Havana; retail conglomerate CIMEX; and MEDICUBA, which sells vaccines and other pharmaceuticals produced in Cuba. … Sold state-owned Havana Club rum to French liquor giant Pernod Ricard for $50 million in 1993.”

This time, Cuba is fighting back. On May 16, Castro, taking part in a television roundtable, addressed the nation: “If they can prove that I have one single dollar, I will resign from all my responsibilities and the duties I am carrying out; they won’t need any more plans or transitions.” No more assassination attempts, terrorist attacks, diplomatic assaults: just provide the proof, he was saying, and he’d be gone.

Castro asserted that that the Forbes slander campaign has been a Washington propaganda operation for eight years. Its authors are ignorant of Cuban realities, he said, and don’t understand revolutionaries, just “politicians and thieves.”

“All my wealth, Mr. Bush, fits in the pocket of your shirt,” he said.

Other Cuban leaders joined Castro on the television program. They included two scientists who spoke of their people’s high revolutionary standards. Agustin Lage, director of Cuba’s Molecular Immunology Center, said, “We don’t need to defend ourselves; Fidel is defended by his life’s work, his ethics and his consistency. … We are here to accuse those who steal and those who lie.” He condemned the suggestion “that we are a country of idiots or cowards without a notion of history and that we would allow the nation to be led by a leader capable of stealing and enriching himself.”

“The campaign against the Cuban president is politically motivated; it shows that the enemies of the Revolution are losing the ideological battle,” Lage said. He also pointed out the impossibility of profiteering from MEDICUBA: the company exports no medicines or biological products. He suggested that the focus on Cuba’s bio-technology industry comes from U.S. recognition that it’s a sector that produces significant income, a pattern far from universal.

Dr. Concepcion Campa directs the Finlay Institute, a center for research and production of vaccines and biological agents. She said, “Cuba’s enemies are incapable of understanding those people who do not think of money as a God. … Fidel has taught us that wealth is not measured by who has the most, but instead by who needs the least.”

“The Forbes’ defamation makes us feel sad because they are not capable of understanding that the blood, sweat and tears shed by the Cuban people have earned our greatest wealth: our service to humanity.” She cited as an example Cuba’s donation to Uruguay in 2002 of 1 million doses of a meningitis vaccine developed in Cuba. At the time, Uruguayan UN representatives were siding with the United States against Cuba.

Campa claimed that, “All of us Cubans are multi-millionaires since Fidel has taught us that people are not worth what they own, but what they are and what they are able to do.”

Castro’s modest and austere lifestyle has not gone unnoticed in the world press. For example, a BBC News story said, “Diplomats and businessmen in Havana, who have had close access to Mr. Castro, do tend to concur that avarice is not one of his vices. Most say his personal life is notable for its austerity, our correspondent adds.”

In the United States, however, views contrary to the allegations put forth by Forbes magazine have yet to surface. Nor do counter-arguments from elsewhere in the world, like the BBC’s, get a wide airing here. Uncontested lies and deceptions, reiterated and swallowed whole, once again are reinforcing prejudices among a manipulated and disrespected citizenry.

Meanwhile, the Cuban people get a refresher course on the quality of political information that emanates from the north, and which would be theirs, if the Bush administration were to have its way.

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