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A Top Cuban Leader Thinks Out Loud

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Posted on Aug 29, 2006
Ricardo Alarcon
AP / Jorge Rey

Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon gestures during a 2005 interview in Havana.

By Tom Hayden

(Page 2)

Alarcon seems to be hinting at a role for revolutionaries in shaping a clear alternative to global neo-liberalism, one pushed in the streets by social movements and eventually resulting in a reform of capitalism like the New Deal on a global basis. Differing with some earlier views of Third World liberation, he sees a crucial role for activists and movements inside the North American colossus itself. Whereas earlier Marxists argued that unionized workers were a ?privileged aristocracy? benefiting from the exploitation of the Third World, he says, ?they are not any longer an aristocracy. If you go to North American workers and tell them they are an aristocracy, they will say you are crazy.? He points to the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, in which labor called for ?workers of the world to unite.? Marx, he says, would be ?very interested in North American workers losing jobs to India? and what that means for workers? movements.

His point is that ?the Third World [now] penetrates the First, as dramatically illustrated by the current immigration controversies, rooted as they are in the historic patterns of capitalism needing cheap labor and resources and impoverished workers needing jobs. The Empire harvests its own internal opposition from the May Day 2006 immigrant marches inside the U.S. to the growth of Islamic rage inside the ghettos of east London or housing projects on the edge of Paris.

?To free the immigrants from their exploitation becomes essential to the emancipation of the workers in the developed countries,? those who are undermined by cheap immigrant labor. ?One must help these two [groups of workers] to converge,? both to avoid an upsurge of racism and forge the basis of majority coalitions favoring reforms like a global living wage as the alternative to neo-liberalism?s notorious ?race to the bottom.?

What is interesting about these words of a top Cuban leader, spoken freely and without reserve, is how far they diverge from the stereotypes of Cuba as a gray, thought-controlled Marxist dictatorship. Cuba is not a free society by measurements like multiple parties, but Cuba?s people, from Alarcon to the neighborhoods, are more conversant about trends in the United States than Americans are about Cuba. The ever-tightening U.S. embargo has boomeranged into a dangerous narrowing of American thinking, demonstrated in recent weeks by one hallucination after another. For example, Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, was seen on television several weeks ago opining that Fidel was already dead. The streets of Miami filled with cheering Cuban exiles with no way to influence the island. According to the Los Angeles Times, the ?most obvious interest [in Castro?s passing] comes from the gambling and tourist industries,? which were run off the island in 1960 [July 6, 2006]. One Florida-based developer?s master plan envisions ?moving out all Cubans currently living in Havana? and replacing them with Miami exiles. The U.S. government is constantly updating its official ?transition plan? to restore both free markets and the Miami exiles, with the emphasis on ?disruption of an orderly succession strategy,? according to the Congressional Research Service [Aug. 23, 2005]. Eighty million U.S. dollars was recently budgeted to support Cuba?s opposition groups. ?There are no plans to reach out,? declared White House spokesman Tony Snow after Fidel was hospitalized [Miami Herald, Aug. 2, 2006].

The notion of opening a dialogue with an accomplished diplomat like Ricardo Alarcon is completely out of the question. The Helms-Burton Act forbids any negotiation or loosening of the embargo if Raul Castro remains in power after Fidel.

Voices of realism like the head of the Organization of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel Insulza, say ?there?s no transition, and it?s not your country? to prepare a transition for [Reuters, May 23, 2006]. ?It just drives the Bush people crazy,? says one former diplomat, referring to the fact that Cuba hasn?t collapsed in accord with neoconservative wishful thinking. 

The fact is that Cubans will not rise up to welcome a mass influx of mostly white, revenge-oriented exiles from Miami backed by U.S. arms. The neocon analogy with the so-called ?captive nations? of Eastern Europe doesn?t fit. Despite all the Cuban people?s legitimate criticisms of their government, it remains their government and they will not trade it for a U.S.-installed one. However they complain, Cubans have become more socialist in everyday life than many of them realize, as seen in their common acts of solidarity, their response to the Elian Gonzales showdown, their educational achievements, their healthcare and their social safety nets. They hardly lack for world support and, in Venezuela, have found a solid source of oil and a continental opportunity for their legions of doctors and teachers. [?In the  60s, we only had a revolutionary ideology to export, but now we have valuable human capital,? one Cuban intellectual told me.]

A persistent interest of mine is why Cuba seems to be the only country in the world without street gangs. There certainly is a black market in contraband goods, but nothing like the pandilleras found everywhere else in the Americas. Part of the reason is an extraordinary network of 28,000 social workers who persistently act on the belief that ?some morality remains in everyone,? as opposed to the ?super-predator? theories popular among the neoconservatives.

It seems evident that the Cuban people want reform of their socialist state if and when Fidel passes on, and obviously not the ?regime change? anticipated by the Miami Cubans and their Washington, D.C., patrons. They want a peaceful process controlled by Cubans, not by foreign powers. Who wouldn?t? The question is whether the United States government has an interest in normalizing relations with a better, more democratic, more open but still socialist Cuba. Sadly, it is doubtful, because such a Cuba would be a triumphant example to Latin America and the world. And so the United States, along with Miami?s Cubans—the armed and aggressive state within a state on American soil—hold out against the 182 nations of the world who condemn the embargo at the United Nations. In fact, our government is holding out against the desires of many of its own capitalists who hunger to invest in Cuba; even The Wall Street Journal has editorialized for repeal of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act [WSJ, Aug. 2, 2006]. A walk through Old Havana reveals some 20 new hotels and 65 restaurants, none with American investors.

Meanwhile, Ricardo Alarcon waits. He has negotiated with the United States before, in secret, during the Clinton era. He managed the Elian Gonzales crisis with aplomb. He is overseeing the case of the Cuban Five—men imprisoned in the U.S.  for surveilling Miami-based exiles trying to bomb and sabotage Cuba. Alarcon is an experienced man of this world, one who could facilitate a normalization deal with the United States if ever one was on offer.

Instead, he sits for hours with the likes of me discussing the state of the revolution which he helped start over 50 years ago. He takes care of an invalid wife. He plays with his grandchild, Ricardito. He goes to dinner with a never-ending stream of visitors. He patiently answers reporters. He runs the domestic affairs of the National Assembly. He flies to international conferences.

He even finds time to read ?The Port Huron Statement? line for line in English, with an updated foreword titled ?The Way We Were? (in Spanish, he says, ?como eramos?). He also reads a book of mine on religion and the environment, ?The Lost Gospel of the Earth.? He did so, apparently, to prepare himself for a documentary interview for Cuba?s historical archives. When the morning of the interview arrives, he is perfectly ready to ask questions comparing Vietnam with Iraq, Chicago 1968 versus Seattle 1999, or issues of environmental spirituality, without stumbling once in English. When the interview is complete, our several days together have ended as well. ?Sorry, but I have to go back to government business,? he apologizes, and with a hasta luego returns to his daily rounds. I miss him as he drives off. Maybe he knew of Fidel?s diagnosis that day, maybe not.

I flew back to Los Angeles that afternoon, carrying the strange feeling that America has embargoed itself from a Cuba that it refuses to recognize. In the weeks following Fidel?s surgery, according to friends who spent 10 days on the island, Cuba remains quiet, stable and alert. A transition definitely seems underway, but U.S. officials may be the last to know of it.

Tom Hayden is a member of The Nation?s editorial board and a visiting professor at the Claremont Colleges. He has visited Cuba three times, as well as many other Latin American countries. His recent books include ?The Port Huron Statement,? ?Conspiracy in the Streets,? ?Street Wars? and ?The Zapatista Reader.?


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By saul2006, September 6, 2006 at 2:17 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Castro replaced a right wing dictator and while he has given health & education to his people, he is just the mirror opposite of what he replaced.
I hope this will not happen here when the Democrats oust the Republicans. It would be nice if they learned that what killed the Republicans is they went too far right, and don’t take it too far left as their time in office will not be lengthy

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By Thom Pleesy, September 1, 2006 at 6:43 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I just can’t understand 2 things. #1, If only a few people alive have the range of experence of Mr. Alarcon.  Why pray tell have an advisor. So I can only surmise the advisor has more experence or knowledge than Alarcon does.  Why not just talk to the advisor.  #2, could you maybe (even though the US is a far larger country) give em some sort of count on the amount of boat people sailing north VS the ones sailing south over the years since the rev.  Thank you, Thom

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By Spinoza, September 1, 2006 at 8:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

>>>Thinking along the lines of.. Costa Rica.<<<<

Costa Rica is the only reasonably democratic country in Central America and is so because it has had the least USA interference.  Most all other countries are a disaster with narrow groups of rich and a vast majority of poor living in horrible slum conditions.

Cuba is not a paradise and has many problems including moving into a capitalist mode of thinking but when contrasted with most of Central America they are doing very well.

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By Roger Drowne EC, September 1, 2006 at 6:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yo Tom…

R U Doing the

Earth Citizen Hand-Sign ?

R U Playing - Earth Ball - NOT WAR

scroll down 2 C how 2 do E.C. Hand - Shake & Play Earth Ball

Thanks, E.B. staff


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By Frank, September 1, 2006 at 4:07 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

FREE CUBA NOW!!  Toss out the communist bums out of office!

The cuban people deserve:

Free Elections with multiparty candidates
Free Press without government censorship
Release of political prisoners
An end to state kidnappings and imprisonment of dissidents

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By Bruce Breece, August 31, 2006 at 11:03 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you very much Tom for a most informative and instructive article.  Sr. Alarcon is to be congratulated also. His tireless efforts to make this world a better place should be read and discussed by more Americans.

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By Todd Ricker, August 31, 2006 at 10:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The perennial question of “What will happen when Castro dies?” is well answered by the sentiments of Alarcon and others like him, such as Cuban Foreign Minister Philipe Roque.  These are nimble minds that are cognizant of the mistakes of other revolutionary societies as they continue to build the future of their own.  I have had the great privelege of meeting and chatting with Mr. Alarcon and can affirm that he is just as thoughtful and engaging in person as he seems to be in Mr. Hayden’s article.

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By John McAuliff, August 31, 2006 at 8:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Tom Hayden has long been one of the best organizers and political commentators produced by the new left.  It is unfortunate he never was elected to the House or Senate where his voice would find a deserved national audience.

Cuba, unfortunately, is not only a target for conservatives, but also a symbol of the inability of liberals to mobilize opinion against out of date ideologically bound interest group policies. 

According to a recent CNN poll (August 5, 2006), Americans today favor re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba by 62% to 29%.  Should Fidel Castro be replaced as leader by his brother Raul, the number favoring normalization rises to 69%.

Readers who want to stay on top of developments in US-Cuba relations, and work for a more rational policy, should ask to receive the weekly news blast of Cuba Central in Washington:  .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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By Gerald Smith, August 31, 2006 at 7:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Ricardo Alarcon’s interview with Tom Hayden underscores the value of a historical approach to understanding Cuba and predicting the near-term future. Some facts suggest that we should anticipate a Cuba that is friendly to the U.S. but with strong socialist policies. It is true that Cuban citizens do not now have much surplus income, partly because of U.S. restrictions on trade and travel. But Cuba’s progressive agricultural, education, and health-care systems are world class and the export of biotechnology and thousands of physicians abroad has helped create a trade surplus of 1.7 bn (The Guardian Weekly, 28 Jul-3Aug, p 19) that provides one of the best social safety nets in the world. In addition to subsidized housing (no homeless people), organic food security (parallel free market and state systems), and a narrow gap between the rich and poor, they have less crime and fewer imprisoned people than we have in the U.S. The U.S. media in general continue to hide these facts from the American people, in their confusion of capitalism with democracy and their fear of socialism.
The expectation that Cubans are eager for investment from the U.S. must be tempered by their society’s educated memory that in the year before the 1959 revolution, the majority of utilities, railways, oil industry, nickel mines, banking, and tourism, and about 40% of sugar refineries, were owned and controlled by U.S. business (Volker Skierka, “Fidel Castro, a Biography,” Polity Press, 2004, p. 63). Most Cubans will therefore carefully resist globalization and foreign control of their economy.
Right wing politicians in the U.S. would do well to remember that Fidel and Raul Castro enjoy higher approval ratings among Cubans than George W. Bush has in the USA.
Most Cubans recognize, as do many democracy scholars, that Cubans live in a legitimate Socialist Democracy, with active participatory power, from neighborhoods upward. (Isaac Seney, 2004, “Cuba, a Revolution in Motion,” Fernwood Press.)
Gerald Smith

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By A Happy Poor Person, August 31, 2006 at 6:20 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Two things to discuss….

“it was one big american whore house.”

It has now become one big Italian, Spanish, Canadian and German whorehouse, with 100,000 Americans sneaking in on the side.

“They have tons of articles and stories of atrocities that seem to have no relationship to reality, they are gross smear campaigns.”

How so?  What evidence do you have besides simple second hand anecdotal evidence that suggests the people seem relatively happy?  Encourage me to believe that versus articles.

Not saying Cuba is paradise or a hell hole, just meaning to imply that you’re acccusing them of misleading you, yet you turn around and say “Well, a few buddies have told me it’s great there.”

Powerful stuff.

In terms of models, Cuba could simply liberalize elements of their economy, satisfy their people, and be done with it.  I don’t know.  Thinking along the lines of.. Costa Rica.

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By Broiler, August 31, 2006 at 6:12 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


“I have spoken to people who have visited Cuba
and who have travelled all over the Island.”

My family was allowed (not for over 2 years now)
to travel there in order to visit elderly relatives dieing
without food or medical care. Yes, you could bring
in supplies but aspirin, multi-vitamins and amoxicillin
are of little help to someone with Alzheimer’s. Those
that are of no importance to the system are essentially
euthanized. Travel was extremely limited.


“Everyone should remember this: Before the revolution
cuba was totally corrupt, run by the CIA and the Mafia,
the landed aristocracy paid little heed to the needs of the
peasants and american MALE tourists used cuban women
for self gratifiying sex”

Are you certain that without the CIA, Mafia and Americans
this does not continue? The entire island did not live in the
casinos and brothels of Havana. As we know everyone in
Vegas is a card dealer, gambler or hooker. For people around
the world living under corrupt regimes life goes on despite the
fact that they can’t influence the big picture. For many Cubans
life does not go on. It is slowly snuffed out.

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By Spinoza, August 30, 2006 at 9:08 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have had a number of “debates” with the right wing Cuban partisans.  They have tons of articles and stories of atrocities that seem to have no relationship to reality, they are gross smear campaigns.  I have spoken to people who have visited Cuba and who have travelled all over the Island.  They report a poor but relatively happy people. The contrast in stories are to great to give much credence to the smear stories.

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By archeon, August 30, 2006 at 8:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Everyone should remember this: Before the revolution cuba was totally corrupt, run by the CIA and the Mafia, the landed aristocracy paid little heed to the needs of the peasants and american MALE tourists used cuban women for self gratifiying sex - including beastiality.  So give me a break and quit all the yammering about the evils of the revolution. Sure communism isn’t great, but oppressive american colonial facism is worse.  Not even the church was a help to the poor, it merely reinforced the idea that the poor were poor because god wanted it that way.  I wonder if the choice were between pre-revolutionary cuba and Fidel’s cuba where would the majority of cubans cast thier vote?  I know we never stop hearing from the screams of the pre-revolutionary spawn in Florida, on how Fidel stole this or that, how he imprisoned “political opposition” (funny how they never mention that these same people did with the help of the CIA try to launch and invasion).

Was cuba a democracy before the revolution?  It was a hell hole, a shit hole, it was one big american whore house.

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By jesus reyes, August 30, 2006 at 6:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Here’s is something that I have never understood from these 8th Street fascists.

If Cuba is so incredibly bad, what is the model that they point to?  Haiti?  Dominican Republic?  Jamaica?  Guatemala?  Honduras?  El Salvador?  Nicaragua?

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By Broiler, August 30, 2006 at 5:21 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

To John Hotchkiss,

I agree my rant may not be helpful. I admit to being
both biased and unarmed in discussing political systems.

Here’s a point. If the current Cuban population is
on board with Castro, why then at every opportunity
do we hear of a floating oil drum with 30 Cubans
aboard? Do you know of anyone defecting to Cuba?
The US allows Mexicans to escape poverty while Cubans
are sent back to persecution. (If Mexicans were sent back,
would they revolt and replace Fox?) Dogs and cats escaping
the post Katrina flooding were treated better. The other posters
here write as though individual human lives are meaningless
when compared to the success of the social experiment.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
- Leonard Nimoy (as Spock)

Castro has left behind large segments of the Cuban population.
If you’re not young and vital, you are discarded. The discarded
are never filmed. The world sees only what Fidel allows. Ask Fidel
to interview Cuban soldiers from the 60’s and 70’s. Where are those
men now? How’d the revolution work out for them? We’ll never know.
Ask Mr. Hayden what he’s seen off the “tourist trail”? I’m betting he’s
never been allowed “off the trail”. At least in a free society the media
can cover the homeless and forgotten. Our poor have advocates and
we have the freedom to help.

Cuba is an experiment with humans as the lab rats. If the Cuban
population was predominantly Jewish and not Catholic/Christian
we would not be discussing Castro today. The international outcry
would have been thunderous,  the US intervention instantaneous
some fifty years ago.

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By John Hotchkiss, August 30, 2006 at 3:51 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I agree with brimitch that Broiler is historically challenged.  Hayden a bird of feather to corrupt thieving Castroites?  Name one instance when Tom Hayden has robbed the poor. I guess it is too much to ask of Broiler to take a critical view, and make a detailed response to the carefully crafted statements of Sr. Alacron, and the other factual details of the achievements of Castro’s government. Broiler’s rants, without a semblence or reasoned discussion of what the current population of Cuba want to do in any post-Fidel period is not helpful. By what right does the US Gov’t (Not only Bush, but all the anti-Fidel governments since 1959) and the volunteer exiles in Miami have to interfere in Cuba’s affairs,either “post-Castro”, or continuing in whatever way the current residents of Cuba want?

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By Broiler, August 30, 2006 at 3:10 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Obviously Broiler needs to study his history.  He still believes Cuba was a democracy before the revolution. Poor, sick, stupid bastar….”

Well Brimitch, you surely know what Cuba was before Castro.

You’ve not met and spoken with men and women,
ten years removed from Castro’s prisons in the safety
of West New York, New Jersey. Having been arrested
for the anti-party crime of growing vegetables for their
households. And still hesitant to whisper of the atrocities
they survived. How does forced dentistry grab you? Ever
seen teeth drilled by a prison guard for kicks? (That is their
few remaining teeth.)The people I met were freed as examples
of what would happen.

You may know better what Cuba was before Castro.
I know better what it became with Castro.
A fifty year holocaust.

Be smug, you don’t have a dog in this fight.
I have family still there.

You win the game of semantics. Viva la revolution!

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By Carl Davidson, August 30, 2006 at 1:45 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Very good, Tom.

It brought back memories of the night in 1968 when you, I and Dave Dellinger were hustled through the streets of Havana for our late-night, long, rambling talk with Fidel.

Alarcon is asking all the right questions, and I agree with him about LuLa, too. There is a ‘High Road,’ market-inclusive, solidarity economy alternative to neoliberalism and hegemonism. It needs imagination, audacity, organizing and all the friends to can find.

Cuba, by the way, is what transformed me, in my twenties, from an anarcho-syndicalist into someone who could read Che from Grmsci’s eyes, or vice versa?

In any case, we need fresh thinking.

Keep On Keepin’ On…

Carl Davidson

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By brimitch, August 30, 2006 at 12:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Obviously Broiler needs to study his history.  He still believes Cuba was a democracy before the revolution. Poor, sick, stupid bastar….

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By Spinoza, August 30, 2006 at 8:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I was probably one of the earliest members of SDS and I remember reading the Port Huron Statement 2 or 3 times.  Hayden is an inspiring character though he seems to have become more conservative in old age and I have become more radical. What he has to say about Cuba is important because Cuba is under a lot of pressure from the Miami scum and the Bushites.  I suspect that the incumbents are going to be more or less put back into power and the USA government will remain ultra reactionary. This bodes ill for the world unless the American people raise hell.  The World Can’t Wait organization seems to be the only viable group around nowadays. Please contribute to them and get out in the streets. Raise hell. Defeat fascism. All out on October 5th.

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By Bill Martinez, August 30, 2006 at 8:10 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you for such a complete insight into Mr. Alarcon and U.S.-Cuba relations. If only the Bush Administration (and those think-tankers who’ve been in the mix for four decades) would be open enough to read this, communicate with an enhanced sense of humanity and accept a more mature policy…...


Bill Martinez

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By Broiler, August 30, 2006 at 5:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Instead, he sits for hours with the likes of me discussing the state of the revolution which he helped start over 50 years ago. He takes care of an invalid wife. He plays with his grandchild, Ricardito. He goes to dinner with a never-ending stream of visitors. He patiently answers reporters. He runs the domestic affairs of the National Assembly. He flies to international conferences.”

This shows how this low-life built his world on
the shoulders of citizens of pre-Castro democracy.
They stole what they didn’t have the fortitude to
work for. Now this creep plays the wealthy, world
wise traveler. Dining “with a never-ending stream of visitors”
while a large percentage of his countrymen have
little or nothing to eat.

Pre-Castro Cuba had capitalist pigs but they recouped
their losses. Castro killed, maimed and stole from
the common man. I know this from first hand stories
of my in-laws. He robbed from the working classes
as well as the casino and refinery owners. His
legacy will always be poverty built on the sweat
and blood of the working man. This while taking
in MLB games in New York with Rockefeller. Two
useless, power hungry thugs toughing out the revolution.
Their daddys never loved them. I shed a tear!

“Instead, he sits for hours with the likes of me discussing
the state of the revolution”

Birds of a feather Mr. Hayden.

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