Breaking with tradition, Cuba's maximum leader Fidel Castro turned his traditional July 26 State of the Nation speech into a war of words with President Bush.
Castro devoted the bulk of his 90-minute speech to countering charges levied by Mr. Bush that his government fosters tourism prostitution and child pornography. He strongly implied that President Bush cannot distinguish between his imagination and reality.
Quoting extensively from the book "Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President" by Dr. Justin A. Frank, Castro suggested that Mr. Bush's accusations against Cuba's socialist government may be rooted in his untreated alcoholic past.
In the book, Frank, a clinical professor of psychiatry at George Washington University Medical Center, deals with the president's admitted two-decade-long drinking problem and possible thought disorders that lead him to invent enemies so that he can destroy them.
Castro noted Mr. Bush called the "tourism industry here sexual tourism and the people who come here pedophiles and pleasure seekers" applying those descriptions not only to American visitors but to Canadian tourists. "Most people know these tourists [Canadians] are retirees and people of the third age who seek safety and tranquility in our country."
Finally, tackling the latest White House measures to undermine his government, Castro warned President Bush that he may have been misled "by hatred and blindness" into taking "stupid and immoral actions" that could cost him votes in November.
Ordinary Cubans, already irritated by the White House's latest punishing measures toward the island, also saw red when Mr. Bush accused Castro of cynically promoting sex tourism and child prostitution.
"The dictator welcomes sex tourism," said Mr. Bush as "a vital source of hard currency to keep his corrupt government afloat." The president claimed his recent clampdown on Cuban-American travel to Cuba will not only deprive Fidel Castro of cash but also reduce prostitution.
The opinion on the streets of Havana is different.
Most don't buy the president's claim that his new Cuba policy is designed to stamp out prostitution. Instead they see it as promoting the breakup of the Cuban family by severely limiting the frequency of visits.
"Is he suggesting that our grandmothers, our parents and our brothers and sisters are coming here looking for prostitutes?" asked Marienela Fernandez, a 23-year old Havana junior high school teacher with a close uncle living abroad.
Both the Catholic and Protestant churches are involved in outreach to discourage the prostitution that emerged in the 1990s during Cuba's economic crash, said the Reverend Adolfo Ham, retired head of the Caribbean Council of Churches. He believes they've made tremendous headway.
Mr. Bush told his audience the Cuban leader "bragged" about the sex tourism industry. Quoting Castro, President Bush said, "Cuba has the cleanest and most educated prostitutes in the world."
Cuba scholars and the press immediately questioned the quote's source. The White House cited a 2001 paper posted on a University of Texas Web site. The Los Angeles Times tracked down the author of that paper, Charles Trumbull, now studying law, to report that he is "annoyed" because Mr. Bush took the 1992 quote out of context and misinterpreted Castro's intent.
What Castro actually said is:
"There are hookers, but prostitution is not allowed in our country," Castro told a July gathering of Cuba's parliament. "No women are forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner, to a tourist. Those who do so do it on their own, voluntarily ... We can say that they are highly-educated hookers and quite healthy, because we are the country with the lowest number of AIDS cases."
Manuel Hernandez, Cuba's chief AIDS educator, called the charges "absurd." Prostitution, he says, emerged with Cuba's economic crisis in the early 90s. "Prostitution still exists but it is nowhere near as widespread as it was then."
Asked if that was because of a drop in tourism, Hernandez answered with a flat no, crediting instead "prevention."
Hernandez should know. He accomplished the unimaginable: at a time when prostitution, gays and AIDS were taboo topics on the island, the social worker spent his nights handing out condoms in the city's underground gay clubs and to prostitutes along Havana's major thoroughfares. He recruited young prostitutes of both sexes to help him.
"Today is a different day," he explains. "The economic crisis has passed and our strategy now is to prevent men and women from getting into prostitution in the first place. If they are already doing it, we get them to stop."
His employer, Cuba's National Center for the Prevention of AIDS, runs educational programs specifically aimed at the tourism industry.
"It's not a problem for just the prostitute and the client. We work with cab drivers, barkeepers, and everyone involved," Hernandez said.
Gay men over 24 years of age remain Cuba's most vulnerable group.
Mr. Bush's speech clashed at points with this year's State Department Report on Trafficking in Persons. While it admits "the Cuban Government does not condone underage prostitution," it criticizes Havana for not giving enough public attention to the problem. The report also found that last year the Castro government "instituted a broad crackdown against prostitution and related activities" that led to the arrest and conviction of four Americans engaged in child pornography and the sentencing in the U.S. of a major child pornographer.
By Portia Siegelbaum