- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2003

Stuck ear
"Don't take a sudden coughing fit getting onto an elevator if you live in a close-to-Chinatown high-rise in downtown Toronto," writes Canada's award-winning columnist Judi McLeod, whose city has been dealt an unhealthy dose of deadly SARS cases.
"The look of panic on the faces of my high-rise neighbors just before one of them stabbed the closing door button left me coughing in an empty hallway. The mild coughing fit didn't come from SARS but from one of the ears of a chocolate Easter bunny surreptitiously swallowed and gone down the wrong way."

Castro's charade
Almost 10 years ago, Tom Carter, a foreign desk reporter for The Washington Times, traveled to Havana where he interviewed Nestor Baguer, once the most celebrated journalist in Cuba.
Mr. Carter described the 72-year-old Mr. Baguer as kind of a "William Safire of Cuba." At the height of his career, he was syndicated in 40 newspapers, hosted three radio programs, and authored three books.
He became so famous around the world that in 1983 he was invited to join the Royal Academy of Spain, "the only journalist in Cuba with that citation," Mr. Baguer noted.
But that was before he had the temerity to call for a free press in Cuba, Mr. Carter pointed out in his 1993 story.
In 1991, the celebrated Cuban had formed the Association of Independent Journalists, brave souls who dared speak out against the iron-fisted regime of Fidel Castro.
"Since then he has been harassed, regularly taken to 'my old school,' his childhood school that now houses the headquarters for Cuban security police, and physically attacked," Mr. Carter wrote.
The Cuban described how he once required five stitches to close a gash in his head, and recalled another day when a large rock was thrown at his front door from a passing police cruiser.
"I kept it," Mr. Baguer said, lugging the big stone outside to show his visitor.
To keep the outspoken Cuban under wraps, security authorities cut his telephone lines, although he still had access to 20 other phones around Havana to send news to Radio Marti in the United States and Spain.
He had told Mr. Carter that the political situation in Cuba was "tense," made worse by economic hardships brought on by the communist government. But Cuban dissidents could do little, he said, because the "army will shoot if necessary."
"It is easy for people in Miami to say we should force the situation," he shrugged, "but we are the ones who will die."
Perhaps the other dissidents, but not Mr. Baguer.
Almost a decade after that 1993 interview, Mr. Carter learned yesterday why Mr. Baguer, now 81, stopped short of sparking a counterrevolution. His code name is "Agent Octavio," since 1960 an undercover member of the Cuban security police. In other words, a secret agent of Fidel Castro.
Mr. Baguero in recent days testified against a number of dissident journalists and others he befriended over the years. Among them, the well-known Cuban poet Raul Rivero, whom he has known since childhood.
Thanks to Mr. Baguero's first-hand testimony, Mr. Rivero has just received a 20-year prison sentence.
In an interview yesterday with the Mexican newspaper El Universal, carried in The Washington Post, Mr. Baguer explained of Mr. Rivero: "I consider him a friend and I am very sad, but he deserved it, because he chose the road of treason."
A stunned Mr. Carter told this column yesterday that Cuba had banned him from returning to the island because he had sought out and interviewed members of the anti-Castro community, Mr. Baguer included, or so he'd thought.
"The ban means that at least some of the people I spoke to were real dissidents," he said.

Saddam flush
The unique playing cards featuring Iraq's 55 "most wanted" former leaders has become a hot collector's item from here to Baghdad.
In the past 10 days, Nick Lucca of greatUSAflags.com says his distributorship has sold more than 700,000 decks, each at a cost of about $6.
Interestingly enough, at least 2,000 decks were ordered by U.S. troops still deployed in and around Iraq (the Pentagon reportedly produced only 200 decks for its top military officials).
"One of the first orders we received was from Kuwait," Mr. Lucca tells this column in a telephone interview. "A top military official there ordered 111 decks for his troops that were about to go home.
"We gave him a real good price," he added, "and I asked only one favor that he take a picture of the troops holding the cards. He said that would be OK, except that the military won't let the faces of its special forces troops be photographed."
Mr. Lucca's company in Illinois is the official distributor of the glossy cards produced by the United States Playing Card Co., the leading playing card company in the world.
"This is one of the hottest items in the country and we can barely keep them in stock," he says, adding that their casino-quality stock makes for a great poker night. Particularly if you're holding a royal flush, Saddam high.


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