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Happy Birthday, Fidel

Ask 1,000 Americans when President Bush's birthday is, and 999 probably will shrug. Ask 1,000 Cubans when President Fidel Castro's birthday is, and most likely 999 will know.

Just one of the small and delightful differences between a free country and a communist dictatorship.

On Saturday, while Bush and a small group of journalists took a 17-mile mountain bike ride on the president's Texas ranch, Castro celebrated his 79th birthday to the usual state-mandated fanfare.

Children danced and cut a huge blue-and-white cake for the their leader, the longest-ruling government head in the world. The not-so-free press featured front-page stories and photographs accompanied by praise and words of affection.

A letter published on the front page of Granma, the Communist Party daily paper, said: "We celebrate as your own, with the affection and immense admiration that children feel for the most noble, wise and brave father."

Signed "your people," the letter also called Castro "dearly loved Fidel," and mentioned his "guerrilla spirit of just ideals" and his "special sensitivity for others."

Ah, yes, Castro's legendary and special sensitivity. Gives you chills, doesn't it? Or the sweats, if you happen to be among those who have disagreed with this particular noble, wise and brave father.

Dissidents, many of them recently imprisoned for a tough-love refresher course, doubtless were singing "Feliz Cumpleanos" along with the little darlings indoctrinated since birth by parents too afraid to skip one of their neighborhood's mandatory Communist Party meetings.

By the way, when was the last time you attended a state-mandated Communist Party meeting? When was the last time a family member was arrested for criticizing the government? Just checking.

It is useful sometimes to be reminded of the freedoms we take for granted, and Castro's birthday seems as good a time as any. What, for instance, does one suppose would happen to Cindy Sheehan's equivalent in Cuba if she staked out Castro's home to protest the arrest of her son? Not that Sheehan's son, who died in Iraq, was taken by the government.

And not, by the way, that Sheehan or anyone else could camp outside Castro's house. He doesn't have one. At least he doesn't have one in which he regularly sleeps. He moves around a lot. When you hold a nation of people prisoner on an island, you are not, in fact, wildly popular. You are, in fact, despised. Quietly. During a visit to Cuba a few years ago, I got a glimpse of that hatred from Cubans who felt comfortable speaking openly with an American journalist. I also got a glimpse of the way official Cuba regards those who prefer freedom.

We were meeting with Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly of People's Power, in a small, air-conditioned office, sipping sweet coffee and pretending not to notice Alarcon's navel, which was peeking through a gap between the buttons of his guayabera.

Alarcon is charming and well-educated, a doctor of philosophy and letters who also served for several years as Cuba's ambassador to the United Nations.

He is also one of the founders of Cuba's Communist Party and is often mentioned as a possible successor to Castro. Alarcon sat facing us, a group of eight or nine reporters, one of whom bravely asked: "What is your policy toward dissidents?"

Alarcon paused a moment and then chuckled. "Well, of course," he said, "our policy is to sometimes arrest them."

Earlier this summer, Castro exercised that policy by arresting some 60 dissidents, a dozen of whom reportedly remain incarcerated, while denying that dissidents are a problem.

In July, on the 52nd anniversary of the start of the revolution, Castro spoke to an audience at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana in a style reminiscent of our beloved Baghdad Bob, who steadfastly insisted that no American troops were in Iraq as American tanks trundled behind him.

"The much-publicized dissidence, or alleged opposition in Cuba, exists only in the fevered minds of the Cuban-American mafia and the bureaucrats in the White House," Castro said. "You would think that the revolution only had a few hours left."

The audience, which included hundreds of Americans in Cuba as part of an aid program, gave Castro a standing ovation.

That's the nice thing about being a totalitarian ruler. Everyone agrees with you no matter what you say, and everyone celebrates your birthday. Unless they don't, of course, in which case, well, sometimes you get arrested.

(Bush's birthday, just in case things go badly here, is July 6.)

Kathleen Parker, an Orlando Sentinel columnist, welcomes comments via e-mail at kparker@kparker.com . Her column appears on Friday.