THE LONGEST-RULING despot in the world is Fidel Castro, who seized power in Cuba 47 years ago this week. Like most dictators, Castro is a brazen liar, especially about his own regime. This, for example, is what he told an international conference in Havana in April 2001:
''There have never been death squads in our country, nor a single missing person, nor a single political assassination, nor a single victim of torture. . . . You may travel around the country, ask the people, look for a single piece of evidence, try to find a single case where the Revolutionary government has ordered or tolerated such an action. And if you find them, then I will never speak in public again."
One would have to be willfully blind -- a useful idiot, in Lenin's phrase -- to believe such a reeking falsehood. But when it comes to Castro, useful idiots have never been in short supply. From Norman Mailer to Jean-Paul Sartre, from Jesse Jackson to Ted Turner, a long line of admirers has swooned over the bearded tyrant, lavishly praising his wisdom and charm -- and never showing the slightest interest in his real record: cruelty, repression, and a death toll in the tens of thousands.
But Castro's mocking challenge -- ''try to find a single case" -- is not going unanswered. The Cuba Archive project (www.CubaArchive.org) is working to document the cost, in human life, of more than five decades of Cuban dictatorship. The New Jersey-based archive's tiny staff has set itself the monumental task of identifying every man, woman, and child killed by Cuba's rulers since March 10, 1952, the day Batista ousted the island's last democratically elected president. Meticulously, impartially, the archive's researchers are assembling the evidence that Castro claims doesn't exist -- victim by victim, one death at a time.
It is heartbreaking work. The revolution's victims have died in front of firing squads and been beaten to death by government goons; they have been sunk while at sea and shot down while flying; they have been killed for resisting communism at home and killed when sent to fight for communism abroad. In the hands of Castro's jailers, some have been driven to suicide; many more have disappeared.
It is also slow and painstaking work. Each death entered into the archive must be confirmed by at least two independent sources and documented, to the extent possible, with photographs, eyewitness testimony, and the recollections of survivors. ''We don't want to just record names and numbers," says Maria Werlau, the president of the Cuba Archive. ''We want to tell each story. We want the world to know the magnitude of the Cuban tragedy."
So far the archive has catalogued the deaths of 9,240 victims of the Castro regime. Who were they? Sister Aida Rosa Perez, who was sent to prison as an ''enemy of the revolution" and died of heart failure brought on by torture and hard labor. Estanislao Gonzalez Quintana, who died in police custody four days after being detained for ''unlawful economic activity"; his corpse was visibly bruised and had a deep gash in the forehead. The three Garcia-Marin Thompson brothers, who sought asylum at the Vatican embassy in Havana, only to be seized by Interior Ministry troops and executed after a summary hearing. Mrs. Alberto Lazo Pastrana, who died with her three children when the boat on which they were trying to leave Cuba was sunk by the Cuban navy; the mother was eaten by sharks and the children were never seen again. Carlos Alberto Costa, a 29-year-old American, who was shot down by a Cuban jet fighter as he flew an unarmed plane on a search-and-rescue mission over international waters in 1996.
Plus 9,230 others.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Werlau and the archive's research director, Armando Lago, an economist who has spent years analyzing the costs of the Cuban revolution, expect the total number of deaths to be far higher. As many as 77,000 Cubans may have lost their lives trying to escape the island; their deaths, too, will eventually be added to the archive.
Werlau, who lived in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship, saw firsthand how international awareness of human rights atrocities helped Chile reinstate its democracy. ''The Castro regime executed more people in just its first three years than the Pinochet regime killed or 'disappeared' in its entire 17 years in power," she says. ''Yet Castro's victims, who number so many times more -- and who include not just political opponents but entire families assassinated for trying to flee -- remain unknown, ignored, or forgotten.
''We just had to do something about it."
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.