WASHINGTON, November 26, 2016 — Fidel Castro—the liberator of Cuba, George Washington in fatigues, tyrant and savior—died on November 25 at the age of 90.
As news of his death spread slowly across Miami’s Little Havana in the small hours of the morning, people trickled and then poured into the streets to honk horns, set off fireworks and celebrate the tyrant’s passing.
As the news has spread through America’s news rooms and more slowly across America’s college campuses—classes are out of session while we mourn the normalization of cis-heteronormative, white hegemony over the indigenous Americans with cranberry sauce and turkey—the response has been less celebratory.
For academics of a certain age, Fidel Castro was a comforting and familiar presence emblazoned across their chests and on their dormitory walls, along with Che Guevara and Chairman Mao. We thought of them affectionately as Fidel, Che and Mao, knowing that they preferred the informality and lack of pretension of first-name familiarity (never mind that Mao wasn’t a first name).
They were men of the people.
Once upon a time, academics, reporters and Hollywood loved Josef Stalin, or “Uncle Joe.” Walter Duranty, the Moscow Bureau chief for the New York Times for 14 years, courageously told the world that Stalin was tough but kind, and that there was no famine in Ukraine. Ukrainian children were being tucked into bed with full tummies in happy, hard-working villages while Stalin worked late into the night in his Kremlin office to make the USSR into a workers’ paradise.
“Enemies and foreign critics can say what they please. Weaklings and despondents at home may groan under the burden, but the youth and strength of the Russian people is essentially at one with the Kremlin’s program, believes it worthwhile and supports it, however hard be the sledding.” (Walter Duranty, NYT, December 9, 1932)
Fake news is clearly nothing new. Nor does it go unrewarded. Duranty won a 1932 Pulitzer prize for his Russia reporting, which Western intellectuals lapped up with gusto.
Those intellectuals finally fell out of love with Stalin in the 1950s, when Moscow’s new leadership finally gave them permission to do so. They didn’t fall out of love with Communism, however. Stalin was perhaps too tough, too over the top, too careless about sending people to the Gulag. What he did to Nikolai Bukharin and Leon Trotsky, genuinely good Communists, wasn’t nice.
But Mao! Fidel! Che! Now those were Communists we could be proud of.
Those three were transformed into posters, t-shirts and bead curtains. They were an upraised middle finger from their oh-so-smart and politically aware kids to America’s establishment and to the uncool, hopelessly bourgeoisie, irredeemably traditional old farts who’d raised but never understood them.
They were, as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said of Fidel, “folk heroes” to American teens.
Especially Fidel. Havana was just 90 miles from Miami. Under Fidel, tiny Cuba stood proud and defiant against Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, the CIA and every dirty trick we could throw at him. Against American might he was bloody but unbowed, the master of his island’s fate, the captain of his people’s souls.
He was Bruce Springsteen before Bruce Springsteen was cool.
The Castro brothers (let’s not forget Raul) and Che worked like busy bees for the good of Cuba and the Cubans. The American media looked then and still look back today with awe and pride at all they accomplished: universal health care, universal education, racial equality and full employment. They’ve touted those triumphs for decades.
Fidel did so much more. He bought back oxen as farm equipment and donkey carts as transportation, moves hailed as the greening of Cuba with “biotechnology.” He showed that it’s easy to have full employment if you just get rid of tractors and cars. A famous ladies’ man and heteronormative sex symbol, he celebrated Latin macho culture by imprisoning his country’s gay population before compassionately putting it on rafts shoved in the direction of Miami.
The Cuban healthcare system makes a virtue of necessity, emphasizing prevention over cure; Cuba is a good place to not get sick, but Heaven help you if you do. According to Al Jazeera,
“Many Cubans complain that top-level government and Communist Party officials have access to VIP health treatment, while ordinary people must queue from dawn for a routine test, with no guarantee that the allotted numbers will not run out before it is their turn.”
The reporter observes,
“as with so many things in Cuba, the state health service offers some amazing paradoxes: you may have problems obtaining medicine, but getting a bust lift, or even a sex change, is no problem, and moreover, it is free of charge.”
Pope Francis grieves Castro’s passing. That sentiment will be shared by many Cubans. Castro was, after all, in charge for almost 60 years. The death of Stalin was met with genuine grief by millions of Soviet citizens who saw him as a constant in their lives, a stabilizing force.
And no tyrant is so bad that he does no good for anyone.
But it will be different for Castro. The affection felt by millions of people around the world who never had to endure his rule is real. He will be missed. But not by those whom I join in saying, “good riddance. And when you see Che in hell, remind him: You can’t have a douche without Che.”