A brutal dictator, El Comandante, a remarkable leader, champion of social justice, a monster, Guerrilla leader , el Jefe, Massacre, an unrepentant revolutionary. Such were some of the words used by world leaders to describe Fidel Castro Ruz upon hearing of his death last Friday. Without doubt one of the most important political figures of the 20th Century, he polarized a nation and was a thorn in the side of US Foreign policy for nearly 60 years.
His younger brother Raul announced his death on Cuban television towards midnight on Friday 25th November 2016. He was visibly moved and his voice trembled with emotion as he finished the address with the revolutionary declaration “Hasta La Victoria Siempre!”.
Cuba is coming to terms with the loss of a mighty presence and the death of el Comandante Fidel Castro will leave an enormous vacuum to fill. The streets of Havana are eerily quiet and Cuba will mourn his passing with 9 days of funeral rites, culminating with the burial of his ashes at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery on the 4th December. Fittingly, he will be buried next to the Cuban poet and National Hero, Jose Marti. Flags will be flown at half mast, music will not be played in public places and rum will not be served in bars. The nation will be mobilized to pay homage to their Comandante for one last time.
There was a joke running around Havana in the late 90’s which illustrates how all-pervasive Castro’s presence and influence has been on his island nation. Fidel is so deeply embedded into the Cuban psyche that people joked that his influence would only cease if , and not when, he died. Fidel was their super hero. And now that the “biological solution” has finally come to pass, the nation is stunned.
True, Fidel had ceded power to his brother years before his death but there is no doubt that Fidel has been inside every Cuban head since he began his Revolutionary battle against Batista in the late 1950’s. For Cuba he has been all of these things : their heroic leader in the clandestine guerrilla war against Batista and again during the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis; the powerful force who transformed this tiny poor island into the best educated country in the Americas; the creator of a national health system which reduced child mortality from 42% to 0.4% , which guaranteed a doctor for every 130 Cuban citizens and which sent medical teams all over the world to assist nations suffering natural disasters and epidemics; Castrismo created an educational system which nurtured the talents of Cuban artists, dancers, musicians and sportsmen so that Cuban cultural icons are household names throughout the Western world. Fidel was the man that placed Cuba firmly on the world map and has given Cubans enormous pride in their nationality despite (or because of ) the huge sacrifices they were forced to endure for daring to stand off against the Goliath in the North.
But, as Cubans themselves admit, it’s complicated. He was also the leader who refused to tolerate any political opposition and many suffered under draconian crackdowns. Such was his righteousness that he was unable to let the Cuban economy evolve when the Berlin Wall fell and Eastern Bloc countries were welcomed into the Capitalist fold. Cuba has remained frozen in time. It’s hard to imagine a country where people don’t have access to internet but this is Cuba and restrictions imposed from above continue to control access to information. He created a system which has infantilized a nation and taught them to expect hand-outs from a nanny state and to self-righteously see themselves as victims of the US Embargo which, they were told, is the sole cause of their economic woes. His regime has forced a country to split into two opposing factions – one on each side of the Straits of Florida – and this internal Cuban battle between pro- Castristas and anti-Castristas has been played out through American politics for the pass 60 years.
Reaction to his death has been equally polarized: in Miami there were noisy celebrations in the middle of the night with much flag waving and banging of pots and pans. Meanwhile throughout Cuba bars and nightclubs were closed as the news seeped out that “el Jefe” had died. Cuba fell into an eerie silence.
It’s hard to know exactly what Cubans feel about his death because regime taught Cubans to be hermetic with their true feelings; but probably most feel much as you would if a brilliant, bossy and charismatic relative ( who had become cantankerous and intransigent in his dotage )had died. A mixture of deep sadness and, possibly, stunned relief that this huge presence is now no longer alive. Nine days of national mourning may give Cubans time to explore how they truly feel about the death of a person who has coloured every aspect of every Cuban life for so long. Fidel has been the white noise in every Cuban heart and head for 6 decades and now, finally, they will discover what it is to live without el Comandante.
Without doubt the world will be a less argumentative place without Fidel Castro. Fidel Castro and the Cuba he created were the antidote to Capitalism. He was the controversial foil which forced you to look at the other side of the coin. If only for that, he will be deeply missed.