Castro: The Death of a Complex Man

I recall exactly where I was when Margaret Thatcher died.

I was in a small flat on the seafront of Aberystwyth when my clock radio flickered to life (Being a habitual Today Programme listener is one of my many regrettable habits) I heard the voice of John Humphrys relay the news with his trademark professionalism, and was hit, at this early hour and in this grim seaside flat, with a feeling of elation. The woman that my Fathers and Grandfathers used to tell me about, the one that took their livelihoods and destroyed the communities that were once thriving in our valleys.

From a young age, I knew where we lived wasn’t like the pleasant places I saw on TV, and I was always acutely aware of the high levels of poverty and dysfunctionality I saw all around me from my formative years onwards. So, for me, my image of Thatcher was one of a hurricane, or a dragon that had once ravaged the land, a supernatural figure.

So, I was understandably surprised and angry that such a person was awarded such an honour as a state funeral, and portrayed by Meryl Streep in a sentimental motion picture in which Jim Broadbent also starred as the wacky ghost of Dennis. It was a huge shock to my system back then, to see the BBC and other outlets slavishly praise a woman who had been the folk devil of every valley town from Pontypridd to Merthyr Tydfil, and whose influence can still be felt to this day through scores of listless, broken men lining the cheap furniture of every Job Centre in these towns, men who never knew the pride of productive work that was the God-given right of their fathers and grandfathers.

Of course with age comes wisdom, and one is forced to admit the viewpoints of others may be valid even if they don’t conform to one’s own experience. The Petite-Bourgeois benefitted from her rule, and many people are still today grateful at being allowed to purchase their own homes. There is a famous black and white image that could either be a goblet or two people in conversation that often graces those tacky internet optical illusion sites and sociopathic “activity” booklets, and a similar effect is present in the judgement of major political figures post-mortem, as the verdicts are deliberated between a million different jurors in thousands upon thousands of court houses of public opinion.

Fidel Castro, to begin with what I imagine will be relatively uncontroversial, was without doubt iconic. Clad in Khaki’s and chewing a delectable Havana cigar, the man was the John Bull of not just Cuba but all Latin American Socialism, and his image has been used and parodied in everything from episodes of The Simpsons to the Video Game Call of Duty (in a mission in which the goal is his assassination, which true to history, fails miserably). A larger than life figure, he was more flamboyant than the San Francisco street which bears his name.

Now, my life was never affected by the man in any notable way, and although I imbibed his visage through cultural osmosis I never developed the personal affection or hatred for the man the way his loudest eulogists do. But a statesman of such great stature begs analysis, and the amount of people whose lives he affected in different ways deserves to be looked at. I feel it best to look at several people or groups in separation, examining the emotions that poured from them following the death of el presidente.

The Al Pacino Movie Scarface is probably (unfortunately) the most famous example in popular culture of the Cuban Immigrant experience in the United States, though by no measure the most accurate. In the Film, the diminutive Italian Actor plays Tony Montana, a career criminal who, along with several other takers of the Castro regimes “love it or Leave it” policy, embarks on a boat to Miami to begin a new life. While the film chooses to focus on a violent drug dealer, most of the Exiles or “Boat People”, I assume, are good people. Clearly unhappy with some aspect of the Castro government, or in some cases forced out entirely, these people have proven to be Castro’s most vociferous critics, holding bitter memories of Plantations left behind or separated friends. When Castro’s death was announced a number of these people took to the streets in celebration, perhaps hoping that with his passing they have a chance to return. I suppose for them the street parties were an act of long needed catharsis, much like the ones deemed crass by the press that were held after the passing of Baroness Thatcher.

By far, the most vitriolic statements that followed the news of Fidel’s death flowed from the mouths and pens of American Conservatives, as if the cessation of his heart beat had, for a moment, re-ignited the Cold War. Accusations of dictatorship and its trappings were levelled at him, with allegations of firing squads, concentration camps for LGBT people and starving, deprived peasants. They saw him, even after the fall of the Berlin wall, as the eternal enemy, a tyrant who prevented the normalisation of relations with the United States, and perhaps, at the back of their minds, the one who got away, as he survived countless assassination attempts. As biased as these critics are, one must not ignore the Castro regime, like all of those in which power is exercised to its full extent, almost certainly had excesses. Ultimately, it will be up to Cubans both past and present to decide whether such acts were necessary to sustain the self-determination of Cuba and her people.

The International community, apparently nursing Cold War divisions to this day, was incredibly divided on what Castro’s death meant to them. South Africa decided they would remember him as a brave comrade in the struggle against apartheid and racism, and as a beloved friend of the universally venerated Nelson Mandela. China and India also chose to remember him as a friend, as a Cold War ally and a valiant enemy of colonialism respectively. Moscow sent sincere condolences to Havana, perhaps touched by the memory of their former protectorate, who they helped through blockades and US invasions, and with whom they had almost started an Atomic War.
In the Western World, with the deeply held respect for plurality of opinion amongst the public, leaders wisely chose to remain more subdued as the people of their nations debated the significance of the events in Cuba amongst themselves, in heated debates in Public Houses and social media.
There were of course, some exceptions. The President Elect of the United States was certainly less kind when it came to the subject, maybe mindful of the feelings of the Cuban voters in Miami that were crucial in electing him.
The usually woolly inoffensive liberal Justin Trudeau, whose family had close relations with Castro and Cuba for almost half a century, was roundly mocked for his heartfelt eulogy, deemed inappropriate for a western leader to be making, especially a liberal to an authoritarian.
The leader of the British Labour Party, never one to hide his political beliefs in the face of controversy, was characteristically unrestrained in his praise of Castro, even going so far as to relay a story of a holiday he spent with his son cycling through Cuba. Throughout the world however, one common thread ran through all the comments made about him, and that was this was a man who, although the leader of a tiny, blockaded nation, had made a huge impact on the world from Beijing to Vancouver.

In the Bulgarian film ‘The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner’, a flashback scene occurs in which the protagonist’s grandmother asks the guests at a dinner to thank Mr. Castro for sending the sugar at short notice that allowed her to bake a cake. The scene always struck me as one in which a large, far away figure who was considered a villain in my country could affect someone’s life in such a small and sweet way as providing a Grandmother with the sugar to make a cake, but this was how he was regarded in the Eastern Bloc states by many a grandmother, the far off friend who, despite shortages, had his hard working people produce for them sugar so as they could make their grandchildren’s lives less dour. Though it seems such a small act, one must remember that all such things are important in the end. We will scarcely know what the average Cuban will feel about the loss of a man that was the saviour of their country from the outside world, much less how relatives and his numerous lovers will mourn him.

The future of Cuba is now uncertain, and the goals which Fidel dedicated his life to may now, slowly, begin to change direction. But the man, through politics, war, charity, and sheer force of personality became a man that personified a country, a culture and a spirit throughout the whole of the world and left a mark much larger than most leaders of small, sugar producing islands could ever hope to make. A man like him touched many lives in many ways, and he will be remembered with as much diversity as the people whom he affected.

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