Credit Photograph by Jung / ullstein bild via Getty
Fidel Castro has died. Few political leaders of modern times have been as iconic or as enduring as the Cuban revolutionary, who had turned ninety in August. He had been formally retired since 2008—he had handed power over to his younger brother Raúl two years before, after falling seriously ill—but he had ruled as Cuba’s jefe máximo for no less than forty-nine years, and he remained Cuba’s undisputed revolutionary patriarch until his death.
Fidel had been frail for some time. His last public appearance, in April, at the Cuban Communist Party Congress that was convened shortly after President Obama’s historic trip to Havana, had the air of a final leave-taking. In his address, a short, shaky speech in which he struggled to pronounce his words, Fidel mentioned his upcoming birthday and said that “soon I’ll be like all the others.” Many of the Communist Party delegates present wept as they listened to him.
Fidel’s allusion to his own death was significant—it was something that he had rarely ever discussed publicly before. For the decades he was in power, from January, 1959, when he ousted the dictator Fulgencio Batista, until his resignation, eight years ago, Cubans had followed his cue, cloaking the topic with euphemisms like “biological inevitability.” Fidel, more than any other political leader in recent memory, had the stature of a living myth in his own country. For many years, Cubans regarded him as something close to immortal.
Fidel was at the center stage of world events for an extraordinary sweep of time. He seized power in the age of Dwight Eisenhower and remained there until George W. Bush’s second term in office. He has died in the waning days of the Presidency of Barack Obama, the first American President in all that time to travel to Havana, an event that took place after he and Raúl negotiated a diplomatic breakthrough in 2014. Fidel did not meet with Obama when he came to Cuba, and the American President’s visit was, in a real sense, final proof that Fidel’s era had truly ended.
Fidel had always distrusted the Americans, something he reminded everyone of in a public letter he published in January, 2015, a few weeks after the announcement that Raúl and Obama had restored relations between the two countries. “I don’t trust the policy of the U.S., nor have I exchanged a word with them,” he wrote, “but this does not mean I reject a peaceful solution to conflicts.” In a roundabout way of offering his approval, he went on to say that, in conducting his negotiations with Cuba’s main adversaries, Raúl had “taken the pertinent steps in accordance with his prerogatives and the powers given to him by the National Assembly of the Communist Party of Cuba.” But his churlishness was obvious to all.
With such remarks, Fidel emerged as the ultimate paterfamilias of those Cuban apparatchiks who felt skeptical about the country’s newly thawed relationship with the U.S. and the concessions to capitalism ushered in by Raúl, which have accelerated since the Cuban-American détente. In a column he published shortly after Obama’s visit, Fidel questioned the breeziness of Obama’s appeal to Cubans to “forget the past and look to the future.” He ranted about how Cuba’s past was rife with episodes of American-inspired or -conducted acts of violence, ones that could not be forgotten. He added, pridefully, that Cuba’s revolution had little to learn from the Yankees, and no need of their charity, either. “We don’t need the Empire to give us anything,” he wrote. The effect of Fidel’s grumbling helped foster an official Cuban backlash to Obama’s outreach.
Fidel’s death has come just eight weeks before Donald Trump assumes the U.S. Presidency. Among other things, Trump has promised conservative Cuban-Americans in Miami that he will roll back Obama’s policy initiatives with Cuba, which are aimed at forging closer links through increased American tourism and business deals. Critics of Obama’s approach argue that such blandishments have merely helped shore up a repugnant communist regime. If Trump goes through with his promises, the two countries will likely return to the wary, indefinite standoff that had defined their relationship ever since Fidel launched his socialist revolution and made Cuba a front-line state in the Cold War. Whatever happens to the fragile new U.S.-Cuban relationship, it is a noteworthy irony that its main skeptics were led by Fidel, on the one hand, and by his archenemies in Miami on the other.
Fidel’s legacy will long remain divisive. Cuba today is a dilapidated country, but its social and economic indicators are the envy of many of its neighbors. The highly restrictive Marxist regime that Fidel put in place all those years ago has loosened up in some ways—there is a great deal of religious freedom in Cuba today, and Cubans, including outspoken political dissidents, come and go freely from the island—but the country remains a one-party state. The police use a heavy hand on those who seek to organize public protests. The press, too, such as it exists, remains largely in the hands of party commissars, imparting ideological treatises, rather than actual news.
For Cuba’s young people, many of whom were mere children when he retired, Fidel was already an obscure totem, a grandfather figure given to making pronouncements about issues that had little to do with their lives. With growing numbers of Cubans working independently of the state—self-employed cuentapropistas: taxi drivers, cooks, waiters, barbers, handymen—Fidel’s revolutionary exhortations had come to be regarded as the quaint utterings of a old man whose day had come and gone.
In recent years, Fidel was given to writing his reflections in a sporadic series of columns published in the official Communist Party newspaper, Granma. In his final column, which appeared on October 8th under the title “The Uncertain Destiny of the Human Species,” Fidel offered up a free-form and somewhat obscure rumination on science and religion, concluding, “At this point, religions acquire a special value. In the most recent thousands of years, perhaps the last eight or ten thousand, the existence has been shown of beliefs that are well developed, with details of interest. Beyond these limits, what is known has the feel of ancient traditions that different groups of humans have been creating. I know a fair amount about Christ, given what I have read, and what they taught me in schools run by Jesuits and by the La Salle brothers, from whom I heard many stories about Adam and Eve; Cain and Abel; Noah and the flood; and the manna that fell from heaven when food was scarce because of drought or other reasons. I will try to convey a few more ideas about this singular problem, at another time.”
That other time, of course, will no longer come.
In a life that saw Fidel install a communist regime in Cuba; defeat the C.I.A.-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs; spark off the Cuban Missile Crisis; launch and arm myriad Marxist insurgencies in Latin America and Africa; dispatch Cubans to fight South African troops in Angola—thus helping to weaken the apartheid regime; survive the collapse of the Soviet Union and keep Cuba’s communist system intact for another quarter century, often seemingly through sheer willpower and to the chagrin and frustration of his many enemies; and for a man who sought to help transform humanity through revolutionary socialism to the end of his days, ninety years was, perhaps, not quite enough time.