Obituaries and first drafts of history

So Fidel Castro died.

I’m currently teaching a fair amount of Cold War history, so I’ve been thinking of Castro and Cuba, of the way in which both became symbols in American foreign policy. It’s a sad truth that this enemy state is — and, apart from a few weeks in 1962, always has been — so basically harmless to the US that the US can treat it like a symbol despite the fact that it is full of real people.

Harmless other than symbolically, of course.

Nothing inspires confidence like a ruler-for-life in a military uniform.

So Fidel Castro died. Cue three responses, each no doubt sincere:

  • Fidel Castro was a real piece of work, a dictator who ruled without challenge for decades and then handed power off to his brother, which isn’t exactly the most anti-tyrannical thing you could do. Jailed journalists, oppressed homosexuals, looted businesses, show-tried political enemies and generally demonstrated a complete disregard for civil liberties second only (and crucially) to the rotten gangster he replaced. The fact that leftists are sad about the death of this villain only shows that they don’t live in the real world. Yes, OK, the US’s policies toward Cuba are silly, but that doesn’t mean Castro wasn’t a son of a bitch. BONUS POINT: Jesus Christ, Justin Trudeau/Jeremy Corbyn, what the hell is your problem.
  • Fidel Castro stood up to US imperialism for decades, surviving the malice of a much larger and more powerful enemy that explicitly aimed to kill or topple him (although how seriously they pursued this goal is up for debate). The fact that he could do this — and do this while theoretically more powerful allies dried up and blew away — is a vital corrective to the myth of US omnipotence. He also showed that a country — even a poor country, even a country suffering from a crippling economic embargo enforced by its largest obvious trading partner — could focus on social services in a way that provided a much better standard of living for its citizens than its wealth would suggest. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, but he resisted the unfair attacks of the US and that’s what really matters. BONUS POINT: Jesus Christ, Donald Trump, what the hell is your problem.
  • Criticism or praise of Fidel Castro falls more or less like you’d expect on political lines. What matters, good or bad, is that he was important, a historical figure who punched way above his weight and had a huge impact on politics not only in his own country and the region but around the world. Probably came closer to genuinely starting World War III than anyone else, which … is good? I guess? Not sure about that one.

Naturally I tend to fall into the third category, since the impulse of my temperament is to look at binary thinking and go “must be some possible synthesis” even when there might not be. In this case, I think there is and I think it’s obvious: you can think that the Bay of Pigs was a bad thing and Castro is a bad guy simultaneously, even if prominent politicians in this and other countries don’t seem to be able to.

But the truth is that the people we look up to were often pretty bad guys in ways other than the ways we look up to them. We just gloss over that because it’s history and in history we try to be conscious of and accept contradiction (I guess, maybe). And here we have, I don’t know, current events becoming history, and that transition seems to be painful.

Obituaries and first drafts of history

One thought on “Obituaries and first drafts of history

  1. Falling into the third category, I heard the argument on the World Service (which seemed to devote a full 24 hours to him) that the ‘punching above his weight… around the world’ included a decent claim to bringing about the end of Apartheid. The argument goes that it was Cuba’s continuing presence in Angola that forced the South African regime to the negotiating table. Mandela was a whole-hearted supporter of Castro.

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