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The End of Fidel

Havana, Cuba, 2012
Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos
Havana, Cuba, 2012

From a distance he was monumental. The heroic profile and horizon-sweeping gaze were as inescapable as the memory of his triumph against a venal regime that was, with its brothels and casinos, whites-only golf clubs and beachfront hotels, utterly at the service of a Miami-based US mafia and the worst sort of ugly Americans. There was also the delightful tingle that a very real defiance and ceaseless rebel rhetoric always produced in the poor and the young around the world. In Washington, politicians used to seeing themselves as a lighthouse in a childish, shiftless, or outright murderous Rest of the World might see him as a clowning madman, but the hard fact remained that on an island ninety miles from Key West, a confounding regime refused to cry Uncle, or allow the United States any influence over its affairs. For half a century this fact alone guaranteed him the envy and the respect of every Latin American leader and a good many others further away.

Then there were the real achievements that endured even in the worst years of desperate hunger and privation for the island: the much-touted education and health systems; an end to de facto apartheid; the priority given to infants and children, who grew up as healthy as their counterparts in the wealthiest nations; an early interest in environment-conscious urban development; and adventurous research in the field of medicine. The standards he set raised the bar for the hemisphere’s primitive and rapacious ruling classes and showed the poor what they could aspire to.

Close up, the picture darkened: squalid, crammed prisons that were the result of fifty years of clumsy effort at mind control; an economy that might have worked better were it managed by monkeys; families torn apart by an official intransigence that became part of the national mindset; children who lost their mothers and mothers who lost their children to the sea in their attempt to flee their suffocating homeland; the reckless waving about of nuclear warheads during two terrifying weeks that threatened the world with annihilation. There was, too, the unspeakable boredom of the later decades; the claustrophobic misery of living in a country that its ruler had tried to subordinate to his fantasies.

And now Fidel Castro is dead. Cubans have been asked to trudge through an unprecedented nine days of mourning, although many of the island’s 11 million citizens are utterly indifferent to the pomp and symbolism with which the state tries to imbue the passing of a man whose time had long gone. Living to a great old age was never part of the plan, he told a hushed audience at the Seventh Communist Party Congress in Havana last April, and indeed, those who remembered him as the embodiment of virile glory in his olive-green prime winced at the sight of the quavering, doddering old man swathed in Adidas leisurewear.

He was ninety. He ruled forever. He was sick for a decade and then some. As has been endlessly said, he could have died at the peak of his revolution’s great social triumphs—in 1967, say—and been revered in Latin America and beyond as the new Bolivar, a new Martí. As it is, there is no way of knowing how he will be seen even ten years down the line. In part this is because of the many economic, moral, and social disasters he has left in his wake, and in part because the values he held on to—absolute loyalty, unwavering beliefs, the pursuit of utopia, unbending physical and moral valor—all seem hopelessly out of date now.

How Cuba will survive without Fidel is not really a question; it has survived without him ever since illness forced him to hand over power temporarily and then permanently to his brother, Raúl Castro. That was ten years ago. Necessary and momentous changes have taken place since then, without Fidel, but the revolutionary model he created still creaks on, threatening to collapse every day, like the crumbling buildings along Havana’s oceanfront Malecon. There is a booming tourism industry, some exports, increasing interest in the island’s cancer research and other medical innovations, a tiny but growing small-business sector, freedom to travel back and forth from Cuba, relaxed controls on dissent, vanguard achievements for the LGBT communities, and increasingly open access to the Internet.

There are also political prisoners, who may number only a handful, but whose existence is proof that dissent is still a criminal activity in Cuba. An economic crisis looms with the inevitable demise of Cuba’s economic lifeline, the Chavista regime in Venezuela. In life Hugo Chávez bartered shipments of oil with Cuba in exchange for cheap doctors and sports trainers; those shipments will no doubt end the moment Chávez’s inept successor, Nicolás Maduro, is overthrown or abdicates. And ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the idealistic egalitarianism that characterized the revolution in its early years has given way to a society ravenous for the first small crumbs of late consumer capitalism, but already aware of its side effects—rapid social stratification and inequality.

The most significant change of all took place at the beginning of this year, when Barack Obama traveled to Havana to mark the renewal of full diplomatic relations between the two countries. The visit was, at long last, a recognition by the US that fifty-seven years of passive-aggressive assault had failed to bring down the fidelista regime. A moment for Cuba, but it came with a cloaked knife: in shaking hands with Obama, Raúl Castro brought to an end an era in which the United States had no say in Cuban affairs. This was just ten months before the election of Donald Trump.

And now Fidel Castro is gone from the scene at the moment when he could have been useful. Outwardly a highly cultured man with exquisite manners, he had the inner constitution of a bully. In defeat he always hit back harder, because it was simply not in him to back down. When, during the 1962 missile crisis, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev reached an agreement to remove Soviet nuclear warheads from Cuban territory, Fidel fell into a frothing rage and led a march against his Soviet sponsor. A memorable slogan from that day was Nikita, mariquita, lo que se da no se quita. (“Nikita, you little faggot, you can´t take back what you’ve given.”) Fidel was better equipped to deal on equal terms with a jumbo-size bully like the US president-elect than his more reasonable brother, Raúl.

In the tweets that followed the announcement of Fidel Castro’s death one could sense the imminent president already probing for soft points and weaknesses. Now that a sensible modus vivendi had been reached with Cuba by the Obama administration, Trump was suggesting, in the way a shark might make a suggestion to a grouper, that the Cuban government might want to discuss a better “deal.”

It’s not hard to imagine the kind of deal Trump might favor. Having clarified to his own satisfaction that the Constitution does not forbid a president to run a business on the side, and then tweeted that the presidency might require his full attention after all, Trump, one imagines, is keeping a keen eye on the future: now or in a four-year term or so, for himself or for his offspring, there couldn’t be a more appealing investment for the kind of mogul he is than Cuba. The beachfront hotels, the golf clubs, the casinos! It could be just like old times.