The death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has unleashed a flood of commentary. Many world statesmen used the opportunity to praise the long-time Cuban strongman, with political leaders in democratic countries like Canada and the United Kingdom, and the President of the European Union being particularly effusive. In the United States, one saw the irony of the head of the Green Party, demanding a recount in the presidential vote in Wisconsin, while praising a man who never allowed a multi-party election in 50 years of ironfisted rule.
For Cubans and Cuban-Americans, the reaction is deeper, sharper and more intense. Fidel was our own intimate pain and personal demon. I remember having a sticker on a school notebook in Miami of a smiling worm (a gusano), with a Cuban straw hat, carrying a machine gun. To Fidel and his regime, we who fled were “maggots, lumpen and trash” but we saw ourselves as maggots who fought back. We have seen close-up his legend and his history in our mind’s eye and in our nightmares, seemingly, forever. From the son-in-law of a powerful pro-Batista politician, to New York Times’ correspondent Herbert Matthew’s “anti-communist”, to the “mighty penis come to life” of Alan Ginsberg, to the delusional self-made expert on agriculture and genetics, to the jealous autocrat executing his own army officers, we have seen it all—Castro’s many masks and his poses—heard it all and discussed it minutely for decades.
And while statesmen like Trudeau and Jean-Claude Juncker praised Castro as a hero, to us he seemed to have ended his days ironically more as the title character in his friend Garcia Marquez’s “Autumn of the Patriarch,” an aged and angry mummy filled with bile to the end. Much more honest and cleaner than the praise of politicians seemed the irreverent mockery of the local Miami comedy troupe “Los Pichy Boys” who, in pitch perfect Cuban Spanish, had Raul Castro lamenting that his stubborn older brother had choked to death on a turkey sandwich from a bird provided by President Obama. “He should had stuck to our Cuban roast pork instead,” he lamented.
It is easy to mock Castro and, especially, the liberal politicians that so predictably praised him and whose class served as his “useful idiots” for decades. A tyrant who caused so much suffering for so long deserves mockery. Thousands of dead and tens of thousands of political prisoners marked his rule. Thousands drowned fleeing him. Twenty percent of Cuba’s population has fled the island and more would leave if they could. Last year more than 40,000 young Cubans, the country’s future in what is the oldest population in the Western hemisphere, fled in fear that the law allowing Cuban refugees to stay in the United States would be changed in the wake of the Obama Administration’s embrace of the Americas’ only dictatorship.
But for many thoughtful Cubans, especially those with a Christian motivation, this is also a time for sober reflection. Fidel Castro’s life was one filled with passion (hence the praise from those who romanticize Communist revolutionaries) but very little compassion. His was the will to power personified, “the Horse” they called him, all strength and appetite and the lust to bend the world to his will. He was, by worldly dimensions, a tremendous success who had untrammeled power over all of his fellow citizens for most of his life. But for all its incident and drama, Fidel’s life is not that unique, certainly not in the context of Latin American strongmen, but very much in the spirit of the Prince of the World—power and the unbridled lust for more, boastfulness, riches, violence. His is a type all too common.
In the hours after the announcement of Castro’s death, I thought of his many victims, my grandfather who died in La Cabana certainly; but also of the young Pedro Luis Boitel, who died in a hunger strike in another political prison in 1972. Boitel had fought against Batista, been imprisoned by that regime but as a prominent charismatic, anti-communist youth leader in the early days of the Revolution he was seen as a threat to the regime. In the end, the prisons of Cuba were filled more by “revolutionaries” like Boitel than by Batista’s men.
A poet and a committed Christian, Boitel refused to accept that prison would break his spirit (he was still kept in prison after his 10 year sentence ended in 1971) and protested, in the only way he could, unjust incarceration and firing squads. Many cried “Viva Cristo Rey” while facing those firing squads. Carlos Alberto Montaner, who knew Pedro Luis in prison, has noted that the ultimate goal in Castro’s political gulag was to break the conscience of prisoners, to have them surrender that last bit of capacity that prisoners had to say “no,” to resist even unto death.
Boitel was one of those who said “no.” Although he was physically quite frail, his will was indomitable. He died at age of 40 during a long hunger strike, having spent the last 11 years of his life in prison, and is buried in an unmarked grave. His way was a much less common one in the world, a humbler and quieter way, a life of fighting for decency and freedom, of fighting in the shadows, to remain unspotted from the World and to compromise with a culture of death. Here is an echo of that famous quote of George MacDonald that “the Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.”
Castro’s funeral in the coming days will be a time of more pomp and orchestrated revolutionary boastfulness, of hypocritical politicians and slogans very much in sync with the Spirit of the Age. But in the end the one in the unmarked grave, and the One with an Empty Grave, will conquer.
Alberto M. Fernandez is vice-president of the Middle East Media Research Institute and a member of the board of directors of George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. He served as the U.S. State Department’s coordinator for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications from 2012 to 2015, retiring from the State Department in May 2015. Fernandez has served as U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea; charge d’affaires to the Republic of Sudan; director for Near East public diplomacy; director for Iraq public diplomacy; and in senior public diplomacy positions at the U.S. embassies in Afghanistan, Jordan, Syria, and Guatemala. His awards include the 2008 Presidential Meritorious Service Award, 2006 Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Public Diplomacy, and a 2003 Superior Honor Award for his work in Afghanistan. Fernandez has published in ReVista: the Harvard Review of Latin America, Middle East Quarterly, and the Journal of the Assyrian Academic Society.
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