The many deaths of Fidel Castro

A few weeks ago, when I checked Twitter and saw that Fidel Castro had died, the news felt strangely distant. True, Fidel was a giant of the twentieth century rather than the twenty-first, but I think that feeling of observing the news of his death from afar had more to do with the fact that we (Cubans and Cuba-watchers, journalists, scholars, beret-wearing backpackers) have already been living with the spectre of his death for so long. And, as he has faced death so many times through the years, the mere fact of his death – now material, tangible – seems hardly enough to stop him from living on.

A political map of Cuba

Political cartoon by Graeme Mackay, 2 August 2006.

In Cuba, when I was living there in 2010, speculation about Castro’s imminent demise was commonplace – I wrote about it elsewhere recently – and it coloured everyday conversations I had with friends and contacts:

“He’s already dead. This time, I am sure of it.”

 “Oh, he’s dead, but they won’t tell us. They’re too afraid of losing their hold on us. They’ll keep trotting out all of his body doubles until eternity.”

Castro had been gravely ill since 2008, having stepped down from the presidency in the face of failing health, and few would have expected he would endure another eight years. He had not been seen in public for months, and it was beginning to seem more and more likely that we would receive news imminently of his passing away quietly in the night. But Castro was evergreen: he appeared before television cameras, only days after I had the two conversations above, at the National Aquarium in Havana. I watched in amazement. Risen again.

I speculated at the time, and I continue to wonder now, if this tendency to proclaim him dead came of the many deaths he had faced and avoided over the years. In the course of his lifetime, Fidel escaped death in his attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba in 1953, in what would later be called the first salvo of the Cuban Revolution, and then evaded execution for his role. Three years on, he survived both a treacherous crossing from Mexico onboard the Granma yacht to launch his revolutionary war, followed by a disastrous first encounter with government troops on the beaches. After surviving the revolutionary war itself, he personally led the counterattack at the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

Under the CIA’s Operation Mongoose and other covert programmes, Fidel and his security staff thwarted anywhere between eight and a baffling 638 assassination attempts over at least twenty years, beginning under Eisenhower and continuing until as recently as the Clinton administration. The attempts themselves were outlandish, even comical: exploding conch shells, poisoned dive suits, pens containing hypodermic needles, as well as milder plots to make his beard fall out or otherwise embarrass him. “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event,” he once remarked, “I would win the gold medal.”

mad_cover_oct_1963

Mad Magazine cover, October 1963.

The people I interviewed in Havana, Santiago, and Camaguey harboured mixed feelings about Fidel himself and the legacy of his revolution in Cuba:

“Look, me, I support the Revolution [soy revolucionario], but I think that in Cuba, now, the Revolution doesn’t get us anything [no gana nada la Revolución].”

“The Revolution gave us health care and education, sure, but no money or freedom. If in so many years, this country hasn’t been able to resolve those problems, then no, I am no socialist.”

Ricky tells me that he believes the Revolution changed Cuba in important ways, that it was a response to genuine grievances and profound injustices—he lists lack of health care, illiteracy, and racial inequality on his fingers—but he feels that now many of the Revolution’s gains are rapidly eroding while others never materialized at all.

In a Guardian piece on Fidel’s death and the procession of his ashes across the island, a woman given the pseudonym of “Carmen” expressed quite similar ambivalence:

“I’d like to see a lot of changes. I’d like a vote to choose my leader. I’d like a free press and freedom of expression. Now if I say what I think I could go to jail. Lots of people think like me, but many pretend to be something they are not. Some of those who cry for Castro are shedding crocodile tears. […] I can’t imagine a better leader than Fidel. It’s complicated. I love him like a father. But we need change. And that can only happen when there is no Castro in power.”

For more than fifty years already, Fidel has been everywhere in Cuba. He and the rest of the Castro clan’s prominent members are usually known by their first names only: Fidel, brother Raúl, and niece Mariela who runs the Cuba’s National Centre for Sex Education or CENESEX. As Rafael Hernández, editor of the Cuban journal Temas, wrote in the wake of Castro’s death, to call Fidel by his surname implied an in-built attitude of critique, or at least a distancing of the speaker from Fidel’s ideals and legacy.

That said, however, the Castros’ names were not so often spoken in daily life in Cuba, arguably because of the nervousness that comes of a life of command performances of revolutionary pride. Indeed, many people who I met would refer to the Castros not even by their first names but by nicknames – El Papa for Fidel, El Chino for Raúl.* Others would forego words altogether for Fidel, resorting to signs like stroking their chins to indicate a beard. He was everywhere, and though nearly all the Cubans I met avowed an appreciation for his legacy, they also knew the price of considering his faults openly.

I wonder if the many deaths of Fidel Castro also mean that he has already haunted Cuba as a kind of ghost for years prior to his now-actualised death. I have myself tried to avoid writing and speaking about Fidel Castro, primarily because of the fact that his larger-than-life persona and expansiveness of his political project tend to drown out discussion of literally anything else. He has haunted Cuba already for half a century, looming over every facet of life to the point that it can be difficult to have a conversation about Cuba, Cubans, Cuban politics, Cuban stories, or Cuban life without reference to his ideals and legacy. Every assertion can be (and often is) met with, but what does this mean for the revolution? Is this pro- or anti-Castro? Fidel defines Cuba. Fidel is inescapable.

In the introduction to her book, Politics of Haunting and Memory in International Relations, Jessica Auchter speculates if haunting could be a “tool of the state”. I don’t mean to suggest that Fidel could be the sort of ghost that Auchter describes (quoting Jo Labanyi, “traces of those who were not allowed to leave a trace”), but he is a ghost of a kind already. I wonder if haunting could be seen as a tool of the state in Cuba, where the nation’s heroes are everywhere. Their names appear on airports, hospitals, and thoroughfares; their faces look down from statues and the ubiquitous murals in public spaces across the country. The late-19th century wars of independence gave rise to towering figures like Antonio Maceo, Calixto García, Máximo Gómez, and Jose Martí. The revolutionary war brought us Camilo Cienfuegos, Abel Santamaría, Haydée Santamaría, Ernesto “Che” Guevara (ironically not Cuban at all but Argentinean), and the Castro brothers, amongst others.

All nations canonise their heroes, but Cuba’s heroes are particularly omnipresent. They are made to live through the trumpeting of the words they spoke, the projection of their images onto Cubans’ day-to-day consciousness, the idealisation and idolisation of their exploits. Haunting would appear to be a very convenient, very advantageous ideological tool. The Cuban government has issued a ban on monuments or naming of landmarks, roads, or institutions after Fidel, citing a desire to avoid a cult of personality, but his picture already hangs in every public place and many private homes. Viva Fidel indeed.

Fidel Memorial

The photo used for state mourning of Fidel Castro, on display at the José Martí Memorial in Plaza de la Revolución, Havana (Photo: James Kent | @jckfoto)

Both in and outside of Cuba, Fidel’s image has haunted us. News coverage around the world has tended towards grainy black-and-white images of him, clad in fatigues and in the jungle, or footage of him delivering his monumental speeches in his prime. As James Kent writes, the image chosen for his funerary proceedings was quite similar: mourners in Havana filed past a photo of Fidel in 1961, standing alone with a pack and a rifle on his back, surveying the land from not just any mountaintop but Pico Turquino, Cuba’s highest peak. Despite the fact that he lived to the age of 90, he was like Jimi Hendrix – living on, frozen in time, young and energetic, already a ghost. It made more recent images of him, old and inform, shocking to see – and bolstered that feeling that his death was from and of another time.

Speaking in his own defense after the 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks, Fidel argued that history would absolve him. The point of this piece isn’t to assess Castro’s legacy – in fact, I want to argue against the kind of definitive assessments that tend to characterise the Cuba debate here, there, and everywhere – but rather to think about Castro’s death, how it has haunted Cuba already for decades, and what effect it will have on Cuba now. (It should go without saying in critical venues such as this that the legacy of Fidel Castro is far more ambivalent than the news coverage is likely to suggest. It should, but nonetheless it often doesn’t.)

In very practical terms, the question on many people’s minds is, will Fidel’s death change everything (or indeed anything) in Cuba? In international terms, Cuba has lately been on a path to normalisation with its former critics and enemies. The European Union has just recently elected to end twenty years of diplomatic tension with Cuba in the wake of Fidel’s death, even though the human rights concerns that formed the basis for the impasse persist. The United States has been steadily pursuing a rapprochement with Cuba since 2009 that has encompassed a loosening of travel restrictions, increasing business and investment ties, and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.

At the same time, however, President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to roll back all of the recent gains if Havana does not offer a “better deal”. The Cuban revolutionary regime is built on a foundation of anti-imperialism, a stance even more vital to its being than its socialism, and so its leaders are unlikely to respond favourably to Trump’s swaggering bombast. The Cuban regime has always been willing to sacrifice economic gains and diplomatic ties for its principles, so I have to wonder if now we will see a retrenchment of the US embargo against Cuba. Only time will tell.

In one of many US-sponsored attempts on Fidel’s life, his then-lover Marita Lorenz tried to poison him, to which she later said that he replied, “You can’t kill me. Nobody can kill me.” On one hand, Fidel Castro is everything to the revolutionary regime, embodying its ideals and mission. On the other, though, the regime he led transcends Fidel’s own existence and cannot be reduced to his mere person. Returning to Hernández, he writes, “If a post-Castro Cuba does exist, it will be the one that he himself fostered.” I have to wonder if, in the end, Fidel’s death itself changes nothing, all the more so because he has been dying already for decades – and because, now more than ever, he cannot be killed.


* These nicknames translate as “papa” or “father” for Fidel and the racially charged “Chinaman” for Raúl, ostensibly because of the shape of his eyes. Terms such as these – along with words like negro, mulatico and blanquita – are quite commonly used in Cuba, often affectionately but certainly not unproblematically. This is discussed in more detail by me, Ian Lumsden and Nadine Fernandez as well as Alejandro de la Fuente.

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