Increasingly, since the climax of the volatile campaign that resulted in Donald Trump’s election and the ongoing transition saga, it is rare for an unrelated event to make any sustained impact on the television, social media and print news cycle.
One recent event managed to do that, though even here the bright-light post-election media never strayed too far from their daily bread.
Herewith, the news: “Fidel Castro is dead!”
This was, famously, the triumphant and emphatic Trump tweet from 8 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 26.
The president-elect followed that with a longer, more measured tweet, which emphasized the fact, as did many other editorials and observations, that Castro, who had ruled Cuba for decades with an iron hand, was a “brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.”
President Barack Obama, who created an opening to Cuba and made a controversial visit to the country with the aim of normalizing relations, responded to Castro’s death somewhat differently, saying that “history will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and the world around him,” adding that “the Cuban people must know they have a friend and partner in the United States of America.”
Castro’s death at age 90 does not end Castro control over Cuba — his brother Raúl, 85, is still head of state — but it does mark the beginning of the possible end of an era.
Think what you will of Castro, and it’s hard to ignore his crimes against his people, his posturing, his repression, his murderous government, his brinkmanship, but there is no denying that he had a major impact on his world and ours. One noted writer said that he embodied the revolutionary spirit. That may or may not be true, depending on how you would describe the revolutionary spirit and its requirements and qualifications.
Certainly, Castro and his followers — including Che Guevara, the poster-and-wallpaper child of revolution who was killed in Bolivia — looked the part, and at times acted the part, especially in their ability to boot out the corrupt Batista regime, which eventually collapsed like an empty suit. If the revolutionary spirit is about ruthlessness, violence, terror, murder and repression of the populace and citizenry, then Castro certainly fit the bill.
That bearded man in the cap and khakis, come down from the mountains, belied his well-off upbringing as the son of a sugarcane planter in Oriente province. Castro transformed himself into a visionary and fierce public figure, hostile to the United States, susceptible to Marxist maxims and ideology and allied with, then dependent on, the Soviets for economic and military support. For a time, his revolutionary style was rewarded with infatuated admiration from left-leaning politicians, academics, intellectuals and students.
Castro’s super-close and basically unequal relationship with the Soviet Union led to the presence of nuclear missiles in Cuba, a threat to the United States that very nearly led to nuclear war in 1962 — and eventually brought about the downfall of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. It also inspired an ambition to spread the revolutionary gospel, Cubano and Castro-style, throughout Latin America and even in Africa, with mixed success but always with a threatening stance. Various American governments — especially Reagan’s — expended political and military resources in countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador and Panama in fighting that threat.
Castro’s regime installed universal health and education, but Cuba’s economy, in part because of the American economic embargo, stalled into near-stillness and sometimes near-starvation. By the time Castro retired from leadership, the country had become a bizarre shadow of its former vibrant self, with cab drivers at the wheel of 1956 Chevrolets and long-finned Chryslers. Obama’s visit ignited hope for U.S.-Cuba normalization. But it also had its heated critics, most notably in south Florida, home to generations of escapees and refugees from Cuba, who had lost homes, relatives and their homeland. In Miami, those very same people loudly made their feelings known in the wake of Castro’s death.
If you were old enough to remember, Castro’s demise instantly summoned memories of the missiles of October, the Bay of Pigs debacle, the Che posters. We thought of a country stuck in time, perhaps about to be freed from a dark spell.
Only two days after his death, Castro still managed to get a front-page story in the Washington Post. But on the right hand side of page one, it was back to the great game — “Trump: Millions Voted Illegally.”