The death of Fidel Castro last Friday was a fitting moment to assess his life as a whole. It is unfortunate but not surprising that some of our cultural luminaries didn’t see too much to criticize in his dictatorial career. Quite the opposite, in fact. Some, like Tom Morello of the band Rage Against the Machine, cited Castro’s advances in healthcare and literacy and role as an “unrepentant advocate of the poor” while acknowledging in passing that they didn’t agree with all that he did. Meanwhile, the rapper Nas was unintentionally on point as he paid his respects to “King Fidel Castro.” Most kings don’t wear olive drab, but king is not an inappropriate title for an unelected despot who passes political power on to his immediate family members. Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who has courted controversy on a variety of issues, revisited his choice to wear a T-shirt featuring Castro, explaining that he supported the dictator’s investments in education and health care but was not a supporter of the “oppressive things that he did.” Needless to say, this is a distinction that would be laughable if applied to many of the 20th century’s dictators, but somehow it passes muster here. Unfortunately, this kind of cognitive dissonance was on display not just by celebrities but by world leaders too.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party in the UK, acclaimed Castro as a “huge” figure who was an “internationalist and a champion of social justice.” Real, legal justice, on the other hand, was not Castro’s forte. From the summary judgments and firing squads of the days of the Revolution to the long grinding years of totalitarian rule, Cubans were denied rights, freedoms, and the rule of law under the rule of el Comandante. Corbyn also singled out Castro’s military intervention in Angola, which he explained contributed to the ending of Apartheid in South Africa. This is a war that, according to dissident Guillermo Fariñas, is now remembered by the Cuban people “with shame, with cynicism, with regret, with hatred.”
Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, avoided the issue as only a eurocrat can: the aged dictator was acknowledged to have been “historic,” considered a hero by “many,” his actions having “changed the course of his country” in an unspecified direction, with an influence felt not only in Cuba but also “beyond.” Castro, in short, “remains one of the revolutionary figures of the 20th century” whose legacy with be “judged by history.” It is a relief that history will be delivering a verdict, since Juncker’s statement contains no moral content whatever.
President Obama released a similarly cautious statement, noticing the fact that Cubans were feeling “powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation.” Indeed. But what kind of emotions, other than “powerful” ones? By what actions did Castro alter all these lives? These details remained unmentioned. Like Juncker, Obama outsourced judgment on Castro’s legacy to “history.”
Meanwhile, the suffering people of Venezuela probably felt their hearts sink further as President Nicolás Maduro vowed to “go forward with [Castro’s] legacy” and “keep on winning and keep fighting.” Unfortunately for Venezuelans, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro followed the Castro playbook of personalized rule, propaganda, and economic ruin quite ably. Castro certainly is an “example” for the people of the world, as Maduro remarked, but not in the way he thinks. Other authoritarian figures on the world stage had similarly laudatory statements, with China’s Xi Jinping hailing Castro as a “good and true comrade” and Vladimir Putin judging him a “strong and wise man” who “embodied the high ideals of a politician, citizen and patriot.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada attracted mockery for his statement on Castro’s death, which, other than mentioning that the man had “detractors,” was blind to the fact that the dictator’s rule had any negatives whatsoever. Castro, per Trudeau, was a “larger than life leader” who “served” his people for almost half a century with “tremendous dedication and love.” Former US President Jimmy Carter likewise “fondly” remembered Castro’s “love of his country.” Castro’s love, service, and dedication, incidentally, was of a type most people would rather never experience. The worst statement from a democratic leader, however, came from Irish President Michael Higgins, who lauded Castro’s political and social revolution and remembered him as a “giant among global leaders whose view was not only one of freedom for his people but for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet.”
Celebrities are not exactly known for their sound opinions on politics. But when the leaders of the free world cannot be counted upon to give clear moral assessments, is it any surprise that popular culture is also confused?