Sometimes history doesn’t have to wait to judge — and when it comes to dictators, even dead ones, we shouldn’t either.
With news of Fidel Castro’s death Friday — finalmente — world leaders began offering eulogies, some of which were so vapid or willfully ignorant that Castro might have written them himself. It would appear in any case that the 20th century’s quintessential “Big Brother” managed to infect a few world leaders with an Orwellian strain of mushy-mouthed aphasia.
Apparently bereft of the right words, they treated Castro’s brutality as polite unmentionables, serving up platitudes as though just another important figure had passed on to his maker.
Did they miss the screams?
Growing up in Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis, running bomb shelter drills and hearing the stories of refugees who became lifelong friends, I somehow managed to evade the charms of the revolutionary rogue, who merely replaced one dictatorship with another far worse. There’s nothing sentimental about a ruthless dictator who once held the world hostage to a possible nuclear Armageddon.
It’s one thing to be respectful of the Cuban people — and I’m not suggesting we celebrate anyone’s death. But it is another to sidestep the historical horrors of a murderous, 60-year military regime and strike a pose of diplomatic equanimity that assuages only gluttons of insincerity.
No wonder so many chose to express themselves through Twitter — a communication format well-suited to the small and shallow. Nancy Pelosi tweeted that Castro’s death “marks the end of an era.” Stalin’s death did, too, but who’s judging? Justin Trudeau, Canada’s happy-boy prime minister, called Castro a “remarkable leader,” who “made significant improvements” to Cuba, presumably by taking over all private possessions and culling the island of the middle class. Attaboy.
It’s true that Cuba boasts a high level of literacy and a health-care system free to all. Then again, you don’t see many people from industrialized nations lining up for heart surgery in Havana.
And then there’s Jimmy Carter, on whose watch Castro emptied his prisons and mental institutions, sending 125,000 Cubans, including inmates as well as other lesser desirables, to our shores. As a younger reporter, I spent a week in Miami’s “Tent City,” where local and state officials tried to figure out where to put hundreds of criminals and the mentally ill. This was thanks to Carter’s telling Castro that countless Cubans wished to leave Cuba.
Although many have lauded Castro’s political acumen, I’ve yet to read about his flair for irony. Carter, for whom irony apparently is what the maid does to his dress shirts, remembered Castro “fondly.” Perhaps as one reaches the age of wisdom, one leans toward greater charity.
President Obama’s remarks, though eloquent, were carefully meaningless. Steering clear of specifics, he noted that Cubans are filled with emotions, “recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation.”
Yes, death, torture, oppression, imprisonment, a state-controlled media and a miserable, state-run economy will flat-out alter a person’s course. Obama then grabbed history’s tail and gave it a yank, saying, “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”
Aw, come on, let’s beat history to it. One of the worst dictators in modern history has mercifully died. It doesn’t matter that in 2008 he ceded control of the government to his brother Raúl. Symbolically, his death liberates the psyches of at least three generations of Cubans and Cuban Americans.
History will strain little in judging Castro or in sorting out his effect on the world. Now that Obama has eased the decades-long U.S. embargo, wisely in my view, as well as restrictions on travel, the tiny nation has a shot at reinvention. Already, Raúl has made changes allowing for limited market socialism, meaning that small businesses and individuals may conduct commerce for profit. The once subterranean “dollar economy,” which has kept many Cubans financially afloat thanks to Cuban American relatives sending money, is now being openly encouraged by Raúl.
President-elect Donald Trump would do well to stay in this lane rather than threaten to reinstate the embargo. He should understand that Fidel Castro loved the embargo more than anyone because, as ever, he could blame the United States for his failures. For Trump to fall into this same trap would be a postmortem gift to Castro and breathe new life into a cruel legacy — the dictator’s final triumph over the United States and the several American presidents who could never quite bury him.
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