Occasionally there is an event where the responses to the event are almost more interesting than the event itself. That was the case this weekend with the death of Fidel Castro. He had been, as some of the obituaries noted, the longest serving head of state in the world; though it would probably be fair to add that this is not quite so much of an achievement if your country has no elections.
I have my own history with Fidel. As a teenager I had the iconic poster of Che Guevara, the famous Guerrillero Heroico, in my bedroom, and not far from it was a photograph of Che and Fidel. I also had Mao’s little red book. Today I wouldn’t regard any of these as heroes, though equally I wouldn’t consider Fidel one of the world’s worst tyrants.
But it seems hard for many people to offer a balanced critique right now. Fidel Castro was a dictator, and he was guilty of significant human rights abuses. But he also led a country that managed, given its resources, to establish highly effective systems of education and healthcare. He was not the devil, but neither was he a hero. His death however seems to have reignited, at least for a moment, the spirit of the Cold War, with numerous politicians and celebrities suggesting he was one or the other of these. Irish President Michael D. Higgins was quick off the blocks, suggesting this, at the very best somewhat surprising, assessment:
‘Fidel Castro will be remembered 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.’
That Castro was much exercised by freedom for his people is doubtful. But the Irish President was not alone: similar epitaphs were suggested by other politicians from the international socialist community, including British Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.
Others were less effusive. The US President-elect suggested that Castro was no more than a ‘brutal dictator’.
The truth of course lies somewhere in between. Fidel Castro toppled a corrupt and repressive régime when he took power in 1959. He subsequently had to grapple with the completely unreasonable campaign by the United States to remove him and isolate his country. He was nevertheless able to develop a society of well-educated people with a very effective system of health and social care. On the other hand his own government was repressive and undermined basic freedoms; his treatment of the gay community is a particular example. And he also practised the oppression of political dissenters and controlled the media.
As for me, on Saturday I neither rejoiced nor mourned. But I did note Fidel Castro’s passing, and maybe mourned the gradual disappearance of my youth over the horizon.