Although he was ninety years old and had stepped away from all official duties in 2008 due to ill health, the death of Fidel Castro on November 25 came as a surprise to many to whom it seemed he would never die.
Called simply “Fidel” by supporters and detractors alike, the Cuban president had been mostly out of the public eye for the past ten years following a hospitalization in 2006 that forced him to hand over presidential duties to his brother Raul.
Journalist Carleton Beals covered the early days of the Cuban revolution for The Progressive. In 1959, he wrote presciently:
“The tea-leaves read that Cuban needs are great; the revolutionary trend is likely to deepen. Castro, if impulsive and capricious, has stubborn persevering purpose, depth as well as surface volubility. Terrific pressures will be put on him by the United States…but apparently Castro is a fanatic patriotic nationalist not to be coerced by threats or arrogance . . . nothing in Cuba will ever be as bad as the Batista dictatorship. It has been a lesson Cubans will not soon forget. Just now it is ‘the people's government,’ and there is a real chance that there will be fundamental beneficial changes in the economic life of the island which will make possible an enduring democratic system.”
The Progressive continued to cover Cuba and the role of the U.S. government in trying to influence and control the island’s destiny. In June 1990, journalist and activist Sam Day wrote of his trip to Cuba:
“In replacing private capital (especially foreign capital) as the driving force of the economy, the government has channeled Cuba's resources and human energy toward improvements in basic living standards. Although Cuba is still a poor Third World country of barely ten million people not overly endowed with natural resources, it has become a First World power by such measurements as literacy, human longevity, and infant mortality. In a week of roaming through Havana and the nearby countryside, I sought but failed to find a single beggar, a single bloated belly, a single cardboard shack . . . . Our ‘enemy,’ I thought, has something to teach us about ourselves.”
A decade and a half later, following the recent steps toward normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations under U.S. President Barack Obama, sports columnist Dave Zirin described how the game of baseball tied the two nations together for two-thirds of the twentieth century:
“Imagine if, instead of decades of hostility, baseball had been able to remain a bridge between the two countries, aided by a failed pitcher named Fidel Castro and a Red Sox fanatic named John Kennedy. Instead we had isolation and, for us, an inability to learn from the world of béisbol. To watch a baseball game in Cuba is to see a level of excitement and flair from which the drudgerous Major Leagues could learn a great deal.”
Not all coverage of Cuba published in The Progressive was positive. In February 1963, New York Post editorial page editor James A. Wechsler wrote:
“There may be no great gain in rehearsing Castro's past. Yet it may be well to remind ourselves that too many Americans initially condemned Castro for the wrong reasons—for his radical economic slogans rather than his destruction of the hard-won Cuban liberties. Whether he fell into the arms of the Communists, or whether he was pushed, may long be debated; it is my own feeling that the process was complicated, and that our Rightists are too often as guilty of oversimplifying history as are the Marxist dogmatists.”
Longtime Cuba scholar and filmmaker Saul Landau noted in 1992:
“Cubans want to see a free press that informs them, not one that offers them slogans about how magnificently the workers in Tunas Province meet their production plan.”
Landau went on to reference the oft-repeated story of a Cuban dissident forced to literally eat her words in the form of a piece of paper on which she had penned an “Open Letter to Fidel Castro.” Her letter reportedly called for more openness in Cuba. The writer, Maria Elena Cruz Varela, served a two-year prison sentence for signing a petition calling for “free elections and amnesty for political prisoners.” Landau wrote,
“Fidel still believes that at a certain stage of development, classes can be eliminated along with the state itself. He clings to the thread of his dream that through the perfection of people in a system of good values, a better social order will emerge. It was that dream that made Cubans reach out and struggle and sacrifice. The ‘new man’ was what Castro called the austere, sacrificing, humble, modest revolutionary who gave his all, his life for the greater good, for the making of a new history.”
In March 2004, poet Rafael Campo described his feelings after a visit to his Cuban homeland:
“What seems ultimately so discouraging about this not-so-terrible place is just that: its disappointment of the imagination, its failure to uphold its self-proclaimed ideals, its inability to be perfect, its betrayal of the dream of social justice that is dearer to me than any political system. While no one could ever truly believe in the socialist model espoused by the now-defunct Soviet Union after the utterly unconscionable atrocities of the Stalin era, Cuba has doggedly remained a possibility, however remote, for the existence of that elusive utopia, the genuinely more egalitarian alternative to brute majority rule, the imagined repository of our unquenchable thirst to be better than ourselves.”
I travelled through rural Cuba in 1991, during the country’s economic crisis following the breakup of the Eastern Bloc and its trading alliances. The time was officially called by the Cubans el período especial en tiempos de paz, or “Special Period” for short, and it created great burdens for the people of Cuba. The country had been forced into a strong economic relationship with countries 5,000 miles away because of a trade embargo, at that time already thirty years old, imposed by the United States. The Special Period created shortages and long lines, but it also stimulated innovations that helped make Cuba a leader in sustainable agriculture and pesticide-free gardening.
I remember a joke then making the rounds on the island that went something like this: President George H.W. Bush had fallen asleep for twenty-years. When he awoke, aides were briefing him on the status of various world leaders and the end of the cold war. When they got to the end of the list, President Bush asked about Fidel Castro. “Oh,” they assured him, “don’t worry, he will fall any day now.”
Well, the man who outlasted ten, and nearly eleven, U.S. presidents has finally passed on. But his legend, and his legacy, will survive on the Caribbean island he helped to transform.