Fidel Castro, 1926-2016

One of the most controversial figures in world history has passed away:

Fidel Castro, the fiery apostle of revolution who brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere in 1959 and then defied the United States for nearly half a century as Cuba’s maximum leader, bedeviling 11 American presidents and briefly pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war, died Friday. He was 90.

His death was announced by Cuban state television.

In declining health for several years, Mr. Castro had orchestrated what he hoped would be the continuation of his Communist revolution, stepping aside in 2006 when he was felled by a serious illness. He provisionally ceded much of his power to his younger brother Raúl, now 85, and two years later formally resigned as president. Raúl Castro, who had fought alongside Fidel Castro from the earliest days of the insurrection and remained minister of defense and his brother’s closest confidant, has ruled Cuba since then, although he has told the Cuban people he intends to resign in 2018.

Fidel Castro had held onto power longer than any other living national leader except Queen Elizabeth II. He became a towering international figure whose importance in the 20th century far exceeded what might have been expected from the head of state of a Caribbean island nation of 11 million people.

He dominated his country with strength and symbolism from the day he triumphantly entered Havana on Jan. 8, 1959, and completed his overthrow of Fulgencio Batista by delivering his first major speech in the capital before tens of thousands of admirers at the vanquished dictator’s military headquarters.

A spotlight shone on him as he swaggered and spoke with passion until dawn. Finally, white doves were released to signal Cuba’s new peace. When one landed on Mr. Castro, perching on a shoulder, the crowd erupted, chanting “Fidel! Fidel!” To the war-weary Cubans gathered there and those watching on television, it was an electrifying sign that their young, bearded guerrilla leader was destined to be their savior.

Most people in the crowd had no idea what Mr. Castro planned for Cuba. A master of image and myth, Mr. Castro believed himself to be the messiah of his fatherland, an indispensable force with authority from on high to control Cuba and its people.

He wielded power like a tyrant, controlling every aspect of the island’s existence. He was Cuba’s “Máximo Lider.” From atop a Cuban Army tank, he directed his country’s defense at the Bay of Pigs. Countless details fell to him, from selecting the color of uniforms that Cuban soldiers wore in Angola to overseeing a program to produce a superbreed of milk cows. He personally set the goals for sugar harvests. He personally sent countless men to prison.

But it was more than repression and fear that kept him and his totalitarian government in power for so long. He had both admirers and detractors in Cuba and around the world. Some saw him as a ruthless despot who trampled rights and freedoms; many others hailed him as the crowds did that first night, as a revolutionary hero for the ages.

When I heard of Castro’s passing this morning, I remembered how the American right was so outraged by the infamous Elian Gonzalez case in 2000; pundits such as Thomas Sowell, Cal Thomas and Charles Krauthammer were horrified by the prospect of Gonzalez being returned to Castro’s Communist control. (Of course, this view was not unanimous on the right: back then, Boston talk-radio star and future Trump acolyte Howie Carr actually supported sending Gonzalez back, stating on air that if Gonzalez stayed in the United States, he’d be eligible for affirmative action and get into a good college instead of his daughters. He would also routinely refer to Gonzalez’s cousin and advocate, Marisleysis Gonzalez, as Mary “Useless” Gonzalez. Why do I get the sense that if the Gonzalez case occurred today, most Trump voters would embrace Carr’s 2000 position?)

I would love to hear your thoughts on Castro’s passing, so consider this an open thread. In particular, I would love to hear from those old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis; I still remember being riveted by the 2000 film Thirteen Days, and wondering if that film accurately captured the nervousness the country and world felt.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.