U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Fidel Castro and the Intellectual Uses of Obituaries

The passing of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has been an occasion for academics and intellectuals to talk publicly of the role of Castro in both the Cold War and Third World struggles. Not that these can be separated (nor should they be), but Castro’s outsized influence on both has come back to mind via reading the obituaries about his long life. After hearing of his death late Friday night, I wondered how much attention would be paid to Cuban exploits on the continent of Africa—namely their participation in the Angolan Civil War and stance against South African Apartheid—versus Cuba’s mutually antagonistic relationship with the United States. I also thought about how obituaries of Fidel Castro would be different depending on, a) the ideological background of the person writing them, and b) the location of the publication in which they appeared. Would an obit of Castro written in, say South Africa differ from one written for a mainstream newspaper in the United States? I assumed this to be the case. Therefore, I’ve assembled here just a sampling of obituaries from the United States and across the world.

The politics of obituaries also provide fascinating intellectual fodder. Think back just a few years to the passing of Nelson Mandela, and the ways in which intellectuals and pundits tried to remind the public of Mandela’s ties to violent anti-Apartheid resistance within South Africa. Writers such as Bob Herbert and Benjamin Fogel—both writing at Jacobin right after Mandela’s passing—wanted to make clear that Mandela deserved to be taken seriously as a historical figure. That is, we did not need a safe version of him, what Fogel described as “sanitized myth.” Instead, we needed a clear-eyed understanding of who Mandela was, and what drove him to pursue the various strategies that the African National Congress utilized to end Apartheid.

Mandela is an especially interesting example here. One, while Mandela is often praised in American public discourse, Castro brings about feelings of revulsion and horror. This is understandable, considering both Castro’s nearly six decades of standing against fidel_castro_-_mats_terminal_washington_1959America on the world stage (for much of that time, with the chief ideological enemy of the United States, the Soviet Union, in the post-World War II world) and the oppressive treatment of his own people. Second, add to this Mandela’s own views of Castro, affected by Cuba’s stalwart support for the ANC and anti-Apartheid forces in Southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. This support for the freedom struggles of black South Africans is featured in obituaries that seek to, if not defend Castro from all criticism, at the very least attempt to give a different portrayal of the man.

Obits to start with would include, of course, those of the New York Times and the Miami Herald. Both are quite thorough and the Herald’s is especially interesting, considering the large presence of Cuban Americans in Miami (many of whom were excited to hear of Castro’s passing). The Independent Online, a website that aggregates South African news stories for many of their largest newspapers, captured the feelings of leaders of the ANC, who expressed gratitude for Castro’s support of their struggle. The obits at The Guardian and The Nation are also worth reading, if only to get a sense of how some on the left have tried to come to terms with the legacy of Castro. And, of course, there are numerous obituaries from newspapers and other media sources in Latin America that deserve reading, too. This piece from The Wall Street Journal captures some of the mixed emotions expressed by leaders across Central and South America.

If journalism is the first draft of history, then obituaries serve an important role in both fields. The obituary is a public accounting of how people felt about a historical figure at the time of his or her passing. (Never mind also thinking about the literal act of writing them over time, waiting for death to come for any historically important figure.) As with so many other figures, Fidel Castro’s complicated legacy is being played out in the act of obituary writing.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I had never thought about obituaries providing “fascinating intellectual fodder,” but this is certainly the case. Your post prompted me to take a look at a couple of Argentine newspapers, El Clarín and La Nación, and from Spain, El País. I was a high school junior during the months Castro was fighting his way to Havana. I remember the excitement of his entry into the city and his early days there. I’d read a book about Cuba while still under the rule of the brutal Batista. I can’t remember the name of the author, but he believed that if Castro won, he would make Cuba a better place. Reading some of the details Batista’s cruelty was a shocking revelation to a high school girl in Salt Lake City.

    On first reading I found the obituary in El Clarín to be objective, with a brief mentioned Cuban participation in Angola, Ethiopia, and Somalia. While noting that Argentina had a special tie to Cuba because of Che Guevara, and that Castro did improve health, education, and did agrarian reform in Cuba, in the end he was a dictator who ruled with an iron hand. La Nación has an entire section devoted to Castro. One article noted that he’d survived hundreds of assassination plans and attempts. He also attempted to export revolution to other Latin American states, including Argentina, and the author pointed out that Castro trained many of the young Argentines who returned to join with the Montoneros.

    El País published the reaction of Mario Vargas Llosa, once a Castro admirer who like many, became disillusioned later, “History won’t absolve Fidel Castro.” “A Fidel Castro no lo absolverá la historia.” The article also had the reaction of another half dozen Latin American writers.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post. Now I’m going back to read more of La Nación.

    • Thanks so much for mentioning the obits in Spanish-language papers–those are incredibly important to getting the full international debate about Castro’s legacy.

  2. Thanks for the Wall Street Journal article as well–excellent. It didn’t make it into the Saturday print edition.

  3. Thanks–I’m certainly happy you got so much out of my post. And the WSJ piece I just happened to spot online, so I’m happy others are also reading it for the first time.

  4. It will be interesting to see the choices the obituary writers of the mainstream press will make in their obituaries of George Bush (The Elder), Henry Kissinger, and Jimmy Carter. I think they’ll serve to narrow the spectrum of what is considered “respectable debate.” I doubt they’ll be much mention of Jimmy Carter’s race baiting in his 1970 gubernatorial race, or his support of Lt. Calley of My Lai massacre fame. Kissinger’s record will be sanitized as will George Bush’s. It’s this unintentional bias that is much more interesting in my opinion.

    Thank you for authoring this fine, thought provoking post.

    • My guess on Kissinger would be that the NYT, for instance, will take a canvass-of-views approach (critics say x-y-z re [insert particulars — don’t have to specify here b/c they’re obvious], admirers say such-and-such), but will emphasize the opening to China and so on. So it will nod at the criticisms but stress the “positive” — not quite the same as sanitizing the record, but not ‘objective’ (if such were attainable) either.

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