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 America 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.