Fidel Castro was laid to rest Sunday, December 4 in Santiago de Cuba, the city in which he began his revolution, at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery. Fidel Castro, who led Cuba for more than a half century died on November 25 at the age of 90. The nine days between then and the Castro funeral have been days of mourning in Cuba, as the procession taking his ashes from the capital of Havana to Santiago de Cuba moved through the island in a reversal of the path he took after taking power in 1959.
The past nine days have brought numerous reactions, but what cannot be doubted is the effect that Fidel Castro had not just on Cuba, but the world. The New York Times spoke with a Cuban woman, Maria Aleisy Hernandez Ruiz, 71, who could not make it out to be one of the hundreds of thousands of people who traveled to see Castro off on his way. Hernandez perhaps summed it up best.
“A man so large in a box so small — it really impacts you.”
A “man so large” Fidel Castro was indeed, looming in world consciousness for decades. By turn, he has been viewed as a monster or a saint, a liberator or an oppressor, a Messiah or a devil. Polarizing, Fidel Castro came to embody many things, many ideas. It is today, however, that as the ashes of his physical body are interred forever under a simple plaque reading only “Fidel,” that we should take the opportunity to remember that Castro was a human being.
It has been often in the recent days that I recall a line from Shakespeare, as indulgent as that may be. Shakespeare wrote of another larger than life figure in his play Julius Caesar, and a stray line from Marc Antony’s monolog at Ceaser’s funeral came to me while reading the press surrounding the death of Castro.
“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
So it is destined to be with Fidel Castro, perhaps. But there is also his own quote, his own defiance.
“Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”
While people live, especially leaders, especially those as powerful and controversial as Fidel Castro, it is difficult to grasp the full picture. It is difficult to see past the narrative that has been given to us by the history and press of our culture, and it is certainly difficult for Cubans who lived in the era of Castro to rationalize their personal experience with Castro and the experience of their neighbors and friends – some Cubans of last generations loved the man, and some hated him with equal passion and in equal measure.
The truth is that the truth is often buried with our leaders. Fidel Castro surely did benefit some in Cuba. Healthcare in Cuba. The Huffington Post, for example, points out that the World Health Organization has called Cuba’s healthcare system “an example for all the countries of the world.” Castro was noted by Nelson Mandela as being a steadfast opponent of apartheid in South Africa. He was beloved by many in Cuba and beyond. Simultaneously, in order to maintain power, he abused that power by silencing dissidents, failing to call for open elections, and punishing his rivals.
The fact is, Fidel Castro was a leader like any other leader – human. Hero worship or demonizing do very little to reveal anything but our own biases and paradigms. There is a massive statue of Abraham Lincoln that I, and many readers I am sure, have stood in front of, the man’s likeness sitting upon a throne like a king, sitting in judgment. We remember the scene, Martin Luther King delivering his grand “I Have A Dream” speech before this likeness. But Lincoln, to, was a flawed man, who abused the powers of his office to accomplish his goals, who was himself skeptical of the fact that people with back skin could be as could as those considered white. History has largely left these facts in the grave with him. So too with Ghandi’s flaws, for the man who freed India was silent on the treatment of the Untouchables, among other flaws. Truman dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and though many believe this was done to save uncounted lives, in the intervening year’s history has also judged that perhaps this action was not done with righteousness in mind, that it was a function of political calculation and unnecessary.
History, which so often lies to us, will be a judge; time will be the other, not just for leaders, but for us all. Those affected by Fidel Castro will judge him based on their varied experiences, as all people are judged. But time will go on for Cuba and for the world. The challenge now is to find a way to deal with the legacy of such a monumental figure as Fidel Castro and to fit that legacy into a framework for the future.
No, Fidel Castro was not a great hero, and yet, indeed he was. No, Fidel Castro was not a brutal and savage dictator, and yet he was. So long as we are led by human beings, they will continue to act as human beings do – flawed and sublime, lawless, and just, kind and cruel. So long as we have leaders, we will have to learn to recognize that they cannot be anything more than human.
Fidel Castro, who lay buried on the island of Cuba that he defined for so long, is no exception.
[Featured Image by Jose Goitia/AP Images]