He’s alive. Last week, Cuba’s former president and commander-in-chief turned 87. In addition to a host of official celebrations on the island, Fidel received a mix of well-wishes (and death wishes) from abroad: Newly elected Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro tweeted ”feliz cumpleaños” to Fidel, while in Madrid, Cuban exiles marked the occasion with a mock coffin labeled, “Sepultura al Castrismo” [“Castrism to the Grave”].
In a communique sent from the “mountains of Colombia,” the Secretariat of the FARC [Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] rebel group sent birthday wishes to Fidel, emphasizing his importance as an inspirational figure for revolutionary leftist movements in the region and hailing his guidance and teachings in their “battle of ideas for true democracy, social justice and national sovereignty.”
The FARC leaders are not alone in saluting the Commander this way –in Latin America and beyond, Fidel has held an almost mythical status for leftist revolutionary movements for decades. Since his 1959 inaugural speech in which a white dove perched upon his shoulder and the other at his podium, parallels between Fidel and religious leaders have inspired believers and historians alike. He has become a figure of legend, arguably as much for those who revere him as for those who reject his legitimacy as a leader.
In a “birthday post” for Fidel, blogger Ivan García remarked on the strangeness of Fidel’s continuing existence. “[Fidel Castro] has been given up for dead so many times that when death does come for him, many will believe it’s a joke.” Indeed, death has long seemed close at hand for Fidel, who has endured decades of attempts on his life (mainly by the U.S. government), as well as rumors of his death. From time to time, observers will interpret silence from Fidel as a sign of permanent departure and send the Twittersphere into a frenzy, only to be quelled by photographs and remarks from the Comandante himself.
While he now appears to be cheating death by illness, rather than by the hands of other governments, the legend lives on. “I had arrived at death, but then resuscitated myself,” he told Mexican journalist Carmen Lira Saade in a 2010 interview for La Jornada, several months after his emergence from intensive medical care for intestinal cancer.
Last week, a few bloggers on the island took the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Fidel’s life for their generation, one that knows him in a different light than those past. At La Joven Cuba, Harold Cárdenas commented on the idea of Fidel as “superhuman”.
En algún momento tuve que definir qué postura tomar hacia Fidel, cómo interpretarlo, opté por encontrar en él a un ser humano con virtudes y defectos como cualquier otro. Alguien dotado de un desinterés extremo, inclinado hacia el altruismo, dotado de disímiles armas sicológicas y de un liderazgo natural. Alguien que también se equivoca, que compartió los prejuicios sociales existentes en los 70 y tuvo poco tino para escoger a las generaciones que lo relevarían en el cargo. Es decir, un ser imperfecto pero humano como yo, con el semidiós no podría identificarme nunca. Este Fidel que lucha, se equivoca pero lo vuelve a intentar una y otra vez, ese me parece admirable.
At some moment I had to identify what position I would take towards Fidel, how to interpret him, I decided to find in him a human being with virtues and flaws like any other. A person gifted with an extreme disinterest, inclined towards altruism, endowed with dissimilar psychological weapons from the ‘70s, and with innate leadership. Someone who also makes mistakes, who shared some of the social prejudices of the '70s, and who had poor judgment in selecting the generations of leaders who would follow him. This is to say, a person who is imperfect but human like me –I could never identify with the [idea of Fidel as a] demigod. This Fidel who fights, he may err but keeps on trying time after time, that one seems admirable to me.
While Cárdenas contemplated Fidel on a personal level, Ivan Garcia described a public disenchanted by the leader:
Aunque debido al ajetreo cotidiano de penurias sin resolver, un segmento amplio de la ciudadanía no evoca con agrado a su otrora máximo líder. Lo culpan del atraso, la escasez y la precariedad que vive hoy el país. Lo ven como un barco lejano en el horizonte. Ya pocos se preguntan cómo será el día después de su muerte.
Y es que el rumbo tomado por el General hace pensar que el legado de su hermano perdurará tras su desaparición física. Las predicciones sobre el futuro de Cuba son poco halagüeñas.
En el panorama lo que se distingue es más castrismo. Sin Fidel Castro.
[D]ue to the daily grind of hardship without letup, a broad segment of the public does not have pleasant feelings toward its former top leader. They blame him for the delays, the shortages, and the precarious standard of living in the country today. They see him as a distant ship sailing toward the horizon. Few ask anymore what it will be like the day after his death.
And the direction taken by the General suggests that the legacy of his brother will endure after his physical disappearance. Predictions about the future of Cuba are bleak.
All they can see in the picture is more Castroism. Without Fidel Castro.
Despite the predictions of media and political leaders abroad, many of whom seem certain that Fidel’s death will trigger an immediate and enduring transformation of the island and its outsized bureaucracy, García’s notion seems likely. In a country where the great majority of working-age citizens are employed by the government, it could take years or even decades for such a fundamental shift in government policy and practice to take place.
As Cárdenas puts it, Fidel is human. Like the rest of us, there's no telling when he'll go. But after he does, he will likely remain the stuff of legend for a very long time.