The big news over the weekend was the death of Fidel Castro, which prompted a flood of coverage, and rightly so since he was one of the most important figures of recent times. A lot of the reporting and commentary on social media tended to treat Fidel as a hero or a monster. My own view is that things are a lot more complicated than that. As Daniel Wright wrote on Twitter, “Fidel Castro came to power in a popular revolution, inarguable. Issue is whether or not he betrayed that revolution/to what degree.”
What was striking about a lot of the U.S. reporting was the complete absence of context or history, especially about the role of the United States in Cuba and Latin America more broadly, which is comparable to the former Soviet Union’s role in Eastern Europe.
As John Coatsworth has written:
Between the onset of the global Cold War in 1948 and its conclusion in 1990, the US government secured the overthrow of at least twenty-four governments in Latin America, four by direct use of US military forces, three by means of CIA-managed revolts or assassination, and seventeen by encouraging local military and political forces to intervene without direct US participation, usually through military coups d’état . . . The human cost of this effort was immense. Between 1960, by which time the Soviets had dismantled Stalin’s gulags, and the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those in the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. In other words, from 1960 to 1990, the Soviet bloc as a whole was less repressive, measured in terms of human victims, than many individual Latin American countries. The hot Cold War in Central America produced an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. Between 1975 and 1991, the death toll alone stood at nearly 300,000 in a population of less than 30 million. More than 1 million refugees fled from the region—most to the United States. The economic costs have never been calculated, but were huge. In the 1980s, these costs did not affect us policy because the burden on the United States was negligible.
Meanwhile, the New York Times headline above Fidels’ obit blamed him for having “Brought Cold War to Western Hemisphere.”
Coatsworth’s account is helpful in understanding why so many Latin Americans revered Fidel, despite the numerous grounds to criticize him and modern day Cuba. The guy survived over 600 assassination attempts and without the Cuban Revolution his country would have ended up looking like Haiti, the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico, to name three countries that have thrived so magnificently thanks to U.S. benevolence.
Whatever you think of Castro, it’s instructive to compare his 7,900-word Times with its obit of King Abdullah, who died in 2015. Fidel’s obit was mostly written in advance by Anthony DePalma, who left the paper in 2008.
Castro was, said the first paragraph, a “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.” He had “orchestrated what he hoped would be the continuation of his Communist revolution” by ceding “much of his power to his younger brother Raúl.”
By contrast, the headline above King Abdullah’s obit described him as a “Shrewd Force Who Reshaped Saudi Arabia” who “came to the throne in old age and earned a reputation as a cautious reformer even as the Arab Spring revolts toppled heads of state and Islamic State militants threatened the Muslim establishment that he represented.” His death had added “yet another element of uncertainty in a region already overwhelmed by crises, but the “royal family moved quickly to assure a smooth transition of power.”
That’s quite a difference in tone from the outset and things predictably grow worse from there. Fidel “wielded power like a tyrant, controlling every aspect of the island’s existence. He was Cuba’s “Máximo Lider.” In terms of balance, the obit says it “was more than repression and fear that kept him and his totalitarian government in power for so long… 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.”
Abdullah’s obit on the other hand finds numerous grounds on which to praise him. President Obama, who cut short an official visit to India to race off to the funeral, was quoted as saying, “I always valued King Abdullah’s perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship. As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions.”
Abdullah’s reign, said the obit, “was a constant effort to balance desert traditions with the demands of the modern world” and the dearly departed monarch “spoke as plainly as the Bedouin tribesmen with whom he had been sent to live in his youth. He refused to be called ‘your majesty’ and discouraged commoners from kissing his hand.”
<>My favorite part of the obit is this next paragraph, which makes absolutely no sense unless, as is obviously the case, the Times was, consciously or not, desperately putting the shiniest possible gloss on the king’s image because he led a friendly oil rich regime:
Abdullah became, in some ways, a force of moderation. He contested Al Qaeda’s militant interpretations of the faith as justifying, even compelling, terrorist acts. He ordered that textbooks be purged of their most extreme language and sent 900 imams to re-education sessions. He had hundreds of militants arrested and some beheaded.
Let’s put aside for the moment that Saudi Arabia is the primary backer of radical Islam around the world. But even if all the militants referred to were genuine radicals, it’s hard to see how the use of re-education camps and beheadings can be seen as signs of “moderation.”
And the Times just kept finding more reasons to cheer Abdullah’s reign. The King even created a Facebook page, “where citizens were invited to present their grievances directly to him,” and while women’s rights were not always respected Abdullah “allowed women to work as supermarket cashiers.” When fifteen girls died in a dormitory fire in Mecca in 2002 when religious police blocked them from escaping because they were not properly dressed, the king was “furious” and dismissed the head of women’s education.
Wow. What a great guy. The Times does criticize the dead monarch here and there, for example, he “did not fulfill a promise made to Barbara Walters of ABC News in his first televised interview as king in October 2005: that he would allow women to drive.”
So there you have it. If you’re a friendly dictator, beheadings get toted up in the plus side but whatever you do, don’t break your word to Barbara Walters.