Fidel Castro: leader proves as divisive in death as he was in life

3000Havana mourns as brother and successor president Raúl announces death of Cuba’s revolutionary icon – but leader’s enemies celebrate

Fidel Castro proved as divisive in death as he was in life, with enemies and admirers agreed only on his place in the history books, as a towering figure who transformed a small Caribbean island into a major force in world affairs.

Mourning and celebrations began together, soon after his brother and successor president Raúl announced that old age and illness had finally done what the CIA could not manage in hundreds of assassination attempts, and carried the Cuban leader away.

The news was broken on Cuban state television in the early hours of Saturday morning. With a shaking voice, Raúl Castro ended the announcement with the slogan associated with the Cuban revolution: “Hasta La Victoria Siempre.”

After six decades dominating his country, and often the world stage, Fidel Castro was both feted around the world as icon, hero and inspiration, and condemned as tyrant and autocrat.

“It’s the end of an era. In his time he managed to leave no one indifferent,” said Cuban playwright Norge Espinosa Mendoza. “His charisma, his speeches, his impulses and also his errors gave the world another view of Cuba.”

Castro in 1973.
Castro in 1973. Photograph: Sipa Press / Rex Features

US President Barack Obama was one of the few to respond to Castro’s passing with little emotion. A thawing of relations with Cuba was one of the landmark foreign policy achievements of his presidency, and his cautious, lawyerly statement devoid of criticism or praise seemed focused on the same goal, of burying the two nations’ bitter past so they can focus on future ties.

“We extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people. We know that this moment fills Cubans – in Cuba and in the United States – with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation,” Obama said.

“History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him,” he said, echoing perhaps unwittingly one of Castro’s most famous declarations – “history will absolve me”.

Obama’s successor, president-elect Trump, was less measured. A cryptic initial Twitter response to the news, the statement “Fidel Castro is dead!” was followed three hours later with a full-throated condemnation of the Castro regime’s human rights abuses.

President Obama: ‘History will record and judge his enormous impact of this singular figure on the people around him.’
President Obama: ‘History will record and judge his enormous impact of this singular figure on the people around him.’ Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

 

“Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades. Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights,” the official Trump statement said.

That feeling was echoed in Miami, home to the largest Cuban-American community. Little Havana was filled with impromptu street parties, salsa, fireworks and shouts of “Cuba Libre” filled the air, as thousands gathered to rejoice after news that had been announced prematurely many times before was finally confirmed.

In Havana itself, there was sadness and shock, even though Castro had been frail for years. “I feel this in my heart,” said Mario Astoria, a security guard sitting outside the Bacardi building, which a triumphant Fidel seized in the 1960s.

His death may bring little immediate practical change but for many Cubans it is a landmark moment.

“This man who decided every detail of the Cuba in which I was born and grew up, is no longer here. There is a strange lightness spread over the island,” said blogger Yoani Sanchez.

Russian president Putin hailed Castro as a ‘symbol of an era’.
Russian president Putin hailed Castro as a ‘symbol of an era’. Photograph: Mikhail Metzel/TASS

 

Condolences poured in from across Latin America, from veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle he supported in southern Africa, from the Soviet and Russian leaders who propped up then abandoned his government, and from admirers of the free medicine and education he brought to the island.

Castro was hailed as a “symbol of an era” by Russian President Vladimir Putin, a “true comrade and friend” by China’s President Xi Jinping, and in one of the warmest tributes, South African President Jacob Zuma celebrated a key ally in the fight against South Africa’s apartheid regime.

He had outlived six US presidents, most of the allies and opponents of his revolutionary years, and even the struggles of the cold war, that defined perhaps the most dramatic period of his rule, the Cuban missile crisis.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn praised Castro’s “heroism” but not all of Europe was keen to embrace him. Soon after EU President Jean-Claude Juncker described him as “a hero for many”, trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström publicly questioned the outpouring of praise. “Fidel Castro was a dictator who oppressed his people for 50 years. Strange to hear all the tributes,” she said. – The Guardian

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