Fidel Castro is dead. Which sounds like the name of a band that never rose past its B-sides, but instead is a simple fact of the news today: the man can die, like any other man.
I’ve written about Cuba before on this blog, a place I love more than any other place I’ve visited outside the U.S. I traveled to the island twice in my early 20s because of a job that provided me legal license to bypass the travel ban. I was a young leftist, and though I had studied Cuban history and understood the horrid realities of Castro’s dictatorship–or thought I did, having grown up too with the daughter of Cuban exiles and spent years in and out of love with the son of other Cuban exiles–I couldn’t help but be enamored by the island’s and its leaders defiance toward problematic truths I had recently discovered: imperialist history, the violation of unchecked capitalism, U.S. collusion in the mistreatment and repression of Latin America’s various citizens. And, of course, I was enamored by the island itself: those midday rainstorms and the salty steam rising from bare arms, mine and everyone else’s too, the swivel hips and thrum of drums.
When I arrived home after my first visit, I related a story to my father I’d heard about Fidel. A bus driver told me that, once, upon stopping in to a neighborhood pool and hearing from residents about its inadequacy, he demanded immediately that the pool be restored for residents and their children, especially. And it was. What Fidel requested, he received. The bus driver told the story with deep admiration, deep loyalty, and his face warmed to the color of creamed coffee.
“Isn’t that something?” I asked my dad.
“It’d be more of something,” he responded calmly, “if the community was empowered to restore the pool for themselves.”
Just like that, my father appropriately deflated the man and the myth for me, and reminded me of the benevolent side of free enterprise and decentralized power.
I’ve been thinking about that moment today, and about the Cuban leader’s name: Fidel, which comes from the Latin fidelis for faith, trust, belief. It’s also the root word for what I had admired in him, his defiance or challenge to faith. A rich irony emerges from the etymology here. What Fidel maintained fidelity to most of all perhaps, above communism, above any Platonic ideal of Cuba, –was defiance itself. He was always working against something, always embodied the antithesis and never the synthesis (imagine Hegel and Marx shaking their heads from their respective graves). But he never defied himself. And that’s just it, right? True fidelity–in marriage, in religion, in governance too–requires a defiance of the Self. In the end, he wasn’t revolutionary enough, and therefore, betrayed the confidence (also from the Latin root fidelis) of his people.
Junot Diaz, the author of the novel, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a book as much about the dangers of dictatorships as any Sci-Fi nerd, said in an interview that “the real dictatorship is in the book itself.” When asked to explain himself he said:
We all dream dreams of unity, of purity; we all dream that there’s an authoritative voice out there that will explain things, including ourselves. If it wasn’t for our longing for these things, I doubt the novel or the short story would exist in its current form. I’m not going to say much more on the topic. Just remember: In dictatorships, only one person is really allowed to speak. And when I write a book or a story, I too am the only one speaking, no matter how I hide behind my characters.
Fidel was a master storyteller and story-manipulator, and I fell for the story on that bus on the broken Havana streets. I have to admire that in him. Because look at me, writing “sermons” without any real ordination, without the confidence of a congregation or citizenry. We all have authoritarian instincts. Ultimately, Fidel Castro’s failures have something to teach us about amor fidelis, the truth that faith and love ask us to work in defiance of these instincts, to dethrone the Self.
We’d be wise to take note of that fact, especially in our country, especially now.