I took an extended vacation from blogging this summer,* and this felt okay until last week, when someone tweeted that Fidel Castro had died. My rational mind knew that this was probably not true. The likelihood that the news of Fidel’s death would hit Twitter before international news sources seemed slim, and false rumors of Fidel’s death have circulated in the past. But this didn’t stop the rest of my brain from zooming away into a strange, frantic oblivion where I began to sweat, as if I had a fever coming on. A friend had texted me the news and I raced to Google to find that the rumor had already been squashed. It took several minutes for my heart rate to return to normal.
What caused this to happen? I am not Cuban, nor do I live in Cuba. The effects of Fidel’s death, when it does come, will be indirect for me. They will not mean a change in my way of life, an end or a beginning in my path. It will be an intellectually overwhelming thing, and an emotional one. But it is the uncertainty of what will follow that sent me down this road.
Fidel’s death won’t be like the many events over the years that have caused Washington wonks to gather task forces on post-socialist societies, exiles to gas up their motor boats for a 90-mile trip and resort executives to pack their guayaberas up and book a seat on the next charter flight to José Martí Airport. These moments—Mariel, the balsero crisis, the collapse of the USSR—came and went, but Fidel and the revolution continued onward. Somehow, Fidel’s strange combination of shrewd and misguided policy efforts have pulled the nation along, but Cuba’s survival isn’t just about policy—it is rooted in the complex, wondrous dimension of Fidel as a political and spiritual leader.
I had the great privilege at the University of Chicago of studying with the Mexican journalist and memoirist Alma Guillermoprieto, who has written several fine essays on el comandante. She opened a 1998 New York Review of Books essay on Fidel in old age with the following sentence:
“If you are in the neighborhood of forty years old and Cuban, Fidel Castro has been at the center of your heart and thoughts, for however small a second, each day of your life.”
So what happens when this omnipresent, unavoidable leader, the father of Cuba’s national project, is suddenly gone? When that leader—whose voice has dominated the radio and the pages of the newspaper for decades, whose face appears everywhere on paper, concrete, the walls of giant cement apartment buildings and on the chests of young men proud of their leader or uncertain of how to do anything but show love for the patria by burning an image into their skin—is suddenly gone, it will be a shock. Identities, opinions, morals, life goals are all built around an idea about Fidel, whether you love him or despise him or fall somewhere in between. He has often been compared to a religious figure—he has been worshiped and loathed and mythologized in a way that is much more personal, much more spiritual, than any other political leader in recent history.
I’m not sure what will happen when Fidel dies, and I’m scared to find out. To think that his absence will instantly give rise to a tide of liberty for Cubans is too simple. Of course I think things need to change in Cuba. I have written in the past about how difficult (and necessary) it will be for Cuba to re-structure the state so that it does not control every good and every industry and every activity down to the level of bicycles and ice cream and shoe repairmen. But I don’t see Fidel’s death as the key to these kinds of changes. There is no guarantee on this great improvement in the lives of Cubans that so many people assume will follow.
And then there is the question of identity, of what will happen to the island’s social fabric when this person is suddenly gone. Who will you spend your time hating? At whom will you direct your salute? Who will you worship? From a policy perspective, it’s going to be difficult. Spiritually, it may be even more complex.
*I spent most of this summer on an unexpected break from half-wired. I finished my work in Chicago, packed up my things, moved to San Francisco, and began a job with the Center for Democracy and Technology. July and August took more out of me than I expected. But half-wired is now officially back in action.