In 1962, the historian Daniel Boorstin produced an influential book called The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, which bemoaned, even then, the triumph of glitz over reality. His most famous line, as noted by social historian Neal Gabler, was to describe a celebrity as a “person who is well known for his well-knownness.” He also bemoaned choreographed news “in which ‘men in the news’ simply act out more or less well their prepared scripts,” and travel experiences that “become bland and unsurprising reproductions of what the image-flooded tourist knew was there all the time.”
There was no surer testament to the truth of what Boorstin wrote than the life of Fidel Castro, who took over as Cuba’s dictator just three years before his book appeared and ruled until 2008. From first to last, Castro was a brilliant public relations wizard whose saga was a masterpiece of substance-free glitz.
Castro’s first major triumph occurred in 1957 when he bamboozled the New York Times reporter Hebert Matthews into reporting that his bedraggled guerrilla forces were far more powerful than they actually were. Legend has it that Castro marched his handful of followers through his camp over and over again to give the illusion that a mighty army was marshaling to topple the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Matthews’ reporting did much to help Castro grow more powerful and ultimately topple Batista.
Fidel’s last major triumph is occurring right now–in death, he is being eulogized by useful idiots as a revolutionary hero. British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn hailed Castro for supposedly “building a world-class health and education system” and lauded him as an “internationalist and a champion of social justice.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed “deep sorrow” over the passing of a “larger than life leader,” “a legendary revolutionary and orator” with a “tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for ‘el Comandante.’” Jimmy Carter remembered “fondly our visits with him in Cuba and his love for his country.”
I visited Cuba, back in 2002, although I wasn’t granted an audience with the Maximum Leader. What I found was utterly at odds with the sterling record lauded by the likes of Corbyn, Trudeau, and Carter. Cuba was (and is) a tropical gulag where critics of the Castros wind up in jail or a grave. Perhaps some Cubans, indoctrinated by state-run schools and the state-run news media, genuinely idolized Castro, but most were heartily sick of his rule and desperate for a better life. Millions of ordinary people have been driven to flee, mostly to the United States, in pursuit of that life.
Castro had promised to create a classless society. Instead, he created a society even more stratified than it had been in Batista’s day. A small number of apparatchiks connected to the regime had access to dollars and all of the luxuries that could be bought with it–the group I was with was hosted by one such individual who gave us all-you-can-eat lobster claws and steaks.
The vast majority of the populace, lacking dollars, had to scrape just to get by. While the European-owned luxury hotel where I stayed offered a breakfast buffet, just around the block ordinary Cubans were queuing up to buy eggs, which were in short supply. I visited the home of one young man who, like many Cubans, spent his days hanging around tourist areas hoping to earn a few dollars. He lived with five relatives in a tiny walk-up apartment that had only two beds and a Russian-made refrigerator that had nothing in it save some frozen chicken feet.
Sure, Castro improved health care and education, but so did most of the other states of Latin America and they did it without imposing a stifling Marxist dictatorship or the penury that has come with it. Among Castro’s many unconscionable sins was the fact that, even as his own people were suffering, he spent millions of dollars to “export” his wretched revolution abroad, from Nicaragua to Angola, trying to subject others to the misery to which he had consigned his own people. Late in Castro’s life, Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez returned the favor by bankrupting his own country while propping up the Cuban regime with his oil wealth.
Yet for many non-Cubans, the reality of Castro-the-tyrant doesn’t matter. It is subsumed by the myth of Castro-the-heroic-revolutionary, Castro-the-fighter-for-social-justice, or simply Castro-the-celebrity. Instead of celebrating Castro’s life, we would be better off celebrating the heroic dissidents who resisted his tyranny, often at the cost of their lives or at the very least of years of their lives spent in his prisons or in exile.
And we should spare a thought for the Cuban people who continue to be misruled by Fidel’s brother Raul. The full depth of the evil the Castro brothers have inflicted on their homeland will not become known until their regime is finally overthrown and their secret police files are available for viewing as they are today in East Germany. But even now we know enough–more than enough–to understand how inappropriate, indeed unconscionable, it is to celebrate the benign image that Fidel created over the harsh reality of his iron-fisted rule.