Celebrated as an anti-imperialist liberator and vilified as a brutal and repressive dictator, the world is divided in its response to Fidel Castro’s death.
Late at night on the 25th of November Raúl Castro, the President of Cuba, announced that his older brother and predecessor as President had died, aged 90. Fidel Castro was a defining figure of the Cold War and the 20th century more broadly, in addition to being one of the most famous Latin American leaders in history. Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959 when his 25th of July Movement, — aided by leftist revolutionaries such as Che Guevara — overthrew the American-backed military dictator Fulgencio Batista. He remained the single most important figure in the island nation for decades, before a health crisis led him to pass most presidential responsibilities onto his brother Raúl in 2006, and formally resigning the office in 2008. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a leader who has incorporated so many disparate elements to his legacy – from massive improvements and expansion of health and education to suppression of dissent and introduction of a one-party state – international reactions to his death have been extremely diverse. We look now at how different peoples and governments worldwide respond to the passing of a man who challenged Presidents from Eisenhower to Obama, survived countless assassination attempts, and was at the forefront of the world’s closest brush with nuclear war in 1962.
Cuba: National Mourning
The news of Castro’s death has unsurprisingly been met with outpourings of grief from within the nation he had done so much to influence. Nine days of national mourning have been declared, during which time flags fly at half-mast, sales of alcohol are limited, and various concerts and events have been cancelled. Thousands across the island turned out in groups to pay respects, particularly in Havana, where on the 30th, his ashes will begin a journey across Cuba. His ashes will ultimately be interred at the Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, in the country’s east. It is the same resting place as that of José Martí, the leader of the nation’s fight for independence from Spain.
The United States: Party Divides
Reaction to Castro’s passing has been notably different among party lines in the United States. President Obama – who in visiting Cuba earlier this year became the first President to do so since 1928 – released a measured statement offering condolences to Castro’s family and extending ‘a hand of friendship to the Cuban people’, but stating little about Castro himself beyond acknowledging he had an ‘enormous impact’. It was later confirmed that President Obama would not be attending the funeral in Havana.
Meanwhile Republican politicians, particularly those from the state of Florida, have been unequivocal in condemning Castro. President-elect Trump first responded to the news by tweeting ‘Fidel Castro is dead!’, then later releasing a statement describing the Castro as ‘a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.’ Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both of whom are Cuban American, have responded similarly. Rubio, who has been critical of President Obama’s move to normalise relations with Cuba, called Obama’s statement ‘pathetic’, while Cruz penned an opinion piece for the conservative National Review referring to both Fidel and Raúl Castro as systemic oppressors of the Cuban people.
Lastly, enormous street parties have taken place in Miami. The city is home to many Cubans exiles driven out by the oppressive nature of Castro’s regime. Streets in the Little Havana neighbourhood have been lined with partygoers draped in Cuban flags, shouting ‘¡libertad!’, and celebrating an event for which many have been waiting years.
Canada: PM Faces Media Firestorm
Canada’s telegenic Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has provoked a storm of controversy at home and abroad for his statements on Castro’s death. In a statement issued while attending an international summit in Madagascar, Trudeau expressed deep sorrow at the passing of ‘a larger than life leader’ and ‘legendary revolutionary and orator.’ Trudeau’s statement also refers to his father’s friendship with the Cuban President. Canada never joined the US-led move to impose sanctions on the island, and in 1976 Justin’s father, Pierre Trudeau, became the first NATO leader to visit Cuba. The two developed a close friendship, and Castro was seated behind the Trudeau family at Pierre’s funeral in 2000.
However, Trudeau’s remarks have drawn strong criticism from his opponents. Opposition leader Rona Ambrose released a statement referring to Cuba’s ‘long and repressive regime’, while Conservative MP and leadership hopeful Maxime Bernier took exception to Trudeau’s referring to Castro as ‘Cuba’s longest serving President,’ tweeting ‘@JustinTrudeau: It’s called a DICTATOR.’ Reaction from the Canadian press has been similarly negative, with the current affairs magazine Maclean’s saying Trudeau’s statements had made the Prime Minister into a ‘laughing stock.’
UK: Political Statements and a Royal Incident
Prime Minister Theresa May has stayed thus far silent on Castro’s death, releasing no statement beyond confirmation that neither she nor Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson will be attending the funeral in Havana, instead sending Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan.
Leader of the Opposition Labour Party Jeremey Corbyn released a statement that, while acknowledging Castro’s ‘flaws’, primarily focused on Castro’s achievements in health and education, declaring ‘he will be remembered both as an internationalist and a champion of social justice.’ Corbyn is a self-described democratic socialist and long-time supporter of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, which sought to end the US blockade of Cuba.
Lastly, an incident involving Prince Harry in the Caribbean has led to questions of royal protocol. Prince Harry, currently in the process of a Caribbean tour, had been visiting the Commonwealth nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. At an event including both the country’s Governor General and Prime Minister, a moment of silence was called to commemorate Fidel Castro, in which the Prince took part. The incident has drawn criticism from Conservative MPs in Britain, with Alec Shelbrooke and Michael Fabricant telling the Daily Mail Prince Harry should never have been put in this situation.
Africa: Uncontroversial Support
Some of Castro’s most vocal support came from Africa, where the Cuban leader’s legacy is primarily tied to his international actions. In 1975, Castro sent thousands of Cuban soldiers to Angola, to assist in fighting off a US-backed invasion by South Africa’s apartheid government. Cuban troops stayed in the region until 1988, before the war ended with South Africa granting independence to Namibia. Fidel Castro was one of the first world leaders visited by Nelson Mandela following his release. Castro’s record in resisting US intervention in Africa has led to his greater support in the continent today. Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, tweeted his support for the ‘tenacious fighter who lived a full liberation life’, while Ahmed Kathrada, an anti-apartheid activist who had been imprisoned on Robben Island, wrote a tribute to Castro in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian.
– Taran Molloy, Capital HardTalk.